Although nearly all visitor activities in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
are concentrated in the main cave area, the park extends southwest for nearly 20 miles, encompassing increasingly mountainous terrain split by branched, twisting canyons, cutting deep into the limestone bedrock. The unpaved, 9.5 mile Desert Loop Drive
penetrates a little way into the backcountry, but most is accessible only by hiking, along trails beginning either along this road or from other trailheads on the south side of the park, reached by a side road forking off US 62/180. The Desert Loop Drive is a one-way route starting near the visitor center and rejoining the park road lower down Walnut Canyon; it is maintained and not too narrow yet is not open to vehicles longer than 20 feet. Along the way are numbered stops corresponding to particular points of interest, described in a tour guide available for purchase at the visitor center.
MapMap of Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The other principal access point for the park backcountry is along a road starting along US 62/180, 5.5 miles south of Whites City, and crossing flattish, scrub-covered land for 11 miles, as far as a parking area and trailhead at the mouth of Slaughter Canyon. En route is a short track to Rattlesnake Springs
, a detached section of the national park containing a group of natural springs that sustain a cool, moist area with large cottonwood trees and other vegetation, fed by a network of concrete irrigation channels, regulated by iron drawbridges. The NPS maintain a pleasant if little-used picnic area here (no camping, however), and the wetlands hereabouts are a good location for bird watching.
The latter part of the road to Slaughter Canyon
is unpaved though still in good condition. This valley is the location of many of the backcountry caves - the national park contains over 110, of which most are not open to the public, and their locations are kept secret. Even trailhead directions for the few which are open are difficult to obtain, but most are found along the lower 2.5 miles of Slaughter Canyon, before it splits into West, Middle and North forks. One for which guided tours are provided is Slaughter Canyon Cave
(formerly known as New Cave), reached by a half mile trail from the parking area, climbing 500 feet up the west side of the valley. Tours are available daily, lasting 2 hours and costing $15 per person. Apart from Carlsbad Cavern itself, the only other cave with a regular guided tour is the narrow Spider Cave
, near the visitor center, while those open for self-exploration by qualified cavers include Chimney Cave
(reached by a short trail along the Desert View Drive), Deep Cave
(in the far southwest, reached by a 4WD track across the Lincoln National Forest), and a group in Slaughter Canyon: Christmas Tree, Goat, Helen, Ogle, Wen and Lake. There is definitely no public entry to the beautiful, recently discovered (1986) Lechuguilla Cave
owing to its delicate formations, extreme environment and rare geology, but continuing investigations by NPS-approved explorers have taken the length of the known passages to over 120 miles, and to depths of 1,600 feet - making Lechuguilla the deepest cave in the USA and the fifth longest in the world.