In the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a small monument to the history of cave exploration. This subterranean wonderland is an immense cave system located beneath the Chihuahuan desert, about 243 kilometers northeast of El Paso, Texas.
This national park contains over 119 limestone caves with more than 410,000 visitors each year. Here is a guide on what to see, how to reach, and when to visit this beautiful underground limestone wonderland.
How To Reach
A full day drive from any major attraction in the Southwest, the Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a long worthy journey. The long straight road of US 62/180 is the link between Carlsbad to El Paso. After passing through 100 miles of salt flats, dunes, and grassy prairies, the highway enters the Guadalupe.
Then after passing more winding sections, the highway straightens out again, crossing more desert flats towards Carlsbad. An area known as White’s City is located at the turn-off to the national park, which includes the last gas station for 130 miles westward and is a host of western-style souvenir shops, restaurants, and hotel accommodations.
From here, drive along a 7-mile long winding road lined with the Chihuahuan Desert flora of agave and cacti and passing through the Walnut Canyon.
There is no camping ground in the national park. The only official site near the park is expensive and is located in White’s City. But, you can go primitive camping along the dirt tracks heading east from the main road connecting to the park.
A permit is needed from the visitor center for camping in the backcountry. Carlsbad Cavern is the park’s main attraction. You can enter the cave through either of the two entries. You can enter through the natural entrance or take an elevator at the visitor’s center.
What To See
Carlsbad Caverns National Park was first discovered and explored by Jim White when he was a teenager. He named many of the main attractions of the cavern, including the Big Room, Kings Palace, Papoose Room, New Mexico Room, and more. He also named some prominent cavern formations, like Giant Dome, Bottomless Pit, Totem Pole, Rock of Ages, and Temple of Sun.
Until 1932, the cavern was accessible by a switchback ramp that reached 750 feet (230 m) below ground level, but the walk back up was tiring for many. A large visitor center building was constructed in 1932 to allow visitors to enter and exit the underground caverns by elevator. The new center also offered a cafeteria, waiting area, museum, and first aid station.
A self-guiding tour of Big Room or Natural Entrance allows you to see Carlsbad Cavern National Park formations. Both tours visit different areas of the chambers. Other parts of the cave can be explored through park ranger-led tours. Here are a few tours and attractions to visit on your trip:
Big Room Tour
Also known as ‘The Hall of Giants,’ is the largest chamber in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It is the fifth largest chamber in North America and the twenty-eighth largest in the world; this limestone chamber spans over 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet tall at its highest point.
You can explore each corner of Big Room and see thousands of fascinating rock formations and sculptures, including columns, cave bacon and popcorn, helictites, stalagmites, stalactites, totem poles, flowstone, and soda straws.
About 20 spectacular speleotherms offer extravagant, colorful views. A few of these speleotherms are given grand names to represent their extravagance, like Hall of the Giants, Temple of the Sun, and Rock of Ages.
A series of gates guard small paths leading into undiscovered passageways along the main trail. A few glimpses of deeper levels are also prominent, including the 370 feet-deep Bottomless Pit.
There are rangers stationed at regular intervals on the trail to answer any question. The feature and structures are lit with white light to enable better views of the formations, highlighting their unique characteristics. The tours are also usually busy.
Hence the experience is less of a wild ride but a safely guided exploration of nature in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Natural Entrance Tour
This is a 1.25-mile (2 km) long trail to explore formations like the Devil’s Spring, the Whale’s Mouth, Boneyard, and Iceberg Rock. This route is an extremely steep hike where you can gain or lose about 750 feet as you go up or down the trail.
The whole hike can take up to one hour on average. While walking this trail, you can experience the path taken by the earliest explorers. This is not an easy route and may be strenuous for those with health ailments.
At the entryway of the Natural Entrance is an amphitheater, which allows an evening viewing of Mexican free-tailed bats flying in and out of their colony in the cave. This sunset viewing is available from Memorial Day weekend to October, when a ranger will give you more information on the bats and their stay at the caverns.
After the incredible bat flight program, you will start your descend to the Natural Entrance.
Initially, you will not find any formations on the walls of the dimly lit rock chamber. But as you go further, you will find extensive stalactite and stalagmite collections.
