Friday, March 16, 2012

Spring Break 2012 Part 2: Carlsbad Caverns

Continuing on with our event filled 3-day Spring Break and getting to the main trip....Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  I know...it's not the most attractive family photo, but it's still a family photo. 


Carlsbad Caverns was the main destination for the trip.  It was most definitely worth it.  We spent almost the entire day underground from 10am to 5pm.
Last year there was a forest fire near the Caverns that actually closed the visitor center for a bit. 
We could see the charred landscape as we drove into the park and even saw charred plants near the visitor center.


Ranger (the dog, not a park ranger) was with us.  They have a kennel at the visitor center for dogs.  You will get ticketed and fined if you leave your dog in a vehicle when the temperature is over 70F.  It got up around 80F outside while we were there and Ranger spent his day in a wire cage.  If you have a dog that you're going to put in the kennel...bring them a blanket or bed to lay on so that they aren't bothered by the wire cages.  The kennel supplies water, but you supply everything else.  It was only $6 to board Ranger for the day.
We purchased our entrance passes for the self-guided tours at the visitor center.  It's really reasonable, $6 for adults and kids under 15 were free.  The tickets are good for three days.  All ranger guided tours were sold out when we got to the caverns.  Luckily, I had purchased tickets for the Kings Palace Tour online at Recreation.gov before we left.  That's the only guided tour we could do with a 4-year-old.  If you want to do a guided tour at the caverns I would highly suggest purchasing them ahead of time and reading the guidelines for the tours (as far as what age you have to be and what is involved for fitness levels).


You can take an elevator down into the cave, but we chose to walk down the Natural Entrance.  If you're up for going downhill, this is the way to go!  It was awesome!  I'll use that word a lot...awesome...because I can't think of any other awesome words at the moment to describe the awesomeness of the caverns. 

You start by switch backing down into the caverns and dropping a lot in altitude.  The temperature of the cave is around 56F.  It's comfortable.  We all wore light jackets or fleeces with comfortable walking or hiking shoes.

Then you enter the darkness.  Well, not really dark.  The whole way is lit with lights.  I cannot imagine the work that was done to put up the lights in the caverns, the hand rails, and the paved trails.  It's truly immense.  You can bring flashlights and we did so that we could shine lights on areas that weren't lit. 


The recommended time for the Natural Entrance route is 1.5 hours.  You could do it quicker, but that means you wouldn't really stop to look at anything or read the signs.  And it is worth it to stop and admire the amazing cave features. 



There are stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, columns, and so many more cave features.  We even saw one bat flying in the Natural Entrance.  Most of the bats don't return until late April and you can even watch the bats exit the cave at dusk. 



I wish I could have taken pictures of everything.  This tour really challenged my camera abilities.  I had the camera on manual, but kept having to change my settings constantly to deal with the changing light.  I finally settled on auto when we got to the Big Room.  I did try quite a few photos without the flash. 

The Whale's Mouth (with flash)

The old route from the Natural Entrance use to take you down flights of wooden steps.  No more.  You get a nice paved route.  It was easy for us and the kids, but there are no exits...so if you do have health problems, the elevator is the route to take.  It's close to 800ft below the Visitor Center to get to the Big Room.  There are no strollers allowed, so if you have little ones you may want to bring a pack to put them in.

Old Stairs
I tried my best to weed through the many photos and pick out less than 40 to show.  Yikes. 



Yes, I highly recommend going down the Natural Entrance if you can.  You can even go back up it (it can be a little steep) if you leave in time.  We would have gone back up it, but alas....our tour ended after the time you had to exit.  More on that later.


Once you get done with the Natural Entrance route you come to the Big Room and where they have the elevators, bathrooms, and a gift shop with some food.  There use to be a restaurant down there in the caverns, but they took it out when they found out it was damaging the cave. 
This is the only place that you can eat and drink.  You can have water on the cave trails, but you're not allowed to eat or even chew gum.  We bought some very expensive food to share to keep up our energy.  I do think you can bring food with you and eat it there, but we didn't know that at the time. 

After our snack we headed out on the self-guided Big Room tour.  It's huge. 



Amazing.  Awesome. 



Yes, you have to do this tour too.  It's not as physically challenging as the Natural Entrance.  It's pretty flat.  A few parts of this tour are even appropriate for wheelchairs, but not all of it. 



It's hard to believe that all this is underground.  It's beautiful.  To think that all this beauty is usually shrouded in darkness and that we get a chance to go down and see it under some dimly lit conditions!



The first known explorer (Jim White) into the cave made his own ladders.  Scary stuff.  That guy was brave.  We learned more about him on our ranger guided tour.  Would you like to explore a cave on that little ladder with just one lantern?



After the Big Room we took another short restroom and snack break before meeting at 1:45pm for our 2pm tour.

Our kids were the youngest ones on our tour and they did real well listening to the guide.  It helped that our guide was passionate about caves and geology and made the tour interesting to listen to.  We learned a lot about the cave and its history.  If you're up for listening to someone talk, the tour is totally worth it. 

You get to see parts of the cave that you don't get to see on the self-guided tours.  Such as the Kings Palace, which the tour is named after.  Notice anything different about the cave features on the picture below?  Also, notice anything different about the Kings Palace room in the second picture down?  (Hint...there are no features on the floor of the cave.)



We went through the Papoose Room.  Biker Boy was asked to be the one in charge of the end of the line.  So we had to make sure everyone stayed ahead of us.  We couldn't leave anyone behind! 




We then went into the Queen's Chambers.  At this point the guide asks everyone to turn off their lights and hide anything that glows.  He shut off the lights and we were immersed in the natural darkness of the cave.  It's seriously dark.  As Chewy would tell you, "You couldn't even see your hand in front of your face."  The guide told us a story about Jim White visiting a room in the cave.  He would set his heavy lantern down to visit features of the cave and once while doing that his lantern went out.  How scary would that be to not know where you were or where your lantern was?  Spoiler...he found it. 



We all thought the tour was worth it. 




They are currently renovating the passenger elevators, so we got to wait in a line for one hour and 15 minutes to get back to the surface.  They had 2 elevators running that would hold 8 people each and it took 1 minute to get to the top.  So yep, it took a while.

Fortunately, our children were amazingly behaved the whole time at the caverns.  They did all the walking on the tour (we only held Chewy a little bit) and never complained.  They even waited patiently for elevators.  But that's not to say our whole trip was without incident...we had boos-boos, whining, and potty accidents at other times on the trip....just not at the caverns.  And yes, we were all tuckered out after our wonderful day underground.

The kids even got a junior badge from our guide for helping to hold up the back of the line.  A fun surprise ending to a wonderful adventure.


Anyone else ever been to Carlsbad Caverns?  Did you have a favorite part?  Anyone else have it on their list of places they would like to visit?

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