New Mexico Attractions: Carlsbad Caverns

July 8, 2021

Paul Kay

A national park and world heritage site, Carlsbad Caverns is a spooky, beautiful natural wonder to put on your bucket list. Here's my review.

Welcome Sign, Carlsbad, New Mexico

Madeline and I wanted to go to Carlsbad Caverns National Park for a tour. We researched it and found that getting an advance reservation was essential. Luckily, the National Park Service makes it pretty easy to get a reservation. Since we live in North Texas, the trip from our home to Carlsbad Caverns was going to be an eight-hour drive. So, we decided to stay the night in Lubbock, Texas, and visit the Buddy Holly Museum and McPherson Cellars.

Visitor Center Sign, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
Visitors Center. Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

We stayed overnight in nearby Carlsbad so we could get an early start. It was only a short drive from town to the visitor’s center. When you arrive verify your reservation and pay a $15 entrance fee. If you are a senior and have the lifetime pass, you pay nothing. Children 15 years old and younger also do not pay any fee.

World Heritage Site Marker, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

Many tourists don’t realize that Carlsbad Caverns is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We love going to heritage sites all over the world. Italy has the most world heritage sites now, followed by China, Germany, France, Spain and India. The United States doesn’t even make the top 10. You have to remember that America wasn’t a country until the late 1700s. The natural wonders of America are what make the list. In fact, the National Park Service manages 18 of the 24 UNESCO sites in the U.S. These include Carlsbad Caverns, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades and Taos Pueblos.

Elevator Elevation Display, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

Two tours are offered. An elevator can take you directly down into the Big Room, which is the largest single cave chamber (by volume) in North America. (Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is a larger cave system, but it is split into smaller chambers.) The elevator takes you down more than 750 feet. You arrive near a gift shop, concessions and bathrooms. You also can go directly to the Big Room. The Big Room circuit is 1.25 miles in a loop. The park offers a shortcut around the Big Room, which reduces your walk to about a half mile. The longer loop takes about an hour to traverse depending on your speed and how many photos you take. Some of the Big Room walk is handicapped accessible. You can check here for more information about accessibility.

Entrance, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

We decided to take the Natural Entrance Trail. It is quite steep and the equivalent of walking down a 75-story building on seemingly never-ending switchbacks.

Madeline at Entrance, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
Paul Kay at Entrance, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

It adds another 1.25 miles to your walking. The trip takes a little over an hour depending on how often you rest and how many pictures you take. The hike takes about an hour to complete. This trail is not recommended for visitors with heart or respiratory conditions.

Whale's Mouth, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

Along the way, you can see things not offered in the Big Room including formations named Devil's Spring, the Whale's Mouth and Iceberg Rock. The Whales’ Mouth is pretty impressive.

Rock of Ages, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

The Rock of Ages column in the Big Room is well known because of the great photographer, Ansel Adams. In 1941 the National Park Service commissioned Mr. Adams to create a photo mural for the Department of the Interior building in Washington, DC. The theme was to be nature as exemplified and protected in the U.S. National Parks. World War II halted the project and it never resumed. But his photograph captivated those who saw it.

Paul Kay, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

The temperature in the caverns is regularly 68 degrees with humidity at about 95 percent. I found that I was sweating regularly but still somewhat cool. We both wore long pants and a light jacket, but we saw others wearing shorts and T-shirts.

We didn’t expect signs about bats in the visitor center. I wasn’t sure I wanted a tour with bats flying about. But the bats don’t fly after six o’clock in the morning. They return to the caverns between four and six o’clock, and then sleep. They return to look for food at dusk.

The bats migrate from Mexico to Carlsbad Caverns every year to give birth and raise their young. The baby bats are born in June under cover of darkness and away from predators. The mother bat hangs by her toes and thumbs and the young pup clings to its mother for the next four to five weeks. At night, the mothers leave the pups in the cave while they leave to feed. By July or August, the young pups can fly on their own and they join the adults on the nightly feeding. All the bats leave for Mexico in October or early November.

Bat Amphitheater, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

The National Park Service has a Bat Flight Program from late May through October. The times vary a bit based on sunset. A ranger talks about bats prior to their flight. No reservations are required for this program that occurs every evening. An amphitheater offers bat watchers a seat for the bat migration. Almost four hundred thousand Brazilian free-tailed bats live within the caverns during the summer.

We did not see a single bat, but the rock wrens, black-throated sparrows, and Northern mockingbirds were flying around. We saw plenty of sparrows, but they never got near us. They just seemed to enjoy hanging out at the cave entrance.

Stalagmite, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

Many tourists come to Carlsbad Caverns to photograph the many stalagmites and stalactites. What are those things and how did they come about? First, stalagmites are calcium carbonite deposits that form from the ground and grow upward.

Stalactites, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

And stalactites are formations that hang down from the ceilings of the caverns.

What makes them occur? You need to go back more than 250 million years ago. There was a 400-mile reef that covered the region with sponges, seashells, algae and all sorts of aquatic creatures. Eventually the sea evaporated, and the reef was buried under deposits of salts and gypsum from the water and minerals left behind.

A few million years ago, rainfall seeped into the ground and slowly dissolved the limestone. The water, slightly acidic, dripped into the chambers. At the bottom of these chambers, there was hydrogen sulfide gas because of the significant oil and gas deposits underground. This created sulfuric acid that ate through more limestone.

Chinese Theater, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

About 500,000 years ago, the weather was cooler and wetter. Water seeped down into the limestone, absorbing carbon dioxide and creating a week acid. When the drops hit the limestone, the acid created the mineral calcite. Depending on the water flow speed, drops either lingered at the top of the cave ceiling creating a stalactite or tumbled the ground to create a stalagmite.

Mirror Lake, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

The story of Carlsbad Caverns as a national park is also an interesting story. Jim White, a teenager who lived close to the caverns, began exploring them in 1898 when he was 15 years old. He told his parents, neighbors and relatives about the caves. But nobody believed him! He found them by accident when he was sent off on horseback to look for a lost cow from his parent’s ranch.

He saw a flight of bats coming out of a small hole in the earth. He wanted to find out more, even if he was not believed. One side benefit of his discovery was the obvious result when bats are in a cave. You get lots of bat guano. This was used as a fertilizer for many years and Jim worked out a way to get in and out of the bat cave with his guano buckets and then use or sell the fertilizer. It took another 17 years before the story turned. In 1915, a photographer took pictures of the cavern that were widely circulated.

Display of Original Ladder, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

You can only imagine how dangerous it was for early explorers to climb down a metal hanging ladder into the caverns.

After the pictures appeared in newspapers, lots of people wanted to visit. By then, they had replaced the ladder with a large bucket. Visitors would be lowered to the floor of the bat cave that contained the guano in the appropriately named guano bucket. Hopefully they cleaned the bucket for tourists.

Stone Lily Pads, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

Eventually, the pictures and notoriety reached Washington D.C. where in April of 1923, it was recommended that the cave be preserved as a national monument. On October 25, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge signed a proclamation establishing Carlsbad Caverns National Monument and making it a part of our national park system. In 1930, an act of Congress established Carlsbad Caverns as the 28th national park. A short time later, its boundaries were extended to provide protection to other, nearby caves that were being vandalized.

Elevators Explanation, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

If you take the long way down to the Big Room and then tour that room, you will likely be looking forward to an elevator ride back up. The elevators were originally installed in 1932 and were considered the longest single-lift elevators in the world. Don’t worry, they were replaced with new and improved elevators in 1977.

Natural Entrance Trail, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

Plan to spend at least three hours here, or five if you plan to take the long walk down and also tour the Big Room slowly. Make sure you purchase your tickets in advance to avoid the long lines. I’d recommend getting there early because there won’t be as many people. And take lots of photos!

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