Thursday, January 5, 2012

Take kids on hike 50 stories underground

Temple of the Sun formation.
Photo courtesy Carlsbad NPS.

Fascinating formations await
in 250 million-year-old reef

A hike through a cave will delight any child - especially when it's one as spectacular as Carlsbad Caverns. Massive stalagmites and stalactites, a bottomless pit, a reflective pool hundreds of feet beneath the surface, and more all await visitors.

Another bonus: Carlsbad Caverns can be enjoyed any time of the year - the cave's temperature varies little from its 56 F temperature, making it a nice respite from both the summer heat or a Northern winter cold. Regardless of the season, you'll need a light jacket or sweatshirt when underground. Comfortable shoes with good traction also are a must.

To reach Carlsbad Caverns, you'll have to cross what looks like a scene out of the Old West. Agave and paddle cactus line Hwys. U.S. 62/180 that links El Paso and Carlsbad, N.M. For miles, there's not much to see but beautiful open desert country, and then the cavern's visitor center with its expansive parking area suddenly rises out of the emptiness.

With younger children, you'll want to limit your hike to the Big Room tour. Elevators in the visitor center take you 754 feet underground, depositing you at a rest area and lunchroom. Look for the signs to a wide passage that leads you to the massive Big Room, which is 3,800 feet long and 600 feet wide. The relatively level and well-lit 1.25-mile self-guided trail heads counter-clockwise around the chamber.

Hall of Giants
Carlsbad Caverns are in the remnants of what once was a 400-mile long reef on an inland sea that covered North America 250 million years ago. As the sea evaporated, salts and gypsum buried the reef. Uplift and erosion began exposing the buried rock a few million years ago. Slightly acidic groundwater and rain seeped through the rocks, carving out the fantastic caverns and its incredible formations.

Among the first of those features on the Big Room trail is the Hall of Giants. The limestone Giant Dome soars 62 feet high and at 16 feet in diameter is wider than most trees. Many visitors say it resembles a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa. Next to Giant Dome sit a pair of limestone structures aptly named Twin Dome. White lighting allows you to see their natural colors.

Further up the trail is the Temple of the Sun, an elegant limestone formation that almost appears to be handcrafted, surrounded by stalactites above and stalagmites below. There's a bench nearby for taking a rest.

Next is Caveman Junction, featuring a rock formation that vaguely looks like a Neanderthal (though they never lived in North America). If young children are frightened of the cave or should some other problem arise, turn left here for a shortcut to the other side of the looping trail.

If continuing on the trail, next is the Totem Pole, a long skinny rock formation that stretches far above your heads. Then comes a view of Lower Cave, which is lit with green lights. After that is the Top of the Cross, named because of its position given the room's shape.

Mirror Pool and Bottomless Pit
Among the two most intriguing sights on the trail follow. Mirror Lake is an illuminated pool, and the Bottomless Pit stretches 370 feet deep. Warning: Along the main trail are many closed gates guarding small paths leading to unseen passages; children shouldn't wander off the trail into these gated areas.

Next is Crystal Spring Dome, a wet cone-shaped stalagmite that still is growing. Note the dark brown spot - it is caused by people touching it, even though they shouldn't as it damages the structure.

Closing on the trail's end is the Rock of Ages, an impressive formation that looks like the hand of God had placed it there. Then comes the Painted Grotto, an array of calcite speleotherms and soda straws with iron oxide staining.

Take the Jim White Tunnel (the parking lot is some 50 stories directly above you) back to the rest area.

Then comes the after the hike bonus: About 1 million Mexican Freetail bats live in the cavern. During the day they rest on the ceiling of Bat Cave, a passageway closed to the public. At sunrise, the bats dramatically swarm out of the cave, their silhouettes stretching into the distant horizon as they begin their nightly hunt. An open-air amphitheater allows visitors to safely watch the bats' departure in an event called "The Night Flight."

Learn about other great national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.