Hidden underground, where the plains of New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert meet the rugged Guadalupe Mountains lie the Carlsbad Caverns. They're best known as some of the deepest, largest, and most unique caverns ever found. They are unlike other caves due to their immense size and grand height of their rooms. Will Rogers once called the cavern the "Grand Canyon with a roof on it". Spectacular formations of dripping stalactites, rising stalagmites (some six stories tall) delicate soda straws, cave pools, shimmering popcorn, and brilliant speleothems give the caves an ornate, otherworldly appearance.
Although native Americans, Mexican troops, and early settlers left their influence on the area, visitors have a 16-year old cowhand named Jim White to thank for bringing Carlsbad into the limelight. White extensively explored the caves starting in 1898 and named many of its chambers and features. He led tours for fascinated nearby residents and invited photographers to publicize the area. Later photographers of the caves would include Ansel Adams. Access was via pulleys, rope and a guano-harvesting bucket. The park was designated a national monument in 1923, gained national park status in 1930, and was named a World Heritage Site in 1995.
The most popular ways to explore Carlsbad Caverns are the two self-guided routes, The Big Room and Natural Entrance. Each of the 1.25-mile trails offer very different experiences and many people choose to do both. The Big Room is massive, six football fields would fit inside! The hike is a mild, mostly flat walk past a variety of formations. Access is via an elevator in the visitor center and is perfect for people using wheelchairs or with small children. The steep 750-foot descent twisting down through the Natural Entrance could give some less-fit visitors pause, however, the chance to follow in the footsteps of the original spelunkers and to see some of the more famous formations can’t be beat. Tip: To avoid long elevator lines, hike back out.
There are also a variety of longer, ranger-guided tours. The top-rated one is King’s Palace, which leads to deepest portion of the cavern open to the public, 830 feet beneath the desert. The sheer quantity of formations to see can be overwhelming. Be sure to turn around and look at the cavern from behind while walking down the path to see some additional features that might have been missed. And the experience of having the lights turned off and listening to the water drip in absolute darkness won’t soon be forgotten.
Seeing the nightly bat exodus is an absolute must see. Every evening from May to mid October, hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats fill the skies as they spiral out of the cave hunting for food. Just a single bat can devour up to 1,000 insects an hour. Visitors in July and August get treated to some of the best flights, when bat pups born earlier in the summer take to the sky for the first time. Less popular, yet equally spectacular, is the bats' pre-dawn return. They acrobatically dive back into the caverns at speeds up to 25 mph.
The sky above the caverns is gloriously devoid of light pollution due to its location far from city lights. Visitors are treated to views of the Milky Way and thousands of stars visible to the naked eye. Throughout the year, rangers throw "Star Parties," where they set up high-powered telescopes and discuss astronomy, nocturnal animals of the area, and local folklore. On full moons, rangers also lead night hikes.
The above-ground areas of the park get far less attention than the caverns below, which is good news for people who prefer solitude and like to pull on their hiking boots. The half mile Desert Nature Walk near the visitor’s center is worth a look for its wildflowers. A good day hike is the Rattlesnake Canyon Trail, a moderate, 6-mile out-and-back that descends into a side ravine to a rocky wash and winds by an old homestead. The trail begins at mile marker 9 on Walnut Canyon Desert Drive.
A chance to get miles away from civilization and delve into the dusty worlds of Rattlesnake and Slaughter canyons will delight any serious hiker. At 12 miles, the Guadalupe Ridge Trail is the longest in CCNP and backcountry camping is allowed with a permit. An overnight stay is also a fantastic way to enjoy the remarkable night sky. The trailhead is 4.8 miles down the Desert Loop Drive.
Secrets of the Park
The park has over 110 backcountry caves, most of which are kept secret and not open to the public. However, there are a handful that spelunkers explore, though even trailhead directions can be difficult to obtain. Those open for self-exploration by qualified cavers include Chimney Cave, accessible by a short trail along the Desert View Drive, and Deep Cave in the far southwest along a rugged, 4WD road near Lincoln National Forest. The majority of the backcountry caverns are found along the lower 2.5 miles of Slaughter Canyon, before it splits into West, Middle and North forks, and they are Christmas Tree, Goat, Helen, Ogle, Wen and Lake. It is forbidden to enter the backcountry caves without a permit.
Prefer smaller groups and more grit in your adventures? There are two chances to get up close and personal with the more wild and remote caverns. Make reservations in advance for these ranger-led outings.
Slaughter Canyon tour starts with a drive from the visitor’s center to the trailhead where a 30-45 minute strenuous uphill hike to the entrance awaits. The winding, narrow and slippery path through the cave is only lit by headlamp, lending a wild air to the adventure. A highlight is sitting on the floor in total darkness and turning flashlights on in unison to witness the sparkling of the Christmas Tree, a crystal-decorated column. Plan 5.5 hours for the tour including estimates for the drive and hike in.
Get dirty at Spider Cave, a three-dimensional maze cave, where lots of crawling and climbing can be expected. Participants hike a half-mile down beautiful Garden Grove Canyon to get to this cave with its stunning variety of speleothems. Participants must be able to safely negotiate cave passages containing fragile formations without harm to the cave, themselves or others. This trip is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights or enclosed spaces.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit
- The weather underground remains a constant 56°F. The main cavern gets crowded, especially in summer and on major holiday weekends. Visit in spring or fall, when the desert is in bloom.
- Bring a good headlamp or flashlight to illuminate the formations.
- There is no camping or lodging available inside the park. Camping is available in nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Lincoln National Forest. The closest lodging and supplies are in White's City, directly outside the park.
- Don’t take ANY food or beverages in the cave except for water. The smell can lure animals into the caves and they often get lost and starve to death.