Park History: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The Hall of Giants inside Carlsbad Caverns National Park. NPS photo.

How times have changed. These days when you drop down into the underworld that is Carlsbad Caverns National Park you do it via stairs and ramps, not old guano buckets as was the custom early on in the park's history.

Fortunately, what you find has not really changed -- the deepest cave in the country, at 1,604 feet deep; Lechuguilla, a cave with more than 120 miles of passages, rooms and dazzling features, and; a single chamber -- the Big Room -- that spans 14 acres.

While Mammoth Cave National Park might have the longest cave in the world and a catchy name, Carlsbad -- which was designated a national monument on October 25, 1923, and gained national park status on May 14, 1930 -- certainly doesn't take a backseat to its sister cave park.

Carlsbad Cavern itself is one of more than 110 limestone caves that lie within the park's boundaries. All owe their existence to a massive uplift of an ancient sea that covered this part of New Mexico and Texas more than 250 million years ago during the Permian time. As a consequence, if you look closely you might see within its rocks the fossilized remains of sponges, algae, snails, nautilus, and many other marine animals.

But few people, other than scientists, come to study these remains. Rather, folks come to explore the various rooms and passages open to the public, perhaps embark on a wild cave tour, or gather to watch the exodus of some 400,000 Brazilian free-tail bats that leave Carlsbad Cavern each summer evening in search of a bite to eat.

"The first person to semi-systematically explore the cave was a local resident, Jim White," says Rick Smith, who during his Park Service career served a stint as Carlsbad's superintendent. "Other than the underground lunchroom and the elevators, the NPS has resisted most recommendations regarding making the cave more 'attractive'--colored lighting and the like. The park contains one of the only two congressionally-designated NPS wildernesses in New Mexico, the other being Bandelier (National Monument). It contains significant historic resources with the rock houses that serve as NPS housing.

"The cavern itself is highly decorated with lots of interesting speleofeatures," Mr. Smith adds. "There is a significant portion of the cavern that is not open to public visitation. The destruction necessary to make these areas accessible would not be consistent with sound resources management."

It was back in 1988 that Mr. Smith, in an article for the National Speleological Society's magazine, called for Lechuguilla to formally be designated as the country's first "underground wilderness." Here's a portion of that article, written for those who might think such a designation would be elitist in that it would place restrictions on who might enter:

Perhaps it would be helpful to consider an analogy. Try to think of Carlsbad NP as a university library. In such a library, anyone can use the general circulation section. They can visit the reading rooms, check out books and utilize the reference rooms. All they need to do is to apply for a library card. In much the same way, everybody can visit Carlsbad Cavern. They can walk the natural entrance trail or visit the Big Room by elevator. Depending on their level of interest, the can engage park rangers in conversations ranging from where the restrooms are to more complex questions relating to speleogenesis and geomorphology. Almost anyone's cave curiosity can be satisfied by such a visit.

As in our library, though, there will be people who will need more. Every university library has an area known as the stacks or the reserve room. Library material in this section is open to only those who possess special interest or credentials. These materials are not placed in general circulation. They are reserved for those in certain classes or disciplines whose need for limited circulations exceeds the needs of those who can be satisfied in the general circulation section of the library. In a very real way, New Cave and certain other backcountry caves in Carlsbad are an exact analogy. Visitors whose interests and skills are not challenged or satiated by the regular visitor tour can make arrangements to enter the park's stacks.

One more area in a university library has to be considered. It's the rare book room, the repository of the library's greatest treasures. A visit to the rare book room is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The materials contained within, a Shakespeare folio, a Mozart score, a Guttenberg Bible, an Einstein paper, are far too delicate and precious for even periodic use. Those permitted to view the materials are scholars and scientists who are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. Their research cannot be accomplished through review of secondary sources. Only the real stuff will do.

Lechuguilla is the rare book section of Carlsbad Caverns NP, the real stuff. Once the current explorations are largely completed, visits to the cave should be limited to those whose caving resumes demonstrate the highest ethical/moral standards. These cavers should be dedicated to minimum-impact caving; they should report significant findings to the NPS and should consider their visit as a way to add to knowledge about Lechuguilla. Lechuguilla is not a place for individual egos who push only for the longest or the deepest. Each visit should add to our pool of information about the values of this spectacular cave.

Does this leave out recreational caving--of course not. Many recreational cavers possess these qualities and more. What it does mean is that in Lechuguilla, caving for its own sake must by sublimated to more important purposes. Each person who enters the cave must be willing to contribute something to our general understanding of caves. Now, and in the immediate future, this can be accomplished by aiding the NPS and the Lechuguilla Project (which led to the cave's discovery) by the inventory, exploration, and survey of the cave. It must be mindful, not mindless caving. Someone once asked a ranger in Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska how the Gates should be managed. His answer has great relevance to our efforts at Lechuguilla. He said that the park should be managed so that every visitor would be able to experience the same sense of discovery that Bob Marshall felt in the 1920s when he went to the only blank spot left on the topographic maps of the time. That ought to be the goal of everyone who goes to Lecuhguilla. Those who came after should sense the same wonder, awe, and mystery that the members of the Lechuguilla Project felt on May 25, 1986.

If you're thinking of visiting Carlsbad, be sure to reserve your cave tour tickets in advance, either at this site or by calling 877-444.6777. There are no campgrounds within the park's boundaries, although you can find commercial campgrounds nearby at Whites City and in the city of Carlsbad. Backcountry camping is allowed, though it requires that you pick up a free permit from the park's visitor center and camp at least a half-mile from any roads.


