Located in south New Mexico, not far from Texas, is Carlsbad Cavern National Park. It was a long drive from Albuquerque, where it was pouring down rain. It had rained so much over the last few days, I was worried the cave would be closed. We called to make sure we wouldn’t find the park closed when we arrived, and they were closed a few days before because of rain and flooding, but were now currently open. We arrived with just a couple hours left in the afternoon, enough time to explore the LARGE portion of the cave that was open for self-guided tours. We signed up to take a couple guided tours the next day. David and the 2 older kids would go on a longer, more technical cave tour. Isabel, Benjamin, and I would do a shorter, easier tour. We would have all like the more technical tour, but they insisted everyone be over the age of 8, and we just couldn’t pass Benjamin off as 3 years older.
We had planned to walk down to the main cave, called “The Big Room” thru the natural cave entrance, but found they had closed that path just minutes earlier. They expect that path to take an hour for people to hike the 1 mile down to the main portion of the cave. So we took the elevator entrance down. At the bottom we found that they were just then closing down the exit path up to the natural entrance, so David, Savannah, and Calvin convinced the ranger to let them pass, that they could easily make the one mile distance in less than an hour. Benjamin, Isabel, and I decided to enjoy the main portion of the cave and hike the natural entrance tomorrow.
The main portion of the cave is HUGE, hence the name “Big Room”. The path that takes you around the cave is over a mile long. It is beautiful. It has incredible cave formations. I can’t imagine what it must have been like 100 years ago finding this cave and exploring by lantern light, with the caving going further and higher than you could possibly see by lantern light. In fact one portion of the cave was named by the explorers as the bottomless pit. It does have a bottom, they just could never see it. It was in this area, around the bottomless pit, that Isabel dropped her junior ranger packet over the railing, towards the bottomless pit. It only fell a few feet down, but out of my reach to retrieve it. On our way out we found a ranger for her to notify; she was allowed to obtain a new packet and earn her junior ranger badge.
I took LOTS of pictures, so hopefully you like looking at cave pictures. It was fun as a beginner photographer taking pictures in the cave, with the low light. I figured I had lots of time to take pictures, with David and the older kids off hiking the natural entrance trail, so I definitely ended up with a lot of pictures. As I was playing with my light balance, I asked a ranger to verify what kind of lights they use in the cave, and it was fluorescent. She told me that sometimes a green hue shows up on the cave formations in pictures and that it was from Algae growing on the cave. It takes heat for Algae to grow. If you’ve been in a cave, you might know they are cool, not hot environments. She explained that the heat from the lights cause the Algae to grow. Otherwise Algae would not exist in a cave environment. So that is one way our we are having a negative impact on the cave. She then said they were testing LED lights in portions of the cave, these lights have a much lower temperature affect on the cave and should eliminate Algae growth in the cave. I think it is neat what you can learn, just by asking a simple question.
That night we wanted to see the Bat flight, when all the bats head out of the natural entrance to hunt for the night. But they weren’t expecting that “show” to start until close to dusk, near 7pm. The Cave closed at 5pm, so we had plenty of time to find a picnic table near the visitor center, and cook up a freezer meal for dinner. There is no camping in the park, and no back country hiking, there are too many caves in the area.
After dinner we walked over to the natural cave entrance, where they have amphitheater seating. The ranger conducting the program explained that they don’t really know when the bats come out, or how they will come out tonight. Sometimes they come out in a trickle, and sometimes a huge rush, all at once. Usually about dusk, but sometimes earlier or later. What they do know, is they haven’t come out yet tonight. They have some bat sensors inside the entrance that help them to know when the bats are coming so they can prepare. They ask for total silence. Phones turned off, fussy kids removed, complete silence. Noises can confuse the bats and affect their night time feeding habits.
While we were waiting their were little birds, swallows, flying in circles all around the cave entrance, going in and out. The ranger explained that the bats and the swallows trade places, sort of. The bats sleep far in the cave, during the day, and the birds sleep just inside the entrance, at night. So when the birds all go in at once, it usually means the bats are on their way. They also explained that the bats come out of the cave and sort of circle, like the swallows, like a cyclone above the entrance, and then all head in the same direction—towards water. After they fill their thirst, they hunt for the night, and then they find a place to sleep for the day. They don’t always return to the same cave, in fact they track the numbers of bats that return to this cave and it always varies. They have lots of caves in the area, so they expect that the bats trade around in the different caves. It’s one of the reasons they don’t allow for back country hiking, they don’t want to disturb the bats, Numbers have been dwindling, due to a bat disease, so they are trying to protect them. When the bats do return to the cave at dawn, they usually head down the same corridor, but not always, sometimes they vary. If they are too close to the corridor where the visitors hike, then they close down the cave trail to keep the noise from affecting the bats sleep.
