Posts Tagged ‘Caves’

Gobble Gobble

Mammoth Cave’s Thanksgiving connection is probably lost on anyone except the usa-c2c.com team. Here’s a hint: look at the accompanying picture. Yes indeedy, Mammoth Cave is where we saw the trip’s first wild turkey. What a turkey it was! His red gullet was swinging, his large breast was fully puffed, his feathers were furled, and his strut was a sight to behold. Where are the fine lady turkeys? Surely somewhere close.

We however were still in our car and moving towards one of the world’s grandest cave systems. But the turkey wouldn’t be our only above ground experience in this underground wonderland. No siree. We were camping for the first time ever in the United States. Yes, the first time. At the campground check-in, the Park Ranger suggested a nice spot so we followed her advice and took Space #76.

All night we were serenaded by gobbling turkeys, chirping crickets, and other less identifiable but surely benign things. That is until the rains started. Rain. Nice to sleep in when it’s outside your apartment window, not so nice to sleep in when you’re in a tent and the water is seeping in. We were having shelter issues in a cave-based National Park. It’s funny in retrospect.

Click Here to Read More about the Park indoor activities.


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near Carlsbad, N.Mex.
Visited: March 5, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 165 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Rock of AgesWHAT IS IT?
Your idealized image of a subterranean wonderland. Carlsbad Caverns is the cave by which all others are judged. You may know it as the place where the classic science fiction film, Journey to the Center of the Earth was filmed.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Overwhelming and dramatic. The Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance is a giant imposing gaping hole that descends straight down into blackness. FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed all of the Caves pathways, including one that dives 200 feet down from the Natural Entrance to the Bat Cave and winds back and forth over dozens of switchbacks.

The CCC boys also built an amphitheater at the Natural Entrance where, from spring to October, tourists enjoy the evening flight of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats leaving their daytime home to hunt insects.

The hike down from the Natural Entrance enhances the amazing Carlsbad Caverns experience. Unlike other caves, the descent is on foot rather than in an elevator. You are able to gather a sense of your depth. The cave even seems more real; you have not been transported to another place via machine, you have walked there yourself, 829 feet below surface elevation.

The breathtaking formations, stalactites, stalagmites, popcorn, flowstone, soda straws and draperies appear in astounding abundance. In other caves, Rangers shine flashlights around corners to point out rare shapes. At Carlsbad, these same rare formations are everywhere. Every step down through the Main Corridor is stunning and unbelievable but still does not prepare you for the grandeur of the Caverns famous Big Room.

The Big Room goes on forever in all directions. There is no claustrophobia at Carlsbad Caverns. The vistas are horizontal as well as vertical. The Big Room is 8.2 acres, well lit with a winding paved passageway. It takes at least an hour and a half to walk through its supernatural features.

Explorers have named notable formations the Caveman, the Temple of the Sun and the Rock of Ages. Countless more are left unnamed and free to your own imaginative skills. Every turn at Carlsbad is unimaginable and incredible.

Natural EntranceHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10)
An area resident, Jim White, then a teenager, discovered Carlsbad Caverns at the turn of century. Even though White led small groups of tourists through the Cave, it did not become an attraction until pictures were published in 1915. Isolation and skepticism protected it from the throngs until National Geographic ran a 1923 story announcing it as a new Wonder of the World, akin to Yellowstone and Yosemite. Congress declared it a National Park in 1930 and its discoverer, Jim White, became its first chief Park Ranger.

CROWDS (8/10)
Elementary school aged girls, their parents, retired RVers, Harley riders, skate boarding teens, Japanese tour buses and spring breaking college students all felt the same astonishment and the same giddiness. Everyone is here and excited. It is a great atmosphere.

Despite the immensity of the Cave, things could get crowded in the summer. Even though we arrived 10 minutes after the Park opened, tours of the King’s Palace were already sold out. We got the last spot on the Left Hand Tunnel tour. If you want to take a guided tour, make your reservations ahead of time. Do not be disappointed.

Carlsbad Caverns NP is located in southeastern New Mexico, not near any population centers. In fact, it is 18 miles from the small town of Carlsbad, N.Mex. The closest city is El Paso, 150 miles to the west. The Caverns are a destination location.

Nonetheless, the paths around the Big Room are paved and wheelchair accessible, an amazing feat for a subterranean wonderland. If you do not want to walk down the strenuous Natural Entrance, an elevator will drop you off at the underground lunchroom and picnic area located near the Big Room passageway.

You have to love a place that has shelves dedicated to all things bat. Stuffed bats, bat identification books, bat T-shirts, bat-crossing signs and more.

There are two stores in the small Visitor Center area, one handles books (great selection) and the other sells an incredible array of mementos.

