WE HAD BARELY TURNED ONTO THE ENTRANCE road to Carlsbad Caverns National Park when my wife pointed to our left. “Look,” she said. “Stop the car.” Barbary sheep were everywhere, grazing along the shoulder, climbing the rocky cliffs above us, and strolling nonchalantly across our path. Not even completely sure what these furry, horned creatures were, we snapped photos (and did some googling) until a car pulled up behind us, and then we made our way to the visitor center for the start of a long weekend full of the unexpected.

At the park’s amphitheater, a ranger warned the gathering crowd that strong late-April winds could threaten that night’s flight of Brazilian free-tailed bats. “It may not happen,” he advised. But then, just as we were about to give up, one, five, a dozen, 50, and then hundreds of bats emerged from the entrance, circled overhead, and took off for the night’s hunt. We capped our evening under a tapestry of stars, listening to Native creation stories and identifying constellations during a night-sky program.

The next morning, we took the natural entrance down, down, down into the caves, marveling at the variety, scale, and abundance of the formations all along the steep 1.25-mile trek to the Big Room. At 8.2 acres, it’s hard to take everything in—massive pillars emerging from the ground, dainty rock chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, folded curtains of stone rippling on the walls, pools of water fringed with lacy edges, and deep caverns that seem to disappear into nothingness.

So far, exploration of Carlsbad Caverns has uncovered 120 caves. Photograph by Steve Gleydura.

In this month’s “Depths of Wonder” cover story, Elizabeth Miller digs into what we know about the caverns, what researchers are still investigating, and what mysteries might still be lurking deep inside. She also gives us an insider’s look at the Big Room and explains the science behind some of its most interesting features. Plus, she covers what to experience aboveground, from hiking trails for every ability to critters to look for along the way.     

Even after three days in Carlsbad—experiencing the park, strolling along the Pecos River, taking in live music on the YellowBrix Restaurant patio, and dipping our toes in the water at Sitting Bull Falls—I know we just scratched the surface of this amazing place. It’s a feeling I get often here, and one that I hope keeps you wanting to explore more, too.