White’s City, NM
It was 1898, (or maybe 1902). A 16-year-old cowboy saw a plume of “smoke” rising in the distance from the prairie surface. At first, he thought it was a fire, and then possibly a whirlwind, but the behavior of the plume didn’t exactly conform to either of these scenarios. Upon approaching the plume, he discovered bats, numbered in the millions, exiting the opening in the earth. According to the story told by Jim White, the young cowboy, this chance discovery would lead him to a lifetime of exploring and promoting one of the largest limestone caverns in the world.
Though Jim White’s timely discovery of the migrating bats is arguably not the first discovery of the caverns, his legend is widely told by park rangers. The small community of shops, motels and restaurants at the entrance to the now National Park is known as “White’s City, New Mexico.” A Google search of terms relating to the caverns will bring up various references, some with earlier dates than 1898, and with other names as discoverers.
It’s no doubt that the indigenous people of the area were aware of the caverns, though there is little archeological evidence that there was much early exploration, probably due to the extreme depth and the complete and total darkness in the main caverns, some 750 feet (228 meters) below the surface.
Jim White became a promoter of the beauty of the caves, but others were more pragmatic, mining the wealth of bat guano for use as fertilizer. Early tourists were able to ride down into the caverns via one of the buckets used to lower miners into the depths. The original bucket Jim White used is on display at one of the gift shops in White’s City. Whether that bucket is the “actual” bucket used might be an item of dispute. In any case, it’s an interesting artifact.
By the 1930s, the caverns would become a national park and even then featured an underground café in one of the larger areas of the caves. If you look up at the ceiling, you can even still see soot left from early campfires built in the area. Today, the restaurant and gift shop still exist. Visitors are lowered into the abyss via elevators. As this is being written, the main elevators are out of service due to renovation, but two elevators remain in service that hold about 8 guests at a time provide easy access to the main cavern. For those who prefer to enter the cave in the way Jim White and early explorers did, there is a self-guided tour from the Natural Entrance Route. The 1.25 mile (2 km) route descends to the main cavern area. The natural entrance trail is challenging and should only be attempted if you are in good physical condition.
A self-guided tour along a paved and fenced walkway meanders for around 1 mile (1.6 km) around the cavern known as The Big Room. About the size of six American football fields, the enormity of the cavern is without dispute. The area of the Big Room is around 8 acres, (32375 sq m.) The typical visitor will take about 1.5 hours to walk the entire tour. A five-dollar bill will get you an audio tour guide. Everywhere along the way are signs with numbers. Key in the corresponding number to your audio guide and listen to a description of the feature referenced. Other areas near the Big Room are only accessible to tourists via a ranger-guided tour.
For those who prefer exploring less developed areas of the cavern, other self-guided and guided tours are available as well. On our journey, we opted for the self-guided Big Room Tour and the ranger-guided King’s Palace tour. All of the photos in the gallery here were taken along one or the other of these tours.
I submit for your personal exploration a gallery of images taken inside the caverns at Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico. Click on any of the photos below to bring up a larger view of the gallery for you to explore.