The highlight of our Spring Break Southwest Adventure was, in my opinion, definitely Carlsbad Caverns. We had been desiring to visit the national park since we found out about its existence about ten years ago, and on this vacation we were finally staying close enough to make it a reality. The three-hour drive from Ruidoso via Roswell was well worth it. Carlsbad Caverns was amazing.
Carlsbad Caverns, located in the Chihuahuan Desert in the Guadalupe Mountains, has to be one of the natural wonders of the world. Formation of the caverns began over 4 million years ago as a result of millions of years of tectonic uplift exposing portions of an ancient reef. After another 3.5 million years, and over the course of 500,000 years, the cave’s intricate formations formed slowly from calcite-laden water dripping over the limestone and gypsum caves. The variety in the cave formations is just stunning. The caverns were impressively decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, and columns as one would expect in a cave, however, where water dripped slowly, fine soda straws formed, looking like delicate icicles glimmering in the faint light. We were also able to see curtain-like draperies and aragonite popcorn formations on cave walls. I’d say this is the only place where a popcorn ceiling looks good.
We, of course, picked up our junior ranger books after purchasing our national parks annual pass at the visitor center. After a quick lunch, we headed to the cave’s Natural Entrance to begin our hike. Before entering the caverns, there is a park ranger who checks tickets and allows groups of folks in, and who can also answer any questions you might have before beginning the hike. We hiked both the Natural Entrance route and the Big Room route. The Natural Entrance route is a 1.25-mile hike down into the caverns, descending over 750 feet underground. The trail is narrow and rather steep, and while there is a railing, it is considered strenuous especially on the way back up and can be slippery. There are some fun features on this portion of the trek. Bat Cave, Iceberg Rock (a 200,000-ton boulder), and the Boneyard are all on the way down at the end of the route at the cave’s rest area. Sami got a little freaked out on the way down, especially at the Boneyard. The holes in the limestone looked to her like skulls. To me, they looked like Swiss cheese. I guess it’s all about perspective.
We continued to the Big Room, which was another 1.25 miles, however, this portion of the hike was relatively flat. The features were well-lit so that visitors could take in the natural beauty of the cave formations. This area is what one would imagine when thinking about Carlsbad Caverns. The Big Room is the largest room of the caverns covering 8.2 acres. The route takes visitors past many of the caverns’ most famous features: Giant Dome, the Hall of Giants, Rock of Ages, and so much more. I could only stand amazed at the intricacies created over many thousands of years. We were disappointed to learn that Bottomless Pit wasn’t actually bottomless, just 140 feet below the trail. According to the internet, it was thought to be bottomless because stones thrown into the pit didn’t resonate sound. Turns out that the pit floor was covered in soft soil, thus absorbing the sound.
Some things to consider:
There’s little variance in temperature inside the cave regardless of the time of year. A light sweater or jacket is recommended for the beginning of the hike, as the caverns stay a cool 56 degrees. I do recommend layering, especially when the outside temps are warmer, and for the uphill trek back. Good walking shoes or hiking boots are a good idea. The trails are paved, but they can get slippery. Of course, bring plenty of water and a camera, as photography is allowed in most parts. Just be sure to stay on the trail when taking that perfect snapshot. Strollers are not permitted due to the narrow trails.
If you have the time, a ranger-guided tour is the only way to see the King’s Palace. The tour goes into the deepest parts of the caverns. It looked cool, but we didn’t have the time to do this one. Reservations are recommended, and there is a separate fee for this trek.
As with all natural areas, follow leave no trace principles. The caverns took hundreds of millions of years to become the wonders they are today, and it doesn’t take that long to damage them.
In late spring, the Brazilian free-tailed bats return to Bat Cave to give birth and raise their pups. One highlight of Carlsbad Caverns is the bats’ night flight. There are ranger programs at the Bat Amphitheater in the evenings beginning in late May. Our trip was too early in the year for the bat flights, but friends who have seen it thought it really cool. We did see guano in the cave, but that was as close to the bats as we were going to get on this trip. We’ll just have to plan another trek…
A visit to Carlsbad Caverns is definitely worth the drive. I hope you get the chance to ‘go batty’ at the Caverns. Happy trails!
For more information and current cave conditions, visit
National Park Service.
Fun facts: What’s the Difference Between Caves and Caverns?
According to the internet, while the terms ‘cave’ and ‘cavern’ tend to be used interchangeably, there is indeed a difference between a cave and a cavern. Caves are any hole or opening formed in rock large enough so that a portion of it doesn’t receive direct sunlight. A cavern is a specific type of cave, one that is usually larger, typically underground. They are formed naturally from calcium-containing soluble rock and have inside them the ability to create speleothems, formations such as stalactites and stalagmites. A cavern is a type of cave, but not all caves are caverns.
Geology of caves: https://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/7000072/report.pdf