Perhaps it’s my childhood filled with trips to Disney World, Disneyland, and other theme parks, but I like a national park with a well-themed tour. After lots of time hiking across the country in the rugged deserts of Canyonlands, Arches, Guadalupe Mountains, and Bryce Canyon, I was ready for another St. Louis-style touristy tour.
Carlsbad Caverns fit the bill perfectly. After all, there is a bat cave.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Carlsbad Caverns is located in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico and has been a United States national park since 1930. It has more than 100 caves, including the Big Room, a natural limestone chamber almost 4,000 feet (1,220 m) long, 625 feet (191 m) wide, and 255 feet (78 m) high, making it the fifth largest chamber in North America.
While Spanish explorer Pedro de Rivera’s engineer was one of the first to map the Guadalupe Mountains region in 1724, the U.S. National Park Service credits Jim White as being the first person who entered the Carlsbad caverns and not until 1898. White was a 16-year-old cowhand from Texas, and he went on to become an explorer in his own right after this incredible discovery.
Thanks to the fine folks at the National Park Service, our journey into the cavernous depths was far more comfortable than White’s. With sloping, paved paths, it’s now an easy trek to explore the cavern’s highlights, and it’s much different that the experience would have been for early tourists, who were lowered into the caves in old guano mining buckets.
On the way to the cavern entrance, you pass a village of Pueblo- and Territorial Revival-style buildings that accommodated the park construction crews from the 1920s to the 1940s. The make up the Caverns Historic District and give you an idea of what life was like in the region as Carlsbad Caverns was becoming a national park.
Continuing along the path, you reach the main entrance to the cavern. Although we visited in the summertime and temperatures were regularly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, we still needed jackets in the caves, which remain 56°F (13°C) year-round.
The park offers a number of excellent ranger-guided tours, but we opted to explore on our own during this visit.
It’s difficult to capture the magic of the stalactites and stalagmites or the feeling of a breeze on your face as bats fly past you inside the cave. We’re a bit spoiled with all of the wonderful caves around the Southeastern United States, particularly Tennessee’s Cumberland Caverns, but we enjoyed our day at Carlsbad Caverns and the contrast it provided to the rest of our cross-country American adventure.
Up next: Cross-Country Road Trip: Awkward Baths in Hot Springs National Park