Lechuguilla cave: Jewel of the Underground
 Nigel Ball in the Chandelier Ballroom in Lechuguilla Cave Carlsbad Boneyard

Discovered in the late 80's, Lechuguilla Cave is the ultimate destination for any caver.

Lechuguilla Cave is the deepest in the continental United States (1,604 feet or 489 meters), But it is most famous for its unusual geology, rare formations, and pristine condition.

The cave is named for Agave lechuguilla, a species of plant found near its entrance. Lechuguilla is in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico. Access to the cave is limited to approved scientific researchers, survey and exploration teams, and National Park Service management-related trips.

Lechuguilla cave: Jewel of the Underground
NPS Photo/Gavin Newman

Lechuguilla Cave offers more than extreme size. It holds a variety of rare speleothems, including lemon-yellow sulfur deposits, 20 feet (6.1 m) gypsum chandeliers, 20 feet (6.1 m) gypsum hairs and beards, 15 feet (4.6 m) soda straws, hydromagnesite balloons, cave pearls, subaqueous helictites, rusticles, U-loops and J-loops. Lechuguilla Cave surpasses its nearby sister, Carlsbad Caverns, in size, depth, and variety of speleothems, though no room has been discovered yet in Lechuguilla Cave that is larger than Carlsbad's Big Room.

Scientific exploration has been conducted. For the first time, a Guadalupe Mountains cave extends deep enough that scientists may study five separate geologic formations from the inside. The profusion of gypsum and sulfur lends support to speleogenesis by sulfuric acid dissolution. The sulfuric acid is believed to be derived from hydrogen sulfide that migrated from nearby oil deposits. Therefore this cavern formed from the bottom up, in contrast to the normal top-down carbonic acid dissolution mechanism of cave formation.

Rare, chemolithoautotrophic bacteria are believed to occur in the cave. These bacteria feed on the sulfur, iron, and manganese minerals and may assist in enlarging the cave and determining the shapes of unusual speleothems. The claim in the BBC documentary series Planet Earth that these bacteria do not derive any energy from the sun is incorrect, as the majority are sulfur-oxidizing bacteria that utilize primarily atmospheric oxygen (derived from sunlight-driven photosynthesis) as an electron acceptor.

Other studies indicate that some microbes may have medicinal qualities that are beneficial to humans.

Lechuguilla Cave lies beneath a park wilderness area. The cave's passages may extend out of the park into adjacent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. A major threat to the cave is proposed gas and oil drilling on BLM land. Any leakage of gas or fluids into the cave's passages could kill cave life or cause explosions.

Lechuguilla cave: Jewel of the Underground
Lechuguilla cave
Lechuguilla cave: Jewel of the Underground
Annick by slenite crystals in the Chandelier Maze of Lechguilla Cave. Credit: CavePics
Annick in Hoodoo Hall, Lechguilla Cave. Credit: CavePics

Cave pearls in the Pearlsian Gulf, Lechguilla Cave. Credit: CavePics
Aragonite bush in Land of the Lost, Lechguilla Cave. Credit: CavePics

The Pearlsian Gulf, Lechguilla Cave. Credit: CavePics
Cave pearls in the Pearlsian Gulf, Lechguilla Cave. Credit CavePics