Monday, September 30, 2013

Carlsbad Caverns

     Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Guadalupe Mountains, which stretch across the southeastern corner of New Mexico into Texas.  As you travel past canyons and cactus, it’s hard to imagine what might be lying underneath.  

     There are 118 limestone caves, twisting and turning for miles underneath the desert floor.

     There are several tours to choose from, ranging from easy to difficult.  We chose to take the moderate Natural Entrance Tour, which follows the traditional explorer’s route:

     The trail starts with a sharp series of switchbacks carved into the monstrous opening of the cave.  This is one of those sights that pictures cannot do justice.  

     Here is the view from the inside the cave, looking out:

     I tried to capture the remaining circle of natural light from the path below.

     If you’re interested in taking photos inside a cave, let me share the few things that I have learned:  Turn your ISO all the way up and your f/stop all the way down (to its largest).  Put your camera on continuous-shooting mode.  Focus on the most crucial, stand-out component of your composition and hold the shutter down for at least 2-3 exposures.  Since the NPS doesn’t allow tripods (and I don’t blame them) inside the caves, you’ll be shooting everything handheld.  I’ve found with continuous shooting that I’ll get at least one steady photo out of the bunch.

    The Natural EntranceTour is self-guided, which means you have as much time as you need to weave down the smooth path created by the park system.

     It wasn’t long into our journey when we came across some beautiful columns reflected in a stagnant pool of water.

     Here is a close look at the intricate formations that create Carlsbad Caverns, the skin of a column and some crystalline boxwork:

     The Natural Entrance Tour weaves down, down, down... for 750 feet.  It’s about a mile and a half long, though it can feel longer with the constant downward slant.  Your knees will get tired after a while as one switchback after another takes you past towering formations that stretch into utter blackness.

     If you’re claustrophobic, you needn’t worry about visiting these caverns.  This tour in particular contains more open spaces than are fathomable.  You’re below the ground but the ceiling is so far above you that it’s like a second sky.  As you walk along you’ll admire many of the famous cave formations: stalactites, stalagmites, columns, (which is when the first two have grown into each other) spires, and straws.

     Some of my favorite shapes are the curtains of soda straws clinging to the cave ceiling.

     Once you’ve reached the end of the Natural Entrance Tour, you’ll be 1/4 of a mile under the ground.  But don’t worry, you don’t have to walk all the way up to get back out.  There are elevators that take you right back into the Visitor Center.  

     If you’re not ready to leave the caverns, this is where you can veer off into the Big Room, the most expansive chamber in the caverns, which weaves around for another mile or so.

     There is even an eerie, greenish-blue cave pool.

     Carlsbad Caverns began forming around 5 million years ago.  Much of these caves are in pristine condition.  You are not on planet earth anymore, you’re inside of it.  It’s a completely different world, beautiful and mysterious.

     Here is a massive stalagmite which was at least 60 feet tall, water dripping down onto it constantly.  You can see this one forming before your very eyes, one tiny drop at a time.  

     Carlsbad Caverns is a complete time warp.  The 3 mile tour had taken us nearly 5 hours to complete, but it felt like a matter of minutes.  

     The only negative thing I could possibly say about Carlsbad Caverns is that it has the potential to make any other cave you might see after it seem small and unimpressive.  I've been to Wind, Jewel, and Mammoth, the other caves made famous by our National Park System.  And I'm very glad that I experienced them before Carlsbad.  I hate to pick favorites between the diverse and natural beauty of the caves, but you know what they say... save the best for last.

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