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Wednesday, 01 May 2019

The Grand Canyon with a Roof: A Visit to Carlsbad Caverns

Written by Jim Chamberlain
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A magical world for your imagination exists 750 feet below the surface of the earth in the Southwestern United States. Formations called The Lions Tail, Breast of Venus, Dolls Theatre, Hall of Giants, the Caveman, the Chandelier, and the Rock of Ages are some of what you can find in the subterranean world of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. The famous comedian Will Rogers said that Carlsbad Caverns was the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it”, when he visited in the 1930s.

Painted Grotto


My ears popped as I descended the equivalent of a 75-story building in one minute in an elevator from the Visitor Center to the starting point of my adventure into the dark world of the of Stalactites and Stalagmites. There are two ways to reach main cave of the park, the “Big Room”, one is to hike down the switch backed path from the Natural Entrance or you can use the Elevator. Both lead to the beginning of the self-guided tour – over a mile-long trail through the “Big Room”. Before the elevator was installed you could be lowered in a “Guano” (bat dung) bucket.

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Chinese Theatre


The 4,000 foot “Big Room” is the fifth largest cave in the world and its size overwhelms you as you enter. You could hide an army in its huge expanse of over 6 football fields. The cavern is a constant and cool 56 degrees in temperature. It is dark down here. While many lights illuminate the pathway and its formations, the huge expanse seems to swallow light leaving you to move slowly. You can hear the dripping sounds of the cave growing around you. Water is the great decorator of caverns. It is also very quiet. Everyone whispers to each other as they wander the paved trail as if in church. It could be called nature’s underground cathedral.

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The Dining Room


I entered the Jim White Tunnel, named after the man who discovered the caverns in 1898, and the first of several fanciful formations came into view. The Chinese Theatre has stalagmites in a large overhanging room that seem ready to act out a play. The Dolls theatre is a small recessed room with numerous soda straws and The Painted Grotto has stalactites hanging from the ceiling like swords. The paved path with steel railings winds into the huge cavern past the Rock of Ages column that was once a stalagmite that grew inch by inch over many decades to connect with the ceiling to become a column.

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Hall of Giants


The expanse of the “Big Room” is hard to fathom. It stretches into the darkness with the ceiling rising and lowering as you walk along. Stalactites cover the roof of the cavern and the largest of these is called the Chandelier. It hangs over a large open room of formations like the “Caveman”, “Totem Pole”, and a variety of smaller stalagmites that create the impression of a grand dimly lit stony ballroom filled with rocky guests. A concrete amphitheater, where lectures are held in the cave, is located at the “Top of the Cross”. This vantage point provides a great view back into the dark and grand expanse of the cave. The “Bottomless Pit” is a dark hole that seems to absorb all the available light. Rocks dropped into the chasm make no sound as they descend into the depths and earlier explorers’ thought it was bottomless. It was determined to be only 140 feet deep with a soft dirt floor that absorbed the noise of the falling stones leading to the misconception of its depth. The entrance to the “Left hand Tunnel” cave is nearby, and you can take a Ranger guided tour to explore it. Soon I entered the ‘Hall of Giants”. This is a wonderous collection of large stalagmites of various heights. You walk slowly so as not to disturb these rocky monsters as you gaze up at them. Scattered along the floor of the cave are small round and oval objects called “cave pearls” that are situated among smaller stalagmites in the area called “Fairyland”. The “Temple of the Sun” features a large stalagmite that is surrounded by sharp pointy stalactites that glow in the light from a spotlight. I walked past the “Breast of Venus” and the “Lions Tail” formations as I made my way back toward the entrance. I could understand why this cavern was used to film the movie “Journey to the Center of the Earth” in the 1950s. It felt like I had descended into another world.

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The Chandelier

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01 May 2019

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