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Carlsbad Caverns is a complex of caves below the Guadalupe Mountains in extreme southeast New Mexico. The Guadalupes lie within the Permian basin of New Mexico and west Texas, so named because the region was an ocean 250 million years ago. The mountains in the area along Highway 52/180 look like the hands of giants resting on the ground because of their wild erosion patterns. Most of the rock is limestone, from an abundance of coral reefs during the period. Water percolating through these rocks reached underground caverns and built up thousands of stalactites and stalagmites over the eons, producing the fantastic underground formations of Carlsbad Caverns.

The caverns themselves are several hundred feet below the visitor's center, which if I remember correctly has some informative exhibits, along with the obligatory gift shop and cafe. I've used both the walk-down entrance past the bats (and fragrant bat guano), and the elevator. Either way is ok, though if you're not surefooted, the elevator is the way to go - the walkway is well-paved, but a little steep, and slippery from the humidity in the cave. You'll miss out on some of the formations on the way down, though. The main cavern is blocked off into several sections, and is vaguely in the shape of a cross, and looks for all the world like Roger Dean's painting for the cover of "Classic Yes". The most notable section in my mind is the Hall of Giants, a set of stalagmites tens of feet tall. There's another that looks to me like the mouth of a Gray Whale. But the place is filled with formations in all shapes and sizes. The main cave is the only one I've visited, as I'm not much into spelunking, but you'll be floored when you see some of the formations.

Carlsbad Caverns are, as mentioned above, also a famous home and refuge for Mexican Free-tailed bats. They come out of the main cave en masse at sunset, which is fun to watch but not dangerous unless you are a small, flying insect. Occasionally, the park also puts on various nature programs, including night-time astronomy programs (the skies are some of the darkest you'll find anywhere). There are a few campgrounds around the area, and the one at White's City near the park entrance is reasonable (a few bucks a night per tent). Otherwise, you can drive to the city of Carlsbad a dozen or so miles up the road.

I've never driven to the park via Carlsbad itself, since I always drove from Las Cruces, New Mexico via Highway 180. If you take 180, be sure to stop and take the obligatory photograph of El Capitan, the second highest mountain in Texas, and take a hike through McKittrick Canyon in Guadalupe Mountain park on the Texas side of the border. The latter is great in October when the autumn colors peak.

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