An Underground Journey: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns, located in the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico’s Guadalupe Mountains, is the first of three “cave” national parks we plan to visit on our TTP NPS journey (the other two parks are Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Wind Cave in South Dakota). Those two parks require tours to enter their caves. But Carlsbad is unique because we could journey underground to parts of the cave on our own.

The park was created in 1930 and designated as a World Heritage Site in 1995. Visitation in 2016 was 466,773, ranking it 39th among all national parks. Carlsbad’s below ground chambers were not formed by underground streams, like most caves. Instead, rainwater seeped through cracks in the limestone and mixed with hydrogen sulfide-rich water pushed up by the uplift of the Guadalupe Mountains. When the two waters came together, it formed sulfuric acid, which dissolved the limestone to create the cave’s chambers. Water later seeped in and evaporated, resulting in cave formations such as stalagmites and stalactites.

When we arrived mid-day we went straight to the Visitor Center to pick up our three day cave pass. Carlsbad has two ways to enter the cave: either through its natural entrance or via an elevator. We opted for the elevator, which quickly transported us 755 feet (or about 70 stories) below ground. When the doors opened we were in a large rest area, complete with a cafeteria, bathrooms, and a gift shop. We had the entire next day devoted to seeing the cave, so decided to visit just the Big Room area, and leave the remainder for later.

Underground rest area

The Big Room route took us on a 1.5 mile hike around the perimeter of the largest room in the cave. It is 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide and 255 feet high at its tallest point, making it the fifth largest chamber in the world. A sign depicting the layout of the room showed a 747 airplane dwarfed in its scale.

Big Room sign (note the 747 plane image in the red bottom left corner)

The Big Room is heavily decorated with stalagmites, stalactites, domes, towers, popcorn, dripping soda straws, and even a bottomless pit. As we walked, we couldn’t get over how magical the Big Room felt to us. It was also easy to forget that we were 70 stories underground! Fully satisfied after our Big Room tour, we took the elevator back up and left the park to spend the night at a nearby hotel.

Walking through the Big Room

Big Room formations

We were back again the next morning to walk into the cave via its natural entrance as soon as it opened at 8:30 am. The natural entrance is famous for being the exit point for a group of the cave’s bats each night from late spring to fall. Unfortunately it was too early in the season and too windy at night to see the bat exodus at sunset, but we were treated to a group of sparrows flying out of the cave just as we were entering.

The natural entrance of the cave

In one mile, the route through the natural entrance descends 755 feet to meet the rest area where we arrived by elevator the day before. The trail steeply switchbacked down and it was eerie to look both back to the natural light coming in through the entrance and ahead to the cave lights directly below us. By the time we reached the rest area, we had a better appreciation of how the entrance was connected to the bottom of the cave.

Looking back at the natural entrance as we walked down

We timed our arrival at the rest area to meet a tour of the King’s Palace. The tour features a visit to four rooms not available to the general public: King’s Palace, Papoose Room, Queen’s Chamber, and Green Lake Room. Our group had only 17 people, which made the tour, led by Ranger Chris, feel more inclusive.

The four rooms are known as the “scenic rooms,” and we found that the features of each place felt more imitate to us than the grand scale of the Big Room.

The King’s Palace

The Green Lake Room

After the tour we felt energetic enough to walk back out of the cave, rather than use the elevator. With a constant 56 degree temperature in the cave, we were able to keep cool as we hiked up the steep switchbacks to the natural entrance.

We will continue our time in these same mountains as we next cross over to Texas and to Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

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