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Art by Earth: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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Stefanie Payne stands beneath a massive stalagmite at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

As our adventures march on this year, they are, as a collection, becoming more and more surreal. One day we're standing on the rooftop of Texas, and the very next we are standing inside of our home planet, 750 feet underground beneath the Earth's surface in New Mexico.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park can most adequately be described as living artwork. The stalactites hang from the ceiling like delicate chandeliers, the stalagmites rise up from the ground like a forest of trees, and holding it all together is a limestone container--it's a little like being inside of a geological cantaloupe.

As we wandered the caverns, I got to thinking about an incredible series of artwork created by NASA titled "Earth as Art." It is a collection of images captured by Earth-observing satellites that have provided invaluable information for decades about Earth and how it is changing from the vantage point of space. These photographs show amazingly brilliant, colorful, intricately designed landscapes measured outside of the visible range of light, so you can see more than what is visible to the naked eye. You can feel their movement; they look like beautiful abstract paintings. The chambers of Carlsbad Caverns are like that.

Ornate walls encapsulate The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns. Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

This experience was quite different than our first cave visit this year (Kentucky's Mammoth Cave in February.) Mammoth feels much more primitive whereas Carlsbad feels well-maintained and controlled. Mammoth has the vastness of the Rocky Mountains; Carlsbad has the opulence of Oregon's Crater Lake. To compare the two caves would do a disservice to them both. They're so different. In fact, when we walked into Carlsbad, the dissimilarities of the two caves was what first struck us both. Then, the massive size of the chamber beckoned us down a hypnotizing corridor into Earth...

The 1¼ mile Natural Entrance trail descends down 750 feet leading into what feels like a great showroom--"welcome to the museum of wonder!" it shouts. While there are definite standouts (the 200,000-ton fallen boulder called Iceberg Rock comes to mind,) it is our opinion that this room is less about one main site and more about grand first impressions and a perspective of scale. This is the jaw-dropping, "whoa..."portion of the hike.

Where the steep path levels out is where one trail ends and another begins... enter the unmistakable Big Room, the largest single chamber in North America and the undisputed star of this park. The variety and quantity of sculptures of tubes, spires, ribbons, drapes, curtains, stalagmites, stalactites, totem poles, soda straws, and other fantastic sounding organic shapes inside the 8-acre room forms a grand gallery of art. If you look long enough, your visual understanding of it evolves. A visit is like attending an unveiling of a master work by the greatest artist on Earth--Nature.

Super-Wally the Airstream winds through the Guadalupe Mountain range en route to Carlsbad Caverns. Photo credit: Stefanie Payne

Hiking stick medallions from Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Photo credit: Stefanie Payne

13 parks down, 46 to go! Photo credit: Stefanie Payne