Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of Earth put forth the idea of a second world existing right underneath our feet. This world had glow birds, dinosaurs, hot springs, rocks floating in air – as a child I was spellbound by its mythical magical aura. I sincerely believed in the existence of this place. For a long time visitors to our house in Rourkela would be regaled by tall tales of this subterranean land near Iceland. To anyone who would bother to listen to a ten year old bursting with excitement about an imaginary place, this might have come across as absurd or annoyance but I guess back in those times adults were more forgiving.
As struggles of balancing high school along with preparing for college exams took over, the flighty dream of that ten year old lay forgotten in a dark corner.
Coming to Carlsbad Caverns National Park which is located in the south eastern New Mexico, it is known to be just one of the 300 limestone caves formed on a fossil reef about 265 million years ago. The timeline which led to these magnificent formations is just staggering. Mankind is just a blip!
Though primarily our exploration would take us underneath the earth’s surface, we could not disregard the weather conditions. As the hotel prices in Carlsbad were a little on the higher side, we decided to set base in Artesia which was only an hour and ten minutes away from the park’s visitor center.
Most reviews on Tripadvisor and Google Reviews had suggested that we get there early to beat the long lines and get tickets for any park ranger led activity as they have a limit and tend to sell out quickly. As an option, you can book their tours online also.
Travelling from the warm temperate climate of Arizona, we were not ready for the blasting bone chilling cold weather of New Mexico. We checked in at the visitor center to collect our tickets for the tour and lined up for the elevator. Now there are two ways of entering the cavern – hike a 1.25 mile route from the Natural Cave Entrance or take the elevator.
People had highly recommended to take the elevators for descent and opt for a hike out for exit. For a seasonal athlete like me it was true test of endurance. But the sight of open sky and sunlight streaming down from the gaping hole is every bit rewarding.
King’s Palace is a collection of four chambers which are located in one of the deepest pockets of the cavern, about 830 feet below the earth’s surface. Our tour was led by Park Ranger Charlie who along with the usual fact and figures shared fascinating accounts of the first man who discovered these caverns back in 1898. Back then Jim White a 16 year old had descended with nothing more than a lantern, kerosene and a few matchsticks. We got a taste of the old world feel when Ranger Charlie turned out the modern lights save a candle which he had brought along. He gave a tiny scare when he snuffed out that too. Inky darkness enveloped us. Darkness so thick you can’t see the person next to you. Also with the absence of sunlight one has absolutely no sense of time. The King’s Palace tour was an hour and thirty minutes long and cost us a nominal $8. It is worth every cent as it gives access to a location which is otherwise closed to general admission.
Later after the tour ended we spent the following hour exploring the Big Room which is said to big enough to house 6.2 football fields. Most of the formations that are seen in these parts are a result of sulphuric acid on limestone. They are primarily classified as spleotherms, stalagmites and stalactites. The formations are crude, gory and as is human nature we try to anthropomorphize them. So there is the Witch’s foot and broomstick, the Devil’s play garden.
On a first glimpse the caverns appear like a badly lighted subterranean castle of Ursula from the Little Mermaid. But as my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, it saw these detailed patterns and textures on the walls, floor and ceiling. Nature had taken million of years to carve out this piece of work. The magnanimity of this thought left me giddy in the awesomeness that surrounded us.
Finally after spending about five hours exploring the various pockets of the caverns, we decided to hike out. The total distance of 1.2 miles doesn’t account but combined with an 800 feet of elevation it is a lot of leg work. I have to be honest and admit that despite the shortness of breath, burning cheeks, bursting lungs and sore legs, we made it out. 35 minutes. Boy it felt great to be back on top!
Here a few pointers for that trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park
• Nearest cities – Carlsbad, Artesia
• Beat the crowd and get there as early as 8.30 am to get tickets and take photos without getting photo-bombed by passing by strangers
• Book a tour in advance with a park ranger online on the National Park Services site
• For your food fix there is a store selling sandwiches and chips in the visitor center, also a gift shop operating out the caverns
Looking back, it wasn’t until this trip to Carlsbad Caverns I got thinking about that long forgotten part of me. It ended up being realization of a childhood promise made to self in all innocence.