Archive for Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Carlsbad Caverns trek worthwhile

May 14, 2008

Other than Bruce Wayne's alter ego, "Batman," relatively few people are fond of caves and bats. The one major exception may be the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, where thousands visit every year. Tourists marvel at the unique beauty of the deep cavern and, if lucky, watch the nightly exodus of bats.

Unlike Bruce Wayne's bat cave, the interior of the cavern doesn't rely on electronic gizmos - nature's beauty is compelling and challenging. The bats spend the summer in the cave and erupt from the cave each night. The staff at Carlsbad, which is a national monument, established bleachers so spectators can view the bats. As far as the visit to Carlsbad was concerned, there was both good and bad news. The good news was that in early April there were relatively few tourists. The bad news is that the bats don't arrive until summer. Incidentally, the nocturnal visitors are Mexican free-tailed bats.

There are two ways to reach the bottom of the cavern. One is to take the elevator and the other is to go through the "natural entrance." Being adventuresome, we decided that since it was only a one-mile hike, we'd go the natural way and see the sights. I soon learned that, to paraphrase from the title of a award winning move, "it is no cave for old men," particularly those with a gimpy knee. I must say that it was the most difficult and probably painful mile I have ever walked.

Maybe I should have done some research and asked some questions ahead of time. I talked with a friend and told him about the painful trek and he said he had made the hike some 30 or so years ago. "I certainly wouldn't do it now," he added.

Anyway, Jean and I started down the trail, which takes you some 750 feet below the desert's surface to the floor of the cavern. What the trail is, actually, is a series of steep switchback trails and steps, weaving through a variety of breathtaking rock formations. It is, however, straight down and a very tiring hike. While I know that it is just a mile, it seemed to me that we walked five miles. The tourist information recommends that persons should wear shoes with rubber soles for maximum safety.

Yes, the trail is paved and going down you marvel at the amount of work it must have taken to haul the paving material down the winding path. Really, that had to be one of the toughest paving jobs that I've even seen.

The longer we walked, the more my legs rebelled at the trip. Pretty soon, it seemed I was leaning backwards to keep my balance. This added more stress to my legs which were becoming very, very sore.

I hobbled short distances and had to stop and rest, hoping that my legs would rebound a bit. One of the problems is that the trail is one-way, which means that there is no turning back or any easy way to abort the hike. With Jean worrying, I trudged on and did enjoy the natural wonders of the cavern. There is so much to see that it helped make the problem of sore legs tolerable.

Yes, we could have taken an elevator down, but to really appreciate the natural beauty, the hike down is better. Well, that is, if you are young, of course. Incidentally, the temperature in the cavern is always 56 degrees and it has a natural ventilation system that keeps the air constantly moving.

I must tell you, however, I was glad to make it to the bottom and find the elevator back to the surface. Since it was early in the year, construction and improvements were being made and, sadly, there were no restrooms on the floor of the cavern. That isn't usually the case.

While there is evidence that pre-historic Native Americans visited the cave, it wasn't until the 20th century when a local cowboy, Jim White, started exploration of the cavern. It wasn't long before it was discovered that the guano, or bat dung, on the cave floor had commercial use and it was brought up to the surface. White began taking tourists into the cave, descending 170 feet in a bucket used to haul the guano to the surface. I marvel at the courage of White and the early explorers and the hardiness of the first tourists.

In 1930, congress created the Carlsbad Cavern National Park. It became a World Heritage Site in 1995. Now, the park includes 46,766 acres and 100 other caves.

As is always the case, the National Park Service has done an excellent job in planning and maintaining the cavern. Yes, it is located in the "middle of nowhere," however, it is well worth the drive. To an eastern Kansan, even the desert scenery is interesting. And, yes, I would recommend the natural entrance and walk, well, that is if you are young, or young at heart.

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