Finally the bats started coming out for the night. It wasn’t a big rush, but a steady stream of bats flying out the cave entrance, swirling above our heads then heading in a long path in the sky. It was getting dark and harder to see, but it was neat to watch. Every once in a while one or two would swoop down close to the crowd. That was fun. We sat there for at least 30 minutes and the stream of bats just kept coming. We started to wonder if they would ever end. It was dark so we decided to quietly walk back to the car, as many had left before us. We asked a ranger on our way out how many bats they thought were coming out of the cave and they said it was around 400,000. That’s a lot of bats. The night before it had taken an hour for all the bats to leave the cave. It was a neat experience, and we learned a lot about bats.
The next day we had to arrive early for David and the older kids to take their caving tour. The younger 2 and I still had over an hour to wait until our tour started, so we decided to take the 1mile hike down to the cave thru the natural entrance. Benjamin was a little afraid there might be rattle snakes, and as we hiked deeper into the dark cave, he kept worrying. At the Bat Flight, they mentioned to be careful of rattlesnakes on the trail when we walked back to the car, so he was really concerned they were in the cave. We had to stop and talk about how snakes like the warm air, not the cold air. So we then did an air test and it was cool in the cave, so we were safe from snakes, they wouldn’t be here in the cool cave.
We had a fun mile long hike down to the main corridor where our tour group was meeting. Our tour would be in an area off the trail to the natural entrance. The ranger guide told us that the tour we were going on use to be open to all cave visitors until 10 years ago. They found a lot of destruction to the cave as the trail goes really close to some amazing formations, so they closed off those portions and only take smaller groups through on tours now. They have seen no new destruction to the cave since they started this.
The ranger need a helper, so of course my kids volunteered. It was a good thing they were wearing their junior ranger badges, the ranger told them, people only listen to others if they are wearing a badge. So we got to be the “caboose” of the tour group. It was our job to be the last ones in the group, so when the ranger saw us she knew the whole tour group had caught up with her and she could start talking about each room. The kids took their job very seriously, stopping when others in front of us were stopped taking pictures, and waiting patiently to make sure we stayed in the back.
The rooms we went through were large and beautiful with cave formations. In fact one of the chambers was where they use to host VIP events, fundraising balls, and weddings because of it’s beauty. Again, they no longer do these things as it is more harmful to the cave. Another room is where they are testing the LED lighting system to see how the cave will react to the LED lights.
And we finally reached a room where they had benches set up for a seat, so they could do the traditional “turn the lights out” part of the cave tour. Every cave tour I have been on has always done this. Maybe I have visited too many caves. My 2 little ones enjoyed it; so dark you can’t even see your hand in front of your face.
After our tour, we had a while to wait till David and the other kids returned, so we purchase a couple of postcards to send to family and friends, than rode the elevator back down to inside the cave and mailed our postcards from down in the cave at a mailbox. We were a little cold after being in the cool cave all morning so we decided to hike a little nature trail around the visitors center. Benjamin had overcome his feat of rattlesnakes and was now hoping to see one. Thank goodness for me, we didn’t find any! We did see a couple of tarantula’s though.
So David took Savannah and Calvin on a different tour. They were able to sign up for the Slaughter Canyon tour. Which took them to see a different cave found in the park. The Park provided helmets and headlamps, but they had to bring their own batteries. David said it was about a 45 min drive out to the cave. Their group met at the visitors center to pick up equipment and go over safety rules. Then they caravanned out to the cave. David was able to arrange for the 3 of them to ride with another group so I could keep our car at the visitor center since we would be done much earlier than them. This way we would be able to have lunch from the car and whatever else we might need.
On their tour they were able to have a more technical caving experience. They had to hike a short distance to reach the cave. Inside the cave there were some wet slippery spots and a few slippery down slopes where they got to use a hand rope to guide them down. There was no “trail” and no lights in the cave, other than the headlamps they were each wearing. They learned about Bat Guano and how many decade ago people use to mine Bat Guano (aka bat poop). It was worth a lot, and this was one of the caves that was mined for its guano. Calvin came back telling me all about the guano he had stepped in, because there was a lot of it everywhere in the cave. They all came back dirty, they had a great time on their tour.