Visiting Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico was one of the highlights of our road trip in this area. The caverns are huge! The formations inside the caverns are spectacular. I am tempted to say that this subterranean landscape is “out of this world” and, figuratively speaking, it is; however, touring Carlsbad Caverns serves as a reminder of the wonderful variety and fantastic scenery which is right here on planet Earth. Is it worth visiting Carlsbad Caverns? Yes, absolutely!
Carlsbad Caverns was designated a National Park in 1930 and a World Heritage Site in 1995. The park covers 46,766 acres and over a hundred caves. There is evidence that people entered the caverns over a thousand years ago, but modern exploration did not begin until the early Twentieth Century. It was then that the extraordinary wonder of the caves was realised. They are truly awe-inspiring.
Where are the Carlsbad Caverns?
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is in the south east of New Mexico, more specifically in the Guadalupe Mountains in Chihuahuan Desert. It is within easy reach of Roswell (you know, where the aliens landed!) and not far from the border with Texas. The next stop on our road trip after visiting Carlsbad Caverns was the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is in Texas and just a short drive away.
Tickets for Carlsbad Caverns
Tickets for Carlsbad Caverns, at the time of writing, cost $15, or if like us, you have the National Parks Pass (excellent value at $80 per couple for the year), entry is free. However, even with a National Parks Pass, it is necessary to reserve a slot to visit Carlsbad Caverns and this has to be done online. The reservation costs two dollars.
Exploring Carlsbad Caverns
We visited Carlsbad Caverns on a Monday morning and it was very quiet. We had reserved a visit time for 9.30 am but arrived about half an hour early and we were allowed straight in. If they had been busier, I am sure we would have had to wait for our allocated time.
Natural Entrance route
Ranger guided tours are available in normal times, but in Covid times, these had been suspended. There are two self-guided routes: the first involves taking the elevator down into the heart of the caverns and then walking around “The Big Room”; the second involves going through the “natural entrance” and walking down into the depths of the earth. We opted for the natural entrance (but we took the elevator back up!).
Before venturing into the caves, a friendly ranger gave us a little pep talk about the rules: no touching the walls, no litter, staying on the path and showing courtesy to others. I should note at this point that there were no “others”. Going through the natural entrance, we had the place entirely to ourselves until we were almost at the “Big Room”.
Down, down we went into the depths. The trail was smooth and easy with handrails the whole way. For the most part, the caverns we passed through were high and spacious, but occasionally the trail we followed became narrow and tighter. My main issue along the trail from the natural entrance was light. My night vision is quite poor and the path was only dimly lit so I took more care than I might have done otherwise.
Into “The Big Room”
The route from the natural entrance is awesome, but the Big Room is utterly stunning – and it goes on and on. The trail goes the whole way round the perimeter of this gigantic cavern and there is always something to marvel at. Sometimes, the light catches holes through into other chambers and tunnels leading off mysteriously. Where do they lead? How deep do they go? What lies beyond?
The caverns are truly magnificent! They are enormous and the formations are incredible – some huge and sturdy, others intricate and fragile, but all so very beautiful. The lighting helped to illuminate and enhance the natural beauty of the formations. The shapes created by the stalactites, stalagmites and other features were really evocative: there were monsters, teeth, fairies, trees, chandeliers, idols, aliens….a whole other world!
There were some information boards along the way, but for the most part the cavern speaks for itself. The sign below, however, can only be read in the inverted reflection in the water!
We only experienced a fraction of the complex which forms Carlsbad Caverns. Walking down from the Natural Entrance and round the Big Room, we walked about three miles and were underground for a little over two hours. Had we walked back up to the entrance rather than taking the elevator, it would have taken considerably longer. I am really pleased that we did take the natural entrance to the caverns as there was so much to see on the way down to the main area.
Tours of other chambers
Other tours (guided by the rangers) into some of the different chambers are available in normal times. These include visits to the King’s Palace, the Queen’s Chamber and Slaughter Canyon Cave. Alas, Covid had closed these chambers when we visited. Hopefully we shall have the opportunity to explore these on another occasion. Other, extensive chambers, stretching over 140 miles, are permanently closed to the public in order to protect the fragile eco-system within. These can be accessed only by experienced cavers for scientific purposes.
Conditions inside Carlsbad Caverns
We had been advised to wrap up warm for our visit to Carlsbad Caverns and yes, I would advise having a jacket, but I did not find it particularly cold. It was airy and cool but not freezing. The cavern was largely dry, but we did feel the odd splash of water. The Natural Entrance route is described as “steep and strenuous”, but I found it very straightforward. The paths were all very easy and accessible.
The Flight of the Bats
Carlsbad Caverns is known for the remarkable flight of bats at dusk each evening from spring through to October. Thousands of bats swarm out of the cave to go and feed in the countryside to the south. I saw this phenomenon in Austin in Texas and it is a true spectacle. You can read about it in Quirky Bits from our US Road Trip. Unfortunately, we visited Carlsbad in early December so missed the show here, but I would definitely make a point of waiting until dusk to watch if we were there at a different time of year.
Camping near Carlsbad Caverns
As we were on a road trip in our motor home, we needed a campsite close to the caverns. The closest “campsite” is at White’s City which is at the bottom of the road leading up to the caverns. Except that it isn’t really a campsite at all, at least not for short stays. Short term stays are not allowed on to the campsite apparently, but are allocated a slot at the side of the road. There was no negotiation on this. Yes, we had a full hook up, but it seemed that this facility is used as a pull in for any passing RV to take on water or to dump their waste. Twice we were unable to access our allocated (and paid for) pitch because someone else was using it.
This area was also used as a parking area for passing trucks, like the enormous one that pulled in off the road right in front of us at 7.00 am and sat with the engine idling for over half an hour.
The road adjacent to our pitch was fairly quiet during the night, but the highway could be heard all night. This so-called campsite was littered with dog poop, had dumpsters full to over-flowing and lights immediately overhead which blinds did not block. All in all, this is the worst campsite we have ever stayed in. It cost $42.00 per night with a Good Sam discount.
I absolutely do not recommend staying at White’s City, but as we do not know the area I am unable to recommend any alternatives – except to note that there did appear to be some wild camps off the highway on the way down to Guadalupe!
Visiting Carlsbad Caverns: conclusion
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is right up there with the best National Parks in the USA. It is definitely worth going out of one’s way to visit.
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