Beneath the rugged and rocky slopes of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico, lies a hidden underground treasure. An extensive system of caves comprising of 118 caves and many hundred miles of caverns and tunnels all formed as sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone. The largest of them is aptly named the Big Room. This natural limestone chamber is almost 1.2 km long, 191 meters wide, and 78 meters high at the highest point, and covers a floor space of 33,210 square meters (357,469 square feet).
Tucked away at a corner of the Big Room, at the head of the Left Hand Tunnel, where the elevators from the visitor center exit into the cave, is a cafeteria - 750 feet underground.
Carlsbad Caverns Underground Lunchroom in 1960's Photo credit
The Underground Lunchroom came into existence in 1928, two years before the cave became a national park. At that time there was a desperate need for food and drink for tourists who were exhausted by the six hours walk required to get in and out of the cavern's Big Room. The hike had such a reputation for making visitors hungry that the last few hundred yards were known as ''appetite hill.''
The Underground Lunchroom serves small meals such as sandwiches, salads, yogurt, parfaits, and other food that does not involve cooking in the caverns, so as to protect the delicate cave environment, although in the early years of its operation there were no prohibition on cooking. Visitors can still enjoy warm drinks such as coffee or hot chocolate and eat at a personal lantern lit table.
There is also a souvenir store where you can buy t-shirts, and a small selection of other items. One of the most popular activities for visitors is to write and send postcards from underground. There is a mailbox in the caverns, and you can stamp your postcard "Mailed from 750 feet below ground."
The lunchroom and the meals it serves, however, is drastically changing the cave eco-system. The smell of food has lured hundreds of non-native raccoons, skunks and ringtail cats into the cave. Odors from food, fumes from cleaning agents and leakage of refrigerants may be changing the rate at which calcium carbonate crystallizes into new formations in the cavern. Additionally, the lunchroom lies on a bat flyway. Bats native to the cave will not go out to feed in the evening or come home to roost in the morning when lights are on in the lunchroom.
The park service has been trying to remove the privately operated fast-food eatery from its lucrative in-cave location since an order to remove the lunchroom was made in 1993, during the first year of the Clinton administration. But objections from local businesses with help of local politicians who are more interested in making profit than protecting a natural resource have thwarted the park service.
Photo credit: Carlsbad Caverns NP Historic Photos
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