Lechuguilla Cave is the eighth-longest explored cave in the world, at 138.3 miles. It is also the second deepest in the mainland United States at around 1,604 feet deep. It is most famous for its unusual geology, rare formations, and pristine condition. Some parts of the cave have never been untouched by humans for our entire existence, and much of the area has only been accessed by a select group of cavers and researchers.
The cave is named after the canyon that it is accessed through, which is named for Agave lechuguilla, a species of plant that is typically found there. Lechuguilla is in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico. However, access to the cave is limited to approved scientific researchers, survey and exploration teams, and National Park Service management-related trips. This may be a massive disappointment, but it is for a very good reason. While it is great to be able to see places like this in person, tourism often destroys some of these natural wonders.
Exploration in caves sometimes yields small, yet wondrous sights. This cave pool, found in Lechuguilla Cave, appears to…
Locals were aware of Lechuguilla Cave for many years, but it wasn’t until 1986 when a scientific excavation discovered that there was much more to the caverns than was initially thought.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science filmed one of the first documentaries of the cave, titled Lechuguilla Cave: The Hidden Giant, in 1987. The documentary featured many of the cavers responsible for the initial breakthrough. The video was broadcast on the Denver PBS station KRMA-TV in 1989.
In May of 2012, a team led by Derek Bristol of Colorado climbed over 410 feet into a dome and discovered several new passages, pits, and large rooms that were previously unexplored. This newly discovered section of the cave was named “Oz,” because many of its features were named after items from The Wizard of Oz.
Lechuguilla Cave holds a variety of rare speleothems, including lemon-yellow sulfur deposits, as well as 20-foot gypsum chandeliers, 20-foot gypsum hairs and beards, 15-foot soda straws, hydromagnesite balloons, cave pearls, subaqueous helictites, rusticles, U-loops, and J-loops. Lechuguilla Cave is much larger than nearby Carlsbad Caverns and has a wider assortment of speleothems.
Lechuguilla Cave lies beneath a park wilderness area that is controlled by the United States government. Researchers believe that the cave’s passages extend out of the park and into adjacent land that is owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM often sells land in its possession to oil companies for gas and oil drilling, and scientists are concerned that any potential drilling in the area could cause irreparable damage to the unprecedented site.
Lechuguilla Cave was also shown in the BBC documentary series Planet Earth. The fourth episode, titled “Caves”, airing on April 22, 2007, documented scientists and filmmakers exploring Lechuguilla Cave, including the Chandelier Ballroom, which has high-quality crystals. It took two years for the team to get permission to film.
In October 2016, crew members from London-based production company Nutopia explored Lechuguilla Cave with microbiologist Hazel Barton to film a sequence for the National Geographic series “One Strange Rock.”