Winter 2016 Adventure – Big Bend National Park or Bust Part Nine

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

There we were all bundled up and ready to explore Carlsbad Caverns on March 4, 2016.

Two people sitting near Carlsbad Caverns National Park sign
Temperature inside the cave is 56ºF (13ºC) so dress warm

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.”

Wispy clouds, blue sky, rock cliffs and cave entrance
Trail to the Natural Entrance

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.

Switchback path to cave entrance
Down, down, down we go

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.

Rock formations at cave entrance
What do you see on the cliff? Is that ET?

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.

Bacon stalactites on cave wall
Bacon stalactites

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.

Pond inside a cave
Water in the cave

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.

Ribbon of stalactites and stalagmites inside a cave
Stalagmites and stalactites

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.

Stalagmite formation looks like snow and icicles
Spotlights make it easier to see the formations

A limited snack bar and merchandise sales area are at the base of the elevators inside the cave.

Snack and merchandise counter inside cave
Snack stop and merchandise counter near the elevators

Individuals eager for back country trails and overnight camping will enjoy the 50 miles of trails above ground.

Stalagmite formations
Abominable snowman and white seal?

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.

Totem pole stalagmite
Totem pole of broccoli-looking trees

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?

Green algae inside a cave
Algae grows in the dark zones near the artificial lights

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.

View of cave entrance from inside
I think I can. I think I can. I know I can.

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.

Algerita shrub with green leaves and yellow flowers and sign
Mother nature’s medicine cabinet

The main attraction was the Barbary sheep grazing and moving along the cliffside and hiding behind bushes while a ram watched over the family.

Many standing next to an overhang
Jon next to an overhang

The Barbary sheep (aoudad) are not native to New Mexico; they came from North Africa in the early 1900s for placement in zoos.

Barbary sheep on cliff
Barbary sheep grazing on the cliff

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.

Barbary sheep on cliff
Love the fringe

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.

Barbary sheep standing sentry
The sentry keeps his family safe.

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.

Wispy white clouds against blue sky, rolling golden hills and S-curve road
I wonder how many caves are under those hills.

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.

Stay safe

8 thoughts on “Winter 2016 Adventure – Big Bend National Park or Bust Part Nine

  1. Congratulations on making the trek down to and back out of the cave! You have some beautiful photos from the cave. I remember taking our children (now grown with kids of their own) to watch the bats come out of the cave about 40 years ago!

    Like

    1. The elevator should be fine now. It was repaired a few months after our visit. The last I looked, visitors have to walk down and ride elevator up as a precaution due to the virus.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.