Wednesday, November 17, 2010


In our past travels, Brad and I have traveled up and down the eastern United States a fair bit, and we have been to many caves in Pennsylvania and Virginia, our favourite being Luray Caverns in Luray, VA, and to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky which is the longest cave system in the world.  But I have to say that Carlsbad Caverns are, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful caves I've seen.  The rooms are as big as I remember any at Mammoth Caves being, and as beautifully decorated as any at Luray Caverns with stalactites (formations that hang from the ceiling) and stalagmites (formations that form on the floor), drapery (formations that hang like drapes from the ceiling) and soda straws (formations that hang like straws, sometimes hollow, from the ceiling).
A formation known as flowstone - this one about two feet high
We spend about a day and a half exploring Carlsbad Caverns.  We take both self-guided tours: the walk 750 feet down from the natural entrance and the 1-1/4 mile walk around the "Big Room".  We also take a Ranger guided tour of the King's Palace, but we both enjoy the self-guided tours much better as we are able to go at our own pace.  Again, since it's off-season, the crowds are thin and we are often almost alone on the trail.  In fact, on the first afternoon when we walk down through the natural entrance, we ARE all alone until one of the Rangers comes along to hurry us up as it's almost closing time and he has the duty of turning off lights behind us.  It's also very quiet in the caves as people are encouraged to only whisper and Rangers are strategically placed throughout the caves to remind people to respect the rules.
In the Big Room
There always seems to be a new surprise around each bend in the path, and Brad takes over 140 pictures over the two days that we visit.  He uses long time exposures and a tripod to capture the natural beauty and better depth of the formations.  His excitement over the photography probably more than doubles our time in the caves, but I know he'll get some excellent shots.  The National Park Service only uses full spectrum lighting, not coloured lighting on any of the formations, however as the lights age some do change colour and look red or green in the photos.  Algae sometimes also grows near the lights where water drips near them too, so green colouring will often appear in photos.
Marilyn in the Big Room
Carlsbad Caverns, which are in the Guadalupe Mountain range, are quite unique in how they were formed.  Most caves are formed by rainwater, which is slightly acidic, seeping through the soil and dissolving the limestone (a full explanation can be found here).  However Carlsbad was once part of a shallow inland sea, many millions of years ago.  But as the earth changed, geological forces pushed up the Guadalupe Mountains.  Deep inside the mountain range, cracks had already formed in the limestone rock and the water, rich with hydrogen-sulfide because of the extensive gas and oil found underground, mixed with rainwater and created sulphuric acid.  Sulphuric acid is highly corrosive and it easily ate away at the limestone within the cracks under the mountains, forming the caves.  By this time, about 2 million years ago, the sea had drained away, and usual cave processes took over - water seeped through the earth above, bringing with it minerals like calcium and iron, and driped into the cave.  The minerals from very slow drips solidified on the ceiling as stalactites, faster drips fell to the floor of the cave depositing the minerals there to form stalagmites and eventually after millions of years or tens of thousands of years the two would meet in the middle to form a column.  (A formal description of the formation of Carlsbad Caverns is here.)
Formation known as drapery in the Big Room (these are about six feet long)
It's quite cold in the caves, only 56 degrees F, about 12 degrees C, and 90% humidity.  After several hours in the caves, we feel like we're back in Hamilton in the spring, but fortunately that's still about five months away.  All we have to do is rise the 750 feet back to the surface on the elevator and we're back in the sun (although the wind has kicked up again!).  What an experience.  Another year, we'll come back and take one of the other Ranger guided tours, perhaps one where we have to crawl on all fours, or the lantern tour.


  1. Absolutely beautiful, just stunning. Where was Grady? Cats not allowed in the caves? I want Grady's opinion! And, you're so educational - almost like getting a cave diploma! ENJOY, you lucky three!

  2. Been to both Luray and Mammoth and I have heard others say that Carlsbad is one of the best caverns in the world... Now you have convinced me that Diane and I should go there. Thanks for the postings. It's nice to follow you, Brad and Grady on your travels.

  3. Bob, you HAVE to go to Carlsbad. Drag Diane there if you have to. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, and it's so huge. There's something more incredible around every corner you turn. We could have spent a week in there.

  4. I heard that Luray Cavern is the good for holiday trip. Your pictures have been proved it. Nice Information which is beneficial for my trip.

  5. To Luray VA Accommodations:
    These are photos of Carlsbad Caverns, NOT Luray Caverns, but the decoration in Luray C are just about as stunning.