Carlsbad Caverns National Park has a colorful history that spans millions of years, from the formation of the caves from the remains of an ancient reef, to their exploration by a 16-year-old Texas-born cowhand circa 1898, to the great lengths early visitors went through to experience their natural majesty.
The area around Carlsbad Caverns National Park was once part of an enormous reef at the edge of an inland sea. Limestone deposits, made from the skeletal remains of marine animals left over the ages, were eroded slowly by sulphuric acid to create one of the world’s largest cave systems. Most of the time, caves are formed as carbonic acid, a weak acid present in surface water, dissolves limestone. But at Carlsbad Caverns, there aren’t any running steams inside the caves.
Instead, hydrogen sulfide from nearby oil deposits combined with groundwater and microbes to aggressively carve out the cave system at the water table, along cracks in the limestone. Continental uplift pushed the region higher up in the earth’s crust, causing the acid bath to drain away and leaving the caves. Over the past million or so years, mineral-rich groundwater seeped into the caves and left deposits as it evaporated, forming stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, cave pools and a host of other brilliant decorations called speleothems.
Discovery and Development
American Indians and early local settlers of the region knew about Carlsbad Caverns, but history generally credits a 16-year-old ranch hand named Jim White as the first person to thoroughly explore the cave complex. White entered the caves numerous times starting in 1898, and gave many of its chambers and features their names. On one trip, he brought a photographer, Ray V. Davis, who took black-and-white pictures of the cave. These were displayed in the town of Carlsbad to much fanfare. Later photographers of the caves would include Ansel Adams.
White began giving tours of the cave to fascinated residents, using pulleys, rope and a guano-harvesting bucket to lower them into its depths. This mode of entry would not be discontinued until a staircase was built from the entrance to the Bat Cave in 1925 — two years after the caverns were declared a national monument. The caves and surrounding lands were declared a national park in 1930.
Additional infrastructure, such as dirt paths, stairs and later, elevators, would be installed in the caves throughout the ’20s and ’30s. More improvements would come in the following decades, opening the entire cave to guided tours by 1972. In 1986, additional passageways in Lechuguilla Cave were discovered. As of 2005, the cave has been found to extend more than 110 miles beyond its previously thought limit. Scientists are currently researching the potential health benefits to humans of certain rock-eating microbes that live in the cave.