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An Underground Wonder Wrought by Water

By MARY L. SHERK

© St. Petersburg Times


CARLSBAD, N.M. -- Nearly 150 miles from El Paso, Texas, or Alamagordo, N.M., barren land rolls past the car windows for a long time before motorists turn onto the winding canyon road that leads up to Carlsbad Caverns National Park's Visitors Center.

Now and then the mesquite-studded flatness has been relieved by green patches, but they soon gave way to sandy acres where Seussian plants struggle to survive. Gray hills hug the horizon. Living is not easy here in New Mexico's corner of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Discovering there's an ocean reef here is a surprise as unexpected as finding the immense underground world of Carlsbad Caverns, one of the world's most celebrated cave systems.

These ages-old chambers in the Earth came relatively recently to attention. It was actually the phenomenon of millions of bats spiraling out of a gaping hole in the side of a bristly gulch at sunset each day that pointed the way to this mammoth subterranean labyrinth, late last century.

Being practical sorts, its discoverers quickly figured out ways to make money from the flying mammals, and began mining guano (dung) in a small section of the gigantic chambers. Unprofitable aspects of the cavern -- corkscrew columns and castle-shapes of glistening stone -- got only passing attention.

Fertilizer mined here sometimes spontaneously combusted on the long rail ride to Southern California, where it was used in citrus orchards. Heavy in nitrates, similar deposits were used in manufacturing explosives during World War I and II.

Scientists think that about 250-million years ago, a great sea inundated the middle of what is now the North American continent. It dried up eons ago, and the dunes, buttes and gullies of the Guadalupe Mountains are what's left of a 400-mile-long shoal in that ocean.

Designated Capitan Reef, the horseshoe-shaped outcropping accumulated over millennia from skeletons of trillions of tiny sea creatures, algae and shell fragments. As the water receded, a thin covering of gypsum deposits and salts was built up. Eventually soil blanketed the reef and some hardy plants straggled across the new terrain. Today yucca, mesquite, numerous varieties of cacti and a few determined trees punch through the drab landscape.

Amateur and expert cave explorers come from all over the world to see Carlsbad Caverns, 28 miles south of the town of Carlsbad.

Early in the 1900s a lanky cowboy named Jim White, while earning some extra money mining guano, became fascinated with what he saw of the dark rooms. Setting off by himself with a miner's helmet and minimal equipment, White was to return from several expeditions with accounts of colossal chambers filled with colorful stalactites and stalagmites. Of stone pillars and frozen waterfalls. Of animals with no coloration.

But not until 1915 when a photographer went down with him, and people in town saw the pictures, were Jim White and the monumental caverns beneath Capitan Reef taken seriously. Eventually the federal government sent a scientist, who validated White's discoveries.

In 1923, Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the place a national monument and, in 1930, President Herbert Hoover declared the marvelous underground wonder a national park.

Today cave enthusiasts have two options for exploring the caverns: a three-mile hike that begins at the natural cave entrance (the one used by the bats during spring and summer months) or a 11/2-mile tour of the modestly named Big Room, which is accessible from the surface via a seven-story ride in an elevator.

The longer trek includes a look at all of the chambers open to the public -- the Main Corridor, the Scenic Rooms and the Big Room. But the route is strenuous and not recommended for people who have difficulties walking or who have breathing or heart ailments.

The Main Corridor, though ornamentally ordinary, is notable for its sheer size. More than a quarter-mile long with ceiling heights soaring more than 200 feet, it leads 800 feet into the Earth. At the end of the passage lies Iceberg Rock, an enormous boulder that fell from the ceiling thousands of years ago; its weight is estimated at 200,000 tons.

The smaller Scenic Rooms begin with the Green Lake Room and its fantasyland of delicate stalactites, marblelike flowstone, and 8-foot-deep Green Lake. The Kings Palace, the Queens Chamber and the Papoose Room are next in line.

After an uphill trek, the long tour joins with the shorter one, and a lunch room has been set up on the edge of the Big Room.

