Friday, February 11, 2011

Carlsbad Caverns

The lands north of the Davis Mountains are some of the most desolate that we've seen. There was no habitation and very few cattle, but quite a few oil rigs. Most of the oil pumps were small, old-fashioned personal-sized rigs, but there were also a few towering structures with an array of tanks around them to collect the crude. Another thing we noticed is that all (not most, not 99%, I mean ALL) of the passenger vehicles on the roads were pickup trucks. In Texas, Dodge seems to be the favorite by a large margin, followed by Ford and then a smattering of the General's products.
Once we crossed into New Mexico, Dodge Rams were still very popular, but GM trucks became just as common. Most of these trucks were huge, heavy duty monsters with giant off-road tires, lifted suspensions, and brush guards. These are the trucks of the tough, leathery desert people. Gigantor felt right at home out there.

We camped in Carlsbad, New Mexico, at a private park which was decent enough for a gravel lot campground. The diagonally aligned sites helped make it feel slightly less crowded. We paid a visit to a local veterinarian to see if there's anything we could do to stop the dogs from itching. They've been scratching more or less continuously since the Georgia coast. Toby got a shot of cortisone, and some lower dosage pills for little old Kinsey. Seems to have helped.

I also got out for a ride in the desert - a dusty single-track in the low hills on federal land, through hard, prickly terrain. The trail was well made and marked, I enjoyed it, and there was no blood-loss.

Of course the primary reason for coming to Carlsbad was to visit the caverns. After turning onto the park road it's a seven mile drive up a valley and onto the top of the hills.

We entered at the natural entrance (as opposed to descend via elevator) and walked the mile long descent, 750 feet under the surface. Here is Nancy at the entrance on the switchbacked walkway:

In the summer hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats fly out of this opening in a giant funnel cloud. The parks service has built stadium seating into the amphitheater-shaped cave opening for people to sit at dusk to view the spectacle. At this time of year, however, these critters are wintering farther south in Mexico, no doubt filling up on chips, salsa and tequila.

The walk down...
...past ancient Native American petroglyphs...
.......past heaping mounds of bat guano............ the twilight zone, the farthest reaches of natural light...
and then the speleothems begin:

Stalactites, stalagmites, columns, flow-stone, curtains, soda straws, popcorn, cave pearls...

This cave is so much larger than any other we've experienced. The Hall of the Giants, the largest at Carlsbad is nearly 4000 feet long and 350 feet high at its apex! The path around its perimeter is 1.25 miles long! The formations within are on a grand scale as well. Here is Nancy standing near towering stalagmites:

This column is 65 feet tall!

Many of the features have common names. This one is called Whale's Mouth:

They didn't post the name of this one, but I think it's obvious:

The self-guided tour ends with a mandatory elevator ride 754 feet up, back to the surface. The National Parks Service has done a great job protecting this amazing cavern from the over 500000 visitors per year. Almost none of the formations are broken, and very few show signs of human contact, remarkable given the monumental task of building elaborate walkways and installing hidden lighting systems. We'd love to return some summer day to see the evening flight of the bats.

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