MapMap of Carlsbad Caverns National Park
A long straight road is a common feature of the Southwest, and the caverns are reached by one such route; US 62/180
that links Carlsbad with El Paso. The western stretches in Texas pass 100 miles of salt flats, sandy wasteland and grassy prairie before the forested Guadalupe Mountains come slowly into view, then, after a steeper and more winding section, the highway straightens out again, crossing more desert flats towards Carlsbad. The turn-off to the national park is marked by a collection of Western-style souvenir shops, restaurants and lodgings, known as White's City
, including the last gas station for 130 miles westwards. From here a rather narrow and winding side road climbs for 7 miles through a shallow limestone gorge (Walnut Canyon
) that has attractive rocky scenery with particularly abundant Chihuahuan Desert plants such as agaves and opuntia cacti. There is no campground in the park, and the only official site nearby is the rather pricy establishment at White's City, though free primitive camping is possible along several dirt tracks heading east from US 62/180, a few miles south of the park junction.
The entrance to Carlsbad Cavern is on the plateau at the south side of Walnut Canyon, where a huge visitor complex has been constructed, with acres of parking and a network of service roads. Inside the main building are a museum, book store, auditorium, cafe, cinema-style counter for purchase of tour tickets, and elevators that provide a short cut into the caverns below. The fee to enter the caves is $6 per person (unchanged for many years), although entrance to the park is free. Other attractions in this section of the national park include the 9.5 mile, one-way Desert Loop Drive
(no vehicles over 20 feet allowed) that continues westwards along the plateau top then returns via upper Walnut Canyon, and the one mile Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail
through similar scenery close to the cave entrance, while elsewhere in the park are several longer hiking trails
and many secret backcountry caves, a few of which are open to the public, but of course almost all visitors come only for the trips underground in the main cavern.
The usual way to see the formations of Carlsbad Cavern is by one or both of two self-guiding walking tours - Big Room
or Natural Entrance
- which visit different parts of the chambers. Four other branches of the cave may be explored by ranger-led hikes, for an extra fee (Kings Palace
, Left Hand Tunnel
, Lower Cave
and Hall of the White Giant
Big Room - for this, the less strenuous option, visitors descend 754 feet over one minute in an elevator that starts from inside the visitor center to be greeted, rather incongruously, by a rest-area and lunch room, but a short walk along a wide passage leads to the main cave area - the Big Room, 3,800 feet long and 600 feet wide, where most of the largest formations are found. The 1.25 mile path follows a roughly circular (anti-clockwise) route down one side of the chambers and back along the other, and the cave is so large that the two parts of the trail are generally out of sight of each other. Around 20 of the most spectacular speleotherms have an official name - grandiose appellations such as Hall of the Giants, Temple of the Sun and Rock of Ages, and are subtly lit with electric lights to create a most enchanting spectacle; the lights are white, so all colors in the caves are natural. Some areas have shallow underground pools, also illuminated, whose reflections add another dimension to the delicate formations above. Rangers are stationed at frequent intervals to answer questions, and the tours are usually very busy, so this is hardly a wilderness experience, but still one of the highlights of the Southwest. Along the main trail are many closed gates guarding small paths leading to unseen passages, and there are frequent glimpses downwards to deeper levels, some not easily explorable including the Bottomless Pit, 370 feet deep. Most parts of the Big Room route are wheelchair-accessible, and all have a special non-slip surface.