Touring the enormous buried chamber that is the Big Room takes 1 to 11/2 hours. Most of the route is fairly level and accessible to wheelchairs. Electronic radio receivers, activated as you approach a "station," fill you in on the particulars of what you're seeing.

One of the largest underground chambers in the world, and roughly cross-shaped, the Big Room measures 1,800 feet long, 1,100 feet wide and 225 feet at its highest point.

A lighted path guides visitors around the perimeter and offers views of thousands of grottoes, hollows and crannies. Elegant formations include the 62-foot-high Giant Dome, Carlsbad's biggest stalagmite, and the 42-foot-high Twin Domes in the Hall of Giants, as well as numerous other intricate stalagmites, stalactites, columns, draperies and flowstone.

Park rangers answer questions and periodically lecture about the huge cave at the seating area located near the Top of the Cross.

Embellishment of the Capitan Reef caverns began more than half a million years ago, after most of the cave had been hollowed out. Infinitesimal trickles of mineral-laden water, drip by tedious drip, sculpted complicated shapes. Each configuration was built by minuscule amounts of water seeping down through limestone bedrock.

Where water dripped slowly from the ceiling, fragile "soda straws" and long stalactites appeared. When drops fell onto the floor, stalagmites were created. Rock fingers of minerals still seem to ooze from the cave ceiling, as others reach up from the floor. Stalactites join stalagmites to form columns, and many are named for surface landmarks.

Stone draperies are hung in places where moisture ran down slanted ceilings. Layers of calcite called flowstone look like frozen streams flowing over broad surfaces.

Many visitors to Carlsbad Caverns time their tours to emerge from the underworld wonderland in late afternoon in order to watch the thousands of bats stream out of the cave's mouth. These mammals have been flying out of here to feed on insects for centuries.

The cave is now home to about 300,000 Mexican free-tail bats, but a hundred years ago they numbered in the millions. During the day they hang tightly together from the ceiling of Bat Cave, a passageway near the natural entrance not accessible to the public. At nightfall, varying with time of sunset, the bats leave the cave in great curling swarms.

The spectacular night flight begins with a few bats fluttering out of the black hole in the hillside. Then, in a matter of minutes, a dense whirlwind of bats flows up into the darkening sky. The exodus can last 20 minutes or as long as 21 hours. Once out of the cave, the undulating mass of bats serpentines toward the southeast to feed in the Pecos and Black river valleys. There they gorge on moths and other night-flying insects.

They fly back to the cave at dawn, where they re-enter the cave in a manner almost as remarkable as their departure. Each animal positions itself high above the entrance, folds its wings close to its body, and plummets like a hailstone into the black cave, making a strange buzzing sound as it does so. Mary L. Sherk is a freelance writer who lives in Broomfield, Colo. If you go

Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center has a variety of information on all features of the park. Books, brochures, topographic maps, exhibits and a park activity schedule are available.

Babysitting and a pet kennel are available. All services are available year-round except Dec. 25. For information, call (505) 785-2232; or write Superintendent, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM 88220.

OTHER THINGS TO DO: The 91/2-mile Walnut Canyon Desert Drive is a one-way gravel loop through dramatic desert mountain scenery. Passenger cars travel the road easily, but the narrow, twisting route is not recommended for trailers or motor homes.

The park's trail system includes a short nature trail and, for experienced hikers, more than 50 miles of primitive back-country trails. Trailheads are located along park access roads. Hikers should be aware there are snakes along the trails.

If you don't have the time to hike the nearly thousand square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert, do spend a half day or more at Carlsbad's Living Desert State Park (PO Box 100, Carlsbad, NM 88220; phone (505) 887-5516).

CAMPING AND PICNICKING: There is no developed campground in the park, but the nearby towns of White's City and Carlsbad have several. These towns also offer lodging, restaurants, gasoline stations and other services.

CLIMATE: The park's climate is characterized by warm summers and mild winters. Intense thunderstorms occur in the summer.

Originally published October 19, 1997



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