Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico – Part 1: Volunteering

The Guadalupe Mountains are home to the amazing Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The caverns showcase bizarre, yet beautiful cave formations created over millions of years when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone. The transformation created over 119 caves beneath the Chihuahuan Desert.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Sign
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

I had the pleasure of taking part of a volunteer program at my university that brought me to this beautiful national park. Our purpose was to help the park in any way that it needed helping hands. Our volunteer trip to the caves was to also focus on environmental side of the trip that could enlighten our knowledge about humans and the mother nature.

The scenic drive up to the Carlsbad Cavern National Park visitor center
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

The first morning of the week we headed up to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The drive up to the visitor center was amazing! The drive was about fifteen to twenty minutes. However, the scenic drive was so breathtaking. The view at the top was even better!

Once inside the visitor center we met with Jo Ann, the volunteer coordinator. Jo Ann and the rangers were incredibly nice to our huge group of students. Jo Anne expressed with excitement the work she has done at National Parks. That excited us even more about being there. She also explained how it was difficult it was to connect with other networks and with our school during the government shutdown. The shutdown did impact the park itself, so help from volunteers was very much needed. So, we came at the right time!

To make it official, we received volunteer ranger shirts and safety vest that had the National Parks logo on them. It was one of the most exciting part of the trip. At first we thought we were going to keep these shirts, but later found out that we were going to have to turn them back in at the end of the week. However, it was exciting just to be able to wear them at all!

The awesome Carlsbad Caverns National Parks safety vests
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

The first afternoon was dedicated to helping cleanup an area in Rattlesnake Springs. Rattlesnake Spring was the main water supply to the local Native American community before the settlement of Anglo Americans. Later on, irrigation systems were brought in for ranching and to support the growing number of plants. The area was then purchased by Carlsbad Caverns National Park as a source of water for the entire National Park! Therefore, Rattlesnake Springs is an integral part of the everyday wildlife and the visitors that come along every year.

We were introduced to Oscar, who was in charge of many responsibilities around the whole park. He taught us one of our first jobs as volunteers. It was to take rakes and shovels to clean out the algae from the canal that drives the water to the rest of the park. It was a tough job because algae was so heavy, but we were more than ready to take it on! It was a fun job and we were glad that we were able to get a real hands on job on the first day.

Oscar teaching the group to remove algae from the canal
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

The water canal went on for a some distance. As group we tried to move in sections so that we would not all be cleaning the same ares. It was surprising how much algae we would get out in one scoop. The smell was also very interesting. It smelled like grass that had been mixed in with dirt and fish. However, it was not a repugnant smell, only a very strong earthy smell.

Then, time came for us to leave for the day. As we walked back towards the beginning, we noticed how much more clear and clean the water was after doing our work. We were so ecstatic that we made this positive impact on the environment. We could not wait to come back the next day to continue the rest of the canal!

A scoop of algae removed from the canal and my very comfy hiking boots
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

The second day of volunteering at Carlsbad Caverns National Park was just as exciting as it was the day before! It was still exciting to be there even though we had a full day of work ahead of us .

The sky had looks that it might rain later that day, but for the time being it was a bit chilly. So, I tried to dress for the cold weather as it was incredibly cloudy and chilly with a chance of rain. At the same time, I wanted to be be able to move around as we worked. So, I wore a pair of exercise leggings that could hold my phone. Along with a Columbia jacket over a Nike pullover and the cool safety vest on top.

A leaf without pigmentation found in the canal
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

Our work was to continue our work on the canal. We were about halfway done so we made it our goal was to finish it all the way by lunch time. We made it happen, but not without some people falling in or some rain falling down on us near the end.

Although we were working, it was felt relaxing not worrying about our everyday responsibilities. I truly enjoyed mother nature and the experiences it had to offer. We saw some frogs along the canal as we cautioned not to hurt it with the shovels. It was pretty cool just appreciating nature and what it offered to other animals. It made helping cleanup feel less like work and more like lending a hand.

The canal clean after removing large amounts of algae
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

It felt so awesome reaching our goal in time. So much effort made a difference here. The work we did in a day and a half would have taken Oscar and his partner about 2 weeks to finish. It was great that we were able to help people that love to do this everyday!

After lunch, we continued with some different work. Oscar’s partner was cutting down limbs from trees around the picnic area. We helped by moving all the scattered pieces onto a cart that then would be driven out to where the wood would be disposed of properly. Most of us did that while a few others helped trimming the grass along the road.

