The Great Guadalupe, Carlsbad, Fourth of July Adventure (Part IV)
Part IV Carlsbad Cavern National Park and Fourth of July Adventure
Following our McKittrick Canyon out and back, Apryle and I decided to drive north into New Mexico to explore Carlsbad Cavern. Upon arrival we reserved a spot watch the great bat emergence later in the evening. Then we continued north to the town of Carlsbad for a pizza buffet. It was a real luxury to have copious amounts at our disposal without having to prepare it ourselves. Following dinner we returned to the national park and found a seat in the amphitheater in front of the Natural Entrance, where the bats were to emerge at civil twilight.
We had already witnessed a mass emergence of Mexican Free-Tail Bats from the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, but we were excited to see it occur in a slightly more natural setting. Preceding the outflight of the bats we caught a glimpse of a Ring-tailed Cat skulking around the ledges above the cave, presumably hoping to snag a bat that passed too close. The bat spectacle lasted several hours and it was quite impressive to witness the small flying mammals endlessly spiraling in a counter-clockwise direction out of the cave.
Most large bat colonies in the region are almost entirely female and the males roost separately in smaller groups. However, the Carlsbad colony is not maternal, because the composition is greater than 50% male and though uncommon, the males and females roost together in the national park. The Mexican Free Tail resident colony is around 400,000 individuals, but during spring and fall migration the numbers have been reported as high as 793,000. Despite a 28 cm wingspan the Mexican Free Tail bat weighs in at only 13 grams – equivalent to the weight of two pencils!
Although we only saw the Mexican (Brazilian Free Tail) Bats, there are 16 other species in the park, all of which are insectivorous. The Cave Myotis and Fringed Myotis also emerge from the cave but roost in a different section and fly 1.5 miles before reaching the natural entrance. In addition to the cave dwelling bats, East Red Bats and Hoary Bats roost in trees while Canyon bats roost on rock cliffs.
After a half marathon in McKittrick Canyon, a pizza eating marathon in Carlsbad and an ultramarathon of bat watching we searched for a free campsite nearby. We scoured the Bureau of Land Management maps to find a site where there was dispersed camping. We settled on a spot along Means Road on the west side of highway 62. We set up the sleeping pads under the tent to avoid the scorpions that were crawling around while we set up the tent. There was a stunning night sky and as I recall it was one of our coolest and best night sleeps of the entire trip.
We awoke early on July 2nd to start our day of pampered spelunking, but not before taking some time to appreciate the very unique cacti species peppering the rocky ground. Many had intricate spiky patterns and vibrant waxy flowers, while others dazzled with their unique shapes and contours. In addition to the cacti we also noticed an unusually high concentration of another type of arachnid. The evening scorpions yielded their territory to the morning spiders, which had beautiful vibrant colors and patterns as well.
We drove the short ways south to Carlsbad Cavern National Park and descended into a mystical underground labyrinth (which was conveniently illuminated for ease of travel). We entered the cave via the same place the bats exited yesterday evening. The mile long Natural Entrance route took us 750 feet down into the Earth following steep and narrow trails. Here we saw many interesting formations including the Iceberg Rock, which is a 200,000 ton boulder that fell from the cave ceiling thousands of years ago. The trail ended in a strangely placed rest area complete with restrooms and dining tables.
Following the Natural Entrance route, Apryle and I walked around the Big Room, which was yet another mile route that passed through some very impressive sites. The Big Room itself is 8.2 acres and includes landmarks like the Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, and the Painted Grotto. We slowly meandered around the Big Room trying to fully interpret the mesmerizing geologic formations around us that are difficult to articulate in this post. We reluctantly took the 700-foot elevators out of the cave and into the visitor’s center, where we reserved our Kings Palace guided tour for the evening.
We stepped back out into the Chihuahuan Desert and felt the difference between the cool 56-degree temperatures of the cave and 100-degree temperatures of the desert. We realized that we certainly made the right decision to spend the majority of our day underground, but we could not resist doing the mile interpretive loop. Under a blinding sun we observed and read about desert flora, marveled at the beauty of the Collared Lizard, and even took some engagement photos at a stone alter.
