We also stopped at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, located near the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico.
The person credited with discovering the cave, a teenager named Jim White was likely not the first person to walk around in the cave. Still, he did explore the caverns and bring others out to share in their beauty. According to the accounts, the first people Jim brought to the cave were far more interested in the bat guano (a profitable fertilizer) than in the beautiful sights within the caverns. I guess this a good example of “batsh*t crazy”!
I do not have any pictures. I find that when I take a camera with me, I tend to spend more time looking for the perfect picture than just taking in the experience.
We (wife and I) arrived just after the last below ground tour of the day had left. This sounds disappointing, but it turns out it was the best thing that could have happened. By being “late” we got to do so many more amazing things than just “walk around in a cave”.
The cave is the home to more than 400,000 bats and many thousands of Cave Swallow birds. Because of this, the park service has many experts available to answer questions on both the bats and the birds. A ranger “spent” nearly 2 hours answering my many questions about White Nose Syndrome, a deadly bat disease, and also about their echo-location (kind of like SONAR). The engineer in me is amazed when I think about the ability of a moving bat to echo-locate things in its vicinity even when nearby there are hundreds of thousands of other moving bats doing the same thing and I’m saddened that this disease is killing so many bats…bats that eat things like mosquitoes.
We then went down to the cave entrance to watch the “bat flight”..the time in the evening when the bats leave the cave to begin foraging for flying insects. Shortly before the flight, there is a ranger presentation about the bats and the importance of them.
The cave entrance is a sort of horizontal shaft (gallery) leading off from what looks like a large diameter hole in the ground. The bats leaving the cave fly in a large corkscrew pattern to gain gain enough height to get above ground level and then fly off into the night. While they are flying their corkscrew pattern, it looks like a bat cyclone. As they leave the cave area, groups of bats fly off together and in the distance they look like black moving clouds.
It takes about an hour for the estimated 400,000 bats to leave the cave. According to the park ranger, the bats “hang out” (literally) about 1/3 of a mile inside the cave, so the bats must navigate that far before reaching the cave entrance….if I could ever be in the cave as the bats leave……
It. Is. Totally. Amazing.
When things calmed down, my wife and I continued to sit there, “listening” to the silence. We both grew up in small towns, but now live in a city, and silence is a rare treat for us.
If you ever get a chance to do this, you should take advantage of the opportunity. Bats are not “Count Dracula”, nor are they rabid creatures doing all they can to infect a human.
Go see them. You will not be disappointed.
DAWN OF THE BATS
Remember how I said arriving after the last tour only *sounded* disappointing?
Well, the next morning was also special. One day each year, the park opens before sunset for the “Dawn of the Bats”. This is where people can sit near the cave entrance when the bats arrive “home”.
We arrived at 5am. Even the moon had set, so it was very dark. We made it down to near the cave entrance and quietly sat down and waited There were only a dozen people there and it was nearly totally silent–only the sounds of breathing could be heard. At first I heard a series of sounds that I thought was someone trying to quietly open a backpack zipper. Then I realized the sound was moving. That is when I understood that this sound was the bats flying overhead on their way to reenter the cave.
My less comforting description of the sound is “sounds like a bullet flying by my ear”.
As it became light, I could see the bats diving toward the cave entrance, their tails and wings set to quickly slow their speed while, at the same time, a few adventuresome Cave Swallow birds began leaving the cave. Once the bats had returned home, the remaining Cave Swallows began to leave their nests and fly out of the cave. As the sun continued to rise, the chorus of bird chirps began.
Bats are the night shift and the birds are the day shift.
After the Dawn of the Bats, we went on a short ranger led nature walk. Since the bats and the caverns are the headline “acts” in this park, the life on the ground is, sadly, mostly ignored by the park visitors. I grew up in the Mojave Desert and I had a huge number of questions about the Chihuahuan Desert. Despite what you might think, the two deserts are vastly different.
Even though the nature walk was only 30 minutes long, the ranger leading the walk stayed around for another 45 minutes to answer my questions. I even got to answer a few questions from the ranger about things common in the Mojave, but not often seen around the caverns.
When the visitor center opened at 8:30am, we went in to buy tickets to allow us to go into the caverns. At 9am, we rode the first elevator descent into the caverns. This elevator has only two stops, “top” and “bottom”, so instead of the indicator telling what floor the elevator is passing, it shows the number of feet the elevator is below the surface. The numbers stop around 750 feet (225 meters). It only takes a few minutes for the elevators to make the descent into the caverns and it’s almost hard to believe that one has moved that far in so short of a time.
The caverns are HUGE. We walked almost four miles underground and we only walked around in the areas open to the public. There are more miles of cave that we did not get to see. As we walked around, I kept having to remind myself to look up because many of the most spectacular things to see are overhead. In a way, viewing the cavern is almost a sensory overload.
Even though we had a 700 mile drive ahead of us, and we needed to be home that night, we didn’t want to leave. After finally deciding we *had* to leave (around 2pm), my wife and I made the 1 mile (1.5k) walk up 800 feet (240 meters) to the natural entrance. There were hundreds of people walking down, but I saw no others walking up.
About 10 minutes before we made it to the entrance, I began to smell the bird poop. It’s an almost sour smell, but isn’t offensive…either that or my nose wasn’t working well. 🙂 And then after another 5 minutes or so of walking, for the first time in about 5 hours, I began to see sunlight.