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Subterranean Splendor: Exploring the Caves of the Southwest

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Underground, a whole other world awaits. Journey below the surface and explore the Southwest’s great caves

By Jordan Martindell 
caves of the Southwest
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Carlsbad Caverns is just one the great natural wonders that lie below the Southwest’s landscapes. Photo by Nicole Mlakar/Stocksy.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Hidden beneath New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert sprawls an ancient expanse of more than 100 caves

Carlsbad Caverns National Park covers 70 square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico. The park’s scenic Walnut Canyon Desert Drive as well as the rare desert wetland at Rattlesnake Springs can be explored via car, but visitors are encouraged to explore the park’s many caves on foot. The awe-inspiring, yet strenuous 1.25-mile descent into the Natural Entrance (one of the cavern’s two self-guided tours) immediately establishes the impressive vastness that awaits visitors. An easier approach to the cavern is accessible via the Big Room Tour and provides ample wonders — without the huffing and puffing. For those looking to get down and dirty in a more personal experience, the four-hour Spider Cave Tour requires belly crawling and climbing, and results in seriously mucky boots.

caves of the Southwest
In late spring, migrating bats establish a maternity roost in Kartchner Caverns’ Big Room. Photo by Stijn Dijkstra / EyeEm / Getty Images.
Kartchner Caverns State Park

Once Arizona’s best-kept secret, Kartchner Caverns dazzles with “living,” dripping formations

Between Tucson and the Mexican border sits Kartchner Caverns State Park. A fairly new addition to Arizona’s abundance of protected spaces, the cave system was discovered in 1974 by two young cavers, but kept private until it finally opened to the public in 1999. One of the more strictly protected caverns in the Southwest, tours of this “living” limestone cave feature still-growing formations like striped “cave bacon” and pencil-thin “soda straws” thanks to a steady source of dripping, mineral-rich water. If you can brave the Saturday crowds, take the Helmet and Headlamp Tour. On this specialty half-mile expedition, the cave formations take on an eerie personality by headlamp. The welcome center and desert gardens are also well-designed, making the visit an enjoyable one both above and below ground.

caves of the Southwest
Ra Paulette has spent some 30 years carving works of art into the sandstone hills of New Mexico. Photo by Jeffrey Karoff.
The Caves of Ra Paulette

A stunning fusion of man and nature, the handcarved creations of a New Mexican artist inspire awe

Self-proclaimed “digger of caves and piler of rocks,” Robert “Ra” Paulette is anything but a conventional sculptor. A cross between an artist and an amateur archaeologist, Paulette has spent some 30 years creating masterful man-made sandstone caves that are sprinkled across hidden parts of New Mexico’s deserts. Using only hand tools and a wheelbarrow, Paulette carves intricate and unique caves — each with its own distinct identity — sometimes using existing hoodoos as his blank canvas. The soft, malleable sandstone of the desert allows detailed designs that would otherwise be impossible at the speed of Paulette’s creating. He views his work as a gift to the public and expects the spiritual nature of his art to be transformative and enlightening to those who experience it. While knowledge of cave locations has become highly guarded, those who seek them out honorably will be rewarded with the exquisite nature of a more refined cave experience.

Photo by Gary Berdeaux.
Caverns of Sonora

These Texas-size caverns are densely packed with spiky, show-stopping crystal formations

Discovered in the 1920s, the Caverns of Sonora were opened to the public by the Mayfield family in 1960. One of the warmest cave systems in the Southwest at 72 degrees, the caverns provide a spacious playground for hiking, camping and, of course, subterranean exploring. Located halfway between San Antonio and Big Bend National Park, the caverns offer 2 miles of passageways accessible by guided tours in small groups. The Crystal Palace Tour dives down 360 steps at which point the tour wanders through stunning cave rooms sprinkled with some of the most diverse cave features in the world, including a wide array of calcite crystal formations. For those brave enough and with the stamina to last four hours, the Discovery Challenge Tour rappels visitors 50 feet into the Devil’s Pit, an adventure followed by twisting and turning through tight tunnels and confined spaces.

Photo courtesy Cave of the Winds.
Cave of the Winds

The big adventures continue above ground at this cliff-side amusement park

While Manitou Springs may be more well-known for its quaint downtown and historical mineral springs, just up the road from town is Cave of the Winds Mountain Park. Perfect for those seeking an adventure, this park offers educational caving programs along with adrenaline-filled cliff-side attractions. The Lantern Tour lends a spooky hand to the traditional caving tour with eerie stories and tales of ancient folklore. Or satisfy your wild side and plunge 200 feet into the canyon (at nearly 100 mph) on the Terror-dactyl. Race across Williams Canyon with the park’s high-speed zip line, the Bat-a-Pult, or test your vertigo on the Wind Walker Challenge Course, which is suspended off the edge of the canyon cliff’s 600-foot drop.

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