It was 8:20 a.m. and, judging by the view in front of us, I couldn’t yet see how we were supposed to reach some of the world’s most spectacular caves in 10 minutes. The long, straight road ahead sliced the barren desert of southern New Mexico in two. Left, right, there didn’t seem to be anything that hinted at the remarkable landscape below.
But we were wrong.
Hidden beneath the relatively unassuming surface of Carlsbad are more than 119 known caves, some of which are regarded as the largest and best preserved in the world. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, Carlsbad Caverns National Park was first discovered by a guy, a kid, really, named Jim White. Jim took his homemade ladder and descended roughly 750 feet underground to explore the stalagmites and stalactites that are still visible today.
Like Jim, Matt and I entered the caverns via the “Natural Entrance” (though it was on a paved path, not a rickety wooden ladder). For the less adventurous, there’s also an option to enter the caves via an elevator which will take you directly into the “Big Room,” but more on that later.
The New Mexico heat was replaced with cool air filled with moisture. The punishing daylight gradually faded. A scent inexplicably both musty and fresh surrounded us as we descended deeper into the cave’s throat. Slowly, as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, Matt and I saw the glistening formations - some six stories tall, others more delicate - before us.
Cave scientists have explored more than 30 miles of passageways of the main cavern of Carlsbad, though we were only permitted to tour three (you’re able to tour additional areas not open to the general public with a guide). Four nearly four hours we walked around (and yes, gawked at) the stately columns and pools from from the rhythmically dripping water.
About two hours in, we finally reached the area everyone was talking about - the Big Room. This “room,” as the name implies, is huge. In fact, it usually takes an hour or more to walk the perimeter, which we did, and it’s completely worth it. Here, visitors are able to view some of the caverns’ best “decorations” and really marvel at the breadth of this place all in one place. For those who don’t want to waste any time in seeing the Big Room, you can grab an elevator from the Visitor’s Center that will bring you straight down into the chamber.
Did I mention there’s also a snack bar, restrooms and a gift shop all underground?
But perhaps the most extraordinary component of our visit to Carlsbad happened back up at the surface, specifically at the cave’s mouth. Just before sunset, more than a quarter million Mexican free-tailed bats spiral up from the entrance to hunt for insects.
The times of this mass exodus vary depending on the season, but visitors are welcome to take a seat in the park’s Bat Amphitheater and wait patiently for the show to begin. A ranger will present a bit of history on the cave and some background on the bats, but, disclaimer, no one ever really knows when the bats will appear. When we attended earlier this week, the ranger was cut off by “oohs” and “ahhs” at about 7:30 p.m. sharp. A swirling dark column started rising from the entrance to the cave, much like you would imagine smoke to rise, and made its way to our right.
The entire exit process lasted between 35 and 40 minutes, and it was totally free.