Explorers can enjoy Carslbad's underground world


April 24, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

There was no mistaking the witch's nose, appropriately twisted and ugly. As we made our way down the winding trail, we passed sharp-toothed monsters, a gigantic crooked finger, a twinkling fairyland and an entire village that seemed to have a spell cast over it. All were made of massive rock -- some of it more than 20 feet tall. We didn't know where to look first.

This was no man-made creation. We were some 80 stories underground exploring Carlsbad Cavern in New Mexico, part of a nearly 47,000-acre national park and one of the most famous caves in the country. It was fantastic and spooky at the same time -- a glimpse into a world we don't often see.

Reggie, a second-grader, was amazed that these gigantic formations had all started thousands of years ago from water dripping, leaving small limestone rings. The speleothems -- the rock formations -- are everywhere and look exactly like frozen popcorn, gigantic soda straws and draperies, which are what they're called. We made our way around the Big Room, one of the largest underground rooms in the world -- 1,800 feet long and 1,100 feet at its widest point.

We gaped at the gigantic stalactites (they're the ones that hang "tite" to the ceiling) and the 62-foot-high Giant Dome, Carlsbad's biggest stalagmite (stalagmites grow up from the ground and "mite" reach the ceiling). We peered into the Bottomless Pit, a black hole 140 feet deep.

"Kids really like this cave," says Ranger Leanne Benton, who was making sure visitors stayed on the paved trail and didn't touch the delicate formations. "They have the spirit of explorers."

At Carlsbad this spring and summer there will be opportunities to see undeveloped areas: In Spider cave, for example, "You'll be down on your belly crawling," warns Ed Greene, chief of visitor services. "Kids love the adventure." (For information and to make reservations for guided tours, call Carlsbad Cavern visitor information at [505] 785-2232.)

"We're seeing a lot of interest in caving now," continues Mr. Greene, noting that Carlsbad draws three-quarters of a million people a year. In the summer months, when the Mexican free-tail bats are in residence, 1,000 people gather each night at dusk to watch the bats -- tens of thousands of them -- fly out for their dinner and to listen to a ranger talk about bat flight. But don't worry about the bats while you're visiting the cave: They roost in an area not open to the public.

People are fascinated by them. Typically on the second Thursday in August, a dawn breakfast is held at Carlsbad to encourage visitors to watch the bats as they return to the cavern after a night of gorging on moths and other hapless insects. It draws 500 people each year.

"Carlsbad Cavern isn't on the way to anywhere," explains Mr. Greene, noting that the national park is 175 miles east of El Paso and 27 miles west of the town of Carlsbad. "People are coming here because they want to be at the cave." (The Carlsbad Visitor Information Center is a good resource for local hotels, campgrounds and other area attractions. Call [505] 885-CAVE.)

"It's part of the greening of tourism. People are looking for places to go where they can learn about the world around them," explains Barbara Munson, an officer of the National Caves Association. Throughout the country, there are about 200 caves -- including several in national parks -- developed for public visitors. (Call the National Caves Association at [615] 668-3925.)

At the same time, the National Speleological Society, an organization of dedicated cavers, has grown to 11,000 members committed to exploring wild caves and preserving them. (For more information, call [205] 852-1300.)

But whether you visit a developed cave or a wild one, be careful -- especially with kids along. Even in developed caves, paths are narrow and there may be steep drop-offs. Even with lights, it's dim deep in the cave. Keep children close to you. Wear sturdy shoes and bring a jacket. The temperature is always the same inside a cave -- a chilly 56 degrees.

Ask ahead about stroller or wheelchair access. At Carlsbad, for example, strollers aren't permitted on the paved paths, though visitors in wheelchairs may visit a portion of the cave. Other trails are too steep or narrow, officials explain.

Most important, don't touch the formations. They can be easily ++ damaged. This summer, for the first time in two decades, Carlsbad is returning to guided tours in certain popular sections of the cavern. "We've counted 18,000 broken formations in the last eight years," Mr. Greene says, advising that summer visitors call several weeks ahead to make reservations.

Reggie and I entered the cavern from the natural entrance, hiking down 750 feet (you may also take an elevator down).

Nineteenth-century settlers were attracted here by the spectacle the bats. One of those early cavers, Jim White, began telling people fantastic stories about the huge glittering formations he'd seen. Photographs taken in the early years of the 20th century fueled the fervor, and Carlsbad was declared a national monument in 1923.

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