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Caves, Caves, Caves: Explore the Underground World of Carlsbad Caverns

If you are looking for some place otherworldly, caves are the places to go. Intricate chambers hide in underground mazes, full of ornate sculptures and vaulted ceilings that can rival renaissance cathedrals. Today, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is one of these awe-inspiring places containing nature’s art in the form of speleothems throughout more than 119 limestone caves.

Flowstones and mini-draperies in the Big Room/Photo by Becky Lomax

While many caves were known to Indigenous people, it’s possible the Mescalero Apaches who came to the adjoining Guadalupe Mountains may have been aware of the caverns. But the appeal of the caves took off when photographs of the Big Room were published in the New York Times in the 1920s. At that time, visiting the cave was a demanding endeavor, with mappers, explorers, and tourists descending into the caverns in bat guano mining buckets dangling from a rope.

In the caverns, temperatures usually remain the same year-round underground, a definite plus during the triple-digit heat in New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert. These caves linger around 49 degrees, which makes cave-touring a good cool-down daytime activity. But plan to wear a layer to stay warm enough to enjoy the experience.

Drop down loads of switchbacks to walk to the Big Room/Photo by Becky Lomax

The Big Room
Most caves require visitors to go on ranger-guided tours to see them, but Carlsbad is unique in that you can tour the Big Room at your own pace. The immense room seems like a natural cathedral full of ornate decorations — calcite sculptures, dripping with stalactites, and a ceiling that soars above in darkness. A 1.25-mile (2 km) self-guided path loops through the cavern passing features such as the Hall of Giants and the Bottomless Pit. A portion of the paved narrow trail is wheelchair-accessible, but assistance would be helpful for a few steep grades.

Paved trail in the Big Room/Photo by Becky Lomax

To tour the Big room, you must go underground almost 80 stories via one of two routes, neither of which is in a guano bucket. The fastest and easiest route down is the elevator. The other is a strenuous descent on foot via the Natural Entrance Trail. This route starts on self-guided switchbacks dropping into a large gaping maw of the natural cave entrance until you disappear into darkness, dimly lit only by white lanterns. En route, the path cuts around Iceberg Rock, a 200,000-ton boulder, before meeting up at the Big Room.

Room of stalactites and stalagmites on Kings Palace Tour/Photo by Becky Lomax

Ranger-guided Tours 
Ranger-led group tours offer the only way to see more of the caverns. Several are scheduled year-round. King’s Palace Tour descends into several linked rooms containing draperies, columns, and soda straws. The tour includes a few minutes with the lights turned off, when you get to attune your ears and nose to cave nuances in the utter darkness. The experience will bring an eeriness to anyone who has read or listened to Nevada Barr’s chilling murder mystery Blind Descent set deep in the unlit bowels of the caverns. 

Draperies on Kings Palace Tour/Photo by Becky Lomax

Other tours include the Left Hand Tunnel Tour, a walk by flickering lanterns much like early cave visitors. More strenuous tours will require sturdy hiking boots and the ability to climb up and down ladders, wriggle through tight fissures, and sometimes crawl. If needed for the tour, knee pads and helmets are provided. These tours go to places such as the Lower Cave and The Hall of the White Giant and Spider Cave.

Go Batty
Brazilian free-tailed bats and two smaller species live in the caverns. From spring through fall, thousands of bats flap from the depths of the caves at twilight, darting to catch bugs. You can experience this bat flight at the amphitheater at the top of the Natural Entrance nightly, 30 minutes before sunset. Following the bat flight on select nights lacking moonlight, you can join in ranger-led stargazing parties at the amphitheater.

Watch evening bat flights from the amphitheater/Photo by Becky Lomax

Reservations
Currently, due to Covid-19, reservations are required to tour the Big Room. They can be booked between 48 hours and 30 days in advance. 

For guided cave tours, reservations are always required. Due to the pandemic, guided tours are currently suspended, but will be reinstated as soon as possible. Most tours cost $4-20 per person. When available, unreserved tickets are sold first come, first served at the visitors center on the day of the tour.

Header photo: Stalactites and soda straws in the Big Room/Photo by Becky Lomax

From her home outside Glacier National Park, Becky Lomax revels in the Intermountain parks. You’ll find her hiking the mountain parks in summer and skiing them in winter. In spring and fall, the Southwest parks satisfy her need to hike. She’s the author of Moon USA National ParksMoon Glacier National Park, and Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton.

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