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The road ahead of us cut a straight line into the barren desert landscape of southern New Mexico, and looking at what was laying in front of us, I couldn’t see yet how we’d reach some of the biggest caves in the world within the next 15 minutes.
Finally we turned off the highway, which, had we followed it further, would have led us straight to the Texan border only 18 miles down the road. Instead of the straight road through flat no-man’s-land, the road we were on now was sloping around mountains and hills into the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, making it more likely for a cave to be somewhere around here.
I am still not sure how this cave was discovered out here in the middle of nowhere, and it was in fact a completely random discovery by a teenager, Jim White, who was a cowboy herding cattle in the area back then, and who continued to explore the caves in-depth over the next few years.
When reaching the visitor center, we learn that there are actually two ways to get down to the cave chambers: the lazy one would be taking the elevator (first cave we’ve ever been to that has an elevator!!) and arrive at the caves within a minute. The other one would be hiking down into the cave through the natural entrance and experience them the way Jim White found them in 1898.
Of course we opted for the hike. I still remember the small, nondescript sign along the path to the entrance that read ‘Strenuous hike ahead. Exhaustion and weak knees common.’ … and not thinking much of it.
The natural entrance way is strenuous! It climbs 800ft (240 meters) in 1.25 miles (2km). Allow one hour to hike to the surface.
If you have problems with knees, back, heart, breathing or diabetes, then you should use the elevator. You must wear appropriate footwear, have good physical health, and a can-do attitude.
When we finally got to that sign, I wondered why this exact sign hadn’t been on the other side of the trail, too. To be honest, we had no idea what a hike we had gotten ourselves into when we entered the cave – and certainly didn’t expect it to last 90 minutes!
It was definitely worth it though – it felt just as adventurous as it must have been for Jim White and others before him who had found the caves (if you ignore the paved path and handrails). The trail was barely lit, adding a mystic atmosphere to the various chambers we passed on our way down.
The few lights that lit the way created spooky shadows around the stalactites and stalagmites surrounding us, and the narrow cemented path that went deeper and deeper into the caves went right underneath huge stalactites several times.
When we finally reached the famous Big Room, we couldn’t believe how big it actually was! After our 90-minutes hike to get there, it took us another hour to follow the walkways around the cave.. one hour to walk around just one chamber of the cave!
This room is also known as the ‘Hall of the Giants’, not only for its superlative sizes (4,000 feet / 1,220 m) long, 625 feet / 191 m wide, and 255 feet / 78 m high at the highest point), but also for its giant stalactite and stalagmite formations, such as the ‘chandelier’.
In total, there are around 120 caves in the National Park, most of which can be visited on either guided or self-guided tours. The illustrative names of the chambers, like ‘The King’s Palace’, the ‘Hall of the White Giant’, ‘Spider Cave’ or ‘Green Lake Room’ date back to Jim White, who named almost all of the famous rooms.
These formations also still carry the names that were given to them by their discoverer Jim White – descriptive names such as the Iceberg Rock, Totem Pole, Witch’s Finger, Giant Dome, Bottomless Pit, Fairyland, Temple of the Sun, and Rock of Ages.
During the strenuous hike down, we didn’t notice that the temperature had dropped significantly, but as soon as we reached the Big Room, where walking was easier, the difference in temperatures couldn’t be ignored anymore: we had started at 90°F (32°C) outside, and were walking around in a chilly 56°F (13°C) now!
Now we were glad that we had brought our jackets. By the time we reached the elevator to head back up, I was so cold that I couldn’t wait to see natural light again and feel the warming sun rays on my skin.
We have seen several other caves on our travels so far, but none had been anywhere near as impressive as Carlsbad Caverns were.
The bat flight
We actually ended up driving down to Carlsbad Caverns twice from Carlsbad: once to visit the caves and once to witness the bat flight, when thousands of Mexican free-tail bats come out of the caverns to hunt for bugs.
The bat flight usually occurs at sunset and can be experienced every night from mid-May through September (check what time sunset is) from the amphitheater near the natural cave entrance. Prior to the bat flight, there is a short talk by one of the park rangers about the bats, their habits and their history in the caves.
The bat flight program at sunset is free. Photography or filming is not allowed at all.
To be honest, we weren’t too impressed with the bat flight – next time, I would plan my visit different and hike down into the caves in the afternoon and just stay for the bat flight instead of driving down there twice from Carlsbad.
Carlsbad Caverns are about 18 miles (29 km) south of Carlsbad – the drive will take 35 to 40 minutes depending on where in Carlsbad you’re staying.
Admission is $10 per person, additional fees apply to ranger-led tours.
If you are interested in learning more about cave geology, history, formations, etc., we recommend renting an audio headset at the entrance.
The hike through the natural entrance takes appr. 1 hr 15 mins.
Duration: We spent three hours in total at the caves
More information can be found on the official NPS website.