One of the world’s most spectacular cave systems, Carlsbad Caverns National Park encompasses more than 100 known caves, including Carlsbad Cavern, renowned for its aptly named Big Room, with an area the size of six football fields and a 225-foot ceiling, and Lechuguilla Cave, one of the world’s largest caves. Hundreds of millions of years in the making, the caves were known to Native Americans as far back as the 10th century (as proved by their pictographs, which can be seen on the entrance walls), but were not discovered by settlers until just 100 years ago.
Wide-eyed visitors on self-guided visits descend deep into the earth’s belly below the Chihuahuan Desert, accompanied by the constant sound of dripping and the sweet smell of bat guano, to see the surreal formations and fragile mineral deposits that resemble everything from draperies and strings of pearls to rococo sculptures, bunches of grapes, and turnbling waterfalls. Despite the 30 million visitors since the caves became a national park in 1923, this still remains an experience of raw nature (albeit with 3 miles of paved walkways that lead visitors 800 feet down into the earth). Perhaps not frightening, but eerie, yes, and fascinating, definitely. And it’s not just the caves’ geology that fascinates, but its zoology as well. In summertime, the colony of Mexican free-tailed bats can number in the hundreds of thousands. And what a show they put on, taking off en masse every evening at dusk and filling the sky for miles in search of desert insects. It can take forty-five minutes for them all to exit the caves, a process reversed at dawn, when they all return.