September 4 2012 by Sam Lowe
Spelunking doesn't necessarily have to include scraping your knuckles and knees against rock formations in previously unexplored caverns like those shown on the television documentaries. Not hardly. Although you might miss the thrill of being the first one to see the stalactites and stalagmites that lie hidden beneath the Earth's surface, those of us in the upper ages brackets can get just as excited if we can ride an elevator down to the sights.
In fact, the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico does have an elevator that takes visitors on a nine-minute ride from the surface to the depths. It's 750 feet one way and makes the trip a lot easier than taking the alternate entryway known as the Natural Entrance Route, which follows steep, narrow trails through a tall trunk passage. It's not for the weak-of-kneed or pot-of-bellied.
Regardless of how they get there, visitors are surrounded by a breathtaking cave decor that has formed over millions of years. When they reach the bottom level and start exploring the caverns, they usually whip out their cameras and take photos of the stalactites and stalagmites, once they figure out which is which. (One easy way is to remember that stalactites - the formations that hang down from above - are spelled with a "c," which stands for "ceiling," and stalagmites - those that rise from below - are spelled with a "g," which stands for "ground.")
Far to the east, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky includes more than 390 miles of passageway, making it by far the world's largest known cave system. And that figure rises almost annually with the discovery of new connections. It attracts nearly 500,000 visitors per year and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Rotunda Room is a primary stop, largely because it's so big it could hold the Super Bowl inside with a full complement of cheerleaders and beer vendors. The National Park Service offers a variety of tours, including one that is lit only by guests carrying paraffin lamps. Fun, but a little unnerving.
The Kartchner Caverns State Park near Benson in Arizona is my favorite, primarily because it's so close to my home in Phoenix. They were discovered in 1974 and contain 2.5 miles of pristine passages. The Throne Room features a 21-foot soda straw stalactite and Kubla Khan, a 58-foot tall column formed by sediment-bearing water dripping onto the limestone floor.
Access to all three is easy and not very strenuous, making it ideal for seniors. And if all that stomping around underground punches your weary button, there's always relief at such nearby sites as the BEST WESTERN Stevens Inn in Carlsbad, and the BEST WESTERN PLUS Quail Hollow Inn at Benson. And don't worry. They're super-cleaned every day so no stalactite will ever fall on your head.