Discovering Carlsbad Caverns: Carlsbad, NM

Lisa Fritscher July 8, 2011 1 Comment

Scenic Road to Carlsbad Caverns

The road to Carlsbad Caverns is winding and quite scenic

New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the third largest cave system in the United States and arguably one of the best-known. I am a bit of a cave nut, so when Dad and I planned a Southwestern adventure, Carlsbad Caverns was one of my must-do attractions. We visited just days before a wildfire raged in the nearby canyon, threatening the historic Natural Entrance and park buildings and closing the cave for several days. Thankfully, no permanent damage was done and the Caverns are again open for business.

About Carlsbad Caverns

Lakewood, New Mexico

We stayed in gorgeous but desolate Lakewood, New Mexico

Dad and I stayed in Lakewood, New Mexico, a ghost town with a very lively RV park, approximately 30 minutes from downtown Carlsbad. The Caverns are 23 miles from Carlsbad. The tiny town of White’s City offers lodging, an RV park, dining and shopping near the entrance road to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The seven-mile park entrance road is both scenic and extremely winding. Numerous pull-offs are provided, allowing you to park your car off the road and enjoy the scenery.

Carlsbad Caverns Rock Formations

Carlsbad Caverns is breathtaking

Carlsbad Caverns offer quite a few different tour options. The Big Room is the best-known and most popular cave in the system and is accessible by elevator or via the steep but beautiful Natural Entrance. The Big Room tour is entirely self-guided. Ranger-guided tours include the one-mile, moderately strenuous King’s Palace; the lantern-lit Left Hand Tunnel; the ladder-accessed Lower Cave; and the extremely challenging Slaughter Canyon Cave, Hall of the White Giant, and Spider Cave tours. Dad and I selected the Big Room and King’s Palace tours.

Carlsbad Caverns is also known for its population of Mexican free-tail bats. Each night from late spring through early fall, approximately 400,000 bats fly from the Caverns in search of dinner. A free narrated program is offered at sunset in the outdoor amphitheater. The bats were late returning from Mexico this year, so Dad and I were unable to see the flight.

As of 2011, basic admission to the Caverns, which includes the self-guided Big Room tour, is $6 for adults and free for those aged 15 and under. Tickets are valid for three consecutive days. Those with National Park Service passes are admitted free. Prices and minimum age requirements vary for the ranger-guided tours. Visit the Carlsbad Caverns website or call ahead for details.

Our Experience

Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center Restaurant

The Visitor Center restaurant was pricey but good

Dad and I arrived at approximately 11 a.m. We booked tickets for the 3 p.m. King’s Palace tour and decided to have lunch and look around the Visitor Center before descending into the Big Room. The restaurant offers sandwiches and salads at predictably high prices, but the portions are large enough to share and the quality was good.

After lunch, we took in the orientation film. Interestingly, unlike many caves that are formed by running water, Carlsbad Caverns was formed by sulfuric acid created by the interaction of underground gas and oil with surface water. The film was followed by a short ranger presentation on the guano miners. As it turns out, the Carlsbad Caverns bats provided an immense amount of guano (droppings), which miners gathered and sold for fertilizer in the 1800s. The first guided tours of the Caverns were accessed via guano buckets! Today the portion of the cave used by the bats is not accessible to the public, though ancient guano deposits are visible in parts of the Big Room.

Carlsbad Caverns Big Room

Everywhere we looked was another fascinating view

We rented audio guides for $3 each from the Visitor Center bookstore and descended into the Big Room at approximately 1 p.m. I highly recommend the audio guides for a more thorough exploration of the Caverns. The major formations are labeled with signs, but the audio guides provide additional details.

The Big Room path is 1.25 miles in length and takes an average of one to two hours to complete. An optional shortcut path cuts the total length in half. A somewhat shortened wheelchair path is available. The rugged Natural Entrance is an additional 1.25 miles and descends a total of 79 stories. Those in reasonably good shape should be able to complete the Natural Entrance trail in roughly one hour. There is no wheelchair access for the Natural Entrance or any ranger-guided cave tour.

Big Room

Carlsbad Caverns Big Room

The massive Big Room was aptly named

Dad and I opted to take the elevator rather than the Natural Entrance to the Big Room. Your ears will pop from the rapid descent and chewing gum is not permitted, so be prepared! The elevator opens just outside the Underground Restaurant, a snack and beverage stand where the guided tours meet and the self-guided Big Room tour begins.

