|Slaughter Canyon Cave
by Stormy on June 28, 2005
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a pretty big place and Carlsbad Caverns isn't the only cave on their property. Wild and semi-wild cave tours are offered to other caves on park property.
A lengthy drive through the desert is required to reach Slaughter Canyon Cave from Carlsbad Caverns. The road to the cave goes through a lot of private grazing land along dirt farm roads with a multitude of cow gates. It should go without saying that Slaughter Canyon Cave is located in Slaughter Canyon. There are a lot of stories about why the canyon has this name, ranging from cattle round-ups to Indian traps to robbers and highwaymen. In reality, the canyon is named after the man who first owned the land. Okay. That was a let down.
It was early afternoon and the temperature outside, with the sun directly overhead, was hovering around 110. That's the normal temperature measurement in deep shade. Out in the sun the temperature was much higher and that was very easy to feel. If Hell is this hot, you never want to go there.
The trail to the cave was a half mile long and over that half mile it gained about 500 feet in elevation, making the average gain one vertical foot for every five horizontal feet. As a Rocky Mountain yellow-bellied marmot, I did not see this as a tremendous issue, but in talking to people I sure heard a lot of complaining about how hard it is to get to the cave. My only complaint is that hiking in oppressive heat is tough. Even if it's on flat ground.
At the cave we encountered two other tourists waiting for the rangers. The rangers themselves were down the cliff (not down the trail, they were really sitting on ledges) having lunch, waiting for the tour group to gather. There were more people coming and they were all late, so we gave them some more time, knowing that the road to the canyon can be confusing and the hike up could be difficult. Sure enough, 15 minutes late, a pack of Japanese tourists showed up. They looked like tourists. And they were equipped like tourists. They had cameras. None of them had water and it was pretty obvious that a few of them were just about ready to die from heat exhaustion. They did not have enough flashlights. Most were wearing shorts. And some were wearing sandals with absolutely no traction. A great way to die in a cave! The rangers actually took several of them off the tour for being terminally stupid.
The tour of the cave was interesting. For a hole in the wall far out of the way in a very inhospitable climate, Slaughter Canyon Cave managed to accomplish a lot. It used to be a guano mine. It was used in movies. It had a lot of scientific research. Today it had a bunch of tourists.
Slaughter Canyon Cave is walking passage the whole way. There's no stooping, bending, crawling, squeezing at all. This is less an introduction to wild caving and more an introduction to a wild cave. There was no benefit of a commercial lighting system. Otherwise this was a commercial cave.
There are many spectacular formations in the cave and each one requires you to stop and look it up and down and then say, "Wow!" Really, you feel an incredible urge to do that in many places in this cave. And the whole time you have to keep in mind that just outside is a scorching hot desert. The amount of moisture in this cave is just amazing.
There's still plenty of guano left in the cave, although it's no longer being mined. The cuts in the guano piles show history going back an eternity. There are also a lot of artifacts in the cave going back decades to the time when the cave was first discovered.
Walkways are marked with survey tape to make sure that tourists don't step onto something that's delicate and irreplaceable. A lot of the formations are rock solid. And a lot are very fragile. Anything destroyed here will never come back.
This is a worthwhile tour and I'd gladly recommend it to anyone. You have to sign up and pay in advance as only two trips a day are made and there's a limit as to the number of people who may be in a tour group. Be ready for hostile environments. The temperature in the desert can reach extreme levels. Have water and good hiking shoes. If you can't do a steep slope, don't sign up. A hike is required and if you're out of shape, it's brutal. Most importantly, bring water. It could save your life.