You are here

A Day In The Park: Carlsbad Caverns National Park


A "gypsum chandelier" is one of the wonders of Lechuguilla Cave at Carlsbad Caverns National Park/Dr. Jean K. Krejca, Zara Environmental LLC

As beautiful as above-ground landscapes are in the National Park System, if you head underground you'll find stunning vistas that will leave you breathless. Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico is, arguably, the biggest cave draw in the park system, and perhaps the most beautiful.

While you might assume there's just one huge cave at this park, it actually contains more than 100 caves that were created in the 250 million-year old Capitol Reef formation. Among them is America’s arguably most beautiful cave, Lechuguilla Cave, which is closed to the public.

Carlsbad Cavern is a very popular tourist cave with one of the largest underground chambers in the world - the Big Room. Carlsbad’s public cave facilities, which are renowned for their scale and sophistication, include elevators in a 700-foot deep shaft, an underground lunchroom, and an amphitheater to watch bats take flight. The Big Room is even partially wheelchair-accessible. The park, which now attracts about half a million visitors a year, was established as a monument in 1923 and upgraded to National Park status in 1930.

The Temple of the Sun/NPS

Freeman Tilden, perhaps the best known interpreter in Park Service history, marveled over the park in his 1951 book, the National Parks:

Huge as Carlsbad Caverns are known to be, nobody as yet has reached the limits. Seven miles of corridors and chambers are open to visitors, who go through in parties accompanied by a ranger guide, who explains the salient points and answers questions. But the truth is that the part of the caverns open to public inspection by the public is only the 750-foot level. Below that level, at 900 feet, is another vast apartment; and below that still another at 1,320 feet. Nor is it known how far it may eventually be discovered that these passageways and rooms creep into the Guadalupe Mountains.

But we're learning more and more about the park's underworld. As we've noted, researchers from the University of Arkansas used laser imaging to create a highly accurate, three-dimensional, digital map of public trails inside Carlsbad Cavern, the park's main cave.

Though the park dates back to 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge established Carlsbad Caverns National Monument, it continues to surprise us. Back in 2013, for instance, a little curiosity by a pair of cavers turned a fairly routine project at Carlsbad Caverns into an exciting adventure and an unexpected "treat" for the duo and the park. The cavers' original assignment on October 31 was surveying to help complete a new map of the Big Room, but that task led to the discovery of the largest new "room" discovered in the cave in decades. 

What can you do at the park? Naturally, there are cave tours to fill your days, including "wild" cave tours that take you into areas not followed by the general public. You can take a self-guided tour along paved, lighted trails through the Big Room, along the Natural Entrance route, or enhance your trip with a ranger-guided trip from room to room, where it'™s always cool, even on the hottest day. You'™ll see how water and calcium carbonate, dripping through the rock, have created a fairyland of stalagmites, helictites, popcorn, and soda straws. Don'™t miss the Witch'™s Finger, a natural column from floor to ceiling.

The nightly bat flights are a popular attraction at Carlsbad Caverns National Park/NPS

But there's also an incredible wildlife side to the park: its bats. The cave's large colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats awe visitors every evening from spring through fall with their spectacular flights out of the cave as they head off in search of food.

Plus, the nine-mile Walnut Canyon scenic drive is a one-way loop that shows off the park's above-ground landscape and links to the Rattlesnake Canyon Trail where you can look for animals and birds and check out the ruins of a 1930s homestead.

Traveler's choice for: Caving, bat watching

Please Support Independent National Park Journalism

Use the links below to make your donation to National Parks Traveler via PayPal, or send your check to National Parks Traveler, P.O. Box 980452, Park City, Utah, 84098. The Traveler is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit media organization. For U.S. residents, 100 percent of your contributions may be eligible for a tax deduction in accordance with applicable law. 

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide