Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Inside Carlsbad Caverns
Inside Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains more than 80 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations. Caves are fragile environments that are affected by human activities and natural processes both underground and on the surface. Although caves are a delicate non-renewable resource, they are a continual source of exploration and discovery.

Why would anyone in their right mind want to go into a cave? Caves are sunless places, dark and foreboding, filthy, and dangerous. The relationship between people and caves is often a shaky one, marked with misconceptions and fear. In addition to the very real perils of cave exploring—pits and chasms, tight squeezes, incomprehensible maze-like passages, and the terrible darkness—caves were also said to house gargoyles, evil spirits, fire-breathing dragons, and other various and sundry spooks. It's no wonder that people are often reluctant to enter these mysterious realms.

In 1516, King Francois I of France was curious about a cave (Grotte de la Balme) into which a river flowed. After going in a little way, the king apparently thought better of the idea, and decided to exercise some sovereign privilege. Having options available to him that most modern cavers did not, Francois sent two prisoners from his dungeon to explore it for him. Upon their successful return, the king spared their lives.

Carlsbad Cavern is not without similar acts of bravery. The first recorded exploration of Carlsbad Cavern was orchestrated by Ben Sublette in 1883. Instead of going in himself, Ben lowered his 12-year-old son Rolth on a rope into the darkness below. Yet in the present day, little more than a century later, more than 500,000 people a year venture through areas of Carlsbad Cavern.

Certainly the paved trails, the elevators, and electric lights have something to do with the present day ease with which people enter Carlsbad Cavern. But perhaps another explanation why people visit caves is for the treasures they contain. Caves are places that can offer us silence, beauty, mystery, and peace—perhaps in stark contrast to the everyday world in which we live. In addition to seeing the sights of a cave, people today seek understanding of the cave environment—the cave life, the speleothems, the processes that formed the cave, and the impacts that could harm it.

Some visitors to Carlsbad Cavern are willing to explore beyond the safety of the paved trail and join a ranger-led wild cave tour. Still others seeking primitive recreation and solitude in increasingly congested surface wilderness areas are going underground for the outstanding wilderness properties of caves. Everyone will find in Carlsbad Cavern a fragile non-renewable resource that is nonetheless a renewable source of exploration and discovery.

Lechuguilla Cave

Lechuguilla Cave is the deepest limestone cave in the United States, containing formations and microbes found nowhere else in the world. The recent exploration and scientific discoveries in Lechuguilla Cave, and other caves in the park, hold immense potential for scientific research.

Lechuguilla Cave was known until 1986 as a small, fairly insignificant historic site in the park's backcountry. Small amounts of bat guano were mined from the entrance passages for a year under a mining claim filed in 1914. The historic cave contained a 90-foot entrance pit that led to 400 feet of dry dead-end passages.

The cave was visited infrequently after mining activities ceased. However, in the 1950s cavers heard wind roaring up from the rubble-choked floor of the cave. Although there was no obvious route, different people concluded that cave passages lay below the rubble. A group of Colorado cavers gained permission from the National Park Service and began digging in 1984. The breakthrough, into large walking passages, occurred on May 26, 1986.

What followed has become one of the world's most exciting cave explorations into one of the finest known caves on the planet. Since 1984, explorers have mapped 100+ miles of passages and had pushed the depth of the cave to 1,567 feet, ranking Lechuguilla as the fifth longest cave in the world (third longest in the United States) and the deepest limestone cave in the country. Cavers, drawn by virgin passage and never-before-seen beauty, come from around the world to explore and map the cave.

Lechuguilla Cave offered even more than just its extreme size. Cavers were greeted by large amounts of gypsum and lemon-yellow sulfur deposits. A fantastic array of rare speleothems, some of which had never been seen anywhere in the world, included 20-foot gypsum chandeliers, 20-foot gypsum hairs and beards, 15-foot soda straws, hydromagnesite balloons, cave pearls, subaqueous helictites, rusticles, u-loops, and j-loops. Lechuguilla Cave surpassed its nearby sister, Carlsbad Cavern, in size, depth, and variety of speleothems, though no room has been discovered yet in Lechuguilla Cave larger than Carlsbad's Big Room.

Scientific exploration has been exciting as well. For the first time a Guadalupe Mountains cave extends deep enough that scientists may study five separate geologic formations from the inside. The profusion of gypsum and sulfur lends support to speleogenesis by sulfuric acid dissolution. Rare, chemolithoautotrophic bacteria are believed to occur in the cave. These bacteria feed on the sulfur, iron, and manganese minerals and may assist in enlarging the cave and determining the shapes of some unusual speleothems. Other studies indicate that some microbes may have medicinal qualities that are beneficial to humans.

Lechuguilla Cave lies beneath a park wilderness area. However, it appears that the cave's passages may extend out of the park into adjacent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. A major threat to the cave is proposed gas and oil drilling on BLM land. Any leakage of gas or fluids into the cave's passages could kill cave life or cause explosions.

Access to the cave is limited to approved scientific researchers, survey and exploration teams, and NPS management-related trips.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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