The Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Spectacular formations are subtly illuminated along paved trails inside Carlsbad Caverns.
Photo by Carla DeMarco

Carlsbad Caverns

Three miles of lighted and paved trails take visitors into the heart of the Capitan reef. Subtle lighting illuminates unique formations in the cavernous walls. Simple markers identify major formations. Wayside exhibits explain the history, formation, and development of the cavern.

Much of the main cave tour is self-guided. You stroll at your own pace, guided by modern high-tech assistance - a portable CD ROM unit chock full of historical and factual tidbits.

A full trip takes 3-4 hours, including the ranger-led tour of the King’s Palace - its delicate chambers now closed to unsupervised visitors to prevent damage to the intricate formations.

The ideal visit to Carlsbad Caverns starts by hiking down the natural entrance:  We plunge into the earth; light into darkness, summer heat into cool shadow. We’re explorers, wending our way to the center of the earth. The air turns musty; water drips. We imagine the cave’s first explorer, Jim White, descending by rope, home-made kerosene lantern in hand. We wonder how, without this trail, without these lights, he managed to find his way out safely.

An hour and a half later, we’re in the bowels of the Cavern. We’ve come a mile and a half. It’s 56 degrees - not cold, but cool enough to wear a jacket. The temperature remains the same year around.

We join a ranger-led tour of the King’s Palace, meandering through a lode of priceless formations. Some imitate household names - draperies, soda straws, popcorn. Others we remember from school - stalagmites, stalactites (ah, yes, "the mites go up; the tights come down"), helictites, twisted and writhing like anguished beasties. A ranger clicks off the lights. We can see nothing, not a shadow, not a glimmer. The depth of the blackness overwhelms us.

One cavern landmark is the 70-year-old underground lunchroom, a throwback to the days when intrepid visitors hiked down the 75 stories on 216 wooden steps. At day’s end, they trudged back up. Today’s visitors zip to the surface by elevator in 59 seconds.

We sip coffee and eat microwaved chicken strips in this dim, cool vault, and pretend we are explorers, resting. This is no gourmet meal; rather, it’s sustenance. The food is secondary. We reflect on what we have seen, anticipate what is to come. Then we’re off, fueled for a leisurely stroll through the Big Room.

The Big Room, reached by elevator or the natural entrance trail, teaches us the meaning of the word cavernous. Found here are the spectacular formations of the picture post cards:  Temple of the Sun, Twin Domes, the glistening Crystal Spring Dome, Rock of Ages, Mirror Lake. Simply put, every visitor must hike The Big Room loop. It’s a leisurely 1.2 miles, approximately an hour and a half. Much of the route is wheel chair accessible.

A good summer’s visit to the caverns ends with the bat flight. Nightly, June through September, visitors gather in the stone amphitheater overlooking the natural entrance. At dusk, the first darting shadows signal the bats’ departure on their nightly search for food. The trickle grows into a steady stream. Darkness falls. We disperse. Bats continue to spill out well into the night.

The bats return at sunrise, usually without human observers, except for one August morning each year when Carlsbad gathers before dawn for the annual bat flight breakfast of sausage, scrambled eggs, and steaming coffee. We cluster in the amphitheater, shivering, and listen as the bats swish by, returning from their night’s sojourn. In October, they will be off to winter in Mexico, having raised a new generation of young. You’ll see no bats during the winter season.

First explored extensively by modern man in 1901, Carlsbad Caverns became a national monument in 1923, a national park in 1930. Amenities followed:  elevator, paved road, bathrooms, lighting, paved underground trails, interpretive displays. In 1995, the park was named a World Heritage Site, an endowment of international significance.

While the Carlsbad Caverns - Natural Entrance, Big Room, and King’s Palace - is most advertised, and most known, the Park also conducts five "off-trail" tours - ranger-guided small-group excursions off the beaten path. The tours are given on different days, at different times, and each costs an additional fee.

In addition to the Caverns, the park’s visitors’ center features free exhibits, periodic ranger-led talks and slide shows, and other special events. It has an extensive bookstore, featuring caverns’ materials, but also books on the national parks and other outdoor fare.

An above-ground cafe offers sandwiches and other fast food.