Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in New Mexico in the Guadalupe Mountains and the northern Chihuahuan Desert. It is reached by car along US 62/180 that connects Carlsbad with El Paso Texas. The turn-off to the national park is White’s City with the last gas station for 130 miles. The cave entrance is 27 miles southwest of Carlsbad. The entrance road winds through beautiful canyons and rocky slopes with grass, thorny shrubs, cactus and occasionally a tree. All of this austere surrounding is hiding 117 caves of extraordinary beauty.
Carlsbad Caverns is a Permian-age fossil reef that was at one time under a vast sea. For 250 million years, sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone. There are preserved in the rocks the fossils of sponges, snails, algae, nautilus and many other animals that lived in the sea.
There are several ways to visit these amazing underground sites. Different types of guided tours are available. Some are for easy walking and some for the more adventurous. The main section of the cave, the Big Room, 8.2 acres, should be seen by everyone first and is partially wheelchair accessible, but baby strollers are not permitted on any cave trail. Young children should be carried in a baby backpack.
Some tours include crawl-through passageways into Spider Cave or the Hall of White Giants. There is also a ranger-guided King’s Palace Tour which includes the Hall of the White Giants, Lower Cave, Spider Cave and Slaughter Canyon Cave. This tour does have some steep descents and climbs and goes to the deepest part of the caves that is open to the public. The Natural Entrance Self-Guided Tour is an impressive hike, but it is not recommended for anyone with health problems.
Between May and October there are Bat Flight Programs. hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats live in Carlsbad Caverns. Every evening they fly out of the caves to feed, all at the same time. Visitors interested in seeing wildlife in action come to watch this massive, black, swirling cloud of flying mammals sail off into the sunset.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers more than viewing the caves. Hiking, backpacking, bird watching and camping are available. While hiking out into the 33,000 acres of wilderness to find complete solitude, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and elk or cougar tracks are sometimes seen. After a rainstorm there is a dazzling array of desert wild flowers. There are also interesting and informative programs in the visitor’s center about the history and geology of the area. A Star Party is newly added to take advantage of the dark and clear night sky for viewing planets, stars, galaxies and constellations.
For students and other groups of children including special-interest clubs, church groups and scouting groups, one adult chaperone for every 10 minors is required. Children 3 and under are not permitted on any guided tour, but they are welcome on the self-guided tours. For those who can legally carry firearms it should be known that hunting, target shooting and any other use of firearms is not allowed in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
The primary set of elevators is under renovation for the next year. This means that the smaller elevators are the only ones functioning to take visitors out of the caves. Each tour may take longer that usual, because there will most probably be a wait for the elevators. This is especially true of weekends and during the school vacations, so some visitors may want to schedule their trips on weekdays or other less busy times.
The only way to see some caves in through guided tours. It is highly recommended to make reservations for these. There is an entrance fee for any tour that is valid for 3 days. There are days of the year when entrance for a self-guided tour is free. These include June 5-6 National Trails Day, August 14-15, September 25 National Public Lands Day and November 11 Veterans Day. Carlsbad Caverns is open everyday except December 25th.