Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Location: New Mexico

Park Tally: 12/59

Orientation: Carlsbad Caverns is situated in the New Mexico side of the Guadalupe Mountain Range of the Chihuahuan Desert. Guadalupe Mountains National Park can be found only 35 miles away across the Texas state line. The magical underground world of Carlsbad Caverns is characterized by over 300 limestone caves bursting with magnificent formations and features.

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Visitors can explore the chambers of Carlsbad via self-guided or ranger-led tours. The public can only view part of the cave, with many of the underground rooms kept protected or unexplored. Over 30 miles of passages have been discovered thus far, with the deepest chamber reaching 1,037 feet below the surface.

Most iconic view:  The Big Room is the most popular and impressive route in the park. The chamber can be accessed via an elevator into the cave or visitors can descend 79 stories from the mouth of the cave on the intense Natural Entrance Trail. The Big Room is a flat 1.25-mile self-guided walking path that brings you up-close with exquisite carved drapes, stalactites, stalagmites, spires, and other limestone formations.

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The most remarkable speleothems have been given official names – Hall of the Giants, Temple of the Sun and Rock of Ages. The park service has subtly highlighted the cave features with electric lights to allow visitor easier viewing and to create a truly captivating sight. Most parts of the Big Room trail are wheelchair-accessible, and all have a special non-slip surface.

Another iconic activity at Carlsbad Caverns is the evening bat viewing. Between May and October, rangers share information about these mysterious creatures and visitors can watch nearly 400,000 Brazilian free-tail bats depart the caves for their nightly feedings. Sadly, we didn’t get to view this spectacular but that just gives us another excuse to return!

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Accessible activity:  Touring the Big Room is a wonderful accessible activity that all can enjoy (mentioned in detail above). Other options include ranger-led tours throughout the cave’s other sections, which can range from 1-5 to 5.5 hours. We chose the 1.5 hour Kings Palace guided tour through four highly decorated scenic chambers. The tour descends into the deepest portion of the cavern with paved trails, 830 feet beneath the desert surface. The tour offers viewings of extensive collections of stalagmites and stalactites and the rangers provide interesting facts about the history of the cave. Our ranger conducted a brief black-out program in which he turned off all lights and allowed us to experience the true natural environment of the cave – spooky!

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For the adventurous: There are numerous ranger-led cave tours that offer more strenuous and adventurous experiences compared to sections such as the Big Room. Some of these tours require helmets and headlamps to be worn, navigation of ladders, ropes and slippery surfaces, belly-crawling for extended periods of time, and free climbing rock chimneys. If interested, daring souls can enquire at the Visitor Center about the Spider Cave, Hall of the White Giant, and Slaughter Canyon Cave tours.

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Best photo opportunities: Use of tripods is allowed on the self-guided trails in Carlsbad Caverns, allowing photographers to capture longer exposures in the dark underground setting. The artificial lighting does make photography challenging at times and requires creativity and patience. There are many interesting features to capture along the Big Room self-guided trail, including iridescent rock pools and towering stalagmites. 

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Quick facts

  • Carlsbad Caverns was established as a national park on May 14, 1930. It is one of the oldest and most famous cave systems in the world.
  • In 1995, UNESCO designated Carlsbad Caverns National Park as a World Heritage Site.
  • The caves were formed 250-280 million years ago by fossilized reefs beneath an in-land sea.
  • Pictographs in the area suggest that Native Americans used caves near the surface long before they were “discovered.”
  • The first credited cave exploration happened in Carlsbad in 1898, by 16-year-old cowboy Jim White.
  • Underground temperatures in the caves remain around 56° Fahrenheit year-round.
  • In 1959, Carlsbad Caverns served as a location for the movie “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”
  • In 2016 the park had 466,773 visitors. The highest visitation number ever recorded was in 1976, when more than 875,000 people explored the park.

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