The Lechuguilla Cave was discovered in 1986 in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Since then, people have gone caving to explore this underground wonderland. But it wasn’t until October 2019, that a team of spelunkers—aka people who explore caves—went deeper into a labyrinth that had never been explored, and what they found left them speechless.
As they traveled deeper into the cave, the men on the journey quickly lost all visual indications of the world around them and with each turn they took, they got farther away from the entrance they had come in through. Would their journey be fruitless or would they be the first humans to witness a natural marvel?
Meet the Carlsbad Caverns
The Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico’s southern region. The vast park is 70 square miles long and it contains over 80 caves. Over the years, the Carlsbad Caverns have attracted many spelunkers. And yet, the caves have been around for a very, very long time.
The Caverns Are Over 250 Million Years Old
The caverns’ wondrous geological formations were created approximately 250 million years ago back when dinosaurs reigned supreme. But as time passed, many of the secrets held deep within these caves remained forgotten, until now.
The Park Was Once Covered by Ocean and Living Reef
In ancient times, the land that would eventually become the park was blanketed by a shallow sea that was home to 100 miles of living reef. But while the region doesn’t look anything like it did back in the day, there are some remnants of yesteryear.
The Area Could No Longer Support the Reef
As the sea evaporated over time, the area became so saline that it was incapable of supporting life. This caused the reef to die out. But instead of decomposing and vanishing into nothingness, something amazing happened.
The Reef Was Transformed Over Time
The former reef underwent a metamorphosis that resulted in its transformation into limestone full of gypsum deposits. This didn’t happen overnight but gradually over time. And this was only the beginning for what would eventually become a natural site that attracted thousands of people every year.
Geological Processes Formed the Caves
As thousands of centuries passed, the natural geological transformation process created a vast network of underground caves which contained stalactites, stalagmites and gypsum formations that are breathtakingly beautiful. But there is still some evidence of the old reef that used to occupy the space.
Remnants of the Living Reef Are Still Present
The 1,000-feet-tall Capitan Reef is all that remains of the once massive living reef and it’s clearly visible by anyone across the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is located in Texas, but not too far from the Carlsbad Caverns.
There Was Evidence that Humans Once Lived in the Cavern
It wasn’t until the 21st century that humans boldly went deeper into the caves than anyone else had, but cave explorers had found evidence of cooking pits and pictographs near the mouth of the Carlsbad Caverns. And yet, the question remained, had someone called these caves home?
They Weren't Cave Men
It’s natural to assume that cave men lived in these caverns, but if they did, any evidence of that disappeared long ago. However, there was proof that more modern human civilizations used these caverns as dwellings.
Native Americans Once Used the Caves
Analysis of what was found in the mouth of the cavern suggested that Native American tribes like the Zuni Pueblo and Mescalero Apaches had once inhabited this area before they left or were driven away from the land they once called home.
The Evidence of the Caves Was Lost
Over time, the knowledge of the Carlsbad Caverns’ existence was lost. But then white settlers discovered it in the 19th century when they went looking for a valuable resource that a particular winged creature could provide.
A White Settler Stumbled Onto the Cavern
The white settlers had gone into the Carlsbad Cavern looking for bat dung to use as fertilizer. In fact, it was James Larkin White who claimed to have discovered the cavern in 1898 when he was a teen.
His Claims Were Disputed
Although White appeared to have discovered the entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns, this claim has been disputed over the years. And yet, his story had some ring of truth to it, particularly, what lured him to the cave’s entrance.
Smoke in the Sky Drew Him Into the Cavern
White stated that he found the cavern one night while tending to his steers. He recalled seeing smoke in the night sky and rode towards the source to see if the fire posed a threat to the nearby area. But as he approached the site, he realized he had mistaken smoke for something else.
The Smoke Alarmed Him
Was the black smoke in the sky some sort of supernatural occurrence? White wasn’t sure, but despite some obvious apprehension, he wanted to satiate his curiosity. But as it turns out, his initial assessment of the smoke was wrong.
What He Had Seen Wasn’t Smoke
As White got closer, he realized that the smoke in the distance was actually a colony of bats flying from the entrance of the Carlsbad Caverns. He continued to watch from a safe distance as these winged creatures continued to fly around. And then, ingenuity struck.
He Offered Guided Tours of the Cavern
White used smoking lamps to illuminate the Carlsbad Caverns and soon thereafter, he started offering guided tours. This allowed folks to descend 200 feet using containers that were once used to move bat dung out of the cavern. But it would be years before the stone chambers would be introduced to a broader audience.
A Photographer Introduced the Caves to the 20th Century
In 1923, photographer Ray V. David took photos of the Carlsbad Caverns’ Scenic Rooms and the Big Room among others and presented them to The New York Times for publishing. This then caught the U.S. government’s attention.
