- New Mexico
A subterranean wonderland of caves and fantastical geological formations
Like a page torn from "Journey to the Center of the Earth," the subterranean wonderland of Carlsbad Caverns National Park holds fantastic geological formations and, for those who seek it, a bit of underground adventure. The immense cave system, hidden beneath the desert in the southwestern state of New Mexico, is about 243 kilometers northeast of El Paso, Texas. Yet the somewhat remote location doesn’t deter tourists, who flock to the park in summer. The summer is routinely hot, with average daytime highs between 32.2 and 37.8 Celsius. But no matter when you visit, the temperature inside the caves is typically 13 Celsius, so bring a sweater.
What to See
The park’s essential experience is a self-guided walk among the amazing geological formations of the 3.1-hectare Big Room, a colossal stalactite and stalagmite-festooned chamber with a ceiling that reaches up to 78 meters high.
From the visitor center, ride the elevator 79 stories down to the Big Room, or be adventurous and hike the steep 2-kilometer Natural Entrance route, twisting and descending 229 meters from the mouth of the cave.
The Big Room’s mostly level, 1.6-kilometer paved path winds past intricate formations created by mineral-laden water that has dripped and solidified over hundreds of thousands of years. From ceiling-hung forests of delicate, icicle-like stalactites to massive geologic features resembling frozen waterfalls, you’re immersed in a surreal world of folded, rippled stone. These are the wonders you’ve come to see, and though the path can be covered in a hurried 90 minutes, it’s wise to budget a leisurely 2.5 hours.
Hungry? Before returning to the surface world, grab a sandwich or salad in the famed Underground Lunchroom, which has a 1950s retro-futuristic look.
The park’s other must-see spectacle involves Brazilian free-tailed bats, which live by the hundreds of thousands in deep, dark reaches of the caverns from roughly April to mid-October. At sunset they fly en masse from the cave’s mouth, swarming and blackening the sky on their way to feast on insects for the evening.
The formations within Carlsbad Caverns evolved over hundreds of thousands of years.
While many visitors are content with a stroll through the Big Room, others want to see more of the cave system, which is only accessible on guided tours. The visitor center offers a daily schedule and tickets, which tend to sell out quickly April through October. To avoid disappointment, reserve tickets in advance.
Of the park’s half-dozen tours, most popular is the Kings Palace Tour, which departs from the Big Room’s elevator area and leads you on a steep 1.6-kilometer trek to the deepest area of the main cave—253 meters below the desert. Among the beautiful formations are the translucent limestone “draperies.”
If you’d like to experience what the caverns were like before they were developed for tourism, try a more rugged, strenuous tour of Slaughter Canyon Cave or Spider Cave. Both involve drives from the visitor center and hikes to the cave entrances; participants should be in good physical shape. In Spider Cave you’ll be climbing and crawling through tight passages.
Visitors can take an elevator or walk down to the caverns.
Where to Sleep
There are no lodgings within the park. The nearest motel is in White’s City, a tourist complex just outside the park entrance. You’ll find more choices in the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico (32 kilometers northeast), which has nearly two dozen motels.