Thursday, January 31, 2008

Carlsbad Caverns NP

We visited Carlsbad Caverns today, which I believe I have already noted is my favorite park. I didn’t take any pictures today because it is extremely difficult to get good pictures in such a dark environment. Flash is necessary, and so only the area about 8-10 feet in front of the camera is exposed properly—and not very naturally. The caverns are immense, almost beyond the limits of the imagination. It is like seeing the Grand Canyon—only 750 feet underground. Interestingly, I just noticed that my national parks book has a quote from Will Rogers who called it the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it.”

There are several different hikes one can take to see the caverns. We chose the audio-guided natural entrance tour. Some 250 million years ago, the region lay underneath the inland arm of an ancient sea. (Did I tell you that already?) Our audio guides informed us that this part of New Mexico and Western Texas were a beach not unlike the beaches of Florida or the Caribbean—a place one might honeymoon. Near the shore plants and animals built a limestone reef. By the time the sea withdrew, the reef stood hundreds of feet high, later to be buried under thousands of feet of soil. Some 15-20 million years ago, the ground uplifted. Naturally occurring sulfuric acid seeped into cracks in the limestone, gradually enlarging them to form a honeycomb of chambers. The fact that the caverns were formed by acid and not water is what makes these formations unique.

From March through October about a quarter million Mexican free-tailed bats summer in a section of the cave. Around sunset, they spiral up from the entrance to hunt for insects. It was this nightly exodous that led to the discovery of the cave in modern times. Around the turn of the 20th century, miners began to excavate bat guano—a potent fertilizer—for shipment to the citrus groves of southern California.

We entered through the natural mouth of the cave. Today there is good lighting and a well-maintained, albeit steep, walkway through the cave. Visitors of the early 1920’s entered by “bucket elevator,” as a pulley lowered them into the Bat Cave in a guano bucket. The Big Room is the largest single room most cave visitors will ever see, unless they go to Borneo where there is a cave with a larger undecorated chamber. The Big Room is 1,800 feet long at its longest point, and 1,100 feet at its widest. It encompasses 8.2 acres.

The cave formations are astonishingly beautiful. I wish I could have taken pictures for you to see. Everyone should make this a place to see at some point in life. It is in a remote area of the country, and the closest place to stay is in Carlsbad, which is 20 miles from the caverns. Still, it is so worth the visit. I visited the caves for the first time when I was three. At that time, all the tours were ranger-led. I returned when I was 18 and the cave was marked with a system of signs (always boring to read in my view). When I returned with Mike during the first year of our marriage, they had gone to the audio stick-type of guidance, which is far superior to either of the previous methods. We each had our own today, and it was money well spent.

We will leave Carlsbad tomorrow and head almost due south through Texas. We are planning to visit Big Bend National Park, and then head east to the Gulf Coast. We expect that trip (to the Gulf Coast) to be about a week to 10 days away from where we are now. We have enjoyed seeing this part of the world, but it has been quite cold and windy (although the cave is a constant 59 degrees). We have been surprised at how far south we have had to go to reach truly warm temperatures. That’s it for now. Take care.

McKittrick Canyon Hike

Before I tell you about the hike, I want to tell you a little about the park. The park is in the southernmost, highest part of the 50-mile-long Guadalupe range. The mountains were once a reef growing beneath the waters of an ancient inland see. (That same vanished sea spawned the honeycomb of the Carlsbad Caverns as well.)

People first visited the Guadalupes about 12,000 years ago, hunting the camels, mammoths, and other animals that flourished in the wetter climate of the waning Ice Age. When the Spaniards arrived in the Southwest in the mid-16th century, Mescalero Apache periodically camped near the springs at the base of the mountains and climbed to the highlands to hunt and forage. As American prospectors, settlers, and cavalry pushed west, the apache made the mountainous areas their bases and fought to ward off encroachers. By the late 1880’s however, virtually all the Indians had been killed or forced onto a reservation. (It always makes me sad to read these histories.)

Guadalupe Mountains is a “hike only” park, and there are no roads through the park. The only way to see it is on foot. We chose to visit McKittrick Canyon because its walls shelter the only year-round stream in the park, and it also offered us shelter from the wind. Additionally, it is known as the most beautiful spot in Texas. The water creates a 3-mile-long oasis of oak and Alligator juniper (known by its bark), Texas madrone, and maple. The canyon itself is nearly 5 miles long, but we chose to walk just the first 2.3 miles (one way, thus, 4.6 miles in and out) to the Pratt Cabin—a little cabin that was eventually donated to the US Forestry Service by Mr. Pratt, who lived there in the early 1900’s. It wasn’t anything particularly ornate, but the entire structure, including the roof, was made of limestone. Very interesting. It would have been cool in the summer, and even cooler in the winter!

McKittrick Canyon exposes millions of years of geological events. During the Permian period, about 250 million years ago, an inland sea covered parts of West Texas and southeast New Mexico. As the climate changed the ocean dried up and left the Capitan Reef high and dry. It is horseshoe shaped and 400 miles long. Most of it is still buried. Sediments and mineral salts buried both basin and reef over the next eons. Then the region began to rise, and erosion has slowly reexposed the seabed with part of the fossil reef—today’s Guadalupe range—towering above.

I have some pictures for you. Here is the link: