Carlsbad Caverns was our twentieth national park on our journey to see all fifty-nine. We visited with our good friend Abigail, who was particularly excited because she is obsessed with caves. There are three US national parks whose main feature is a large cave, the other two being Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Wind Cave in South Dakota. Carlsbad Caverns was our first of the cave national parks. We had a great experience and are now even more stoked to see the other two cave national parks this fall.
We actually drove pretty far out of our way to see this national park, as we were coming from White Sands National Monument, which is about four hours east of Carlsbad Caverns. In this particular area of Southern New Mexico, there is not a whole lot happening, so we planned to make this a short stop to see the caverns and nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park before heading north to Albuquerque. What ensued was a very pleasant, albeit brief, national park visit.
WHERE we stayed:
We initially planned to stay at a spot marked on Campendium, but Abigail found an even better spot on a nearby BLM (Bureau of Land Management) road. This spot wasn’t particularly scenic, but it was off the main road, private, quiet, close to the national park(s), and had great cell coverage. For us, this has all the makings for an excellent site, so we were more than satisfied.
The only real issue we encountered here was the heat. Since we had previously been stuck in Phoenix for an entire month due to RV repairs, we were passing through Southern New Mexico an entire month later than we initially planned. The daily temperatures in Whites City, the small “town” outside of Carlsbad NP, were in the upper-90s or low-100s for the two nights we spent here. This is brutal in an RV with no air conditioning. For these reasons, we made our visit as brief as we could.
If you are interested in visiting the area and would like to boondock on a quiet and private piece of land nearby the park, here are the coordinates where we stayed: 32.081490, -104.424280.
WHAT we cooked:
On our first night outside Carlsbad, we cooked a Thai-inspired feast, which included Thai basil chicken, coconut rice, Thai-inspired salad (with kale, colorful peppers, green onions, cashews, and edamame), and grilled veggies (zucchini, peppers, broccoli, mushrooms, onions and cauliflower). It was delicious!!
WHERE we dined:
We didn’t eat out here because there are no nearby restaurants, and we didn’t stay long enough to even consider it. However, Abigail had lunch at the cafe at the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor’s Center, which she said was enjoyable.
WHAT we did:
At this park, we made two separate trips, which left us with a great overall experience and feel of the place. If you are visiting the park for one or two days, I highly recommend the following activities.
Our first visit to Carlsbad Caverns was at the recommendation of a friend who had previously visited. The nightly bat flight happens at the mouth of the natural entrance to the caverns. There is no specific time that the bats typically fly, but the program begins about an hour before sunset. If you plan to visit, check the Carlsbad NPS website for a more specific time.
When the program begins, a ranger highlights the rules at the bat flight, which basically just include remaining quiet and seated while the bats are in motion. Afterwards, they will then ]present some of the history of the cave and scientific lessons about the resident bats of the cave. We learned so much and even had awhile to ask questions at the end before the bats began to fly.
While the nightly flight has become an enjoyable spectator event for visitors, it is also used to monitor the bat colony inside the cave. This colony changes frequently throughout the year, as some bats arrive to roost for only a few nights during a migration, and others come for a few months of the year as part of their annual migration. In the late spring and summer months, there can be as few as two hundred bats or as many as ten thousand. There were about five hundred when we visited, which seemed like quite a lot, so I can’t imagine how neat it would be to see thousands of them.
I’ve said this a million times before, but we love visitor’s centers! They are essentially your guide to learning everything there is to know about a certain national park (or monument). The center at Carlsbad is particularly well-designed, and we were able to learn all about the park’s history, “discovery,” and establishment as part of the NPS.
As usual, we watched the park film, where we learned about the young man who led the way to explore this cave thoroughly. Prior to Jim White’s discovery of the caverns, the Apache Native American tribes were aware of its presence for thousands of years. They even had names for it, which translate to “Home of the Bat” and “Bat Cave.” However, it is believed that they never ventured far into the cave due to spiritual beliefs surround caves and caverns.
In 1898, a teenage Jim White spied what he believed to be smoke from a wildfire in the distance. When we drew nearer to check it out, he found that the black cloud was actually thousands of bats exiting the cave as part of their nightly hunting ritual. He then began coming back frequently for almost the rest of his life, exploring deeper and deeper into the cave. He even championed the movement to protect the cave and establish it as a national park.
At the visitor center you can also purchase guided tour tickets (available online as well) and visit the gift shop or the national park cafe. At the gift shop, you may also rent a self-guided tour device, which describes all the features along the Natural Entrance hike into the cave and on the self-guided tour through the Big Room. Abigail and I loved this informative little device. 😀
Natural Entrance Hike into the Cave
For some time, this was the Caverns’ only entrance and exit. In the 70s, the NPS built an elevator system that leaves from the visitor’s center and transports visitors directly into the main cave chamber. On our visit, we chose to hike into the cave and take the elevator out.
The hike in (or out) is about 1.25 miles in length and traverses 750 feet, which is fairly steep. This was an enjoyable hike for us, as we watched the cave open up and climbed further into the caverns. The hike took us about an hour and half, while stopping to listen to our audio tours. If you have the time, this was quite a worthwhile experience.
King’s Palace Guided Tour
This was my favorite part of the national park experience. We purchased our tickets ahead of time online, but you may also purchase guided tour tickets This tour required some minor downhill and uphill climbing, so keep this in mind if you have physical limitations.
This tour was an hour-and-a-half long and took us through several large rooms and walkways, eventually ending in the chamber that Jim White aptly named “King’s Palace.” I believe the name comes from the general magnificence and splendor of the huge formations in this room. On the tour, the guide allowed the tour to experience the natural “true darkness” of the cave. During this, the ranger turned off all exterior lighting and everyone turned off their flashlights. You could not even see your hand in front of your face. It was rather neat.
The ranger-guided tour is the only way to enter and see this chamber, so I highly recommend getting tickets for this experience. ($5/person). We learned so much from our guide and saw so many things that we would not have seen on either of the self-guided tours, making this extremely worthwhile.
“Big Room” Self-Guided Tour
After our guided tour, we walked the loop around the Big Room, which is a self-guided tour (or rather just a cave hike). This trail is 1.25 miles long and is fairly flat and easy. On it, we passed by many different formations, pools, additional caves branching off from the Big Room, and a rope ladder once used by cave explorers in 1924. It was fascinating.
Tips and Tricks:
- Bring a jacket. The cave is 55 degrees in temperature year-round, so it can be quite chilly without any outerwear.
- Wear comfortable shoes (sneakers, hiking boots, or hiking sandals). At the end of the day, my FitBit read that I had walked a total of fifteen thousand steps, which would have been very uncomfortable in improper shoes.
- Bring water only! You are not allowed to bring food or beverages other than water into the cave, as this has the potential to leave crumbs, which attract unwanted rodents and insects into the cave. You can purchase food in the underground cafeteria of the cave, where it can be enjoyed from the tables there only.
- Buy tour tickets in advance. The summer months are particularly busy, and the tours fill quickly. Buy your tickets online for peace of mind knowing you will get into your desired tour.
- If you are planning to boondock outside the park, visit in the winter, early spring, or late fall for the best experience. This will help you to avoid 100-degree weather with no air conditioning. If you visit during the summer and wish to beat the heat, there is an RV park in Whites City with full hookups.
If you follow these tips and do at least some of these recommended activities, you are sure to have a marvelous experience at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. This is a fascinating national park and is not to be missed if you are in the Southern New Mexico or Northwestern Texas area.
Have you been to Carlsbad Caverns National Park? How was your experience? We’d love to hear in the comments below!