After an hour or two above ground we decided to descend back into the pleasantly cool cave and explore the last mile loop – The Kings Palace. This was perhaps the most impressive segment of the cave, with four extravagantly decorated chambers 830 feet beneath the Earth. The speleothems included helictites, draperies, columns, and soda straws.
Carlsbad Cavern initially formed in much the same way that Guadalupe National Park formed but obviously the cave itself underwent additional changes. The cavern was a part of the 400-mile-long Capitan Reef, which flourished in the Permian Period 260 million years ago. Over time there was an uplift that created the Guadalupe Mountains. Rainwater began seeping through cracks in the limestone while hydrogen sulfide water migrated upward. When these waters mixed, sulfuric acid formed and dissolved the limestone creating the large chambers of the cave. As the mountains continued to be pushed upward, the cave passages moved lower into the ancient reef rock creating the steep connectors of the cave seen today.
The interior decorations of the cavern were formed by many different processes, which started 500,000 years ago. As water droplets seeped through the limestone, it percolated downward and absorbed carbon dioxide from the air and soil and formed a weak acid. As the weak acid continued to descend, it dissolved some limestone, and absorbed calcite, the basic ingredient for most cave formations. Once the water droplet emerged into the cave, the carbon dioxide escaped into the air and the droplet deposited the calcite crystal. Then after only a few more billion drops, the cave formations took shape.
Calcite is responsible for the stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, draperies, flowstone, and cave pearls. However, aragonite is responsible for popcorn, which forms when water evaporates leaving the mineral behind. Aragonite is chemically identical to calcite but the crystal structures are more delicate and are shaped like needles. The most unusual formations are helictites, which appear to defy gravity. Helictites are created by needle-form calcite and aragonite, which have curving and angular shapes.
Following the tour we reluctantly returned to the car and began our journey back east to Austin. We drove through the late afternoon and decided to set up our tent in a city park in Junction, Texas. We found an ideal spot right next to the Llano River on a little patch of lush grass. We awoke on July 3rd, went for a walk along the river and then continued onward to Austin. Once we arrived in Circle C, we spent the remainder of the day in the neighborhood pool, and even tested another form of our endurance by completing a miles worth of laps.
The final day of our vacation was July 4th and this is still is the one of the most memorable Independence Days of my life. After another day that consisted mostly of relaxing poolside, we decided to run to a secluded forested lookout for firework viewing. We parked at the obscure Moon Shadow trailhead and ran to a prominence where we were treated to an amazing fireworks display. However, we struggled to find our way back to the car in the dark and ended up running down some game trails that took us further off track in the urban jungle of Barton Creek Wilderness. We tried to see our position on google maps, but it seemed to make things worse. It was enjoyable passing through the oak/juniper forest where the dew highlighted spider webs and the glow of the headlamp illuminated the iridescence of small insects.
We finally were able to make our way to down to Barton Creek where we waded through the chest deep water and popped out on the Bluffs of Lost Creek. We bushwhacked our way up to Point Bluff Drive and then ran through neighborhoods until we finally found Lost Creek Boulevard. The map feature on the phone was reporting 11 miles to the car, which was parked over at Moon Shadow Drive. We were already 6 miles into the journey and 13 miles into the day, so we were a little disheartened. But we had no choice, and pressed onward. Unfortunately the directions were leading us through a gated community on Escala Drive. Even though it was past midnight, we decided to climb through the fence and run past the mansions in order to continue on our most direct route.
We had no water with us, which forced Apryle to drink from lawn sprinklers. Our intended 5 mile round trip fireworks run stretched into 24 miles. Other than the sprinkler aid stations we tried to make our way through the private neighborhood as quickly as possible and we finally emerged on Southwest Parkway where we ran to Forest Ranch Road before making it back to Moon Shadow Drive and ending our unintended epic fourth of July long run. Although short in duration, I am still impressed with the quantity and quality of adventure packed into the week of June 27th to July 4th 2015.