In the absence of light, darkness has no color. To say I am enveloped in soft black velvet does not capture the experience. I cannot see my hand in front of my face in the depths of Carlsbad Caverns.
Water distantly drips, faintly echoing as I strain my ears to hear. The air is cold and my heart beats. The soft breathing of myself and my companions mingles with the sound of water. The air smells clean with a sharp bitter tang like salt.
I am not afraid because I know God is present. For ten minutes we sit silently in the cool darkness. My eyes do not adjust because there is no light at all.
Then, our guide turns on her lantern. Twelve of us appear within the Lower Cave at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Next, we gradually switch our headlamps on and smile at one another. For several moments, we remain sitting on the cool, slick rocks. We acclimate to light, like divers rising slowly through deep seas. Then we laugh and talk nervously, happy to be back in the world.
We had just experienced what the first explorers might have felt visiting the underground cathedral of Carlsbad Caverns.
A few hours ago we had met for a lecture on safety and cave preservation. After the talk, our guides inspected our footwear for ankle support and a secure tread. Next, they outfitted us with gloves and caving helmets. Finally, we left our backpacks and purses in the classroom.
Wrapped in jackets and carrying water, we walked through the main cavern path to a series of stone steps ending in an alcove. There, we watched our guide demonstrate how to grasp a knotted rope and lean backwards for balance. She traveled down a slope of smooth limestone shining in our lamplights, as slick as black ice. With each step, she leveraged her weight at a sharp angle, braced against the security of the rope.
One by one, we took our turns maneuvering down the slanted boulder, leaning back into the darkness. We shouted encouragement to one another. Sometimes someone froze, pitched too far forward, feet slipping. The guides patiently repeated instructions affirming that we could do this.
As each of us reached the bottom of the boulder, we settled within a small level area to make room for the remaining climbers. Then, after all arrived, we approached a gaping hole about three feet in diameter.
Before we entered the chasm, our guide demonstrated how to climb down a ladder of sorts made of strips of metal fused into the rock. The ladder started vertically, then slanted and became almost horizontal, before twisting again to go straight down into the darkness. Fortunately, two small landings partway down provided a brief respite before resuming the sixty foot descent. Like the rope, each segment of the ladder could carry only one person at a time to avoid a domino effect should any slip and fall.
First, one of the three guides descended. He signaled when he reached the bottom. We could see his headlamp faintly in the distance, helping us gauge progress on this journey into the bowels of the Lower Cave. Personally, I found the ladder more challenging than the rope. The metal strips were thin and slippery and I could not always see where I was placing my feet.
Finally, we gathered at the bottom of the ladder where the trail began. At this point, the only light was that from our caving helmets and the lanterns carried by the guides.
Lower Cave Trail
After we assembled, we crouched down and wriggled through a crack between two megaliths of stone, carefully following instructions to preserve our safety and the caves. Bits of colored twine and tape marked the edges of a narrow path and hazard areas. To protect the fragile caves, we walked in the footsteps of those in front of us. Straying from the trail could damage delicate formations that took thousands of years to emerge. Not to mention it might cause us to slip though a thin crust to a deeper area.
As we navigated the path, our guides paused to show us “popcorn” made of stone contrasting with fantastic threads of frozen liquid stone that shimmered in the glow from our headlamps. Slowly, we passed through narrow crevices in stone walls and scrambled over blocks of fallen rock to view the marvels surrounding us. Throughout the tour, we sought to preserve the cave in literally as untouched a manner as possible. Marked handholds and the guides reminded us to take our time.
Next, a cavern filled with pools of water opened before us. Small bridges wound crookedly through the glistening still water. Occasional drops from the darkness above created ripples.
As we passed through the chamber, our guide pointed out more formations. Little round pebbles or cave pearls lay scattered about as if dropped by a careless jeweler.
Stalagmites and stalagtites touched to form columns. Draperies of stone rippled like clothing or kelp forests in oceans.
We saw evidence of blackened, crumbled areas where past tourists had not used care. Graffiti dating back to 1925 marred majestic columns of white.
Translucent panels of amber and cream rock mimicked curtains. Huge broken blocks of stone from a long ago ceiling collapse brought home just how much rock separated our small selves from the surface.
The caves’ intricate ornamentation and vast open areas reminded me of stone carvings in obscure niches of great Gothic cathedrals. In these man-made cathedrals rising above ground to the sky, artisans labored to create beauty in areas visible only from above. In the underground cathedral of Carlsbad Caverns, beauty emerged in the depths carved by unseen hands. Thousands of years ago, sulfuric acid hollowed out limestone to form a network of tunnels and caverns. Erosion and surface collapse opened entrances to the outside. Over eons, water sculpted minerals into art invisible to human eyes. As a first-time visitor, I felt I shared in the wonder and awe of the first explorers to see the depths of these caverns.
Surprised by the glorious varieties of beauty below, I thanked God for the love that created delights not seen until we labored through darkness to find them. Like the beauty of a snowflake or cell structure revealed by microscope, these remarkable formations existed long before anyone could appreciate them. What other unexpected marvelous sights await us as we journey through life to our ultimate destination? The wonders of Carlsbad Caverns provide a foretaste of what lies behind the curtain of our world, unseen except by the eyes of saints and wondering children.
Carlsbad Caverns is a U.S. national park in the Chihuahuan desert in southeast New Mexico. There are no fake colored lights or blaring music to distract from the natural beauty and history of the caves themselves. You can hike in through the original Natural Entrance or take an elevator down to the main Caverns and the Big Room trails. The main Caverns are dimly lit and the path has handrails, but is slippery in some areas. Specialty tours like the three hour Lower Cave tour need to be booked in advance but are temporarily suspended during the COVID pandemic. RV parking during the day is available at the park lots. I camped overnight in my trailer at a nearby state park, but beautiful boondocking sites are available close to the Caverns. May you find your visit as uplifting as I did!