Caving off the Beaten Path in Carlsbad Caverns

Offbeat trails lead to scenic wonderlands inside Carlsbad Caverns. Photo by Carla DeMarco
Offbeat trails lead to scenic wonderlands inside Carlsbad Caverns.

Like Dorothy’s yellow-brick road, the shiny black trail through New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns leads to a mystical journey in a spectacular underworld.

The emery-chip trail, lighted and guarded with steel hand rails, ushers us underground, into a room big enough to hold 14 football fields, through the ornate King’s Palace. Yet, this scenic wonderland merely previews an elaborate maze of passages and hidden treasures that lie beyond the trails.

Care for a taste of more adventurous caving? Join us on the off-trail park tours, trips available even to the casual visitor to Carlsbad Caverns.

Rangers keep the off-trail tour groups small - some are limited to eight. All take unlit, unpaved routes to sights well removed from the commonly trod routes. All require reservations, and all run year-around. For an introduction to caving beyond the paved trail, try these:

Left-hand Tunnel: A ranger-led, lantern-lit 90-minute stroll into what seems the dusty old storeroom of a grand palace. You follow a trail of hard-packed earth, not black macadam, and expect stored bundles of stalactites and stalagmites, old benches, discarded displays here. You find none, of course - the cave is natural. You skirt shallow pools. You step cautiously through a hoary grotto etched with eerie formations, half-expecting Icabod Crane to burst screeching from the black depths. You marvel at the scores of "Lion’s Tails,"slender stalactites decorated at their tips by clusters of "popcorn," that adorn one chamber. The tour is an easy stroll, and is limited to 15 participants.

Lower Cave: If Left-Hand Tunnel is the Caverns’ storeroom, Lower Cave is back stage. Decked out in a caver’s hard hat and headlamp, you descend steel ladders, negotiate slippery flowstone, cross a pool, clamber over rocks, slip through narrow passages. Lower Cave presents a host of unique decorations: the "rookery" with nests of cave pearls; a delicate epsomite beard like thinning cotton-candy; an intricate aragonite fissure like a living reef; floury moon-milk on the cave wall. In Lower Cave’s huge central hall, you skirt light fixtures oddly out-of-place on the broad expanse of floor. They are not there to light your path, but to illuminate features for those looking down from above. You hear muted voices and gaze up at tiny silhouetted figures at the Big Room overlook. You discover the bottom of a rickety ladder from the 1923 National Geographic expedition that brought world fame to the Caverns. Lower Cave is a 2-3 hour trip, and is limited to 12 participants.

Hall of the White Giant: Wearing hard hat and headlamp, you step off the paved trail and worm your way through 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. Then you retrace your steps, hoping to find your way back out. The trek leaves you puffing. It’s not for the claustrophobic. Hall of the White Giant takes 3-4 hours, and is limited to 8 participants.

Slaughter Canyon Cave is the unheralded, closeted step-sister of Carlsbad Cavern. Hidden beyond Rattlesnake Springs, it’s a 30-45 minute uphill hike through the desert to the entrance. In summer, this trek is a scorcher; bring a water bottle. Flashlight in hand, you 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 18,000 years ago; "historic trash"- rusted cans, electrical wires; even preserved jeep tracks. Slaughter turns you into Gulliver: Like a giant, you clomp past a meandering three-inch high "Great Wall of China"; like a Lilliputian, you cower beneath "The Monarch," an 89-foot-high giant, one of the largest cave columns in the world. Your final treat: the intimate "Christmas Tree" room, its shimmering white namesake crowned in a white bell canopy as delicate as glazed frosting. Slaughter Canyon is a 2-3 hour tour, and is limited to 25 participants.

Spider Cave challenges you up front: You descend into a stone man-hole, then crawl and slither into the heart of the hillside. Like a cork in a bottle, you squeeze through a tiny slipway into "The Auditorium," a chamber that barely holds ten people. In Spider Cave, you navigate narrow by-ways between intimate rooms - chamber music compared to the grand arias of Carlsbad Cavern or Slaughter Canyon Cave. Spider offers a gallery of bleached-bone-white calcite formations, extruded by time through mineraled walls into misshapen, interwoven murals. It adds the intrigue of squirming belly flat through muddy passages, the beauty of delicate formations reflected in pristine pools. Spider Cave is limited to 8 participants. The trip takes 3-4 hours.

These five off-trail tours take you off the beaten path. Plan time for them. They offer an intriguing glimpse into Carlsbad’s world of caving.