Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s Five Guided Off-trail Tours

Lower Cave formations Photo courtesy National Park Service
Lower Cave formations

Carlsbad Caverns National Park runs five guided off-trail tours. They are so different it’s hard to imagine they are in the same park. Spider Cave delivers an intimate caving experience, wriggling into the hidden underworld, coming face-to-face with earth’s inner secrets. Lower Cave is back stage at the opera.

Left-hand Tunnel is a ranger-led, lantern-lit stroll into what seems the dusty old storeroom of a grand palace. The trail is hard-packed earth, not the black emery-chip trail of the Cavern. I expected stored bundles of stalactites and stalagmites, old benches, discarded displays. There are none, of course - the cave is natural. We skirt shallow pools. We step cautiously through a hoary grotto etched with eerie formations, half-expecting Icabod Crane to burst screeching from the black depths. We marvel at the scores of “Lion’s Tails,” slender stalactites decorated at their tips by clusters of “popcorn,” that adorn one chamber. Left-hand tunnel is an easy stroll.

Hall of the White Giant, like Spider Cave, approximates real caving. Wearing hardhat and headlamp, we slip off the paved trail inside the Cavern and worm our way into a maze of helter-skelter holes in the jumbled rock. Inside it’s breezeless, dry, warm. Then comes subterranean mountain-climbing: hiking narrow, winding trails; inching along a cliff side; negotiating crevices; clambering over man-sized rocks, up slippery chutes and slopes; crawling through tight fissures, then snake-like, squirming through tiny openings. The adventure climaxes at a scenic overlook of a mountain valley of upside down ghost trees, guarded by the White Giant, a huge stalagmite. The trek leaves us puffing. It’s not for the claustrophobic.

Slaughter Canyon Cave is the unheralded, closeted step-sister of Carlsbad Cavern. Hidden on a mountainside beyond Rattlesnake Springs, ten miles from Carlsbad Cavern, it’s a 30-45 minute uphill hike through the desert before the tour ever begins. In summer, this trek is a scorcher. Flashlight in hand, we seek refuge in Slaughter. It’s huge! Evidence of mining dominates the cave’s mouth: scarred walls; carved deposits of ancient guano, the youngest carbon-14 dated to 28,000 years ago; “historic trash” - rusted cans, electrical wires; even preserved jeep tracks. Slaughter turns us into Gulliver: Like giants, we clomp past a meandering three-inch high “Great Wall of China”; like Lilliputians, we cower beneath “The Monarch,” an 89-foot-high giant. Our ranger guide says its the third largest cave column in the world. Our final treat: the intimate “Christmas Tree” room, its shimmering white namesake crowned in a white bell canopy as delicate as glazed frosting.

These five off-trail tours offer an intriguing glimpse into Carlsbad’s world of caving, but there’s more to the Caverns than meets even the adventurous tourist’s eye. Carlsbad Caverns contains 30.9 miles of explored routes - the formal tours take us through only about three miles.

What are these hidden rooms like? I asked Dale Pate. He organized an expedition with three other rangers into “Mystery Room,” a closed area off the Queen’s Chamber, part of the King’s Palace guided tour.

We plan our departure carefully - we don’t want a tour group catching us stepping off the trail. We scoot quickly over a small rise, out of sight of the paved path. The flagged route leads upward like a mountain trail through a cluster of stalagmites. We cross a short, steel-mesh bridge - I expect a troll, but none appears - and hike on. We work our way down the face of a cliff using hand and toe holds; there’s not a ledge here, nor a visible trail. The face is scabbed with “popcorn,” nice to look at, but with the promise that if we fall, we’ll be skinless before we hit the pool at the bottom.

Suddenly, we’re there, Mystery Room, but there’s no door, no formal entry. It’s not really “a room” at all; it’s more a mountain buried in a gigantic underground vault.

This is no virgin passage. The flagged trail has been crushed flat by countless boots, and off-limits trails snake out periodically to follow some promising fissure, or to disappear over the edge of a cliff. The trails date from the early days of exploration, the 1920s and 1930s. These days, Mystery Room is reserved for staff orientation, scientific excursions, or, like today, management-related trips.

Alongside one cavern wall, wild helictites like twisted fingers jut up from premature graves. Some are like dancing snakes, poised on their tails, their wriggling bodies frozen in time. A glistening two-foot-high Santo, one black eye glimmering in my head lamp, appears along the trail. Its slim shoulders are shrouded in a length of trail-marking tape.

Matlocks’ Pinch in the Hall of White Giant tour
Photo courtesy National Park Service
Matlocks' Pinch

We enter a field of stalagmites like human limbs - arms and legs protruding from the stone. I spot a dinosaur leg bone, bleached white, corroded, dusty from centuries of neglect. No, it’s not a dinosaur leg at all, it’s a buried giant. Six feet of his right leg protrude from the rock, caught at the knee. Clearly there is his heel; his big toe, complete with toenail; the Achilles tendon. His full body lies beneath us, caught forever in a futile attempt to extract himself from a buried trap.

We hike to the end of the flagged trail. Our official task for today is to loop the flagging around, make a clearly delineated ending to the Mystery Room excursion. In the future, those few who enter the room will confine their footsteps to the flagged trails.

Some of us wander over to a gorge overlook. The bottom is invisible. Jason says its 180 feet deep. Our headlamps reach the far side, but they’re not powerful enough to show detail. We skirt a gaping hole in the cave floor. Years ago someone wedged a 30-foot-long, 2-inch iron pipe lengthwise through the gap, then hung pulleys on it and ran electrical lines through Mystery into Lower Cave below. The wire has been removed, but the pipe is an intriguing bit of man’s history, like mine rubbish in the Colorado high country.

Jason points out a cluster of dog-toothed spar inside a vug, or miniature cave. They’re like three-inch brown diamonds, arranged in a grid, jutting from the vug ceiling. I could slither into this, but it would be head first, and pretty much straight down. Another grid of dog-toothed spar covers the bottom. The truth hits me: it’s a trap designed by Edgar Allen Poe! If I went in, someone would push a button, the walls would grind inward, the spar would pin me forever in this graveyard. I don’t tell the rangers what I’ve realized; I assume they all know.

As the rangers lay their flagging, we instinctively confine our footsteps to the newly defined trail. I’m standing in the middle of the path and Jason wants to pass. I squeeze aside; he inches past. Neither of us step outside the new artificial boundary.

For some long moment, everyone is occupied. No one speaks. One ranger sits on a ledge overlooking the gorge. If, like Lot’s wife, God were to turn him to stone, he would fit here. He would be the perpetual thinker, caught forever in this hidden, silent ghost room.

The rangers finish their loop, 800 feet of orange plastic tape. We hike out single file, commenting on decorations. There’s damage here, too, in this room locked away from visitors. Along the trail, several stalagmites have been snapped off, parts scattered like broken icicles. A ranger matches a broken piece to a stalagmite. Perfect fit. He will contact a volunteer who specializes in reconstructing decorations. The volunteer will reassemble the pieces.

The hike out seems half as long as the walk in. The cliff beside the pool is no challenge. The rangers inspect the steel-mesh bridge, talk about replacing it. We pause before we emerge from the rough trail to the paved trail - the electric lights are on; a ranger-led tour must be in process. We make it out without being seen.