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.