2 hours east of El Paso, Texas, with Guadalupe Mountains National Park being the only sign of life in-between, you eventually find yourself in Whites City, New Mexico. The first gas station in what feels like days, within the Chihuahuan Desert. Here, at the entrance to the park, you still have about a 15 minute, winding drive, before making it to the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center. You’ll pass by a few overlooks and the scenic drive - the first scenic drive that we recommend skipping out on. Once you arrive to the visitor center, the fun begins!
While humans started exploring Carlsbad Caverns a little over 1,000 years ago, geologically, the caves began 265 million years ago. A 400-mile horseshoe-shaped reef, composed of mostly sponges and algae, began to build pressure and turn into limestone. Tectonic uplift cut-off this land from the ocean and cracks started to develop. Evaporation of the inland sea, combined with the dissolving mixture, left spongework. When the spongework was drained, the cavities filled with air and hydrogen sulfide gas. The gas oxidized on the walls and bacteria created sulfuric acid. The acid converted limestone to gypsum as rinds, which began replacing one another and created the chambers we see today.
We visited in October 2020, so we had to deal with the quirks of COVID. An already unique park, the pandemic brought some more challenges to a Carlsbad Caverns visit. After visiting both Wind Cave and Mammoth Cave National Parks, we were excited and intrigued at the idea of exploring a cave on our own. Carlsbad Caverns typically offers two different self-guided tours and a few different ranger-guided tours (no ranger tours are offered during COVID).
Welcome to Carlsbad Caverns!
The self-guided tours include the ‘Big Room Route’ and the ‘Natural Entrance Route’. We thought that really only had time for one, and were conflicted on which to choose. The COVID policies actually made this part easier for us. To limit the number of people in the cave at once, you must reserve a ticket for a designated time-slot. These tickets go quickly and are only available day-of. Again, this is due to COVID. There was a line outside the visitor center, way before they even opened. We waited in line, reserved our time-slot and browsed the bookstore.
The tour ticket is covered in the cost of your entrance fee, so there is no additional cost to tour the cave. Typically, there are separate entrances for each of the self-guided tours. I mentioned how these new procedures made our decision easier, and that is because everyone entered through the same way, the Natural Entrance. This was actually a blessing in disguise, because it allowed us to do the main thing of each tour that we wanted. Our decision was tough, because we wanted to walk down the Natural Entrance, but we also wanted to see all the highlights of the Big Room Route. This gave us the ability to do it all!
The hike into the Natural Entrance
Walking through the switchbacks!
Once you get to the rest area / elevators, you can exit, as the Natural Entrance Route is complete. Or, you can add-on some, or all, of the Big Room Route. We, of course, took advantage and hiked the Big Room Route in totality.
Giant Dome & Twin Domes - Big Room
Totem Pole - Big Room
More Big Room designs
Rock of Ages - Big Room
Each of the individual, complete loops, are about 1.25 miles. The Natural Entrance is listed as “steep & strenuous”, as you have to physically walk down, into the cave. Again, during COVID, there is no way to avoid this form of entry. That aside, we highly recommend hiking the entire trail, since you are there. It is important to note that there is a shortcut option along the Big Room route, essentially cutting the trail in half. Taking the shortcut eliminates 5 landmark sites, including Bottomless Pit. Checkout the trail map here, to get an idea of the routing and to better plan your trip.
The only downfall of the COVID policies, in terms of the actual tour, was exiting. Everyone has to line-up to exit via the elevators, and of course, it’s only one family per ride. Prepare to be waiting a bit to exit the cave.
Rest Area w/ restrooms, gift shop & snack bar
Although we were disappointed with the scenic drive, there are a handful of surface activities available at Carlsbad Caverns. If you head west on highway 180, you will come across Rattlesnake Springs. This is a separate district of the park and is mostly enjoyed for picnicking. Rattlesnake Springs is also the pathway to Slaughter Canyon Cave. This is one of the ranger-guided tours offered. Had we been able to participate, we most likely would have. Since we couldn’t, we didn’t venture down the dirt road to the cave and the 2 accompanying trails.
Assumingly the most popular surface activity is the Bat Flight Program. This is an evening event that takes place late May, through October. As you enter the cave, you can’t help but notice the stench of the thousands of Brazillian free-tailed bats that call Carlsbad Caverns home. Almost nightly, through the non-winter months, the bats exit the cave to grab their dinner. During the winter however, the bats cozy-up further south, in the Mexican warmth.
Sunset as we waited for the Bat Flight Program
Typically, the program takes place at the Bat Fight Amphitheater, just above the Natural Entrance. A park ranger speaks and prepares you for the bats’ exit. Another COVID caveat, the program was moved to the parking lot. We sat in our vehicles and listened to the ranger program over the radio. Although we visited in early October, we were extremely disappointed to experience an evening of no activity. The nightly bat departure is not guaranteed, and we can be witness to that. We were sad to not be able to enjoy this unique event, but we did learn some things from the ranger program.
Listening to the Ranger Program & doing some blogging!
As has been the case with every other cave national park that we have visited, we were thoroughly impressed and enjoyed ourselves immensely. There were so many “landmark” sites along the trails, and it was fun to take it at our own pace. We would suggest at least one full day at the park. Take-in both self-guided trails and try to be there for the Bat Flight Program. We feel that had we been able to witness the bat activity, it would have added a lot to our experience at this park. When times are more normal again, I think it’d also be worth it to take-part in a ranger-led tour as well.
Lastly, be sure to do your homework on lodging options when visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The town of Whites City at the entrance of the park, is the only place with a campground and hotel for miles. The town of Carlsbad, NM is 20 miles east on 180 and aside from camping at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, there are no options unil El Paso, in the opposite direction. We found a great dispersed camping site less than 10 minutes from Whites City. However, don’t forget to add about 15 minutes from the entrance of the park, to the actual visitor center. Our site was a 20 minute drive to the parking lot. We were the first ones there when we set up, but ended up with 2 or 3 more groups by the time we went to bed. The stars were amazing here and one of my favorite spots from the trip!