Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Written by on April 24, 2015 in NM Outdoor Adventures - Comments Off on Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Beneath the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico is a hidden wonder. It’s hard to image that under a rather bleak stretch of cactus, rock and sand there exists a world of exquisite beauty, hidden in more than 300 known caves (more caves are being discovered every year). Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains 116 of these caves, and some of the largest caves in North America, which means you should plan to spend some time in the park exploring!

The caves of Carlsbad Caverns and surrounding area were carved from a fossil limestone reef laid down by an inland sea 250 to 280 million years ago, and formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone. Then water, from snows and summer storms finished decorating the cavern with cave formations (or what scientists call speleothems) like stalactites, stalagmites, pearls, popcorn, drapery, soda straws, lily pads and gypsum flowers in colors ranging from brown to gold, red to white.

A cave system where speleothems are still growing is referred to as alive. A system where water no longer shapes the inside of the cavern is known as a dead cave. Carlsbad Caverns was at the height of its growth during the last ice age when New Mexico was much wetter. For the time being, Carlsbad Cavern is not dead or alive, it’s just inactive. A change in moisture to the deserts above, either more or less rain and snow, will change the status of the cave.

If you enter the cavern from the main entrance, you’ll descend 750 feet deep into the earth, via a steep switchback trail. The trail follows a passage called the Main Corridor and passes Devil’s Spring, a clear reflective pool; Iceberg Rock, a huge chunk of rock that toppled form the ceiling eons ago; and the Boneyard, an unfinished corner of the cave; and finally emerge into the Big Room. The Big Room takes the shape of a cross and covers over 9 acres and the ceiling is 255 feet high. Inside the Big Room, you’ll want to visit the Hall of Giants, the Bottomless Pit, Rock of Ages and the Painted Grotto.

Only water is allowed on the trails, since dropped food attracts unwanted visitors like skunks! However, one of the oddest, but nicest, features of the park is the underground lunch room, where snacks and drinks are available, which means you can spend a full day underground.

The hike into and out of the cave follows a 3-mile self-guided trail. The park is open year every day except for Christmas, but remember that caves stay the same temperature year around (56 degrees) so you’ll want to take a sweater even in summer, and wear sturdy, non-slip shoes! For guests who have health concerns, there is an easier way to get to the Big Room via an elevator. Before the elevator, guests were lowered into the cavern via guano buckets (guano is bat poop).
There are a variety of guided cave tours available — from the self-guided areas of the Big Room to crawling through narrow passageways on the Hall of the White Giant Tour or in Spider Cave. You won’t want to miss watching the Mexican free-tail bats exit the cavern at dusk in the summer.

Cave ecosystems are very fragile and are easily affected by human activity. Once each year, volunteers come to the park and spend a week picking up 16 pounds of lint shed from visitors along the trail systems of Carlsbad Cavern. While in the caves, please don’t touch the rock formations — take only pictures and leave only footprints.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park also offers hiking and backcountry camping. The closest developed campgrounds are in the nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park and in the towns of White’s City and Carlsbad. Gas, food and lodging are also available in White’s City and Carlsbad.

Other attractions in the area include:
White Sands National Monument
Guadalupe Mountains National Park just across the border into Texas

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
3225 National Parks Highway
Carlsbad, New Mexico 88220
Phone: (575) 785-2232
Bat Flight Information: (575) 785-3012

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