Carlsbad Caverns – Carlsbad, New Mexico - Atlas Obscura

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Carlsbad Caverns

The second-largest cave chamber in the world was discovered in 1898 by a 16-year-old and a friend known as "Pothead." 


Caving, particularly in an unexplored cave, is a dangerous hobby. Even with the most modern equipment, many things can go wrong, and a serious injury can trap the caver underground.

However in 1898, a 16 year old named Jim White climbed down into what would come to be known as the Carlsbad caverns, and with only food, water, homemade torches, some string and friend known only as “the kid” or “pothead,” they began mapping one of the largest caves systems in the world.

White had discovered the cave when he was riding his horse through the Chihuahuan Desert and witnessed what looked like a black tornado spewing out of the ground. What turned out to be thousands of bats escaping the cave, led the teenage Jim right to a hole in the middle of the New Mexico desert. In his words “I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which the bats seemed literally to boil” Naturally, Jim climbed right in.

Jim “crept cat-like across a dozen dangerous ledges and past many tremendous openings” seeing amazing geological features such as stalactites and stalagmites, soda straws, flowstone, pools of water, rimstone dams and a huge area known today as the Bat Cave. At one point Jim’s weak kerosene lamp ran out of fuel and he was plunged into darkness “as though a million tons of black wool descended upon me.” Luckily he had a refill and was able to make his way back out. But this was just the beginning for both Jim and the cave.

Jim would later return with the unnamed Mexican friend known as “pothead” and spend three entire days exploring the tunnel, and like Tom Sawyer used string to map their way and avoid getting lost. What they saw was amazing and included what is now know to be the second largest cave chamber in the world, the “Hall of Giants,” some 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 350 feet high at its highest point.

Among the other cave features found were the Green Lake Room named for its beautiful mineral green lake, a area known as the Mystery Room, named for a mysterious sound heard here, and the “bottomless pit” discovered to be 140 feet deep but to be filled with a soft sand so that stones dropped in made no sound when they landed.

The Carlsbad caverns would go on to be used as a source of guano for fertilizing California fruit orchards (with a giant bucket being used until 1925 to transport both bat poop and people in and out of the caves), tested as a nuclear bunker (the military watched the water in the Green Lake Room for ripples as they set off atomic weapons in the nearby New Mexico desert, no ripples were seen) was visited by numerous luminaries such as Amelia Earhart, Will Rogers, Ty Cobb and even Robert Wadlow, the worlds tallest man.

In 1979 the caves were the site of a short lived hostage scenario (the four men gave themselves up after roughly 5 hours), and in 1985 after years of failed attempts, Jim Goodbar, and Mike Queen used balloons to float a rope up to a stalactite, were able to secure a climbing rope to it and gained access to a previously inaccessible part of the cave. They named the two rooms accessed this way the Spirit World and the Balloon Ballroom.

Since opening to the public many millions of visitors have come through the cave, but this hasn’t made the cave any less dangerous for cavers. In 1991 a caver broke her leg 1000 feet inside the nearby Lechuguilla Cave system and it took 150 rescuers four days to get her out.

Jim White died in 1946 but he is still very present in the cave, as he named many of the rooms and formations in the Carlsbad cave system. The names “Big Room, New Mexico Room, King’s Palace, Queen’s Chamber, Papoose Room, and Green Lake Room” and formations such as the “Totem Pole, Witch’s Finger, Giant Dome, Bottomless Pit, Fairyland, Iceberg Rock, Temple of the Sun, and Rock of Ages” all bear the sound of youthful jauntiness that send the sixteen year old White into the cave in the first place.

Bats too still pour out of the cave entrance just as they did in 1898, though this time instead of a single 16 year old on horseback, they are seen by dozens of tourists gathered around to watch the spectacle unfold. 

Know Before You Go

To see the bats, to visit between late May and October. You can see hundreds of thousands of bats fly out of the natural entrance of the caverns. The ranger does a brief discussion before the bats start flying. The ranger will also request that everyone turn off their phones. Studies have found that phones bother the bats when they are on. Once the bats fly out of the cave, you can watch them flying for as long as three hours!

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