Carlsbad Caverns National Park
There we were all bundled up and ready to explore Carlsbad Caverns on March 4, 2016.
The day we arrived, the elevator was out of commission. That meant we had to descend into the cave on foot with an elevation change of 800 feet. We had no qualms about descending. The worry came when we assessed our ability to make it out without assistance. We discussed the pros and cons of our fitness level for a few minutes, then agreed, “We can do this.”
As we walked down the path without a care in the world, people of a younger generation passed us headed for the top. Their heaving breaths, red faces, and plodding pace had us second-guessing whether we made the right decision. There was the cave, there we were, so onward we trekked.
Carlsbad was designated a national monument on October 25, 1923, became a national park on May 14, 1930, and earned a World Heritage Site designation in December 1995. The park has 120 known caves with new ones added as exploration continues.
The largest cave in the park that’s been surveyed is Lechuguilla Cave. It is only open to research and exploration activities. However, there are five ranger-guided tours offered for an additional fee. As of this post’s publication date, the tours have been suspended, so check the website to get updated information.
We started at the Natural Entrance Trail, and then took the Big Room Trail, which is the largest accessible cave chamber in North America, measuring 8.2 acres.
Both trails are 1.25 miles and are open to anyone who prefers exploring on their own. The paved paths are easy to navigate and portions of the Big Room Trail are accessible to people with walkers and wheelchairs.
At the visitor center the usual movie theater, restrooms, drinking fountain, and exhibits are available as are a gift shop, restaurant, and even a kennel. And visitors short on cash will find ATMs.
A limited snack bar and merchandise sales area are at the base of the elevators inside the cave.
Individuals eager for back country trails and overnight camping will enjoy the 50 miles of trails above ground.
Carlsbad Cave, which measures 30 miles, is one of over 300 limestone caves in a fossil reef created by an island sea some 265 million years ago. The first to discover the entrance to the cave is in dispute, but some believe that Jim White, a 16-year-old in 1898, was the first to enter and name many of the rooms and formations.
Archeological evidence shows the Clovis culture, prehistoric Paleoamericans, lived in the area 13,000 years ago. Is it possible this prehistoric culture, the Native Americans, or the Spanish explorers that followed also discovered the cave?
We must confess our climb out of the cave along switchbacks and steep ramps was a challenge. A slow steady pace with a few stops to catch our breath was the trick, and we even passed a few groups of people on the way. Soon we spotted light streaming from above and celebrated our achievement.
On our way out of the park, we stopped at a turnout. A short trail with information signs took us to an overhang that looked like it had been used as a shelter.
The main attraction was the Barbary sheep grazing and moving along the cliffside and hiding behind bushes while a ram watched over the family.
The Barbary sheep (aoudad) are not native to New Mexico; they came from North Africa in the early 1900s for placement in zoos.
Joe McKnight obtained surplus zoo stock for his game ranch in Picacho, New Mexico. Wild, free-ranging populations were brought into the state and proliferated over the years.
The first sighting of the sheep in Carlsbad Cavern National Park occurred in 1959. Although the park service would like to rid the Carlsbad of the herd and reestablish the native bighorn sheep, funds have not been sufficient to complete the project.
I have mixed feelings about removing the Barbary sheep. They have adapted well to the dry conditions in the southwest and have been there for sixty-one years. On the other hand, they establish their territory and prevent the native bighorn sheep from surviving. At what point does an invasive species become native? That question is miles away from this humble blog post being able to provide an answer.
Besides the sheep, the most popular mammal sighting in the park is bats. There is even an amphitheater (which is closed due to the virus) where visitors can watch the bats outflight each evening from spring through fall. They are also visible from the visitor center parking lot, and a ranger-presented Bat Flight Program is broadcast over vehicle radios.
Next up we limp into Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a paw about to burst.