Per our plan, we drove three hours to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a wondrous place that is not only indescribable but also the most difficult environment in which to shoot photographs I’ve ever experienced. I shot 320 pictures today and then spent hours editing just the ones you see here. Less than 100 are really interesting and perhaps half of that are actually compelling. I don’t claim to be a great photographer but, given the amazing beauty all around us, that’s way below my typical batting average.
The visitor’s center is atop a mesa in the deep southeast part of New Mexico with spectacular vistas in front.
We flanked the sign after ambushing a passerby carrying professional gear. He took a great photo but sniffed that he wasn’t sure it would turn out since I shoot with a Nikon camera (he carried a Canon). If I wasn’t so grateful for his effort, I would have told him to grow up. He does, however, possess mature picture-taking skills.
Much of the infrastructure, as well as the original path into the cave, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Great Depression. The buildings still stand, as you can see, but the path has been upgraded over the years; I’m sure the CCC crew’s work in cutting the first path through the rock made successive projects much easier. Some people call FDR a socialist, but we have marveled at the work of the CCC in many places over the years, from National Parks to Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver and they truly enriched this nation.
Every night during the summer, between 200,000 and 500,000 bats fly out of the cave at sunset to hunt for slow tourists insects. During migration, this number can reach 1,000,000. “Troglodytes”are cave dwelling creatures and bats qualify; hence the title of this blog.
The mass of animals can raise the temperature in the part of the cave they inhabit from its natural temperature of 56 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 90 degrees. Today, though, it was warmer inside the cave than outdoors.
This amphitheater fills up each night so that people can watch the bat flight out of the cave, which is visible in the background. It’s apparently an amazing experience. However, you’re no longer allowed to photograph or videotape it which pretty much eliminates my interest in the event.
Penny spent nearly the entire day ahead of me, partially because I kept stopping to take pictures, but mostly because she’s in better shape than I am. This trend started early; in fact, she took the lead as we walked towards the mouth of the cave and only looked back when I called out so I could take her picture.
The path descends the equivalent of 79 floors beneath the desert floor. You could put the tallest skyscraper in Denver in Carlsbad Caverns and the top wouldn’t reach above the ground, although I don’t know why anyone would want to do that.
The light fades quickly as you descend into the cavern.
Penny snapped this photo of the last sunlight we saw reaching into the cave as she waited for me to catch up with her.
As we started off into the cave again,” she said, “Let’s hike back up this path when we’re done instead of taking the elevator.”
“I don’t think I can do that, honey,” I admitted.
“Yes, you can,” she said, and then turned and raced ahead of me once more, giving me something to think about for the rest of the descent. Which went on, seemingly straight down, for an hour.
About 15 minutes in, Penny waited for me and I took this picture. As you can see from this picture, the railings are about 3’ 6” high. That will be helpful information to understand the scale of the cave in later photos. In all of them, by the way, Penny is well ahead of me.
The hike down is about 1 ¼ miles. Carlsbad Caverns actually go on for 35 miles of which we hiked less than three. However, in 1986, the National Park Service approved a scientific exploration of another small, dry 400-foot-long underground space called Lechuguilla Cave. First identified in 1914, there had been little interest in exploring Lechuguilla except that cavers had heard wind coming through the floor inside in the 1950s.
Amazingly, Lechuguilla Cave has now been mapped at more than 136 miles and 1,600 feet deep, making it about four times the length of Carlsbad Caverns and twice as deep. It’s closed to the public; access is limited to scientific exploration by expert spelunkers (or “kerplunkers” as Penny called them on the drive in).
One of the mammals that lives in the park is the “kit fox,” which is indigenous to the area and is notable for never needing to drink water – it can get all the hydration it needs from the blood of its prey (ick). Although this animal doesn’t inhabit the cave, we had just entered the real darkness of the cavern when I saw what looked like two beady eyes to my right.
I slowly raised my camera, flicked up the flash hoping to photograph a never-before-seen natural phenomenon and my razor-sharp instincts allowed me to capture this:
Fortunately (and as always), Penny was ahead of me when I made this particular goof.
When Penny stopped here to wait for me, this stalagmite was only four feet tall.
Among the hundreds of photos I took today are many fascinating shots of the breathtaking geologic formations of Carlsbad Caverns. The frustrating aspect of the photos is that it’s simply impossible to understand the scale of the formations without a human being or at least a railing in the photo. Someday, I’ll post some of those pictures because the beauty and variety are simply stunning. But massive features that tower 30 or 40 feet above you are indistinguishable in pictures from one-foot tall formations.