The First Scientific Team Was Sent to the Cavern
The year the photos were published, Robert Holley from the U.S. government’s General Land Office sent a team of scientists to explore the caverns. This was the earliest team of its kind to enter the caves. And Holley’s team was guided by White himself. But it wasn’t the only noteworthy moment for the cavern this year.
The Cavern Went National Twice
The Carlsbad Cave National Monument was founded in 1923 and became a National Park seven years after that. But while it was approximately 30 miles long, only one-tenth of the cavern was accessible. This meant that humans had barely begun to explore this vast cavern.
The Cave Has Three Primary Levels
The cavern contains three primary levels, which include the roof that is 250 feet above the cave’s floor, the Big Room that’s about 2,000 feet long and about 1,000 feet across, and the lower level which goes over 1,000 feet down towards the Earthly abyss. But the cave offers so much more that just these spaces.
The Cavern is a Cave Enthusiast’s Dream Come True
The cavern contains lots of interesting features that cave enthusiasts have appreciated over the years like the Giant Dome, a stalagmite that’s 60 feet tall, and the Bottomless Pit which descends 700 feet. But perhaps the most interesting feature is the Bat Cave.
The Bat Cave Lives Up to Its Name
No. It has nothing to do with Batman’s command center. It is literally a section full of the very same bat colony that lured White to Carlsbad in 1896. In the 1960s, an amphitheater was built at the cave’s entrance so visitors could watch a million bats flocking out of the cave during the summer months.
The National Park is Home to Lots of Cool Caves
The National Park houses a variety of different rock formations such as the Monarch, a stone column that’s nearly 90 feet tall and resides in the Slaughter Canyon Cave. But the Lechuguilla Cave, located in the northern area of the park, was home to something that had not yet been discovered by humans.
The Lechuguilla Cave Was Ignored for Years
In 1914, someone had planned to excavate bat dung from the Lechuguilla Cave, but the project stopped a year later and the cave was ignored. For the most part, no one seemed to give this cave the attention it deserved. But there was a hint of something worth discovering just below the surface...
A Pit in the Cave Led to Other Caves
What little exploration had been made of Lechuguilla had revealed a pit at the mouth of the cave that was 90 feet deep. This descent led to a labyrinth of caverns underneath that were a couple of hundred feet deep. But where did they lead?
They All Led to Dead Ends
Although the pit’s discovery introduced explorers to other underground passages, the humans that walked through these corridors were largely disappointed when they realized the passages all led to a dead end. And yet, in the 1950s, cave explorers found something that piqued their interests.
They Were Overwhelmed by an Unexplained Blast of Wind
The explorers heard and experienced a blast of wind when they reached what they assumed was the end of Lechuguilla. This baffled them since the rockface didn’t suggest an aperture where the wind could have originated from. So, they assumed that there had to be more space hiding behind the walls of the cave than surveyors had yet discovered.
The Exploration Team Asked for Permission to Investigate the Mystery
Despite the 1950s’ cavers’ experience, no one explored the Lechuguilla Cave further until 1984 when a team from Colorado applied for permission from the National Park Service to work through the cavern’s rocks. But did they find anything?
They Accessed Unexplored Passages
Two years after getting permission, the cavers were able to break through the debris in 1986 and gained access to a previously unexplored passage. As time went by, over 150 miles worth of chambers and passages were discovered. The deepest one went 1,604 feet down.
It’s One of the Largest Caverns on Earth
The Lechuguilla Cave is the second deepest and the fourth longest limestone cavern in the United States. This makes it one of the largest caverns on the planet and it has garnered the attention of cave explorers known as speleologists who feel this cave holds many more mysteries hidden throughout the region.
The National Park Service is Proud of Lechuguilla
The National Park Service describe the Lechuguilla Cave on their website as: “A fantastic array of rare [cave features], some of which had never been seen anywhere in the world, included 20-foot gypsum chandeliers, 20-inch gypsum hairs and beards, 18-foot soda straws, hydromagnesite balloons, cave pearls, subaqueous helictites, rusticles, u-loops and j-loops.” But they’re not the only ones who are impressed.
The Cave Was Featured in a Documentary
In a 2009 episode of the BBC documentary series “Planet Earth,” presenter David Attenborough, who has seen many wondrous things around the globe, hosted a feature on the Lechuguilla Cave. And he had nothing but praises to throw at this natural rock formation.
Attenborough Was Wowed by the Chandelier Ballroom
“The Chandelier Ballroom was the ultimate discovery,” Attenborough said. “With its 20-foot long crystals, it’s the most bizarre cave chamber in the world,” he added. The show’s presenter was mesmerized by the chamber’s crystal formations and the bacteria lurking on the stone walls.
