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Taking the Kids

Hundreds of Feet Underground, It's Cold, Dark and Really Fun

March 20, 1994|EILEEN OGINTZ

CARLSBAD, N.M. — There was no mistaking the Witch's Nose, appropriately twisted and ugly. As we made our way down the winding trail, we also passed sharp-toothed monsters, a twinkling fairyland and a gigantic crooked finger beckoning us to follow. All were made of massive rock--some more than 20 feet tall.

We were an estimated 80 stories underground exploring Carlsbad Cavern, part of a 47,000-acre national park and one of the most famous caves in the country. It was simultaneously fantastic and spooky.

My daughter Reggie, a second grader, was amazed that these gigantic formations had been evolving into their present shapes over hundreds of thousands of years from dripping water that left behind small limestone rings on the ceiling and floors of the cavern. She was amused that the speleothems (rock formations) are everywhere and look exactly like their names: frozen popcorn, gigantic soda straws and draperies.

We made our way around one portion of the cavern called the Big Room--1,800 feet long and 1,100 feet at its widest point--which is one of the largest underground rooms in the world. We gaped at the gigantic stalactites hanging from the ceiling, and the 62-foot-high Giant Dome, Carlsbad's biggest stalagmite. We peered into the Bottomless Pit, a black hole 140 feet deep.

"Kids really like this cave," said U.S. Park Service ranger Leanne Benton, who was making sure visitors stayed on the paved trail and didn't touch the delicate formations. "They have the spirit of explorers."

Three of the 30 miles of mapped trails are open to the public. However, older children and more adventurous families can join a ranger exploring Slaughter Canyon Cave, an undeveloped section with no electricity or paved walks, some 20 miles away.

At Carlsbad this spring and summer there will also be opportunities to see other undeveloped areas of the cave. In Spider Cave, for example, "You'll be down on your belly crawling," said Ed Greene, chief of visitor services. "Kids love the adventure." (To make reservations for these and other guided tours, call Carlsbad Cavern visitor information at 505-785-2232.)

"We're seeing a lot of interest in caving now," said Greene, noting that Carlsbad draws three-quarters of a million people a year, making reservations several weeks in advance a good idea for summer visitors. And when the Mexican free-tail bats are in residence in the caves during the summer, 1,000 people gather at dusk each day to watch tens of thousands of them fly out for their dinner and to hear a ranger talk about bat flight.

Every year in August, a dawn breakfast is offered at Carlsbad to encourage visitors to watch the bats as they return to the cavern after a night of feasting on moths and other hapless insects. It draws 500 people each year.

"Carlsbad Cavern isn't on the way to anywhere," said Greene of the national park 175 miles east of El Paso and 27 miles west of the town of Carlsbad. "People come here because they want to be at the cave."

"It's part of the greening of tourism. People are looking for places to go where they can learn about the world around them," said Barbara Munson, an officer of the National Caves Assn. Throughout the country, there are about 200 caves--including several in national parks--that were developed for public visits. (Call the National Caves Assn. at 615-668-3925.)

At the same time, the National Speleological Society, an organization of dedicated cavers, has grown to 11,000 members committed to exploring undeveloped caves and preserving them. (For more information call 205-852-1300.)

When visiting a cave, be careful--especially with kids along. Even in developed caves, paths are narrow and there may be steep drop-offs. And it may be dark. Keep children close to you. Wear sturdy shoes and bring a jacket, since it is always chilly inside.

Ask in advance about stroller and wheelchair access. At Carlsbad, for example, strollers aren't permitted on the paved paths, though visitors in wheelchairs may use some of them. Other trails are too steep or narrow, officials said.

Also essential: Don't touch the formations, which can be easily damaged. Because of tourist damage, for the first time in two decades Carlsbad is this summer returning to guided tours in certain popular sections of the cavern that previously had been open to visitors exploring on their own. "We've counted 18,000 broken formations in the last eight years," Greene said.

Reggie and I entered the cavern from its natural entrance near the Bat Flight Amphitheater, hiking down 750 feet (there is also elevator access). It was through this same gaping hole that Native Americans first ventured inside seeking shelter more than 1,000 years ago, scientists believe. They left drawings, visible today, on the walls near the entrance.

Nineteenth-Century settlers were attracted by the spectacle of the bats. Photographs taken in the early years of the 20th Century fueled the fervor and Carlsbad was declared a national monument in 1923. Since then, more than 33 million people have visited.

"Bet nobody saw the same things in the rocks that I did," Reggie said proudly when we left.

Taking the Kids appears weekly.

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