A main reason for our stay in Guadalupe Mountains National Park was to be able to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park which is right next door. We got a small taste of cavern exploration a few weeks back when we tackled the Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio, and we enjoyed that experience so much it really got us looking forward to Carlsbad Caverns!
We were staying in the Pine Springs campground of Guadalupe Mountains NP so Carlsbad was an easy 40 minute drive northeast on route 62, crossing into New Mexico for our subterranean adventure. We were warned ahead of time that the elevators for public use have been out of order for some time, so it would take a larger commitment than usual to fully enjoy the wonders that Carlsbad has to offer. We were not deterred however, in fact we welcomed the challenge.
We arrived mid-morning, it is important to get to the caverns somewhat early especially while the elevators are down. Although the caverns are technically open until 5:00pm, the latest they allow visitors to start the decent is 2:00 to allow sufficient time to make the trip 800ft down, enjoy the 1.5 mile path at the bottom, and then make the far more taxing 800ft ascent to daylight once again. The “Natural Entrance” is the only entrance currently, and consists of switchbacks and slopes that are not for the faint of heart. An ominous feeling sets in as you start making your way down and get to the point where the last bit of daylight flickers out…and your only about 100ft down at this point…only 700ft to go!
Looking down into the Natural Entrance…sort of feels like you are walking down into the belly of the beast!!
The decent is part of the attraction in my opinion, it is not too often that you get to safely bore right into the Earth’s surface and enjoy the magnificent surroundings as you go. The path, although steep, is paved and lighting is scattered around so you can take in the stalactites (hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (growing from the floor) which are everywhere and of every size.
Huge volumes of space open up before you as you make your way down, only to be outdone by the room you get to explore at the bottom. Appropriately named the “Big Room” it is roughly 4,000ft long and 625ft wide. The highest point measures 255ft from cavern floor to ceiling overhead (think of a 25-story building fitting inside this cavern).
It is astonishing that something this large rests 800ft below the surface of the Earth where everyone goes about their business. It really makes you think about the makeup of the Earth, and just how porous it might be. For those of you looking for a surreal experience into a world that we rarely get to see, Carlsbad Caverns is a must.
Tips and Notes:
- We were able to use our America the Beautiful National Park pass to get in free of charge. They don’t advertise this so make sure you have your pass on you and present it upon check in to avoid the $10.00/adult fee.
- The caverns offer a variety of guided tours that take you to some of the far reaches of the caves not visible on the main trail. These tours do have additional fees.
- There is an RV park closer to the National Park entrance in Whites City, NM. We chose to stay in Guadalupe Mountains NP because it made more sense for route and was also much less expensive.
- When it comes to appropriate clothing, consider hiking shoes or sneakers that are in good shape. Layer your clothing as much as possible – we went from a dry outside temperature of 90 degrees down to a humid cool 55 degrees at the bottom of the cavern…and then back up.
- Each night the park has a free bat watch program. We attended the program and in our opinion it was well worth it. A park ranger gives a 30 minute presentation as dusk settles in, and as the cave swallows head back into the mouth of the cave to find their nests, the bats start to make their nightly exodus to hunt. Spiraling out of the cave in a counter clockwise pattern, the bats make their way out by the thousands. At the peak of the summer months there are roughly 400,000 batts and it can take 3-4 hours for all of them to finally leave the cave. It was an incredible sight. Below is a pic of the amphitheater where you can sit and enjoy the bat flight program each evening.