As a result, I selected a few photos that allow you to see both the variety and scale of the wonders of Carlsbad Caverns. But the main takeaway here is that you absolutely must find a way to visit this amazing place. It’s indescribable and nearly un-photographable. The caverns are massive, often pitch black in many directions and I struggled mightily to convey some of this via pictures.
I chose this photo because it shows a fascinating, gorgeous passageway through the caverns with a person standing in the middle of the frame (look for the dark form). For you photographers out there, this photo was shot at an 8000 ISO, f 3.5, handheld at 1/13th of a second. I alternated lenses, here sacrificing a faster lens for a zoom that goes to a wide angle of 28mm. I rarely used a flash because it could not fill the room.
As we continued the descent, I paused again and again to try to capture the scale and assortment of features in the caverns. Here you can see people to the left and on the right. This was by no means a large space in the cavern but it was well-lit. [50mm f1.4, ISO 12800, 1/60th sec].
We recruited another “volunteer” to take a picture of both of us, using a special “night portrait” mode on my camera that uses the flash to illuminate the foreground followed by a slow shutter speed to fill in the background. It’s probably just some advanced technology, but it works like magic:
If you look closely, you can see a Park Ranger (you can spot them by their hats) standing just to the left of the pair of large stalagmites on the far right. To his left, farther down the path, is a group of people. [50mm f 1.4, ISO 5600, 1/60th sec].
Penny told me I needed to include more pictures of me in my blog entries, so here’s one in my natural state – holding a camera.
At the end of the 1 ¼ mile descent to the bottom, Penny awaited yet again – you can see her in a blue shirt just to the right of the lighted sign. This is the turn off for the subsequent 1 ¼ mile trail through the “Big Room.” [Same shooting specs as the last shot, but 1/25th sec shutter speed, thanks to more artificial lighting.]
Penny looks well-rested here, of course, and is giving me what I would call a “tolerant smile.”
The “Big Room” is 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide and 255 tall at its highest point. This small portion of the “Big Room” was the best shot I could get of this part of the cavern. Other areas are much larger but also much less well-lit and impossible (for me) to photograph. [28mm, f 3.5, ISO 8000, 1/8th sec, hand-held – yes, it’s a miracle it’s reasonably in focus. I’m guessing my heart stopped for two beats].
Since it was getting late (and for absolutely no other reason such as my lack of cardio fitness, for example), we decided not to follow the few alarmingly fit people we’d seen actually walking up the 800+ feet to the “natural entrance” and instead took an elevator. We crammed in with about 10 other people and slowly rose to the top, which took about a minute and a half.
When the elevator reached the top, it stopped, the doors remained closed and we descended all the way to bottom again. The doors opened, we briefly explained to the people waiting there what happened and they wisely and prudently decided to wait for an elevator that functioned as designed.
The elevators in the caverns count feet, not floors. Here you can see we are still 725′ below the surface (look at Penny’s phone screen as my camera didn’t catch the entire number ‘5.’
Not so, us. The doors closed and up we went again. This time, the doors opened at the top and we stepped out, relieved.
A Surprisingly Delightful and Beautiful Drive Home
As we drove away from the visitor’s center, Penny spotted what we thought were Rocky Mountain Big Horn sheep. I stepped out and took these pictures:
As I was writing this, it occurred to me that these animals are the wrong color and don’t have white rear ends and so I looked them up. They’re actually called Barbary Sheep and are native to North Africa. They were introduced into New Mexico and Texas and, despite the name, are actually goats.
As we drove towards Alamogordo, we saw dozens of elk and deer in fields and on hills but fortunately, none on the road, despite lots of signs showing them where they should cross.
Then as we approached our destination, we were treated to one last spectacular sunset. I didn’t change or enhance the colors in any of these photos.
Penny took this gorgeous shot this from the car with her iPhone.
We actually turned around and pull over to a scenic viewing area to catch this sunset as we drove along the mountain pass towards Alamogordo.
Just a few miles from the KOA, we stopped for one last sunset shot of the valley.
Once again, it’s very late and I’m going to bed. Tomorrow (hopefully), I’ll provide one more blog with some interesting buildings, statues and other sights in and around Alamogordo. But that’s all for tonight.
One more thing: visiting Carlsbad Caverns should be on your bucket list. It’s a limestone cave, so even if you’ve visited other caves, this one will stand out due to the amazing formations inside. And I learned a lot today about how to photograph inside this magnificent place. I will do it very differently next time and I’d be happy to provide you some tips.
Goodnight one last time from Alamogordo, New Mexico.
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