Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Carlsbad Caverns - Part II

On Thursday morning we headed towards Carlsbad Caverns for the first of two guided tours we had scheduled for the day.  The first tour at 9:00 am was of the Left Hand Tunnel.  We had originally planned to walk down what they call the “natural entrance” to the cave to meet the guide at the bottom, but that entrance didn’t open until 8:30, and the hike down takes at least 45 minutes, and that’s without stopping along the way.  We decided we’d walk down that way after our tours and then hike back out the same way.  So we went down via the “not so natural entrance”… the elevator. :-)  The cave was a cool 56 degrees with 90% humidity.  Huge contrast from the triple digit temperature outside.
Ready to begin our first tour at Carlsbad Caverns
We met up with the tour guide inside a huge open room called the rest area, complete with restrooms, a souvenir stand, and a snack counter with sandwiches and drinks.  As the guide was setting up for our tour, we noticed that there were only the four of us along with two others.  The guide said he had 13 booked for the tour but assumed that maybe the others hadn’t heard the caverns had reopened.  He then began to tell us that this was his first time to lead this specific tour and that he had only been in the Left Hand Tunnel one other time.  He had planned to walk through on the previous day to prepare but wasn’t able to because of the fires.  So he was just as excited about going into tunnel as we were.

When we started off, he gave us all a lantern with a candle since this part of the cave wouldn’t have any artificial lighting sources.  The girls thought that was one of the best parts… getting to carry a lantern.  As we went through the cave, he explained that the Left Hand Tunnel was, in his words, the “uninteresting” part of the cave.  If that was the case, we couldn’t wait to see the other parts.  It was amazing!  The best part of this tour for us was that as we got to the end of the formal part of the guided tour and started to turn around to go back, the guide asked us all if we were interested in going a bit further.  He said that with a larger group he wasn’t able to go any further, but since there was only six of us, and since he had only been further back on this trail one other time, he was dying to get back there as well.  So once again, we lucked out.
Photo opp that I just can't resist!
My kids just love me!

We followed him on back past the marked trail to an area called “Sherwood Forest.”  Way cool!  Stalactites and stalagmites everywhere.  Once again, pictures just don’t do it justice.  The ranger was just as tickled to get back there as we were, so that made it even more fun… along with the fact that we were getting to see something that under normal circumstances we wouldn’t have gotten to see.
Following the ranger off trail to Sherwood Forest
Stalactites in Sherwood Forest

These formations are called "draperies."
 Halfway back out of this part of the cave, the ranger sat us all down and had us blow out our candle so we could experience what they call a blackout.  It was complete and total darkness.  You literally could not see your hand waving in front of your face.  Nor could you see the face of the person beside you as you tried to wave your hand in front of their face – believe me, Scott tried and ended up smacking me in the face.  I think that might have been on purpose!  The ranger then re-lit our candles, and we finished our first tour. 

We had packed a picnic to have during the 45 minutes between tours, but since we were already down in the cave and since we didn’t know what the line for the elevators looked like to get back down to the bottom, we grabbed a quick lunch inside the cave.  The girls loved that part too… eating inside a cave.  And I was hoping that the bats were still full and tired from their midnight eating excursion to smell our sandwiches!
Eating lunch down in the cave.
Then we were off for our second tour… King’s Palace.  Let me just tell you, I’m glad we took the first tour first.  Until now we couldn’t understand why our first guide called the Left Hand Tunnel the uninteresting part of the cave.  Now we knew.  It’s kind of like when you see the Grand Canyon for the first time.  You’ve seen pictures, but it’s nothing like seeing it in person.  And once again, pictures do not do it justice.  We have been in other caves before in the eastern part of the country, but no other cave we have ever seen compared to this.  There was a huge, gigantic, enormous room full of all different kinds of formations.  Did I mention that the room was big?  There was artificial lighting in this part of the cave, and for some reason my camera didn't like it too much, so most of the pictures are too dark to post.

Even though the overall sites were more impressive in King’s Palace than the Left Hand Tunnel, both of the girls liked Left Hand Tunnel best – there was just something about getting to hold that lantern that made you feel more like you were exploring a cave… along with the fact that there wasn’t a specific paved path to follow.

We then decided to head back to the top via the elevator and start at the top to hike down the natural entrance.  We originally had wanted the full experience, so our first plan was to hike in and hike back out.  About one-third of the way down, even Ashlee realized that hiking back out (or should I say hiking back UP) wasn’t really going to be an option.  We descended down a very steep incline into the cave on a winding paved path.  The ranger at the entrance told us that it was steep and that we would feel it in our knees and back.  I thought to myself, “No problem!”  HA!  She was right!  My knee cried until we hit the flat part.

Once we got to the bottom, we entered into what they call “The Big Room.”  It too was incredible.  The Big Room was large enough to fit six full size football fields inside.  And the formations were huge as well.  This room had a 1.2 mile paved trail that wove around and through the room passing by different formations.  It was a self-guided trail, so we just took our time and enjoyed walking through.  Here are some pictures from The Big Room. 

This was in an area named "The Hall of Giants."
They called these "Lion Tails."
The "Crystal Spring Dome"
Standing in front of huge "draperies"

As we were leaving, the Carlsbad Caverns' mascot was walking around.  I told the girls, "You know what has to happen, don't you?"  They just grinned at me and walked on over to "Carl E. Bat."  Although they would probably never admit it, I think they secretly loved having their picture made with Carl E.!  Carlsbad Caverns will definitely be one of the top highlights of our trip!

Ashlee & Emilee posing with Carl E. Bat

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