Thursday, November 3, 2011

Carlsbad Caverns: The Best Natural Wonder The Government Will Let You Into (That I've Been To)!

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Pros:Affordable, Amazing
Cons:Why do we pay taxes AND have to pay to get into our national parks?!
The Bottom Line: Even the presence of children and paying to get in cannot sour me to the natural wonder of the rocks and formations of Carlsbad Caverns National Park!

There is a place on Earth that I might never return to again, but that will always be a place I remember fondly and a place that as an adult, I felt a truly impressive sense of childlike wonder. That place was Carlsbad Caverns and it is, quite simply, one of the most amazing places on Earth. It is a cave, a natural occurrence that is visually stunning, historically intriguing and a place that almost defies explanation for the natural grandeur such a simple place can provide. as adults, we are trained not to let our mouths fall agape in wonder; we are supposed to trade wonder and magic for reason. Carlsbad Caverns is an amazing place to go to reawaken in one the understanding of the simple magic our world possesses.

It is important to note, though, that Carlsbad Caverns requires reservations for some of the tours that are done. As well, it is important to note that getting accurate directions to Carlsbad Caverns from the internet are almost impossible. The government website gives an address that is 23 miles from the entrance to the National Park and it is another seven minutes from the front sign to the actual descent point. I mention this because when one has a reservation, things like times matter. Moreover, the government website gives an address in Carlsbad, New Mexico but never mentions that from there to the actual park, it is about 45 minutes. When one has a mother who has lived her whole life waiting to go to Carlsbad Caverns and it looks like you might miss your reservation, this can be quite aggravating.


Out in the middle of nowhere, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is closest to Carlsbad, New Mexico. However, before you leave civilization, it is important to make sure you have enough fuel. For those who have not been to some of the states like New Mexico, Arizona, or Utah, the states have area, but not roads. In other words, while the states may be a fair size, there might only be two or three interstates crisscrossing it! As a result, a missed turn can mean miles out of your way with the only way to get where your going being a doubling back along the same road.

That said, internet mapping sites will get you to the information center quite well. If you're coming from the East, though, be sure to add forty-five minutes to the time to account for getting to the National Park. From that information kiosk, though, there are adequate signs to direct you to Carlsbad Caverns.

Finding Carlsbad Caverns near Carlsbad, New Mexico is fairly easy. Actually, it's hit or miss; there are decent signs directing visitors there, and ultimately there is one very long, winding road into the park. If you miss it, you miss the park and it's quite a ways to anything that would tell you otherwise.

Ease Of Local Transport/Parking

Transport into and around the park is very easy as: 1. There is one paved road leading to the main parking lot, and 2. There is nowhere else to go once you are at the parking lot. The parking lot had at least two hundred parking spots, but by the time I arrived there at 10:15 AM on a summer day, it was almost filled already!

Essentially, Carlsbad Caverns is a big cave out in the middle of the desert and many, many stories underground. I arrived there at 10:15 local time and it was already 85 degrees Fahrenheit, so it's not like this is a wonderful place to linger and have a good, fun time outdoors at. Fortunately, one may almost instantly descend (once they've paid the fees to get in) and there is a pretty constant temperature in the low 50s at the bottom of the elevator.


The whole point of Carlsbad Caverns is to come see caves. In order to get to the bottom of the elevator (into the park) you must purchase an entrance ticket. The entrance ticket is (currently) $6.00 for adults. Then, there are fees for each possible tour one could take and it is impossible to take a tour of all six caverns in one day. From the central hub - which is essentially a massive chamber about ten stories deep into the earth - tours start to explore the Kings Palace, the Left Hand Tunnel, the Slaughter Canyon Cave, the Lower Cave, the Hall of the White Giant, and the Spider Cave. Each of these has an additional fee and my touring was limited to the Kings Palace and the Left Hand Tunnel. Given how astonishing the Kings Palace Tour was, I almost didn't need to see the Left Hand Tunnel.

On the King's Palace tour, visitors descend further into the earth (though it doesn't seem as steep as the eight stories they claim it goes down) where the caverns are lit to accent various geological formations. The tour guides are knowledgeable and explain the differences between various geological formations, like stalactites, stalagmites, helicites, draperies, and "soda straws." The caves are the result of aggressive acids that acted over thousands of years and it is information like that that makes one speechless when looking around at the formations. The caves twist, turn and there are thousands of dark holes to peer in.

As well, there is a pretty impressive chasm that is virtually endless. Good shoes are a must and over the course of one and a half hours, the tour group simply walks around a rocky dirt path looking at rocks. And at the furthest point from the "lobby," the park rangers turn the lights off to let the participants see and feel what it is like to be in absolute darkness. It's actually pretty incredible and I am sure I would have liked it more had there not been children there (I was just to the point of actually feeling connected when the kids in the tour all started giggling. And people wonder why I loathe children!). But in all candor, the massive quality of everything that surrounds a person when they are so far underground truly changes one's perspective. It's all very grand and simple, spiritual and intensely scientific. It's the kind of place that makes those of us who are so bound by words and descriptions lose those and simply be.

But basically, yeah, it's a bunch of rocks and holes in rocks.

It's also liquefied rocks dripping constantly and even without people one of the astonishing things about the Kings Palace tour was that it was never completely quiet. There is always dripping and those who do not like humidity might have a problem with Carlsbad Caverns.

As for the Left Hand Tunnel tour, that took two hours and after seeing some of the largest formations in the Kings Palace tour, the two hours in the Left Hand Tunnel tour did not seem like overkill or boring, but it was in this tour that I began to wish I had brought a sweatshirt with me. The neat thing about this tour was that there was more of an exploratory feel as you are given a lantern and while we were warned about how slippery it could be in places, those warnings pale to the reality of slowly moving through the cavern.

It's worth it, though, because on the Left Hand Tunnel tour, we saw fossils, larger pools of water and some more concentrated formations of stalactites on the roof of the cave. This tour feels a lot more interactive and it was more intimate than grand (whereas much of the Kings Palace tour was about seeing giant, impressive formations).

Given that those two tours took most of the day, seeing all of the various caverns in Carlsbad Caverns would take about three days. But there is certainly enough to get your money's worth out of a single day with only one or two tours.

Getting out of the caverns can be problematic as there are no stairs, only elevators and the lines back to the surface are horrendous (it took us an hour to get out of the cave!).


At the bottom hub of Carlsbad Caverns there is a small concession stand. If you want to snack your way through Carlsbad Caverns, you can do that with candy bars, popcorn, and hot pretzels. As well, there was coffee, cocoa and soda available for purchase. I brought water in and found that refreshing, despite the cold. And yes, there are lavatories in this area so one need not worry about being trapped so far underground and needing to go to the bathroom.


There is a little gift shop in that main meeting area. They sell sweatshirts, post cards and various Carlsbad Caverns merchandise. There is nothing one cannot live without, but there are the fairly typical and obvious souvenirs for those who want such things.


Carlsbad Caverns may well be one of the most difficult places to describe intellectually as a destination: it's a hole in the ground with a lot of rocks. Once there, though, it is one of the easiest places to get excited about it. There is a simple greatness to massive chambers filled with columns that took tens of thousands of years to create. And if you don't think you could possibly be amazed by such a thing, you're long overdue for a trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

To date the best national park I have been to, despite having to pay to enjoy it.


For other travel reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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