At the end of the day we were all tired out. We weren’t sure if we were going to come back here or that we would see Oscar and his partner again. We really grew attached to Rattlesnake Spring after a day and a half, which showed us how much effort we put into our volunteer work. It was a nice feeling to have knowing your work means something, especially to the environment.

On the third day of volunteering, we were assigned different work, but at the caves themselves. We were split up into 2 group. One group would help with lint picking inside the cave while the other group was to help clean out an entrance of the caves. I wanted to help out cleaning the entrance of the caves since I was not sure how exciting it would be to clean up lint.

The seating area meant to watch the bats fly out of the cave.
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

Joann, the volunteer director, led our group headed down to the natural entrance of the caves. The natural entrance is where people could start their long walk down to the main displays of the caves. It was exciting because it was the first time we would be near the caves at all since we had arrived.

The trail down the visitor center was nice and gave a beautiful view of the surrounding plains. We arrived at the pavilion where people could sit and watch the bats would fly out from the natural entrance of the cave. I could only imagine what that might look like with so many bats flying out at once. The entrance of the cave was huge. A trail would wind down from side to side. The view into the cave was very dark with a few lights inside you can barely see.

Looking out from inside the entrance of the caves
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

At the door into the inside of the cave we saw Oscar and his partner deep into snow in the small hallway. Apparently the night before, it was the first time it had hailed since years ago and the hail had piled up at the front of the hallway. It stopped people from visiting inside the caves. So our job was to help them clean out the 10 feet of hail.

My group tried to assemble in different ways to clear out the snow, but the hallway was small enough for us to keep bumping into each other if we all moved with the buckets. So, we all stayed in one line and the person at the front would fill up the bucket with ice, while it was broken down by Oscar and his partner. The bucket would be passed down the line and the person in the back would pick up the heavy bucket and dump it into the inside of the cave. It was definitely some heavy duty work, but we got it done! As we headed back up the trail, we also cleared the path of rocks, leaves, and anything that might be in the way of visitors.

We were so happy that we were able to help dig the hail out. It is incredible that we helped make sure that the entrance to these beautiful caves were available for the visitors to see that day.

When lunch ended, we had the chance to go pick up the flint from inside the caves. My group went down into the alternative way to get to the main rooms of the cave, which is down 750 feet in the elevator in about a minute. We saw a restaurant and a gift shop when you first walk out. The ranger that led us down showed us how to pick up lint. She showed us to just dab on the lint with a paint brush and put it in a plastic bag. She also reminded us to be careful not to mess with the natural formation of the rocks.

My group picking up lint in side the caves
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

After the demonstration, we headed down to one of the rooms. We had to be really quiet because sound travels fast inside the cave. It was a bit cool inside which was nice, but it was still very dark. We walked for about fifteen minutes before we made it to the area that we were to clean up. The ranger arranged us in line against the rails. Once we were done with our section we would move ahead to the next open space. We brought our knee pads to kneel down and used our headlamps to see the rocks. As I cleaned, I realized how dirty the rocks actually were with lint, dirt and hair. Our job was to clean the lint and help the rocks keep their formation so they would not deteriorate. So, picking up the lint meant that the rocks would continue to be here was amazing.

It was very quiet and cool inside the cave ( 65 degrees Fahrenheit all year round to be exact) that I could not help but to doze off from time to time. At the same time, it was really cool to spend about an hour inside the caves really looking at the details of the formations of the caves. You do not get to see that every day.

The rocks that I removed lint from.
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

It was funny to hear what the visitors would say as they passed us on the ground. Some people thought we were scientists or paleontologists. Others stopped and asked what we were doing, and some of my peers would inform them that we were studying the rocks. Little did they know we were cleaning up dirt from the rocks. Some people did thank us for volunteering at the park which was nice to hear because it shows that people want the park to be taken care of.

Once we were done we gave the ranger our bags filled with lint. We walked back to the elevator and made it back to the volunteer room to return the supplies they let us borrow. As we left we noticed that the ranger was weighing the lint. She informed us that every volunteer group would gather about half a pound of lint. Each year they would collect about pounds and pounds of lint. It was amazing that the parks track changes in the park such as lint.

A shot of the ceiling of inside the caves
Image by: Juana Escobedo Bermudez

The volunteering of that week at Carlsbad Caverns has become one of the most unforgettable memories I have made this year. I did not expect to be so amazed at the work my group and I did at the park those days. Our work made a difference and we only wish we could go back more often and make more positive changes.

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