A third concessionaire is in the Cave itself and sells T-shirts, hats and lunchtime snacks. You can send postcards from here marked with a stamp reading sent from 755 feet underground.

Carlsbad InteriorCOSTS (2/5)
The Entrance Fee is $6, age 16 and over, and $3 for ages 6 to 15. This charge is to get into the Cave, itself, and is good for the self-guided passages down the Natural Entrance and around the Big Room. This fee is waved if you have a National Parks Pass.

Ranger-led tours of the Caverns take you to areas not covered by the self-guided tours and cost an additional fee. The King’s Palace Tour cost $8 per person. Five other, wilder Cave tours range from $7 to $20 per person and require reservations. Check for the tour schedule before you come.

Two rangers led our lantern tour which was limited to 15 people. We saw several Rangers wandering the cavernous Visitor Center before and after their tours. AND we saw no fewer than five Rangers in the caves posted strategically along the self-guided route to assist with any and all questions about the Caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns offers several guided tours daily. They range from a Ranger-led stroll through Kings Palace to a lantern-lit exploration of Left Hand Tunnel to a series of wild cave tours that will dirty your knees and test your tendency towards claustrophobia. There is something for everyone; however, most tours limit the number of participants. The arrival of a tour bus could significantly reduce your options.

Reservations are highly recommended, especially in the summer.

We chose to see Left Hand Tunnel the old fashioned way – by candlelight. We paid $7 for a two hour tour of a lesser known portion of the park.

FUN (10/10)
“Whoa! Over there!”
“Hey! Look at that!”
“Oh my gosh, check it out!”
“Wow! Wow! Wow!”

This isn’t a transcription of a couple of 5 year olds running through the Caverns; these are the phrases that Gab kept saying over and over again as we descended down the Natural Entrance and through the Main Corridor. And that’s before we even saw the Big Room.

Every corner held a giant formation, a new and strange shape or colonies of delicate crystals. Our oohs and ahhs did not cease the entire morning. They combined and joined with everyone else’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed, smiling stares as we slowly glided along, entranced by the wonders of water and rocks.

Another Spooky InteriorWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
This is the cave by which all others are compared. Every cave tour that we have taken has mentioned the Caverns, either as a point of comparison or a disclaimer; “If you were expecting rooms like Carlsbad’s (formations like Carlsbad’s, bats like Carlsbad’s…) you might be a little disappointed; things are a little different here…” And then the Ranger will go on to discuss the special features and superlatives (longest, largest, oldest, etc.) that relates to the cave being toured.

Carlsbad and Mammoth Cave NP in Kentucky are the only American caves to be named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Tellingly, the NPS brochure that highlights the World Heritage Sites mistakenly labels a shot of Carlsbad’s entrance as Mammoth Cave thus removing any photographic representation of the Kentucky Park from the pamphlet. Even the proofreader sees Carlsbad as the one and only cave.

Carlsbad Caverns NP boasts the nation’s deepest limestone cave, the fourth longest cave and one of the world’s largest underground chambers.

Carlsbad Caverns is the granddaddy of all caves and a must-see American attraction. A road trip through New Mexico is incomplete without a stop here.

TOTAL 63/80

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in south-central Kentucky
Visited: May 11, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 42 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Frozen Niagara at Mammoth Cave
To date, 365 miles of mapped passageways, the largest cave system in the World.

BEAUTY (9/10)
Every room and every passageway has a unique and striking beauty ranging from overwhelming awe to subtle grace and including everything in between. Each turn brings a different world more incredible than the last. Both tours we took followed a natural dramatic plot that built towards a breathtaking climax. They were epic movies that revealed unknown worlds. Their beauty was so unbelievable that we frequently had to remind ourselves that we were not on a movie set or on a ride at a theme park. We were underground. Incredible.

Native Americans explored the caves for gypsum, which they used to make paint and perhaps had other medicinal or ceremonial uses. Parts of Mammoth Cave were converted into saltpeter mines between 1810 and 1814. Mammoth Cave was one of many caves that supplied the United States with most of their raw material for gunpowder during the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson’s embargo had made gunpowder importation from India and China impossible.

Mammoth Cave is one of America’s oldest tourist attractions. Stephen Bishop, a slave, became known as one of the best guides, exploring and naming most of the rooms and tunnels still visited today. Local businessmen would purchase land around Mammoth Cave and search for sinkholes which could signify new entrances to caves which they could convert to money-making attractions, drawing tourists from their original destination of Mammoth Cave. Today’s Cave City carries on this tradition.

