Situated in southeastern New Mexico, in the Guadalupe Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is home to one of the largest cave chambers in the world. Over 117 caves are hidden beneath the ground at this site, which has been a National Park since 1930.
In the millennia that followed, the Guadalupe Mountains were created from the shifting of the earth's plates, resulting in cracks in the reef, which filled with salt and water. Sulfuric acid was probably created from sulfurous gases seeping out from within the earth, which mixed with the water and salt. The sulfuric acid began eating away at the limestone, carving out the Carlsbad Caverns, the deepest limestone caves in the world, with a roof about 256 feet (78 meters) high.
Then, about 500,000 years ago, stalagmites, stalactites, and other cave formations slowly began to form from the seeping and dripping water in the caverns. Stalagmites formed when water dripped onto the floor, stalactites formed from the slow drips from the ceiling of the cave. Today, the Carlsbad Caverns are preserved and maintained by the National Parks Service, which offers tours and other programs to the park's 365,000 annual visitors.
When to go
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is open every day of the year, except Christmas (December 25). During summer (from the end of May to the beginning of September), the park features extended hours. These dates are also the busiest times for the park, so off-season visitors can avoid crowds. However, one of the park's most interesting features is the Bat Flight program, where visitors watch the daily departure of the over 300,000 free-tail bats from the caves. This occurs at sunset each day from about mid-May to mid-October.
Temperatures inside the caves are fairly consistent at about 56 degrees Fahrenheit regardless of outside temperatures. The caves can provide cool relief from hot summer days, but visitors should bring a jacket even when the weather outside doesn't require one.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located quite a distance from anything - even about 20 miles from the city of Carlsbad. For this reason, it is recommended that visitors drive to the park. The following are the nearest airports to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Cavern City Air Terminal (Carlsbad) - Cavern City is a small airport offering limited regional commuter flights to cities like Albuquerque.
Roswell Airport (ROW) - Located about 103 miles from Carlsbad Caverns, Roswell Airport is served by major Airlines including American Airlines.
El Paso International Airport (ELP) - Located in Texas, about 150 miles from the park, El Paso International serves international destinations.
Midland International Airport (MAF) - Midland/Odessa is located in Texas, just under 200 miles from Carlsbad, and serves international destinations and many major airlines.
Inside the park, visitors can go hiking or even backpacking for some backcountry camping. No mountain biking is allowed within the park. Visitors can enter the Big Cave via the elevator or the cave's Natural Entrance Route, which is a short but steep hike.
Shopping, Dining, and Lodging
The souvenir shop inside the visitor's center is the best bet for shopping at Carlsbad Caverns, offering typical gifts and souvenirs. Some unofficial vendors may be set up around the park, selling piece of caves, but purchasing these items is not advised.
Limited dining options are available inside Carlsbad Caverns National Park. However, inside the Big Cave, the Underground Lunchroom is situated 750 feet below ground. Visitors can enjoy cafeteria food and hot drinks by the lantern light or stop by the underground gift shop and mail a postcard from under the surface of the earth.
There is no lodging available within Carlsbad Caverns National Park. However, backcountry camping is allowed in some areas with a permit (free), which can be obtained from the visitor's center. At the entrance to the park, Whites City offers lodging and campsites, and the city of Carlsbad is about twenty miles from the park and has more lodging options.
Cave Tours - Self-guided and guided tours of the various rooms of the caves are the most popular attractions at the park. Several guided cave tours are available, but most have age restrictions, including a rule that children under three are not permitted.
The cave tours include Kings Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Slaughter Canyon Cave, Lower Cave, Hall of the White Giant, and Spider Cave. Learn about stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, draperies, columns, soda straws, and more. Experience the complete darkness of the cave on some tours, when the guide turns off all lights.
Many of these tours leave just once each day, and most require hiking shoes and proper gear, while some do not allow backpacks on the tour.
Bat Flight Program - During the summer at around dusk each evening, some 300,000 Brazilian (Mexican) free-tail bats can be seen exiting the caves in search of dinner. Visitors can also choose to wake up early and watch the bats return to the caves around dawn. Cameras are not allowed at the bat flight programs.
Night Sky Program - Carlsbad Caverns National Park is not just about what's below us - the Night Sky Programs are free events that encourage us to look up at the sky. A ranger-led program, there are telescopes available for guests to check out the stars, moon, and sometimes even planets in an area without much light pollution.