Captivating Carlsbad

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The Hall of Giants in the Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
The natural park entrance at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
The Totem Pole formation in the Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Some 70 stories below the Earth’s surface is one of the largest and most magnificent rooms inAmerica.

It’s cool, literally, and decorated with mammoth formations that rise from the ground or hang like icicles from the ceiling, greeting visitors as they navigate the one-mile path around the perimeter of the massive limestone chamber. This is the Big Room, the centerpiece and most popular among visitors toCarlsbad CavernsNational ParkinNew Mexico.

Getting to the Big Room is easy and swift in an elevator that transports visitors 754 feet below the desert in a minute. Those in good physical condition and time to linger can opt for the natural entrance trail, a steep 1 1/4-mile descent that will give leg muscles and lungs a work out. Be warned: It’s the equivalent to about 79 stories from the cave entrance to the Big Room.

Whether it’s a first visit or a fifth, the Big Room impresses and lives up to its name. Six football fields could fit into the chamber, which is some 20 stories tall at its highest point. This is a playground for spectacular stalactites, stalagmites, columns, soda straws, popcorn rock and helicites. It’s impossible not to linger and marvel at the wonders, so large and intriguing.

Though the formations and path are well-lit, the room itself is eerily dim. And quiet. Visitors are encouraged to talk softly, not only because sounds are magnified in the vastness but because this room commands reverence.

Just as it did in 1898 when a teenage cowhand named Jim White entered the cave for the first time after watching a black cloud of bats escape from an opening. With a handmade wire ladder, he descended 60 feet into the cave to discover something so beautiful and natural that he worked a lifetime to make sure others could see it. It took some convincing at first. Early on, he used a guano bucket to transport hundreds of visitors into and out of the cave. People started showing more interest when photographs of the cavern appeared in the New York Times in 1923. Congress establishedCarlsbad CavernsNational Parkin 1930.

While the Big Room self-guided tour is the most popular, guided tours to other parts of the cavern are offered. Those tours vary in degrees of difficulty. Some are very strenuous and require crawling through narrow passages. There’s even a lantern only tour.

Exploration continues in the 117 limestone caves that are in the national park. In May, a maze of passages was discovered inLechuguillaCave, the deepest limestone cave in the country. The most famous of the caves is Carlsbad Cavern where the grandeur and underground beauty of the Big Room continues to awe visitors just as it did a young cowhand more than 100 years ago.

And those bats? Hundreds of thousands fly out of the cavern entrance every evening from about mid-April to mid-October. The park service says the early-morning return flight is just as impressive as the bats converge after a night of feasting on insects and re-enter the cavern at speeds of up 25 miles per hour. The exodus and return can observed from the outdoor amphitheater.

Every tour starts at the visitor center, whether it’s ranger-led, self-guided with audio or through the natural entrance. Summer is the most popular time to visit but the park is open every day except Christmas. Wear good walking shoes and a long-sleeved shirt or bring a lightweight jacket. The Big Room is a cool 56 degrees year-round.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is 27 miles from the town of Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico. For park hours, tours and other information, go online to www.nps.gov/cave.

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