May 14th, 2013 by
The Monarch, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The Monarch, Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Credit: Peter Jones/NPS

Stalactites, stalagmites, an 89-foot column known as the Monarch and 400,000 bats. There are a lot of things Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, which turns 73 today, is known for.

When I visited last summer, I — like most visitors — headed straight for the caverns to see this underground wonderland for myself. Walking amongst the giant formations, or speleothems, I felt small. The difference between me and the bats, newts and bugs that call the caverns home seemed negligible in the expansive space. But how much smaller might I have felt if I’d given a thought to not just the caverns, but to all the life teeming above me as well.

True to its name, the park is known for the caverns, but there is more to be found here. The park contains a diversity of ecosystems. While most of the park is covered in small shrubs well suited to desert climate, by venturing into the montane woodlands in the western portions of the park, visitors can encounter larger trees like ponderosa pine, which grows on average to between 100 and 160 feet and would be right at home in the Hall of Giants within The Big Room of the caverns. The pines echo back to the time when the caverns were forming. Back then, during the last ice age, the land above the caverns was covered in pine forest instead of the desert shrubland that has largely taken over today.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Credit: Brad Spry

Other woodlands found in the park include the forested riparian wetland area at Rattlesnake Springs, where visitors can see netleaf hackberry trees, willows and cottonwoods, or venture onto the ridges in the backcountry to find the oak-madrone band cove woodlands, which contain not just their namesake gray oaks and Texas madrones, but also bigtooth maples.

So if you’re planning a trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, don’t miss the caverns, but try to save some time for exploring aboveground, too. There are wonders on both sides of the Earth’s surface.