Go underground in the Chihuahuan Desert
One of the world’s most complex and astounding—and easily accessible—cave systems winds beneath the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico. Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains more than 100 known caves, the otherworldly acid-eaten remnants of a Permian fossil reef.
Above ground, this corner of the state has the stark, unforgiving beauty of the northern Chihuahuan Desert. Beneath the surface, though, is another universe entirely. Take the steep path down 750 feet through the natural entrance to reach the Big Room, one of the largest underground chambers on the planet, large enough to hold six football fields with room to spare. (You can also reach the Big Room by lift, a ride that evokes a journey-to-the-centre-of-the-earth sensation.) From here, a mile-long trail winds past speleothems—that’s ‘cave formations’ to the uninitiated—resembling straws, curtains, totem poles, lily pads or simply stone that flow like water or draped like silk. Many have colourful, descriptive names, from the Rock of Ages to the Painted Grotto. Subdued lighting adds to the unearthly effect.
If you’re in the mood for something a little more adventurous, take a ranger-guided tour of some of the other ‘wild’ caves in the park. The Left Hand Tunnel tour is the easiest, with mostly flat walking, while trips to grottos such as Spider Cave are the most strenuous and involve stooping, climbing, wading across pools and even crawling on your stomach through tight passages. Access to Lechuguilla Cave is limited to researchers and exploration teams, who have descended 1,604 feet into it and mapped more than 114 miles of passages, establishing it as the fifth-longest cave in the world and the deepest limestone cave in the U.S.
Another Carlsbad treat happens nightly from spring to fall: the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats from the natural mouth of the cave. They leave in a whirring dark cloud, silhouetted against the setting sun, off for a frenzied night of insect hunting. If you suffer from chiroptophobia (a fear of bats), this is not for you, but visitors who aren’t afraid of bats will want to come for the pre-launch ranger talk, where you’ll learn that the animals are hardly threatening and very beneficial to the ecosystem. Bat fans old and new can even adopt a bat at the Visitor Centre to raise money for their study and conservation.
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.