We love caves.
Our love for caves started when we visited a cave while we were in Colorado the summer before we got married. We’ve been to Mammoth Cave National Park three times and we distinctly remember going to The Lost Sea in Eastern Tennessee, but we can’t remember when. It seemed only natural that if we were driving through the region, Carlsbad Caverns would be one of the stops on our trip. It was another spot I had visited on that youth ministry trip back in high school, long before I had met Jeff, decided I loved camping, and purchased a National Parks passport, but I couldn’t wait to tour the cave with my family.
Our Carlsbad adventures started on our way back from Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Since we were driving right past, we decided to stop and find out what we could do about ranger led tours. We had tickets for a 1:30 tour the next day because a week before I had thought to look online to see if we could pre-purchase them. I was glad I had checked because nearly all of the tours were sold out! While I checked out the tour situation, the kids picked up their Junior Ranger packets and started filling them out. I purchased our National Parks annual pass since most western parks require an entrance fee and we have three more parks to go. We have a kid who just finished fourth grade (families with fourth graders can get in free for an entire school year), but we had left our voucher at home and we didn’t mind the donation to the National Park Service.
With no chance of an additional ranger led tour, we toured the gift shop and headed back towards Brantley Lake, making a quick stop in White City for ice cream. By the time we got back to the dogs, they were more than ready for their humans to be home and our kids were ready to go to sleep so they could return for a day of caving.
Our son, who had woken up the day before complaining about not wanting to leave the campground, woke up insisting that we leave immediately for Carlsbad Caverns. We repeatedly reminded him that our tour wasn’t until 1:30 and we needed to stick around as long as possible for the dogs. I made our first hot breakfast of the vacation (sausages at least temporarily distracted him from his desire to leave) and Jeff and I went back and forth between him working and me cooking and both of us helping the kids with their Junior Ranger books. Both kids finished their tasks before we were ready to leave, we had an early lunch, and then we headed out.
After a short detour around road construction, we arrived at the national park with just enough time to get down the elevator for our tour. Our first tour of the day was the ranger-led King’s Palace Tour. While we only went 0.75 miles in one and a half hours, the advantages of a ranger-led tour are the ability to learn the history of the cave, exploration, and the science behind what is still happening in the cave. The kids could ask questions, we were able to take a slower pace, and ranger-led tours are the only times visitors can experience cave darkness with the assurance that the lights are going to turn back on.
Cave darkness. For those who have never experienced it, it can be frightening to have all lights turned off and to not even be able to see your hand in front of you. All the other senses suddenly wake up and every sound in the cave is amplified. I remember a tour guide at Mammoth talking about the amount of time it takes for someone to actually go crazy if they are stuck in a cave without any kind of lighting. It doesn’t take a few weeks; it happens in a matter of days. Once you have experienced cave darkness it is easy to understand how someone could easily lose their mind, lost in a cave without the ability to see anything, every other sense suddenly more attuned to the sounds, smells, and touch around them. Our guide told us about one particular blind man who had taught himself to use echolocation, just like bats, proving that people can learn to use their other senses and adapt. Suddenly the stories in comic books didn’t seem so impossible.
At the end of the tour we had a choice; we could go to the left and climb out of the cave through the Natural Entrance or we could head back towards the elevators. Our son needed to run to the bathroom, so we headed back to the elevators and up to the top so the kids could go to the bathroom and get sworn in as Junior Rangers, their second badge of the trip. While they were getting sworn in, we heard the announcement that the Natural Entrance was going to be closing in ten minutes. We rushed the kids and ranger through the process and then ran to the Natural Entrance so we could climb down into the cave for a self-guided tour.
