The Bucket List Things You Gotta Try

Bucket List: New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park

These voluminous chambers must be seen to be believed

Already at 500 feet below the surface, this cavern path takes you still deeper into the Earth. Photo by Travis Burke

New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park cave system is of the most magnificent and oldest in the world. It was created long ago as sulfuric acid ate away at the limestone of the Guadalupe Mountains and as rainwater deposited minerals on the caves’ floors and ceilings, slowly building rock formations such as stalactites and stalagmites.

The system is also enormous, with 117 known caves and a voluminous limestone chamber called the “Big Room,” which, at 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet high at its highest point, is the third-largest chamber in North America and the seventh-largest in the world. Over the years explorers have mapped 30 miles of passageways, yet the tangled network of underground tunnels has never been fully explored.

Whatever the true extent of the caves, they’re definitely worth a visit, and especially in the summer, when their year-round 56-degree temperatures are a perfect respite from the blazing sun.

The Painted Grotto is an eerie section of the cavern where stalactites and stalagmites stick out like needles, some merging together to form columns and exude a cage-like aura. Photo by Travis Burke

The Painted Grotto is an eerie section of the cavern where stalactites and stalagmites stick out like needles, some merging together to form columns that exude a cage-like aura. Photo by Travis Burke

The photographer, Travis Burke, pictured, was constantly in awe at vast and various rock formations displayed in the cave. Photo by Travis Burke

The photographer, Travis Burke, pictured, was constantly in awe of the vast and various rock formations displayed in the cave. Photo by Travis Burke

The elevator out of the cave becomes very popular in the evening, when people must begin exiting, and the wait is sometimes longer than an hour. If you hike out, however, you may stumble across this beautiful beam of light that can only been seen in the late afternoon and which most visitors miss by taking the elevator up. But be warned: hiking out is extremely strenuous and is only recommended for people in good shape. Photo by Travis Burke

The elevator out of the cave becomes very popular in the evening, when people must begin exiting, and the wait is sometimes longer than an hour. If you hike out, however, you may stumble across this beautiful beam of light that can only been seen in the late afternoon and which most visitors miss by taking the elevator up. But be warned: hiking out is extremely strenuous and is only recommended for people in good shape. Photo by Travis Burke

Here the “Hall of Giants” rises about 60 feet above the trail surface. Photo by Travis Burke

Here the “Hall of Giants” rises about 60 feet above the trail surface. Photo by Travis Burke

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The natural entrance to the cave system. On average, the site gets 300,000 visitors per year. Photo by Travis Burke

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If you are in good physical condition and up for the challenge, take the natural cave entrance, which descends more than 750 feet down into system of caves. The other option is taking the elevator down. Photo by Travis Burke

The “Big Room” is one of the largest single underground chambers in the world. Here, the giant stalactites that hang from the ceiling are called the “Chandelier Formation,” while stalagmites reach up from the floor. It is hard to capture the sheer size and beauty of this place with a camera, and it is a must-see in person. Photo by Travis Burke

The “Big Room” is one of the largest single underground chambers in the world. Here, the giant stalactites that hang from the ceiling are called the “Chandelier Formation,” while stalagmites reach up from the floor. It is hard to capture the sheer size and beauty of this place with a camera, making it is a must-see in person. Photo by Travis Burke

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People getting ready to watch the bats exit the cave; photo by Travis Burke