Until 1986, Lechuguilla Cave was just a dead-end historical site used briefly for bat guano mining and intermittently visited by enthusiastic cavers. In the 1950’s however, light was shed on this landmark’s true potential when cavers realized they could hear wind from underneath the cave floor, and concluded that beneath the rubble was a series of passages.
In 1984, a group of Colorado cavers were granted permission by the National Park Service to begin digging. Two years later in May of 1986, large walking passages were uncovered.
A total of 120 miles of passages have since been discovered, and explorers have pushed the depth of the cave to 1,604 feet, making Lechuguilla the deepest limestone cave in the country, the fifth longest cave in the world, and third longest in the United States. The unexplored passages and novel beauty attract cavers from all over the world. The cave’s entrance is adorned with large amounts of gypsum and lemon-yellow sulfur deposits. The wide variety of rare speleothems of Lechuguilla Cave surpasses its sister, Carlsbad Cavern, though Carlsbad’s Big Room is still the largest room between the two caves.
Scientists have five separate geological formations to explore in this Guadaplupe Mountain cave. Studies show that the speleogenesis, or cave formation, came from sulfuric acid dissolution. The sulfuric acid is presumably derived from hydrogen sulfide which migrated from nearby oil deposits, thus it appears that the cave was formed from the bottom up, in contrast to the top-down carbonic acid dissolution mechanism of cave formation.
Other discoveries include the rare chemolithoautotrophic bacteria, which are believed to feed on sulfur, iron, and manganese minerals and assist in determining the cave’s massive size and variety of speleothems, and the “extremophile” microbes that may have medicinal qualities used for human benefit.
BBC’s Planet Earth showcased Lechuguilla Cave’s Chandelier Ballroom in its “Caves” episode. It took them two years to get permission to film in the cave, and it’s unlikely another film crew will be allowed to enter anytime in the near future. At this time, only approved scientific researchers and survey and exploration teams have access to the cave.