Traveler's Checklist: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The Temple of the Sun, one of the many wonders of the Big Room Tour. NPS photo.

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.

ACTIVITIES

** 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.

RESOURCES

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
.

FRIENDS ORGANIZATION

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.

Comments

My preference is to visit in winter, when you will have this underground art gallery for yourselves (mostly). What makes this park experience so memorable is the underground quiet and the strategically placed shielded dim lights. Take the self-guiding "Natural Entrance" tour for starters. This will activate curiosity and questions, making it all that more enjoyable when you encounter a ranger underground. Notice that all conversation is conducted using library voices to protect the subsurface quiet. Learn to distinguish the difference between calcium carbonate (limestone and travertine) and calcium sulfate (gypsum). Learn about the important role that subterranean oil fields had in the formation of hydrogen sulfide, which was responsible for forming sulfuric acid, which in turn acted to rapidly dissolve the limstone and form the huge rooms. Photographs do not do justice to the experience of a visit.

You need to double check your facts.

The Natural Entrance is only about 1.3 miles, not 3.

Carlsbad Caverns isn't the 3rd longest cave in the US; it's only about 30 known miles. Lechuguilla Cave is over 100 known miles and is the 3rd longest cave in the US (5th longest in the world).

Cavers don't call themselves "spelunkers". That’s what folks who don't know call them. The King's Palace tour is not a wild caving tour. It is paved and lit just like the Natural Entrance and the Big Room. It's the easiest and gentlest tour you can take (beside the self guided tours). You even sit for a good portion of the tour! Spider Cave and Hall of the White Giants are not lantern lit. They are lit with headlamps on you helmet.

You only need a permit if you are camping in the backcountry. Day hikes do not need one. And if you plan on camping you must prove that you are prepared and capable of backcountry camping in the desert, the permits are rarely given out.

As a park ranger, I would hope that a simple fact check would be conducted when you give out this information. And as a former ranger at Carlsbad Caverns I know the staff and the bat would like it to be mentioned that at the bat flight camera are prohibited.

Thanks for the additional notes, Ranger Lana.

There seems to be some debate over the length of Lechuguilla Cave, however. While you say it's the third longest in the U.S., other sources list it as fourth.

And, as Bob pointed out, only some folks use the word "spelunker," so I wouldn't lash him for that. And as for backcountry permits, the park's website clearly says that "all backcountry users are required to obtain a free backcountry use permit." That could easily be construed to apply to hikers as well as backpackers.

While we do try to be as accurate as possible, sometimes staffing shortages (two of the three regular writers were absent at times last week, and for two days all of us were gone) and erroneous or misleading information on websites (including NPS sites) can lead to problems.

With thanks to Ranger Lana, the typos have been fixed. As Kurt has pointed out, the spelunkers criticism was uncalled for (you simply failed to read the sentence carefully).

I think the issue of clarity and accuracy of information presented on NPS web sites is important. All too often information can be found on official nps.gov sites that are either outdated, misleading, or inaccurate, which is indicative of a low administrative priority given to web-site maintenance and quality control. Yet, the web is becoming a major source of information outreach for people who have not yet visited a park or have talked with a park ranger. Therefore, I applaud Ranger Lana for commenting on issues of factual accuracy in Bob's article, and for Bob and Kurt for their immediate response (demonstrating that they indeed care about the accuracy of facts contained in articles posted on National Parks Traveler).

That having been said, among the best interactions with uniformed NPS staff I've encountered anywhere, was at Carlsbad Caverns. I recall arriving in early January of 2008. The new visitor center was still under construction. All park visitor contact facilities were in temporary trailers. As we enetered one of the trailers posted for visitor information, the layout seemed at first somewhat confusing, but a young ranger behind the information desk made eye contact and immediately noticed our perplexed expressions. She came out from behind the counter to introduce herself to us and to inquire if she could help orient us to the park. I was very pleased to be given this personal greeting and invitation.

I asked her about the best way to get a "natural" cave experience. She politely smiled, and said, "To experience a "natural cave" you will have to walk below ground, close your eyes as tight as you can, then put your hands over your eyes to make sure no excess light enters your eyelids." I got the point.

She then described to us to about the care taken by the NPS to ensure as close to a natural cave experience as possible, using only soft tones of voice in conversation and using soft-white lights (with varying hues of warmth) nearly completely shielded to allow eyes to come very close to being dark adapted. She then introduced us to the advantages of starting our visit with a quiet stroll by ourselves into the cave using the self-guiding trail that descended into the Natural Entrance. I recall from our friendly encounter over two years ago with this most enthusiastic ambassador for Carlsbad Caverns that she was originally from Grants Pass, OR. Any chance it might have been Ranger Lana?

Nope, it wasn't me, but I think I know who your talking about pkrnger. And fair enough on the "spelunker" criticism, I didn't read that correctly. I'm probably a little sensitive to that comment. As a caver, that word gets on my nerves. :) The quick response is greatly apprciated, and I'm sorry if I was a little harsh.

Once upon a long time ago, I used to crawl through caves and was proud to be called a "Spelunker." But time marches on . . . .

So if I can't be a _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ these days, what am I?