The Carlsbad Caverns, in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, has got to be the most underrated National Park that we have. I don't understand why more people aren't talking about and fighting to get in and see these natural wonders.
The caves are open for tourism on a limited basis, with online registration for a specific time to secure your spot. And they're serious about those reservations. I heard a couple be told they'd have to wait 15 minutes until it was their reservation time. Your time is checked when you walk in and again before entering the caves, so don't try any funny business.
But that's about the only thing they're serious about. Once you're in, you're in. They let you explore miles of cave almost entirely alone.
Camping Near the Caverns
I arrived at the caves on a Tuesday after spending the night sleeping in my van almost directly across the street. There is some Bureau of the Land Management (BLM) land where anyone can camp overnight for free. Though it appears to be incredibly secluded, it also happens to have a cell tower directly across from it. Making cellular service impeccable.
But other than the caverns, there's nothing else out near the caverns except the Guadalupe Mountains, which aren't exactly populated.
Nothing online really prepares you for the caves. I’ve never imagined they could be half as big as they are, but as you approach the gaping hole that is the natural entrance, you begin to realize what you’re in for.
Aside from the caves, the park has two historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places—Rattlesnake Springs and the Cavern Historic District immediately surrounding the area. The park museum holds almost one million artifacts recording the history of the districts and the caves. And what a history it is.
Most caves were formed by rainwater dissolving limestone over long periods of time. The water seeps into sinkholes and over thousands of years, the water carves out complex cave systems. Like the Carlsbad Caverns, these caves are filled with artist displays of stalagmites and stalactite, curtain, drapery, straw and column structures.
The Carlsbad caverns, however, aren't entirely like other caves. Their structures are a bit different.
Acid Speleogenesis Caves
Sulfuric acid from complex systems in the Guadalupe Mountains formed these caverns. The acids dissolved the limestone and left massive gypsum deposits, clay, and silt. Because of this, the structures in Carlsbad Caverns have a unique coral look.
The Carlsbad Cavern is the show cave, but the cavern system has more than 119 caves of all shapes and sizes. Carlsbad Cavern is just one of many. The longest cave is said to run more than 140 miles. I can't even wrap my head around that.
In the Carlsbad Caverns
Come prepared for a workout. It takes about 2.5 hours to walk down the paved, gently sloping walkways through the cave, but they are relentless and go for miles, so your shins will know they've been put to work.
The temperature in the caverns holds steady at 56 degrees Fahrenheit, but it's humid too, which will be different than the incredibly dry air outside. Somehow I still manage to sweat a bizarre amount.
Though I'd done my homework, once inside, the cave is still even bigger than I thought it would be. I’ve been in a few caves now, and I’m accustomed to them being bigger than expected – you never expect that much of another world can exist without collapsing – at least I don’t.
Because of COVID, they’ve spaced the entry times out, so there aren’t that many people in the cave at once, though I suspect they could have well over 100 people at one time, and nobody would be any wiser. It’s got to be the size of 100 football fields and about 10 deep too.
Once you enter the cave, you can see people hesitating to lose sight of the gaping mouth. People were lingering there. I, the only lone caver, trudged along. If I had never been in a cave before, I don’t know how far I would have made it into the Carlsbad Caverns. There are no guides like there have been on my other tours. Here, the paths keep you from wandering, and you really can’t touch any of the structures, so it’s not as much of an issue to have someone watching you the entire time. While I was down there, I saw only three National Parks rangers.
The Big Room
You walk through narrow passages that nearly graze your head and elbows and then enter the chamber named "Big Room." It is 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet high. The Big Room is the cave in North America and the thirty-first largest in the world. All told, you'll go below the Earth about 75 stories in these caves.
Deeper in, and you enter the underworld darkness of the cave. It smells musty too, organic, in a way other caves don't. This tells you you’re entering a living cave. There are bats here by the thousands. At least 300,000. In the summer, at sunset, they fly out of the cave's mouth at the same time. They must be quite a sight to see. I’d hate to be inside the cave when it happens.
There are other animals too, besides us people. Besides the bats, the caves are home to ringtail cats, moths, crickets, spiders and beetles. There are even some birds, and who knows what else. Truly, who knows. Who wants to? Not me.
The Wonder of the System
There are signs with information about the type of structures you’re seeing and how they came to be along the path. This goes for what seems like miles. Truly it is less than two.
What impressed me most about the caves is the sheer size and seeming endlessness of them. Each “room” is just so BIG. It’s too big to comprehend.
Fun Fact: At the bottom of the cavern there is an underground lunchroom. It's closed during COVID.
At the end of the path, you have an option to turn around and walk all the way back up another 2.5 hours, or you can take the elevator. I don't need to tell you which path is the most chosen. Even I chose the elevator.
Find Carlsbad Caverns National Park at 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, New Mexico 88220.