The Lechuguilla Cave is a Scientific Marvel
The Lechuguilla Cave has intrigued speleologists for years not only because of the odd bacteria that calls this place its home, but also because of its various geological types. But scientists aren’t the only people who have been reeled in by this cave.
Even a Journalist Was Lured Into the Cave
In 2002, a journalist by the name of Michael Taylor traveled to the Lechuguilla Cave with a team of explorers for the PBS series “Nova.” During the episode, Taylor discussed some of the challenges that came with cave exploration.
Taylor Shared the Hardships of Cave Exploration
“We lay 1,200 feet, more or less, beneath the desert, down countless rope pitches and miles of tortuous passage from the single entrance to Lechuguilla Cave,” Taylor shared on the PBS website. “The cave’s constant humidity, which had kept us sweating for hours as we made our difficult way down, now leached away warmth. We stank of the day’s work, our funk blending with Lech’s peculiar soil-and-metal odor.”
It Was No Walk in the Park
Taylor went on to explain: “My bare arms and legs…were caked with soil, sweat, and blood from inevitable encounters with sharp rocks, along with gritty bits of white aragonite that we had acquired while squeezing through a tight formation-lined tube.”
Lechuguilla Had Confirmed a Controversial Theory
Taylor also explained how Lechuguilla’s geology clarified a theory about cave formation that was once deemed controversial. The common thinking was that groundwater running down was what formed these caves. But others believed that the clash between hydrogen sulfide and ancient groundwater was responsible.
The Cave Built Itself
Evidence discovered in the Lechuguilla Cave indicated that the theory of groundwater and hydrogen was right. According to Taylor, “This cave had clearly built itself from the bottom up, rather than the top down.” But what did another explorer discover that was so extraordinary?
They Started Exploring the Unexplored
Max Wisshak and his team were eager to explore the untouched area of the Lechuguilla Cave. But first, they had to do something which no human had done since its discovery in the early 1990s. In October 2019, Wisshak’s team did some careful prep work to get approval for their mission.
Wisshak’s Team Requested Approval
Wisshak’s team, which consisted of Shawn Thomas, Hazel Barton, Beth Cortright, Andy Armstrong, and James Hunter, created an exploration plan that the Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s Cave Resources Office reviewed and approved.
They Had to Don Safety Suits
To get to a specific section of the cave, they had to traverse the Lake of Liquid Sky. But since the lake hadn’t come into contact with humans since 1993, the Cave Resources Office had one stipulation. The team was not allowed to make skin contact with the water. To do this, Wisshak and the others had to put on safety suits like the ones workers at a nuclear reactor site wore.
They Crossed the Lake of Liquid Sky
The lake was 50 feet long and 5 feet deep, and these researchers were careful not to disrupt anything as they crossed the body of water. Then, on the far side, they entered what they described as “350 feet of spacious and highly decorated passage.”
They Mapped the Newly Explored Section
Once the researchers crossed the lake, they used sketching and DistoX technology to make detailed maps of this largely unexplored area of the cave. The DistoX was a handheld device that allowed them to record information they collected while they were in the cave.
They Discovered Barite Crystals
The researchers found a bunch of rare minerals on the other side of the lake. Among them were barite crystals which were a mix of yellow and blue and considered a rare find by the team. So, naturally, this newly explored passage was named Barite Boulevard. But there was another discovery made in this natural corridor that fascinated the scientific and non-scientific community.
The Pool Was Isolated for Thousands of Years
In June 2020, The Kansas City Star described what the research team had found as a “pool surrounded by white frosted rock, and filled with an odd-looking liquid that resembles thick lime yogurt.” Then, Rodney Horrocks, the Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, explained, “This pool has been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years and had never seen light before that day.”
Wisshak Made Some Clarifications
The Kansas City Star article claimed the water in the pool was “thick lime yogurt,” but Wisshak later claimed that the water was “crystal clear.” It only appeared to be like thick lime yogurt because of the lighting in the cave. As far as the pool’s “white frosted rock,” Wisshak explained that it was just barite crystals. But why had they been told not to let human skin touch the pool?
This Untouched Pool Was a Rare Discovery
On Facebook, Wisshak explained: “Such untouched pools are scientifically important because water samples are relatively free of contaminants and the microbial organisms that may live in those pools are only those that belong there.”
The Water in the Pool Was Rainwater
The particular pool Wisshak’s team found was approximately one by two feet and a couple of inches in depth. The water was actually rain that passed through the limestone and eventually collected in one place. And according to Wisshak, “a newly discovered pool in Lechuguilla Cave is about as pristine as it gets.” It took them eight days to survey 4,000 feet of uncharted tunnels. This brought the number of Lechuguilla Cave’s explored tunnels past it’s 150-mile mark. But is this all that this cave has to offer or is there more worth exploring? Only time will tell.