There are lots of way to spend Halloween evening, but a little curiosity by a pair of cavers turned a fairly routine project at Carlsbad Caverns National Park into an exciting adventure'and an unexpected "treat" for the duo and the park. The cavers' original assignment on October 31'surveying to help complete a new map of the Big Room'led to the discovery of the largest new "room" in the cave in decades.
The "basic tour" for most visitors to Carlsbad Caverns is the Big Room Route, an easy, one-mile, self-guided underground walk around the perimeter of the largest room in the cave. The Big Room is well-named; that one underground chamber covers about 8.2 acres, an area that would accommodate over six football fields.
A trip around this trail takes about ninety minutes, and offers views of many large and famous features, including Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, and Painted Grotto. There are, however, vast areas in a cave this size that are not accessible to visitors, and on October 31, two cavers were working in one such location, doing some survey work as part of a project to complete a new map of the cave.
A Surprise Find in the "Spirit World"
About 225 feet above the floor of the Big Room is an area dubbed the "Spirit World." Derek Bristol, an advanced caver and volunteer with the Cave Research Foundation, and Shawn Thomas, a cave technician at the park, climbed to that area do some surveying as part a project to create a new map of the cave.
Once they were inside Spirit World, they traveled to a ledge another 15 feet higher which had been observed on previous trips, but never explored. Such ledges can potentially lead to new rooms, and cavers have made many new discoveries in the Guadalupe Mountains simply by following such "leads."
"Most of the time, obscure leads like this go nowhere," Thomas said, so although neither he nor Bristol expected this one to pan out, they decided to explore anyway.
It proved to be a very good decision.
The Largest Room Discovered in the Cave in Decades
Bristol went first, and after climbing up and over the ledge, he was surprised to find it opened into a 30-foot long passage. "I remember being really shocked. I couldn't believe this was happening. There hasn't been a room this big discovered in decades," said Thomas, who followed Bristol into the new passage.
What they found amazed the pair: a room with beautiful colors and decoration, light-blue endellite clay, football-sized dogtooth spar crystal formations and, most surprising, thousands of bat bones. The room also was full of "breakdown" (fallen blocks of limestone bedrock), as well as a fabulous cascade of flowstone, a cave formation gradually created by mineral deposits left by water that once flowed slowly from above.
Park tradition allows those who find new areas in a cave to pick a name for their discovery, and given the date of their trip, Thomas and Bristol dubbed the room "Halloween Hall."
More Discoveries Could Lie Ahead
Carlsbad Caverns Public Affairs Specialist Valerie Gohlke says the most exciting part of the Halloween Hall discovery is what Thomas and Bristol didn't see, because there may be much more yet to explore. The pair did not have time during their trip to go beyond the entry to the large room. They plan to return when their schedules allow, most likely in February, for more exploration, mapping and discovery.
Because the new room is so inaccessible, and reaching it requires some serious climbing and caving skills, Halloween Hall is not available for visits by the general public.
There are, however, plenty of other opportunities for visitors to enjoy everything from an easy stroll on paved trails to some exciting (and challenging) trips into "wild" sections of caves at the park.
Carlsbad Cavern is the best-known, and most highly developed, of more than a hundred known caves within Carlsbad Caverns National Park. You'll find information about the easy, self-guiding tours here, along with links to details about ranger-guided tours to locations such as King's Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Lower Cave, Spider Cave and Slaughter Canyon Cave on this webpage.
The park website includes details to help you plan a visit.