Elevators down at Carlsbad Caverns, bid awarded to modernize lifts

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus
Switchbacks lead visitors to the natural entrance of Carlsbad Caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns features beautiful formations unlike any others. 

The renowned stalactites which form downward from the ceiling, and stalagmites rising up to meet them, in Carlsbad Caverns National Park have attracted millions of visitors from around the world for decades. 

But until October, visitors will have to walk as the elevators are closed again for maintenance. 

The path, a little over 1.25 miles, isn't for everyone. 

Winding down about 75 stories, the path is at a steep incline and can take hours to complete.

It is not wheelchair or walker accessible.

In a Tuesday news release, the National Park Service warned visitors of the strenuous walked required before viewing the stalactites and rock formations that made the park famous. 

"Please assess your abilities before attempting this semi-strenuous hike," the release read. 

In the meantime, workers are aiming to replace rusted structural steel on the secondary elevators, along with a traveling cable, said Valerie Gohlke, spokesperson for Carlsbad Caverns National Park. 

A single drip of water, splashing down in the same spot for many years, creates totem pole formations. The Totem Pole in the Big Room is one such example.

Several maintenance projects in the 750-foot elevator shaft led to closures of the elevators throughout the spring and summer.

The secondary elevators were last closed from Aug. 22 to 24 as a communication cable was replaced, holding dozens of individual wires that provide electrical power, computer control signals, and telephone service to the elevators.

Gohlke said the park's $4.7 million modernization plan for the elevators should reduce down times for maintenance. 

"We want to replace the components and get new technology," she said. "A lot of the mechanics are quite old in the shaft. It's also very, very wet. You know what happens to steel when it gets wet."

A contract for the modernization project was awarded in August to California-based Tutor Perini Corporation.

The goal of the plan is to modernize the primary elevators at the park, which went out of service in November 2015, when a six-inch motor shaft unexpectedly sheared off. 

An empty elevator car was left suspended in the hoistway about 600 feet down.  

Demolition at the shaft began immediately after the contract was awarded, read the release. 

The project will also see the installation of two new motors, elevator cars, sheaves, cables and controllers. 

Gohlke said the work should be finished by summer 2018. 

“We are extremely excited to begin this project that will result in a brand new, extremely reliable elevator system at the park,” said Carlsbad Caverns National Park Superintendent Doug Neighbor.

“We are eager to serve the visiting public more safely, efficiently and reliably.”

Gohlke said the park has no way of knowing if the elevator closures are impacting tourism in Carlsbad. 

"We don't have any way to tell," she said. "We don't know who's not showing up. I would think it would affect it somewhat. Not everybody is able to walk down but we don't have a way to measure it."  

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.