These formations are named Devil’s Spring, Queen’s Chamber, King’s Palace, and the Boneyard. As you continue down the path, you will be connected to the Big Room and the bat cave.
The Natural Entrance Trail is the best way to experience the transition from the outside light to the darkness inside the caves and explore the amazing cave formations of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
King’s Palace Tour
An 800-foot deep section of the cavern in the deepest area of the King’s Palace cave is open to visitors and is a 1.5-mile loop trail guided by rangers through four highly decorated cave chambers.
A collection of cave formations will be featured during the tour, including stalagmites, stalactites, flowstone, helictites, cave bacon, draperies, columns, cave popcorn, and soda straws. Of these, the Queen’s Draperies, a large sheet of rippled formations, is a prominent feature.
The King’s Palace tour includes the exploration of 4 ornate chambers. These include:
This is the first of the four chambers, which are also known as scenic rooms. The grand name of the cave is derived from the stunning castle-like formation in the middle of the 100-foot tall room.
The Papoose Room
Located between the King’s palace and the Queen’s Chamber, it is a smaller version of the King’s Palace. This cave room is smaller, with large stalagmites covering the floor and numerous stalactites dropping from the ceiling. A unique formation called the Witch’s Broomstick is a primary attraction here.
In this cave chamber, you will find rock curtains, of which the 40-foot long Queen’s Drapery is the most prominent. This chamber is marked with the most beautiful and delicate onyx formations, which have a texture of lace or filigree.
Green Lake Room
This room is named after the malachite (copper carbonate) colored pool in the corner of the room. This lake is deep green, and it is believed that the Green Lake Room can be considered a viable shelter during a nuclear attack.
You will be provided candle-lit lanterns to explore the cave. This gives a unique experience of how people explored the caves during the initial discovery. A 2-hour long hike through undeveloped and steep, slippery cave paths allows a view of delicate formations and cavern pools.
Slaughter Canyon Cave
Visiting slaughter Canyon can be a little difficult due to its unmanicured terrain and unpaved trails. There are plenty of tripping hazards and slippery loose terrain along this trail. For outdoor enthusiasts looking for a natural cave within a popular tourist destination, this trail is the closest you’ll come to Carlsbad Cavern.
During the Great Depression, the Slaughter Canyon Cave has known for Guano (bat droppings) mining. These bat droppings are considered to be the best fertilizers. The remnants of Guano mining can still be found in the Slaughter Canyon Cave.
Lechuguilla Cave has a depth of 1,604 feet, making it the fifth-longest known cave in the world and the deepest cave in the country. The cave is adorned with various speleotherms and large amounts of yellow sulfur and gypsum deposits.
This tour is not for those who are weak-hearted or claustrophobic. A 3-hour hike involves climbing, descending, and crawling over 50 feet of ladders. The tour takes you through a former expedition site of the National Geographic Society in the 1920s, and you’ll see artifacts from that time and others.
A variety of formations can also be found here, including cave pearls. These pearls resemble the ones created by oysters and can be as large as golf balls.
Desert Hiking Trails
The surface hikes at Carlsbad Caverns National Park offer a great way to experience the mountains and deserts of the Guadalupe Plateau. Before leaving, inquire at the visitor center about park conditions before heading out.
Carefully prepare for the hike, as you may experience water shortage, extreme temperatures, and isolation in the backcountry. Carry hiking essentials like navigation, sunscreen, pocket knife, water and food, flashlight, and first-aid kit.
A few hiking trails to follow are Chihuahuan Desert Trail, Walnut Canyon Overlook, Rattlesnake Springs Historic District, Yucca Canyon, Guadalupe Ridge Trail, and Juniper Ridge.
When To Visit
While the summers in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park see intense heat in the afternoons and evenings, the winters are mildly cold. You can see rains in August and September. The surface temperatures vary greatly, but the underground temperatures all year-round differ a little around 10s and midteens Celcius. Carry a jacket or sweater to tolerate the cold.
The Carlsbad Caverns National Park holds events all through the year. The Bat Flight Breakfast event is hosted on Saturdays in summer, where you can have breakfast as you watch the bats return from the night hunt.
The park is open all year round, with the thickest crowds in summer, weekends, and holidays. The best time to visit may be during September, when you can still see the bats, and visitors are fewer than in the summer season.