CARLSBAD CAVERNS: Cave of Wonders for all Ages
Remember that Cave of Wonders from Aladdin? Well, I think Disney was a bit pretentious with that name grab. To me, any of the caves I’ve been in would qualify as a Cave of Wonders. By their very nature, caves are otherworldly, awe-inspiring and wondrous places. And it’s not quite like the sometimes veiled beauty of the desert or the pristine tranquility of an old-growth forest. Caves are fascinating places that instantly draw in people young and old like a magnet.
Our experience in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park showed us that this is a perfect park with perfect opportunities for kids of all ages… especially the Switchback Kids! Here’s why…
1. Variety of cave tours.
A. Self-guided: Carlsbad Caverns is one of the few (if not the only) developed caves in the National Park Service that allows you to walk though at your own pace and see however much you want. There are two sections of cave that you can walk on your own: Natural Entrance tour (1 mile and Big Room tour (1 mile). It is so cool they offer this option.
You feel more like an explorer as you stroll on your own on the paved pathway through the Big Room (the biggest cave chamber in the Western Hemisphere at an area equivalent to 14 football fields. You can take your time getting the perfect pictures of those lighted, massive cave formations all around you. You can walk as long as your little kids legs (or their attention spans) allow and then even grab a bite to eat at the underground rest area. Best of all, it’s free (with $20 park entrance fee or a park pass), it fits your timetable and it doesn’t get sold out!
B. Traditional Tour: If you feel like getting a glimpse of rooms off the main path with more incredible formations and some interpretive guidance, consider one of several traditional tour options. Usually there are 4 options to different areas. However, the elevator into the caverns is currently broken and they have cut back tours to only offer the daily King’s Palace Tour.
We happily paid the $8 each for this tour and really enjoyed seeing the other rooms of the cave and learning from the ranger. The capacity is 55 people, but on a weekday in the slow winter season we had only 16. The route was paved, easily walkable and full of different formations. It was also a great way for kids (and us) to ask an expert all those curious questions they’re so good at coming up with.
C. Adventure Tours: To leave the pavement and crowds behind to get a taste of real wild cave take off on one of the 3 adventure tours. While the tour options are restricted, there is only one adventure tour offered per week. So the only choice during our 3-day stay was the 1-mile, 4-hour Hall of the White Giant Tour. It combined crawling through tunnels, squeezing through slots, spider-maneuvering over boulders, and climbing/descending ropes through steep rock slides. We ended at a beautiful room full of pure white formations, including the still-growing White Giant stalagmite. I loved the group size at just 8 people and the 2 ranger guides were both informative and fun. Elizabeth opted to sit this one out since she had gotten her fill from the Mammoth Cave Wild Tour and decided caving is not her calling.
It wasn’t as strenuous or long as our Wild Cave Tour at Mammoth Cave NP, and the age limit for this tour was only 12. The ranger said most kids have the best times and can run laps around adults in those cramped quarters. I definitely recommend some type of adventure tour to experience the wild cave environment of Carlsbad Caverns. This one has my vote.
2. Inspiration of the Unexplored.
It’s so cool to think that there are still many places in this world people have never been. And most of those are underground. Our ranger guides all said their favorite part of their job was exploring places within caves that no one else has been before. Cavers are still adding miles to the known passageways of the main Carlsbad Caverns every year. And even more is undiscovered in the surrounding caves in the park.
They also told us they never expected to spend their lives in a cave, but shortly after their first experiences they were but by the cave bug. I don’t know that I see a caving career in my future, but I have absolutely loved getting off the path and exploring on our two wild cave tours. However, when I get back to St. Louis (in the middle of cave country) I am seriously considering contacting the National Speleogical Society to get in touch with a local Grotto group of cavers. What an awesome hobby! And who knows, maybe when we bring our future kids to kids into a cave they’ll be bitten by the bug and see a whole new, underground world of opportunities.
3. Bat Flight.
From April to October, every night millions of bats stream all at once in a massive cloud from the huge opening of Carlsbad Caverns. Using their echolocation, the bats dart around each other and swirl upwards like swarming bees on crack. They fly out to feed throughout the surrounding desert as they eat up to half their weight in insects each night. Since the giant colony of Mexican Free-Tailed bats that makes Carlsbad their home in the summer migrates south for the winter, we were very disappointed to miss the show. And you can tell what a show it is because surrounding the entrance they have a huge arc of concrete amphitheater seats to accommodate the hundreds of nightly spectators. I imagine the giant parking lot looks a lot less excessive then.
We were really disappointed we missed the bats on this visit. But we have already promised that when we bring our future kids back to Carlsbad someday, we will make sure to catch the show. I can’t wait to see the wide-eyed look on their faces and hear their little shouts of surprise!