How do you "gain national park status?" There are no criteria that determines a "national park" from any of the other designations in the National Park System. How else could you find Cuyahoga Valle, Hot Springs, Congaree, Death Valley, and Grand Canyon all beings titled national parks? In fact, the Redwood Act as amended states that all units are to be managed by the same policies, regardless of title designation. Please do not add to public confusion by implying that the title "national park" implies a different status, greater protection, or so other situation not shared by all units of the National Park System.


I worded it that way to reflect that Carlsbad initially was a national monument. The "hook" for the post was the fact that May 14 is its anniversary as a "national park" as legislated by Congress.

Rangeroo is quite correct that all national parks are to be managed according to the same criteria, regardless of title. The Redwoods Act of 1978 made that crystal clear. Traveler understands this principle very well. If you look in the "About the Traveler" section of our "Visitor Center" (upper right corner of the home page), you'll see that Traveler specifically embraces the provisions of both the Organic Act of 1916 and the Redwoods Act of 1978. That said, it's still OK to say that a park unit may "gain National Park status," as by being upgraded from national monument. That capital N and capital P can make a huge difference in media attention and annual attendance, and that's why it's logical to say that the redesignation to National Park is an upgrade or boost in status. (An outstanding example is the recent redesignation of Congaree Swamp National Monument, which became Congaree National Park. The resulting increase in media attention and attendance for this park has been amazing.) Congress intended that the designation National Park should be reserved for the larger, more diverse park units. Ideally, a unit bearing the title National Park should be a "...spacious land and water area of nation-wide interest established as an inviolable sanctuary for the permanent preservation of scenery, wilderness, and native fauna and flora in their natural condition." Ideally, a National Park should cover a large area, offer nationally significant natural and cultural resources, and have sufficient area for adequate preservation and administration. As of 2008, only 58 of the Park System's 391 units were designated National Parks. Most, but not all, meet the stipulated quality and size criteria.

It may be worth noting that there is one variation in designation types in the National Park System that does produce differing levels of protection - there are slight differences between the protection levels of a "National Preserve" and other types of Units in the National Park System - particularly National Park and National Monument. It is correct to note, though, that National Park and National Monument designations provide the same level of protection, and the primary difference is merely one of public relations.

When the first National Preserve was created -- I think it was Big Cypress in 1974 -- it was certain that the provision to make sport hunting legal in a National Preserve would create problems. Is that what you are talking about?

Yes Bob, that's it - at least some National Preserves allow sport hunting, although I am not sure that this is true for any other Unit in the National Park System. I'm not sure if there are other differences as well. In addition, to follow up on our conversation on the quiz page, the differing levels of protection for National Preserves relatives to National Parks and National Monuments means that there are nine "National Parks" that the National Park Service inexplicably counts *twice* towards the "391 Units of the National Park System." The NPS counts Aniakchak, Craters of the Moon, Denali, Gates of the Arctic, Great Sand Dunes, Katmai, Lake Clark, and Wrangell-St. Elias as both a National Park/National Monument *and* as a National Preserve towards the 391. Go figure!

This is absolutely fascinating subject matter, Sabattis. Sport hunting arrangements in the National Park System are all over the map, figuratively and literally. And it isn't just the Preserves that permit sport hunting, either. At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore you've got hunters pursuing deer with rifles and using shotguns to bag ruffed grouse, rabbits, and other small game. At Cumberland Island National Seashore there are a half-dozen public deer hunts each year with permits issued by lottery and limited to bow hunting. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has initiated a feral ungulate control program that incorporates sport hunting. The target animals there are feral sheep (including mouflon sheep) and feral cattle, goats, and pigs. Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (how's THAT for a name?!) offers permit-only hunting for deer, turkey, wild boar, and small game such as squirrel, raccoon, rabbit and game birds. There are, I think, some other national parks (not titled Preserves) that permit sport hunting. And don't you think it's a bit bizarre to use the name "preserve" to specifically denote the park system units that permit sport hunting? As for the matter of counting units, I do see the logic in counting Preserves as separate units, even though they are (usually) contiguous with their partner parks and under the same administration. My opinion is rooted mostly in the not so subtle differences in wildlife resource management, law enforcement, and other things that matter. There are other factors to consider, of course, including provisions (as at Denali) for aboriginal people to practice "traditional" subsistence hunting and trapping -- including using snowmobiles and high powered rifles in designated wilderness areas. The more I think about this, the worse my headache gets. I need to take a break.

I cannot agree that there is any objective criteria whatsoever for the designation as National Park. Congaree and Cuyahoga Valley were renamed because the Congressman wanted them renamed to increase tourism. Petrified Forest was renamed at the urging of the local communities in an effort to increase tourism. Hot Springs "...spacious land and water area of nation-wide interest established as an inviolable sanctuary for the permanent preservation of scenery, wilderness, and native fauna and flora in their natural condition." Don't make me laugh. Congaree is less than 27,000 acres - more than 140 parks are larger. Carslbad Cavers is open only in the day time. Etcetera. In short, the term National Park has become a political term and denotes nothing relative to the value of the park's resources, importance to the country, role in history, budget, size of staff, or number of visitors. It is time for the NPS and Congress to clean up this confusing and pointless naming system that misleads the public and makes it appear that some parks are inferior to others.