Texas is home to some amazing wonders and two fantastic national parks, but just over its western border is a national park that is a must-stop. Continue to read about what you can expect at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.
History of Carlsbad Caverns
About 40 minutes north of Guadalupe Mountains National Park is where you’ll find a place that goes in the opposite direction of the tallest point in Texas.
The mountains turn into rolling hills as you drive through a small city and make your way to the winding road of the national park. This area highlights what makes the Chihuahuan Desert area so fascinating.
In 1923 President Calvin Coolidge signed a proclamation making Carlsbad Cave a National Monument, but signs of life had left their mark from millions of years ago.
This area of Texas and New Mexico was once underground, and signs of aquatic life can be found in the depths of the cavern. Remnants from the ocean can also be seen around Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountain region.
Early human inhabitants of what was once Mexico, and eventually Spain, Texas, roamed these lands and migrated with the buffalo, but by the 1880s, settlers in the area discovered the true depths of the caves while mining for bat guano that was being used for fertilizer.
What to expect above ground
The drive into the site is almost worth the trip alone.
Winding roads begin to overlook the desert land and the views are breathtaking and picturesque without any need to pay for a ticket.
Multiple scenic overlooks are worth stopping at if you have the time.
Once you arrive at the visitors center the national park vibes begin in size and in crowd.
Reservation windows were still required at the time of the posting, so visit this site to reserve. Once that’s taken care of you can make your way to purchase the ticket to take the tour of the cave. Definitely a bit confusing the first time going through the process.
The visitor center has two halves; one side for the cafe and gift shop, and the opposite side for a smaller gift shop and a museum of sorts for the caverns.
Here you can learn about the history of the cavern and see an amazing full-scale rendition of the entire cave. You can highlight different parts of the cave and it will give you some insight into that specific part. Pretty cool.
What you should take and wear
- Comfy shoes that have decent grip. Water does drip in some spots, and while they do their best to place mats in trouble areas, it never hurts to be prepared.
- It’s a lot of downhill walking if you’re hiking in. Trekking poles aren’t that necessary, but if you’re a bit wobble downhill a good walking stick wouldn’t be a horrible idea.
- A layer (it gets a little chilly)
- You are allowed a bottle of water, but no eating. If so all of the bats will swarm you and you’ll be come the life of the bat cave party. (No scientific proof)
- Cameras are allowed, iPhone 12 Pro and above utilize the night mode extremely well.
- You are allowed to bring a flashlight or a headlamp, but do you want to be the person that walks around the dark cave with that on? There’s enough light to see in front of you, and railing to guide you in winding areas.
- A positive attitude! Why not?
Hiking Carlsbad Caverns
There are two main options to hike the cave. You can either take an elevator straight down to the main room, or you can hike down and experience the full cave.
If you’re pressed for time then go ahead and take the elevator straight down. A lot of what you’ll see at the very bottom is pretty similar to what you see at the very top, but the entrance is a fun experience.
If you’re hiking in you’ll make your way to the entrance down the sidewalk and past an amphitheater.
The amphitheater is a viewing area for what comes next: the enormous opening just below that’s lined with the high-pitched squeak that can only mean one thing: BATS.
They’re everywhere at the entrance, and frankly, the only time you’ll be inundated with the smell of bat guano. Or maybe you just get used to it after mile three?
The vastness of the entrance cannot be explained in words or photos. It’s something you just have to experience. It’s what sets the tone for the entire hike down, and why you should hike in if you’re physically capable.
A note on claustrophobia
The sudden darkness can feel a bit uncomfortable if you get anxious in tight quarters. The temperature will cool off, and the rooms will start to open up again to breathe, but pace yourself and focus on the lighted areas to regain your grip on your surroundings. It is something that can creep up on you upon entry.
What you’ll see in Carlsbad Caverns
The caverns are very… cavernous.
Texas has caverns in the hill country, so if you’ve never been it’s what you’d expect a cavern to look like. Stalactites and stalagmites in every direction, and educational signage along the way to explain some of the names given to the cone-shaped pillars of millions of years of water drops.
While mostly dark, there are segments of the cavern that are lit up to showcase some of the more fascinating structures.
As you descend into the depths of the cavern don’t forget people explored these areas, and signs of human activity can be found towards the bottom.
Ladders and rope can be seen in one of the deeper sections that aren’t accessible on the tour, but it’s fun to imagine how much farther those explorers went.
The Big Room
Once you get to the bottom where you’d arrive if you took the elevator, you have the option to use the restroom.
Did you see “The Goonies”?
Remember when they used the restroom in the skull?
That’s what using the restroom in Carlsbad Caverns feels like. You’re walking into a cutout section that’s now a restroom. Kind of hilarious.
From here you make your way into the BIG ROOM.
According to the NPS website, “The most popular route, the Big Room, is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. This 1.25 mile (2 km) trail is relatively flat, and will take about 1.5 hours (on average) to walk it. Actor and comedian Will Rogers called the cavern, “The Grand Canyon with a roof over it.” You will be rewarded with spectacular views, cave formations of all shapes and sizes, and a rope ladder used by explorers in 1924″.
The remarkable part of this trail is seeing the water pools on the ground and remember that part of the ocean. There are signs of oceanic life from millions of years ago.
If you don’t want to do the entire loop there are shortcuts you can cut across at. There are also sections here that are not wheelchair accessible, so keep that in mind as well.