May 14, 2019
This spectacle occurs at sunset daily from mid-spring until late fall. And if you ever go to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, it’s a sight to behold. What is it? The nightly flight of nearly a half million bats.
The flight of the bats is but one thing to recommend a visit to the 20th National Park established on May 14, 1930. The caverns themselves are spectacular with the main event Big Room providing incredible sights around every turn in the path.
From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Carlsbad Cavern includes a large limestone chamber, named simply the Big Room, which is almost 4,000 feet (1,220 m) long, 625 feet (191 m) wide, and 255 feet (78 m) high at its highest point. The Big Room is the fifth largest chamber in North America and the twenty-eighth largest in the world.”
Visitors to the cave have two options for entry. Two years after it opened, elevators were installed to take tourists some 725 feet down to the Big Room. The traditional entry involves hiking down a switchback trail over a mile long and takes well over an hour.
When the hubby and I visited Carlsbad last October we opted for the switchback trail down which, in my opinion, enhanced the experience. By the time we arrived at the Big Room, our appetites were whetted. It’s impossible to describe how large the space is and, at times, it was easy to forget we were in a cave. The ceiling soared high above our heads and many of the stalagmites and columns were the size of redwoods. In contrast there were also delicate formations known as ‘straws’ – thin tubes of limestone formed by centuries of slowly dripping calcite and ribbons. There were small lakes and ponds and fantastically named features like the Giant Dome and the Bottomless Pit. It took us well over three hours for the descent into and tour of the Big Room.
After our tour we returned to the surface via the elevators and then back to our motel to rest up before returning for the nightly bat flight. If you want to be awed by nature, then this phenomenon will capture your imagination. We arrived at the stone amphitheater near sunset. The ranger on duty explained to the assembled group what was about to happen. We were instructed to watch the cavern opening – aptly named the bat cave – for the emergence of the bats.
(I did not shoot this video. The night we were there it was our understanding that recording it was not allowed)
The ranger cautioned that he would talk only until the first bats appeared and instructed the audience that when someone saw the bats they were to raise their hand and spin it in a circular motion. A few minutes later several arms shot into the air and the group fell silent. All you could hear and see was the sound of thousands of bat wings whirring and the twilight skies filled with the silhouettes of the tiny creatures as they flew away in search of food.
From the National Park Service:
“What triggers emergence of the bats from the cave at night is something of a mystery. The only scientific correlation found with the emergence of bats is civil twilight (28 minutes past sunset). Bats flying around the roost site can see light entering Bat Cave from Carlsbad Cavern’s second natural entrance. But based on the variability of the bats emergence, civil twilight is not the only explanation.
The out flight can last up to three hours, depending on a variety of factors, including the number of bats in the colony. Bats can begin returning at any time, particularly when they have pups to nurse (in which case they typically head out to feed again before morning). The number of bats returning usually peaks around dawn. When the bats fly over the amphitheater, you can hear their wings and also smell them. The Brazilian (Mexican) free-tail bats have a unique odor—not all bat species have an obvious odor. The bats spiral out of the cave in a counter-clockwise direction. It is not known why they choose to spiral counter-clockwise, but current research suggest a variety of factors play roles. One of these may be an internal ‘compass’ in the bats that is based on the earth’s magnetic poles.”
We stayed until it was too dark to really see the bats any longer. Even then we were reluctant to depart. Mark another place off my list of places I’ve always wanted to visit!
A couple of links: