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Traveler's Checklist: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The 250 million year-old Capitan Reef Complex that sits astride the New Mexico-Texas border is one of the best-preserved Permian age fossil reefs exposed anywhere in the world. Its limestone and dolomitic rocks not only formed the Guadalupe Mountains, but also at least 300 caves. Now more than 400,000 people a year visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which preserves at least 113 separate limestone caves, including Lechuguilla Cave (the third-longest cave in the U.S. and the deepest cave in North America). This checklist will help you make the most of your own visit. Cave tours aren't the only thing to enjoy at this park.
BEFORE YOU GO
This park is renowned for its cave tours, especially the Big Room Tour and the Natural Entrance Tour. While no reservations are needed for self-guided tours of the main cave, ranger-guided cave tours do require reservations, and some fill up quickly. All ranger-guided tours can be reserved (on a space available basis) up to two days prior to the date of the tour. (Any unsold tickets are sold at the Park's ticket office on a first come-first serve basis.) Youngsters under age 18 must be accompanied by an adult. You can reserve ranger-guided cave tour tickets online at this site or by phoning 877-444-6777.
Operating hours are a vital consideration. If you plan to take a cave tour (what visitor doesn't?), be sure you heed this schedule:
Operational Hours: After Labor Day until Memorial Day weekend, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours are available 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Last entry into cave via natural entrance is 2:00. Last entry into cave via elevator is 3:30. Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tours are available 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last entry into cave via natural entrance is 3:30. Last Entry into cave via elevator is 5:00.
The temperature in the caves is 56 degrees Fahrenheit year round, so remember to bring a sweater or light jacket with you. You’ll do a good bit of walking, so you'll also need comfortable sfhoes with rubber soles for good traction.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park has no in-park lodging or campgrounds. Lodging and drive-in campgrounds are available nearby at Whites City (the park's gateway) and in the city of Carlsbad. Reservations are strongly recommended.
** Take the Big Room Tour. The Big Room, a chamber so large you could fit the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, into just one corner, is something that every visitor wants to see. Elevators at the visitor center will take you to lighted passageways -- essentially a trail system -- lying 754 feet below the surface (equivalent to a 75-story building). The elevator emerges at the Underground Lunchroom, which offers restrooms and drinking fountains as well as a snackbar. From there you take the Big Room Trail, a one-mile (1.5-hour) trail that loops around the perimeter of the cave’s largest chamber. The trail is well lit, wide, and gently sloped; a portion is even wheelchair-accessible. You can take a self-guided tour of the Big Room in about 90 minutes. You'll get more out of the experience if you take a ranger-guided tour, but you'll need a ticket, and that typically requires a reservation.
The four elevators include a primary set of two that transport 16 passengers each and a secondary set of two that carry 8 passengers each. Due to a renovation project, only the secondary set is operating at present.
** Consider substituting the Natural Entrance Tour for the Big Room Tour. Instead of beginning your cave tour with an elevator ride you can end it with one. The Natural Entrance Tour (aka Complete Cave Tour) enters the cave via a natural entrance and returns to the surface via the visitor center elevators. A switchback trail has been constructed to provide a means to enter the natural entrance and walk downward into the cave complex.
Make sure you are capable of handling the physical demands of the Natural Entrance Tour. Considered somewhat strenuous, it involves a 750-foot descent on foot and requires lots of walking (about 1.3 miles).
** Take an easy adventure tour in the main cave. Unlike developed caves (or cave segments), which have features like lighting, maintained trails, and stairs to make them safer and more accessible, "wild caves" are undeveloped and much less visited. The Left Hand Tunnel Tour is a guided adventure tour of about two hours duration in an undeveloped section of Carlsbad Cavern that has uneven dirt trails. It's lantern-lit, adding greatly to the fun.
While this is the easiest of the adventure tours on unpaved trails, you'll definitely need to watch your footing and heed the guide's instructions and warnings. The dirt trail winds over uneven or slippery slopes that require careful footing. You'll also need to avoid cavern pools and fragile formations.
** Tour a more challenging wild cave. If you are an experienced caver -- the type of adventure recreationist that used to be called a "spelunker" -- there are opportunities for you to see caves and cave segments too rugged for the tourist masses. Your choices include Slaughter Canyon Cave, Lower Cave, Hall of the White Giant, and Spider Cave. You'll need reservations.
The Spider Cave and Hall of the White Giant tours are not for sissies. Participants use lanterns for light (carrying backups, of course), wear knee pads, scramble for miles through a maze of passageways, crawl through very tight crevices, and skirt dangerous dropoffs.
** Watch the Bat Flight. Beneath the natural entrance is a Bat Cave that is used by nearly 400,000 Brazilian (aka Mexican) free-tail bats for about seven months a year. At dusk, these bats come spiraling up out of the natural entrance in breathtaking numbers. Flying to places as much as 50 miles away, they spread out over the countryside to feed on insects. The bat flight is a very impressive sight, and lots of park visitors -- sometimes more than a thousand -- gather at dusk to watch it and be amazed. A seated viewing area, the Bat Flight Amphitheater, has been constructed near the entrance. Bat-focused programs (evening bat programs) and interpretive services are provided.
The bats migrate south to warmer nesting sites for the winter, so if you want to see them you'll need to go to the park between March and late October.
** Attend a Star Party. Carlsbad is a wonderful place for stargazing, since it lacks the light pollution and skyline clutter that severely limits stargazing in urban regions. You can enjoy the night sky on your own of course, but you're likely to get more out of the experience by being a "Star Party" participant. Held at the visitor center parking lot during scheduled times (weather permitting), a Star Party is a ranger program designed to help you appreciate the celestial night sky. Telescopes are made available to participants and rangers discuss a variety of topics, such as astronomy, folklore, and nocturnal wildlife. The event is free, and you don't need a reservation. However, you should bring a flashlight and dress for the weather.
Headlights and flashlights impair night vision. Plan to arrive early and use your flashlight sparingly.
** Enjoy the birds. At least 357 bird species have been identified in the park, which has been designated an Audubon Important Birding Area (IBA). There are year-round residents like the cactus wren and the ladder-backed woodpecker, neotropical migrants that nest in the park or pass through en route to northern breeding grounds, winter residents, and uncommon or rare species that wander in and may stay for a while.
Not surprisingly, Carlsbad has one of the world's largest cave swallow colonies. Like Carlsbad's more famous bats, the swallows enter and leave the cave via the natural entrance.
** Hike the backcountry. Two-thirds of this park -- 33,000 acres -- consists of federally protected wilderness, and there are 13,000 acres of other backcountry. Carlsbad has an extensive system of nature trails and backcountry trails providing access to these marvelous resources. Ranger-led hikes are provided during the peak season.
If you camp in the backcountry you'll need to pick up a free permit from the park's visitor center and camp at least a half-mile from any roads.
** Take a windshield tour. The Walnut Canyon Loop Road is an interesting 9.5-mile drive that affords great windshield touring. Motorists enjoy views of Chihuahuan Desert vegetation (cactus, lechuguilla agave, greasewood bushes), interesting wildlife (mule deer for sure), ancient reef and lagoon deposits, and the distant Guadalupe Mountains.
For detailed information, visit the Carlsbad Caverns National Park website.
If you plan to take a ranger-guided tour at Carlsbad, the cave tours schedule is one page you'll want to visit.
Click to Park History: Carlsbad Caverns National Park for a Traveler article with additional helpful information.
You can access park maps at this site. This site even has an external link to a zoomable map (at Google Maps).
Birders will want to consult the
Checklist of the Birds of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Click to the Carlsbad Caverns Guadalupe Mountains Associationfor additional helpful information. CCGMA is a private, non-profit organization whose main objectives are to provide interpretation for the park visitor and to support the purposes and mission of the National Park Service at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and the lands related to them in New Mexico and west Texas.