CROWDS (7/10)
The National Park Service puts a limit on the number of people that can go on each guided tour. We went on two tours, the 2 ½ hour ‘Making of Mammoth Cave’ was full at 60 but the 4 ½ hour ‘Grand Avenue Tour’ was nearly empty with only 25 out of a possible 118 tourists. The size of the ‘Grand Avenue Tour’ was a joy but the ‘Making of…’ tour’s size did not detract from our visit. We had no trouble asking either of the two Rangers a question.

Be forewarned. A Park Ranger told us that come Memorial Day, most tours sell out. A summer visit to Mammoth Cave requires planning. Reservations can be made in advanced for all Cave tours. You do not want to travel the whole way to southern Kentucky just to find out that there is no way for you to go into the Cave.

Unfortunately, if you use a wheelchair or have any sort of difficulty walking, you will not have much opportunity to enter Mammoth Cave. There are tours of varying lengths and catered to various physical abilities, but none are accessible to individuals with physical disabilities. Ages ago, the National Park offered a “wheelchair tour” using the elevator to the underground cafeteria, but due to liability concerns, those tours ceased.

The Park is not required to offer accessible tours of the caves since the Visitor Center and one of the walking tours is.

For the first time in the Ratings, we are also reporting on the ease of use of campgrounds located in a national park. We tent camped in the most central campground, located just ¼ mile from the Visitor Center and Mammoth Cave Hotel. There was ample space at the grounds which hosts both tents and RVs. We were allowed to take a look around and choose which site we wanted for our two nights. We ended up going to the site the Ranger recommended. The campgrounds are clean and bathrooms with potable water are within short walks of all sites. The whir of RV generators was the only annoyance. We should probably get used to it.

The bookstore is great. It takes up about a quarter of the Visitor Center and is filled with books on the history and geography of Mammoth Cave, spelunking and orienteering, the War of 1812 and the mining of saltpeter.

COSTS (1/5)
You can only go into Mammoth Cave on one of 10 different guided tours. Each guided costs a different amount, ranging from $10 to $45 dollars a person. Seeing the Cave could get pricey.

There seemed to be Rangers everywhere. They do a terrific job of making themselves accessible. We were amazed.

The tours we went on left with two Rangers. The ratio of two Rangers to 60 visitors on our tour seemed overwhelming but proved otherwise. The Rangers are skilled guides and found a way to answer everyone’s questions mainly during the long walks from place to place.

We saw the maximum 14-visitor, 6 ½ hour long ‘Wild Cave Tour’ leave with three Rangers. The ‘Wild Cave Tour’ costs $45 a person and is a get on your hands and knees pull yourself through small passages full-on spelunking tour. Next time.

We did not go on the any of the Tours that max out at 120 visitors. We believe that they also leave with two Rangers but we are not sure.

Skip the two 10-minute introductory videos on the Park and get in line to buy tickets for the Cave Tours. Everything covered in the videos will be covered in the tours.

The tours’ emphasis can be split into two categories: 1) Geology and 2) the Cave’s Cultural and Commercial History. While it is best to take one of each, the Guides will touch on both sectors. Information repetition between tours is more than likely.

Two different areas of the cave are also covered in the tours: 1) the area near the Historic Entrance and 2) the area near the Frozen Niagara entrance. Tours do overlap areas but most will show you at least one thing another tour does not cover.

We chose the ‘Making of Mammoth Cave’, a geological tour showcasing the Historic Entrance area and the ‘Grand Avenue Tour’, an historical tour that took you to all points from the Carmichael Entrance to the Frozen Niagara Entrance. We do not regret our choices. Next time we will go on the Violet City Lantern Tour, an historical journey done with only lanterns. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Weather isn’t a factor for the Cave Tours. Temperature inside the caves remain a cool 54 degrees year round.

The River StyxFUN (9/10)
We had a wonderful time. It felt fantastic to finally camp and cook outdoors, even in the rainstorm that swept over Kentucky our last day and night. The Tours were expensive but worth every penny.

Absolutely. Our tour groups were all ages. Everyone seemed to really enjoy the tours. Rangers pepper their talks with anecdotes and bad jokes. They do a good job at keeping the group together and entertained. Camping made the trip more affordable and enjoyable for us.

If your image of cave interiors is filled with stalactites and stalagmites stretching from the floors and ceilings, you might be disappointed. Cave sculptures are present in parts of Mammoth Cave viewed by the Frozen Niagara Tour and final few minutes of the Grand Avenue Tour, but are absent in most of the Cave. What Mammoth Cave does offer is a striking range of passageways, some cavernous, some a little snug for larger folks. The ranger-led tours are filled with historical and geographical facts but by no means dry. We weren’t joking about the doing the Wild Cave Tour next time. We are definitely coming back.

TOTAL 60/80

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