Day 14: 01/09/2016 – Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Destination: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Route: US-180W, US-62W

Mileage: 40

Today is a day trip to Carlsbad Caverns! Well, with a side trip to the Carlsbad, NM proper for some fun with house sale closing documents. Our house went under contract in December 2015 and since we are clearly no longer in Delaware, we are doing something called ‘signing outside of closing’. In other words we sign all the documents prior to closing, scan the signed documents, email the pdf files back to our closing coordinator, and get the originals in the mail to return to the coordinator post haste. If all is timed just right the originals will be in the attorney’s hands the day of closing. If all does not go well, the electronic documents suffice while the originals documents enjoy the hospitality of the USPS.

The closing documents arrived via email Friday and we printed all the documents in the Carlsbad public library. What we need on a lovely Saturday morning is a notary to witness and notarize several of the documents. As luck would have it, the Wells Fargo in Carlsbad has a public notary. We spend approximately an hour waiting for the notary, one of the bank managers. Papers signed and notarized, we continue south to the caverns.

Abby parked at the Carlsbad Caverns visitors center.
Abby parked at the Carlsbad Caverns visitors center.

We arrive at the caverns and get Abby and the dogs tucked away. It is a cool and partly cloudy day so the dogs will be find hanging out in the RV with plenty of water and the ceiling vents cracked. We initially forget our National Parks Annual Pass, and Dave returns to the RV to get the pass. This will save us the admission fee and paid for itself on our 2015 RV trip.

Going into a hole in the ground.
Going into a hole in the ground.

The elevator to the caverns is broken with an unknown repair date (weeks, months, years?). We are going to have to hike in and out of the caverns. Alex is snug in his Osprey and we head towards the natural entrance. Just before we enter, a ranger goes through the rules of the caverns – no food, no throwing coins in pools, don’t touch the rock formations, and no loud voices are among some of the don’ts. We have some misgivings about being able to comply with the no loud voices with Alex, who has just entered a shrieking stage. This could be interesting.

The natural entrance after our initial descent.
The natural entrance after our initial descent.

As we start our descent, Alex lets out a couple good shrieks and discovers – ECHOES! And continues making a wide variety of noises and giggling hysterically at the echoes. Fortunately, Alex settles in and stops the loudest noises before we get too far into the cavern. The walk down is rather steep in some places and deceiving. We reach a point where the descent seems to stop and think we have reached the bottom. It is just a brief breather before the second, steeper descent begins. It is going to be an interesting climb out.

On the descent to the Big Room, with some pretty intense switch backs.
On the descent to the Big Room

Due to our late start, we follow the advice of the rangers and push through the descent quickly in the hopes of seeing the Big Room in its entirety. Walking in is off-putting. The lighting was done by a stage lighting expert the majority of the path is in shadow and you often discover the angle of the slope only after you have started to walk down it. We make good time and start our journey through the Big Room.

Lion's tail.
Lion’s tail.

It is fascinating how many different forms the rock takes. The caverns were formed by hydrogen sulfide rich water migrating through the fractures and faults of the Capitan limestone. When the water mixed with oxygen, sulfuric acid was formed and dissolved the limestone, creating the caverns. Gypsum (calcium sulfate), silt and clay deposits were left behind. As the water levels dropped, speleotherms (cave formations) started to develop, but this action ceased approximately 4 million years ago.

Speleotherm
Speleotherm
Cavern pool.
Cavern pool.

We also learn that it takes approximately 8 months for surface water to make it into the caverns. The National Parks Service has inadvertently altered the flow of water into the caverns with the construction of roadways the visitors center. These structures increase water run off and divert water from percolating into the caverns. Years of drought have also been detrimental to the amount of water entering the caverns. The water in the cavern pools is high susceptible to contamination when people throw in coins. Minerals leach out of the coins and foul the pools; the water is stagnant and the contaminants are not washed away.

Miniature speleotherm formation.
Speleotherm formation.
Hiking in the caverns. Alex is fixing our hair.
Hiking in the caverns. Alex is fixing our hair.

We encounter a ranger at an intersection of two trails. We can go the longer route, which will take about an hour, or we can take the cutoff and be out of the Big Room in about 20 minutes. We choose the longer route. We are glad we did. We look into the lower caverns and the ‘bottomless pit’. It is hard to imaging exploring these caverns without the modern conveniences of high intensity lamps or the walkways. The early explorers of the caverns were very brave people. The Big Room complete, we take a 15 minute break in the cafeteria to prepare to the walk out of the caverns. Dave takes Alex and packs him out into the daylight.

Dave carrying Alex out of the caverns.
Dave carrying Alex out of the caverns.

Overall, we have a great experience at Carlsbad Caverns. There were very few people in the caverns, perhaps due to the main elevators being out or the fact that it is early January. Whatever the reason, it made the experience very enjoyable.

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