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Carlsbad Caverns National Park

New Mexico

Combining the largest underground caves on the continent with spectacular desert backcountry, this park in the southeastern corner of the state attracts 750,000 visitors each year. The area lay in obscurity until Jim White, a 19-year-old cowboy who was wandering through the area, in 1901, and discovered a huge natural entrance to Carlsbad Cavern when he saw a cloud of bats rising from it. He descended into the cave and became enchanted. He stayed here for the rest of his life, becoming a guano miner and harvesting the bat droppings for the next 20 years.

A few months after his first tentative explorations, White traveled into the Big Room and the lower cave. He began escorting visitors through the caverns, using the mine hoist and guano buckets as an elevator for his tours. President Coolidge created the Carlsbad Cave National Monument in 1923, and the site was given national park status in 1930.

New Cave was discovered at Slaughter Canyon in 1937. National Geographic Magazine featured the caves, and throngs of tourists came during the 1940s. By then, passenger elevators had been built. The first self-guided tours began in 1972, and since then the caverns have become one of the most popular attractions in the state.

Both Carlsbad Caverns and New Cave are open to the public. They are accessed by different roads. The main road from the village of White's City leads to the visitor center and Carlsbad Cavern. County Road 418, off Hwy. 62 south of White's City, runs to a parking lot near the entrance to New Cave.

Carlsbad Cavern Tours

The area of this huge set of caverns and passages stretches more than 20 miles. Visitors travel more than 800 feet below the surface with fanciful formations everywhere. The temperature here is always 56 degrees. Travelers through the caves are issued headphones for a narrative description of the tour, which proceeds along lighted trails. There are two tours from which to choose, depending on the time you have. The longer tour (Blue) provides a three-mile walk starting with a 2-mile descent on a trail which leads to the Big Room. Reserve about 2 hours for the Blue Tour.

The Red Tour enters the Big Room by elevator, descending 750 feet. The loop trail around the room is a little more than a mile long and takes an hour. Visitors on either tour may get food at the underground lunch room. Both tours end with a ride to the entrance by elevator.

There's a museum with exhibits on the history of the cave and the surrounding desert landscape, as well as an observation tower, gift shop, day-care center and pet kennel. Outside the visitor center is a half-mile nature trail that provides a self-guided walk over high ground, with displays of the region's flora and fauna.

New Cave Tour

A trip through New Cave is more adventurous than the tours of the larger cavern. Here, visitors take a hike through the undeveloped cave in groups of 25 people, led by rangers. Reservations are necessary for this tour, and you are required to bring your own flashlight and water. The hour-long tour covers more than a mile of passageways, and the walk is fairly strenuous, with a climb of 500 feet to return to the mouth of the cave and the parking lot. Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area offers shaded picnic tables with water, grills, and toilets, beside the road that leads to New Cave.

Bats in the Sky

From May through October, visitors gather in the park amphitheater at dusk to see thousands of bats flying out of the entrance, just as Jim White first saw the swarm of bats in 1901. The rodents swirl around and then fly to the Pecos River Valley to feed on insects. They are seen again at daybreak, returning to the cavern entrance -- an area which is off-limits to humans.

Walnut Canyon Drive

This is a 9.5-mile loop road which starts 1/2 mile from the Carlsbad Caverns entrance and proceeds along a ridge to Rattlesnake Canyon, returning to the visitor center through Upper Walnut Canyon. There's a guidebook available for full enjoyment of this fine tour.

Nearby Attractions

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is south of the caverns, across the border in Texas. Guadalupe Peak is the highest mountain in Texas. This is a good place to camp while visiting the natural attractions of the area. Campgrounds are located at Pine Springs (off Route 62/180) and Dog Canyon a more remote site accessed via Route 137, which leads from U.S. 285 north of the town of Carlsbad). One of the most scenic parts of the park is McKittrick Canyon where high sheer rock walls protect a variety of plant species nurtured by a spring-fed creek. This is good birding territory, and from late October through mid-November, the oak and walnut trees are ablaze with brilliant colors. The canyon is at the end of a paved road off Route 62/180.

Living Desert State Park is located 4 miles north of Carlsbad, off Hwy. 285. The Chihauhuan Desert reserve is home to several dozen species of desert wildlife including birds and reptiles. An interpretive trail shows plants that live on the sand dunes. The Desert Arboretum features cacti from this and other desert regions of the world. There's a small zoo with cougars, javalina, bobcats, kangaroo rats, and other animals of the area.

Carlsbad
This small city takes advantage of the nearby natural attractions, providing services for tourists with a selection of modest motels and cafes. There are two golf courses and several nearby lakes for boating and fishing. Windsurfing is popular on Lake Avalon. There are campsites and picnic areas at Brantley Lake State Park, north of Carlsbad on Hwy. 285. A KOA campground and RV park is located nearby.

White's City
Originally just one tourist court near the caverns, White's City has grown to three motels, the Velvet Garter Saloon and Restaurant, a hamburger joint, gas stations, a store (they do a great business selling flashlights and cameras), the Million Dollar Museum (a hugely popular commercial attraction), and RV parks. Granny's Opera House features old-fashioned melodramas.

New Mexico Destinations

Alamogordo

Albuquerque

Aztec

Bandelier National Monument

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Chama

Cloudcroft

Los Alamos

Mesilla

Ruidoso

Santa Fe

Silver City

Taos

 


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