Carlsbad Caverns National Park near Carlsbad, N.Mex. Visited: March 5, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 165 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? Your idealized image of a subterranean wonderland. Carlsbad Caverns is the cave by which all others are judged. You may know it as the place where the classic science fiction film, Journey to the Center of the Earth was filmed.
BEAUTY (10/10) Overwhelming and dramatic. The Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance is a giant imposing gaping hole that descends straight down into blackness. FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed all of the Caves pathways, including one that dives 200 feet down from the Natural Entrance to the Bat Cave and winds back and forth over dozens of switchbacks.
The CCC boys also built an amphitheater at the Natural Entrance where, from spring to October, tourists enjoy the evening flight of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats leaving their daytime home to hunt insects.
The hike down from the Natural Entrance enhances the amazing Carlsbad Caverns experience. Unlike other caves, the descent is on foot rather than in an elevator. You are able to gather a sense of your depth. The cave even seems more real; you have not been transported to another place via machine, you have walked there yourself, 829 feet below surface elevation.
The breathtaking formations, stalactites, stalagmites, popcorn, flowstone, soda straws and draperies appear in astounding abundance. In other caves, Rangers shine flashlights around corners to point out rare shapes. At Carlsbad, these same rare formations are everywhere. Every step down through the Main Corridor is stunning and unbelievable but still does not prepare you for the grandeur of the Caverns famous Big Room.
The Big Room goes on forever in all directions. There is no claustrophobia at Carlsbad Caverns. The vistas are horizontal as well as vertical. The Big Room is 8.2 acres, well lit with a winding paved passageway. It takes at least an hour and a half to walk through its supernatural features.
Explorers have named notable formations the Caveman, the Temple of the Sun and the Rock of Ages. Countless more are left unnamed and free to your own imaginative skills. Every turn at Carlsbad is unimaginable and incredible.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10) An area resident, Jim White, then a teenager, discovered Carlsbad Caverns at the turn of century. Even though White led small groups of tourists through the Cave, it did not become an attraction until pictures were published in 1915. Isolation and skepticism protected it from the throngs until National Geographic ran a 1923 story announcing it as a new Wonder of the World, akin to Yellowstone and Yosemite. Congress declared it a National Park in 1930 and its discoverer, Jim White, became its first chief Park Ranger.
CROWDS (8/10) Elementary school aged girls, their parents, retired RVers, Harley riders, skate boarding teens, Japanese tour buses and spring breaking college students all felt the same astonishment and the same giddiness. Everyone is here and excited. It is a great atmosphere.
Despite the immensity of the Cave, things could get crowded in the summer. Even though we arrived 10 minutes after the Park opened, tours of the King’s Palace were already sold out. We got the last spot on the Left Hand Tunnel tour. If you want to take a guided tour, make your reservations ahead of time. Do not be disappointed.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5) Carlsbad Caverns NP is located in southeastern New Mexico, not near any population centers. In fact, it is 18 miles from the small town of Carlsbad, N.Mex. The closest city is El Paso, 150 miles to the west. The Caverns are a destination location.
Nonetheless, the paths around the Big Room are paved and wheelchair accessible, an amazing feat for a subterranean wonderland. If you do not want to walk down the strenuous Natural Entrance, an elevator will drop you off at the underground lunchroom and picnic area located near the Big Room passageway.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) You have to love a place that has shelves dedicated to all things bat. Stuffed bats, bat identification books, bat T-shirts, bat-crossing signs and more.
There are two stores in the small Visitor Center area, one handles books (great selection) and the other sells an incredible array of mementos.
A third concessionaire is in the Cave itself and sells T-shirts, hats and lunchtime snacks. You can send postcards from here marked with a stamp reading sent from 755 feet underground.
COSTS (2/5) The Entrance Fee is $6, age 16 and over, and $3 for ages 6 to 15. This charge is to get into the Cave, itself, and is good for the self-guided passages down the Natural Entrance and around the Big Room. This fee is waved if you have a National Parks Pass.
Ranger-led tours of the Caverns take you to areas not covered by the self-guided tours and cost an additional fee. The King’s Palace Tour cost $8 per person. Five other, wilder Cave tours range from $7 to $20 per person and require reservations. Check for the tour schedule before you come.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5) Two rangers led our lantern tour which was limited to 15 people. We saw several Rangers wandering the cavernous Visitor Center before and after their tours. AND we saw no fewer than five Rangers in the caves posted strategically along the self-guided route to assist with any and all questions about the Caverns.
TOURS/CLASSES (8/10) Carlsbad Caverns offers several guided tours daily. They range from a Ranger-led stroll through Kings Palace to a lantern-lit exploration of Left Hand Tunnel to a series of wild cave tours that will dirty your knees and test your tendency towards claustrophobia. There is something for everyone; however, most tours limit the number of participants. The arrival of a tour bus could significantly reduce your options.
Reservations are highly recommended, especially in the summer.
We chose to see Left Hand Tunnel the old fashioned way – by candlelight. We paid $7 for a two hour tour of a lesser known portion of the park.
FUN (10/10) “Whoa! Over there!” “Hey! Look at that!” “Oh my gosh, check it out!” “Wow! Wow! Wow!”
This isn’t a transcription of a couple of 5 year olds running through the Caverns; these are the phrases that Gab kept saying over and over again as we descended down the Natural Entrance and through the Main Corridor. And that’s before we even saw the Big Room.
Every corner held a giant formation, a new and strange shape or colonies of delicate crystals. Our oohs and ahhs did not cease the entire morning. They combined and joined with everyone else’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed, smiling stares as we slowly glided along, entranced by the wonders of water and rocks.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10) This is the cave by which all others are compared. Every cave tour that we have taken has mentioned the Caverns, either as a point of comparison or a disclaimer; “If you were expecting rooms like Carlsbad’s (formations like Carlsbad’s, bats like Carlsbad’s…) you might be a little disappointed; things are a little different here…” And then the Ranger will go on to discuss the special features and superlatives (longest, largest, oldest, etc.) that relates to the cave being toured.
Carlsbad and Mammoth Cave NP in Kentucky are the only American caves to be named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Tellingly, the NPS brochure that highlights the World Heritage Sites mistakenly labels a shot of Carlsbad’s entrance as Mammoth Cave thus removing any photographic representation of the Kentucky Park from the pamphlet. Even the proofreader sees Carlsbad as the one and only cave.
Carlsbad Caverns NP boasts the nation's deepest limestone cave, the fourth longest cave and one of the world's largest underground chambers.
Carlsbad Caverns is the granddaddy of all caves and a must-see American attraction. A road trip through New Mexico is incomplete without a stop here.
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