The Big Room is just spectacular! It is the biggest known cave chamber in the Western Hemisphere at 600,000 square feet. The walking path wanders around hundreds of elegant and delicate formations of every description. Most of the formations were created during the last Ice Age and are now inactive, but just enough water seeps through the desert ground above to keep a few formations actively growing.

Carlsbad Caverns Beautiful Colors

The cave was filled with beautiful colors

We had a rather bizarre experience during our stroll. As the Big Room path takes one to two hours and we entered at 1 p.m., we expected to finish the walk with enough time to get a snack at the Underground Restaurant before our 3 p.m. King’s Palace tour. About a quarter of the way through the cave, I retrieved my cell phone from my pocket to check the time. According to Sprint, the time was 2 p.m.! We had taken our time a bit, stopping to adjust camera settings and working to get excellent photos, but we were still quite surprised. We picked up the pace, but barely made it to the King’s Palace meeting location before 3 p.m. Sprint time.

Imagine our surprise when the ranger approached the gathered group and stated clearly that it was time for the 2 p.m. tour to begin! Somehow the Caverns caused my cell phone to switch time zones. We still had an hour left, so after a quick snack we headed back into the Big Room to finish our audio tour. Lesson learned. Digital equipment can react weirdly with the cave environment, so always wear an analog watch.

King’s Palace

King's Palace Tour Carlsbad Caverns

The King's Palace tour descent, and later ascent, is eight stories

The King’s Palace tour is the least strenuous of the ranger-guided tours. The 1.5 hour, one mile tour visits four large chambers in the deepest publicly-accessible part of the Caverns. The total descent is eight stories, which you must then ascend at the end of the tour. The route to the King’s Palace follows part of the Natural Entrance route, allowing you to see some of those formations as well.

King's Palace Tour Guide

Our tour guide was a wonderful storyteller

Our guide was an excellent storyteller, drawing children and adults alike into a narrative about the cave’s discoverer, Jim White. She provided a great deal of interesting information on the formations as well. Perhaps the most exciting part of any cave tour is the blackout, and this was no exception. Our group settled along a low stone wall on the edge of the walkway as our guide related stories about lighting in the cave’s early days. Then she asked us to turn off all glowing electronic equipment before flipping the switch to turn out the lights.

You haven’t experienced total darkness until you’ve experienced it in a cave! Your eyes will fight to adjust, vainly searching for any ambient light. Your other senses are dramatically heightened, hyper-alert to the movements of your fellow tourists or your guide.

Eventually our ranger lit a small, dim light, casting eerie shadows on the walls. As our eyes adjusted, she spun more tales of early cave explorations. Once we were adjusted, she restored the main cave lighting and we continued on our way. It was a very cool experience, and a good bit longer than the blackouts we’ve experienced at other caves.

Tips for Parents

Carlsbad Caverns Rock Formations

The delicate formations are fascinating to all ages

Carlsbad Caverns is a top destination for visitors of all ages. The Big Room is open to all, though strollers are not permitted. The King’s Palace tour is relatively easy, but more challenging than the Big Room, and children must be at least 4 years old to participate. The other guided tours are more strenuous and have higher minimum age requirements.

The Caverns are 56 degrees F and humid year-round. Being from the muggy Deep South, Dad and I were thrilled for a few hours of humidity after the intensely dry air of the surrounding desert. Those who come from drier climates, however, may feel clammy and wet, and the humidity could trigger asthma attacks or breathing difficulties in those who are prone to them. We were okay without jackets, but children could get cold.

Plan to spend the better part of a day exploring the park. The scenic entrance road, extensive Visitor Center, and numerous cave tour options make Carlsbad Caverns a true destination. Keep a close eye on your kids in the cave, where walkways can be slippery. Outside, however, there is plenty of room to play and burn off steam.

No food or beverages are permitted inside the cave, except plain water. Plan to stop for lunch or snacks at the Underground Restaurant or the upstairs Visitor Center eatery. Taking frequent breaks can keep everyone’s energy up and moods relaxed.

The Carlsbad Caverns were featured on Tots and Travel’s 5 Top National Parks for Families.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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One Comments to “Discovering Carlsbad Caverns: Carlsbad, NM”
  1. avatar 5 Top National Parks for Families says:

    [...] considered the most beautiful and scenic area of the cave. About 1 million bats take refuge in the Carlsbad Caverns, sleeping together during the day on the ceiling of Bat Cave, and leaving the cave by night in a [...]