(Amy Vogelsang Photo)
CARLSBAD — The crisp morning air slowly has the sense of warming as the pink and orange glow of sunrise starts to fade into a clear blue sky. Bats have, for the most part, bunkered down for the day, and we are now, just after 6 a.m., allowed to enter the Carlsbad Caverns on a Lantern Tour. This unique experience is meant to give the feeling of what early explorers saw and felt upon entering the caves.
Our candles are lit and lowered into wooden-framed, glass-paneled lanterns, and roughly 60 people begin trudging down a steep path into the abyss. Upon entering, my nose is immediately assaulted by the musty smell of bats and their feces, but the stench either goes away, or I simply become accustomed to it.
With each step farther into the cave, the murmured conversations drop to whispers and eventually disappear all together. We are engulfed in silence.
In front of me is Andrea Lucas, park ranger and tour guide, holding her own lantern. Other than that, the path ahead is completely black. We quickly leave the natural daylight behind and enter a new world of water and rocks with nothing but candlelight to lead us.
Although there is no record of the cave’s actual discovery, it was made famous in 1898, when 16-year-old Jim White entered the cave. His “adventurous spirit and enthusiasm,” according to Lucas, gained a lot of interest and more explorers. It eventually became a National Monument in 1923, and a National Park in 1930.
As we continue our journey into the cave, we pass Devil’s Spring and enter Devil’s Den.
“Deep dark caves need deep dark names,” Lucas says menacingly.
By now, my nose and fingers have become increasingly cold, and I am thankful I had the foresight to wear sturdy boots, which not only keep my toes warm but also provide much needed traction against the wet path.
The steep terrain causes my knees and legs to tremble with exertion. I am grateful for the short reprieve when Lucas stops to tell us another story about White and the cave’s history. I take the opportunity to look behind me and am awed to see a long line of people zigzagging along the switchbacks.
Looking ahead, I prepare to duck under low-hanging overpasses, and on my left I am dazzled by glinting calcite crystals sparkling as the candlelight dances across the shiny rock face. The trail gets even steeper. I reach for the handrail beside me, the damp cold of the metal shocking my hand and forcing me to immediately withdraw my icy fingers.
I decide to take a turn holding one of the lanterns, and although the soft wooden handle at first feels foreign in my hand, I soon grow accustomed to the shape and weight. It helps that the candle’s heat is gently licking my fingers, providing a much-welcomed warmth.
Somewhere behind me, a child’s voice echoes eerily around the cavern walls as we pass Witches Fingers, a series of spectacular stalagmites growing up from the ground and stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
Finally, after a little more than an hour, we have traveled the 754 feet to the bottom of the cavern. Here, we are reminded that we live, not in the 1800s, but in the 21st century where electricity exists, and at the end of the tour we are met by elevators, patiently waiting to carry us back to natural light and fresh air.
I re-enter the world with squints and excessive blinking against the bright light, just like a newborn trying to adjust to luminosity after months in the womb. It was like returning from the past.
Completely unlike walking through the caverns on a typical day, the Lantern Tour shed a different light on the wondrous mysteries of Carlsbad. A special experience only offered once a year, but worth the early morning wake-up and cold fingers. Of course, just like trying to describe the Grand Canyon to people who have never witnessed it first-hand, describing the Caverns as seen only by candlelight is something that is best experienced live.