The pungent aroma of bat guano grew the closer we got to the entrance and the further we walked down the winding pathway lining the gaping hole in the ground that had been discovered for exploration near the end of the nineteenth century. The further down the path we walked, the more awed we were by the vastness of the entrance, thankful that we had opted to climb down from the top instead of the other way around. After climbing down several hundred feet we looked back up to see the dim natural light still coming from the Natural Entrance, pondering what it must have been like to be one of the first to climb into the cave with no lights in front of us and only light behind us. We walked past the Bat Room, the depths from which the seasonally roosting bats emerge every night. Through the entire trail, we were introduced to an ever-changing world of natural wonders. Within 45 minutes we had descended 750 feet and walked 1.25 miles, meeting up with the Big Room Route at the other end of the cave.
Not to be prevented from doing “all the things,” we continued on the 1.25-mile self-guided Big Room Route. There we found nearly every kind of cave formation, large and small, high and low. The Big Room is 8.2 acres of nature at its finest, and while we were all hungry and ready to stop climbing by the time we saw the sign for the elevators (three miles of cave hiking is a different experience altogether), we were fully satisfied with everything that we had seen.
We ate dinner at the café inside the park gift shop and purchased the souvenirs that we couldn’t pass up (including a new stuffed bat for our son). While we were making final decisions, we ran into a woman who was also trying to make her own decisions and, since she appeared to be a fellow NPS enthusiast, I asked her if she had a National Parks passport. Jeff laughed as I explained the “awesomeness” of our book and sent her in the direction of the park bookstore. As the rest of the family headed outside to wait for the 8:00 bat program, I chased her down to show her where to find the books in the bookstore while we both discussed our love for visiting the different parks. I’m not sure if I convinced her, but I might have convinced the cashier that I should be hired to sell the passport books to anyone who walks into the store.
When I walked back outside to join my family, I discovered a crowd that included my husband and children following around a tarantula and taking pictures. Our son made it a point to remind everyone that the poor thing was just trying to live its life, we were in his home, and we should leave him alone. Jeff later commented that the poor thing was just trying to get away from the mob of people (including us) who thought he was out for a photo shoot. Despite the many pictures being taken, we all were letting the poor thing find his way home; we just wanted pictures to prove that we had seen him.
We ended our evening by heading down to the bat amphitheater from which we would be able to watch the bats emerge from the Natural Entrance for their nightly feed. Last summer we went on a camping trip to McKinney Falls State Park near Austin so that we could go to downtown Austin for a night to watch the flight of the Mexican Freetail Bats (our son’s first stuffed bat) from the Congress Avenue bridge. This time we were going to watch a group of mostly Brazilian Freetail Bats (our son’s second stuffed bat) come out to say hello.
Bats really have a bad reputation, and while I have no desire to have bats in my house, we have frequently discussed building a bat house outside of our house. Not only are they essential for the maintenance of our ecosystem (they act as pollinators and fruit-eating bats also spread seeds), they are also excellent natural insect control (a bat can eat between 6,000 to 8,000 insects in a given night). The park ranger who did the talk before they started their flight discussed just how important bats are to our entire way of life and the dangers that are facing them. Bats in the eastern portion of North America are currently fighting a disease called White Nose Syndrome, which is quickly spreading from cave to cave, killing creatures that we actually need for our own survival.
Because of the sensitivity of the bats to any light or sound, we were not allowed to take photos, but the sight of the bats swirling at the entrance of the darkened cave and then flying off to our right was spectacular. No, I did not want to make friends with any of the creatures, but I have a healthy respect and awe for the little animals that make such a huge difference in our world. After ten minutes of watching them fly off into the distance, we were ready to take our tired crew home so we could relieve our dogs and get to bed before getting back on the road to head north.
I knew that our family would enjoy the caves, but I had no idea the impact the stop would have on all of us. It took me awhile to figure out the difference between our two favorite cave explorations. Mammoth is magnificent; Carlsbad is stunning. What makes Mammoth unique is the long human history of the cave; what makes Carlsbad unique is that it shows in elaborate detail the awesomeness of creation underground. That God put a process into place that continued to grow and develop and change over the years into an elaborate masterpiece is amazing to me. While I’m ready to see more above the earth’s surface, our memories from underground will follow us for a long time.
Note on title: Carlsbad Caverns was actually used to film the original Journey to the Center of the Earth.
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