Lechuguilla Cave: 138 Miles (222 km) of Exciting Exploration

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at www.caves.org or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

Lechuguilla Cave, situated in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is an unusual beauty. Cavers call it a gem cave due to the extraordinary way it formed. An impressive system embedded in limestone, it is the second deepest cave in the United States (2140 meters), and the eighth longest explored cave in the world.

The great thing about the Lechuguilla cave is that it has 83 individual sister caves near its location. Cavers can enjoy a brand new experience at each visit.

Lechugilla Cave diagram showing the entrance and rough formation.

This site has rattlesnake springs, too, about 8 km to the west. The rattlesnake spring is basically an oasis in the desert, serving as the source of water for the Carlsbad Cavern National Park and has a few old, traditional structures around it.

When people visit the Carlsbad Caverns or try the Lechuguilla Cave tour, they often visit the rattlesnake spring also. It is a good place for a family picnic and has a great variety of wildlife and plant life that attract many naturalists.

Can we visit Lechuguilla Cave?

Unfortunately, it is not possible for the common caver to visit this cave for adventure.

Its access is limited to scientific researchers and professional exploration teams only.

Some people think this cave formation is discovered recently, but this isn’t true. The year of discovery is said to be 1880, but this is the year of ‘rediscovery’.

James Larkin White, who was among the first miners of this location, not only discovered this cave formation but also explored it further. Due to his expertise and knowledge about the cave, the professional scientific team hired him to guide them for scientific expeditions. James Larkin also assisted the survey teams in 1924 for the US Geological Survey. The world still remembers him as the founder of lechuguilla.

If you want to learn more about James Larkin, check this book about the discovery of Carlsbad Caverns, written by James Larkin himself..

Geological Formations

nlike 99 percent of other caves on the planet earth, Lechuguilla Cave holds a variety of rare speleothems. It is impossible to see this kind of variety in other cave formations. For example, at 20 feet of depth, you find gypsum chandeliers. But if you are just want to explore the surface and don’t wish to cross the limits, you can find cave pearls and rusticles at 10 or 15 feet of depth.

A display of speleothems inside a cave

On the whole, scientists revealed that the Lechuguilla Cave tour shows you 5 separate geologic formations. The main reason behind this diversity is the way of formation. Most caves form in a normal top-down formation, but the lechuguilla cave formed uniquely in a bottom-up process. That’s why the mechanism of this cave is entirely different.

But don’t think the lechuguilla cave is just a dead-end historical site now. There is still a bit of hope for us.

Getting Permission to Visit Lechugilla Cave

Despite requiring permission, plenty professional and enthusiastic cavers enjoy visiting Lechugilla. Before exploration, they try their best to get permission from the National Park Service.

Once the permission is granted, they enjoy its novel beauty and see its wide variety of speleothems. In case you are not permitted to explore the depths, visiting its entrance should give you an idea of how special this cave formation is. The entrance of the lechuguilla is adorned with gypsum and lemon-yellow sulfur deposits.

If you are a professional and linked with any spelunking field, it would be easier to get the permission. They will allow you to explore its depths. You can see its underground chambers which are one of the largest in the world.

Though the total length of its chambers is still unknown and there isn’t any concrete information about them, the explored part of the main chamber is more than 30 miles. On some special occasions, authorities allow visitors to see these chambers too, however, only 3 miles are open to visitors. Visitors can either walk towards these chambers or take an elevator to explore them.

The white snow-like formations inside Lechugilla cave.

Interesting Trivia

1) This cave has a rare kind of bacteria – chemolithoautotrophic. It obtains energy by oxidizing inorganic compounds. It also gradually affects the formation and variety of speleothems of the caves since it feeds on their minerals like sulfur and iron. For this reason, experts give it importance and try to discover how it is changing the ecosystem of the caves or affecting their substances.

2) There are many documentaries on this cave; the first one was ‘The Hidden Giant’, in 1987. It was all about its initial survey work and how cavers explored it because of a breakthrough. This documentary first appeared on the Denver PBS Station – KARMA-TV.

But the most popular documentary of the Lechuguilla Cave tour was shown in the BBC series, titled ‘Caves’. In 2007, this documentary received a lot of fame. It attracted other directors and filmmakers too who began using its formations for their films. For instance, in the first season of ‘Genesis’, a few scenes of lechuguilla were used in the ‘One Strange Rock’ episode.

3) Lechugilla is spanish for wild lettuce.

4) In the 1880s, people mined the cave for bat guano (accumulated excrement), for fertilization purposes.

How to Climb Lechugilla Cave

Before you opt for this cave and try to take permission for it, bear in mind that it is a vertical cave. It is not for the seniors and kids; it is not like a tourist cave at all.

You have to climb down almost 118 feet vertically, before officially exploring the cave. Its entrance is challenging and not for the weak. In case you aren’t a climber and still want to see this cave, there is an option to use a ladder.

The temperature is usually cooler than expected. It is around 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The real problem is the 100% humidity, which is oppressive to say the least.

This is why it is pertinent to wear the right caving suit. Even the slightest movement causes sweat and makes you uncomfortable. There is no breeze at all to cool and calm you down. Furthermore, the passages are too long. Without walking or moving quickly, you can’t explore them well within a day. This cave pushes you to stop, sit, and take a break often.

A caver steps carefully across two rocks near a large pool of water inside Lechugilla Cave.

Securing a Permit to Explore Lechugilla Cave

Despite a healthy demand for exploring these caves, it is difficult to do so. But the situation is not hopeless.

A caver we spoke to revealed that there is still a possibility for professional cavers to visit the Lechuguilla. The Lechuguilla authorities (National Park Service) issues 5-6 permits each year for the experienced cavers only.

They believe that inexperienced cavers may damage its fragile formations, so if you are experienced, you may have a chance. When you are sure you want to take on this vertical challenge, be sure to contact the NPS and see if you can arrange a visit.

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