Art takes nature as its model.
Our adventures march on and become more and more surreal. One day we’re touring the UFO Museum in Roswell and the very next day we are standing inside our home planet, 750 feet underground beneath the Earth’s surface.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park can most adequately be described as living artwork. The stalactites hang from the ceiling like delicate chandeliers, the stalagmites rise from the ground like a forest of trees, and holding it all together is a limestone container—it’s a little like being inside of a geological cantaloupe.
First discovered by a curious teenager in 1898, Carlsbad Cavern is an incredible underground limestone cave in the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico, just north of the Texas border. The park is located 18 miles south of Carlsbad.
The closest nearby town is Whites City which is just outside the park’s entrance. Other cities in the area include Loving and Artesia. Some travelers may also choose to stay in or visit one of the tiny Texas towns outside the park such as Pine Springs or Orla. And for those interested in extraterrestrial life, the town of Roswell where a UFO supposedly crashed in 1947 is about an hour and a half north of the park.
Carlsbad Caverns Highway is the only road to access the park. The seven-mile access road is right off of U.S. Highway 62/180 in Whites City.
There’s no overnight RV camping at Carlsbad Caverns National Park so you’ll need to make reservations at one of the private campgrounds in the area. However, the park does have plenty of RV parking available during the daytime in the front visitor center parking lot.
The national park contains over 119 limestone caves surrounded by the vast beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert. Each year, about 400,000 people visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park to see the fossilized caverns or spot the thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats that inhabit the park. Several hiking trails and a picnic area are also available for visitors.
The main attraction of this national park is the show cave—the Carlsbad Cavern (and the Big Room in particular). Unlike most caves around the nation, one does not need a guided tour to explore the cave—visitors can walk on their own through the natural entrance or take an elevator from the visitor center.
Visitors can choose between the steep paved trail making its way down into the cave or the elevator directly down to the Big Room Trail. The 1.25-mile long Natural Entrance Trail is extremely steep (it gains or loses) around 750 feet in elevation. This is equivalent to walking up a 75-story building. It takes about an hour to complete. Once down in the caves there is the Big Room Trail leading to the popular Big Room.
This is also 1.25 miles long but is relatively flat. It takes around 1.5 hours to walk it. If that seems a bit of a hike there is a shortcut that reduces the walking distance to around 0.6 miles and cuts the hiking time to around 45 minutes.
The unmistakable Big Room is the largest single chamber in North America and the undisputed star of this park. The variety and quantity of sculptures of tubes, spires, ribbons, drapes, curtains, stalagmites, stalactites, totem poles, soda straws, and other fantastic sounding organic shapes inside the 8-acre room forms a grand gallery of art. If you look long enough, your visual understanding of it evolves. A visit is like attending an unveiling of a master work by the greatest artist on Earth—Nature.
Weather at the park can be quite hot during the day, but don’t be deceived. The temperature inside Carlsbad Cavern is a consistent 56 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year giving visitors a chance to cool off—so be sure to bring a jacket along with you.
In the summers, temperatures can rise into the 90s and sometimes into the low 100s before cooling off to temps in the low 60s at night. Fall brings pleasant temperatures in the 70s during the day and lows that drop from the high 50s in September all the way down to the high 30s in November. Winters at the park are fairly mild ranging from highs in the mid-50s to lows typically no colder than the low 30s. One of the best times to visit the park is during the spring when temperatures warm up to the 60s and 70s during the day.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park has a number of regularly scheduled events throughout the year including the popular bat flight program. Every night at 6:30 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through October, visitors are invited to watch the park’s Brazilian free-tailed bats fly from the cavern at sunset. A park ranger guides the tour which is free and available without reservations although no cell phones, cameras, or other electronic devices are permitted.
During certain times of the year you can also reserve a spot for the guided star walks and moon hikes after the bat flight program. These free hikes are designed for stargazing and are first come, first serve with a maximum of 25 participants.
Size: 46,766 acres
Date established: May 14, 1930
Location: Southeast New Mexico in the Guadalupe Mountains range
Designation: UNESCO World Heritage Site
Park Elevation: 3,596 feet to 6,368 feet, visitor center is at 4,406 feet
Park entrance fee: $15 per person
Recreational visits (2021): 349,244
How the park got its name: Carlsbad Caverns National Park was named after the town it resides near. The name Carlsbad was adopted in America (Carlsbad in San Diego is another to coin the name) during the late 19th century to mirror the elite European spa, Karlsbad in what was then Bohemia (now the Czech Republic.)
Accessible adventure: Explore the cave system with a ranger on one of the guided adventures and see areas that are otherwise not accessible including King’s Palace, the Left Hand Tunnel, and the Spider Cave. In some you will crawl, some you will carry a lantern, some you will climb down a ladder into the darkness—in all, you’ll have unusual underground fun. Group-led adventures are a great way to learn more than you ever could on a self-guided tour. Ranger guides are a wealth of knowledge and are happy when people show active interest in the parks—worthy of tapping into by asking great questions.
If caving isn’t your thing, the nearby above-ground Rattlesnake Springs Historic District picnic area provides a place to kick back and take in the incredible desert landscape of the Guadalupe Mountains and remnants of the ancient barrier reef that exists there.
Big adventure: The self-guided Natural Entrance trail descends 750-feet down a paved pathway on a 1¼ mile trail that was blazed before you by early explorers of the Caverns (sans cement of course.) This first section gives you a real sense of what it feels like to be underground.
Continuing onto the second portion of the trail and you will find yourself in the “Big Room,” a flat 1¼ mile walking path that brings you face-to-face with ornately carved drapes, stalactites, stalagmites, spires, and other limestone formations.
Know before you go: Elevator access from the visitor center to the famed Big Room has been out of commission since November of 2015 and a repair date is still being determined. At the time of writing this, there is only one way to get to this room located 750 feet beneath the Natural Entrance and that is on foot. Big adventure indeed, the climb down is steep and the climb back to the top is strenuous with no alternative route.
Did you know?
The Carlsbad Caverns Park entrance is located just 25 miles from Guadalupe Mountains National Park across the Texas state line. The Guadalupe Mountain range itself is home to both parks.
Carlsbad Caverns has 30 miles of mapped caves. Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is home to the largest known cave system on Earth with more than 405 miles.
Unlike many other caves, tripod photography is welcome at Carlsbad Caverns.
It’s cool underground! Seriously, temperatures in the caves of North America consistently hover around 55 degrees.
The Big Room is the largest cave chamber in North America by volume with the capability to swallow six football fields.
The Bottomless Pit is one of the famed stops in the Big Room. It is a drop falling only 140 feet—but at the time of discovery, it was thought to be bottomless. (Note: wise men shall not throw debris into the pit to test its depth. Rangers have to repel down annually to clean out the bottom.)
The Grand Canyon with a roof over it.