The Guadalupe Mountains span the Texas/New Mexico border and rise to heights of 8,749 feet, in great contrast to the flat Chihuahuan Desert land all around. Two national parks are found within their range; Guadalupe Mountains (in Texas), which features rocky peaks and scenic valleys with varied wildlife, and Carlsbad Caverns, one of the oldest and most famous cave systems in the world. The caverns are a full day’s drive from any of the other major attractions in the Southwest, but are well worth the long journey – they include several vast underground chambers, up to 250 feet high, filled with amazing formations of many colors and shapes.
The more than 100 limestone caves within Carlsbad Caverns National Park are outstanding and notable world-wide because of their size, mode of origin, and the abundance, diversity and beauty of the speleothems (decorative rock formations) within. On-going geologic processes continue to form rare and unique speleothems, particularly in Lechuguilla Cave. Carlsbad Caverns and Lechuguilla Cave are well known for their great natural beauty, exceptional geologic features, and unique reef and rock formations. The Permian-aged Capitan Reef complex (in which Carlsbad Caverns, Lechuguilla and other caves formed) is one of the best preserved and most accessible complexes available for scientific study in the world.
The park’s primary caves, Carlsbad and Lechuguilla, are well known for the abundance, diversity, and beauty of their decorative rock formations. Lechuguilla Cave exhibits rare and unique speleothems, including a great abundance of large calcite and gypsum formations, including the largest accumulation of gypsum “chandeliers,” some of which extend more than six meters (18 feet) in length.
Your visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park may include a self-guided walk through the Big Room chamber of the cavern, a hike down the 750-foot trail of the Natural Entrance, a back country trek through the Chihuahuan Desert or birding around a natural spring in the hidden oasis of Rattlesnake Springs.
In addition to the self-guided hikes, you may opt to experience the cavern with a park ranger on a tour of the beautifully decorated King’s Palace; walk into the deep, dark recesses of Left Hand Tunnel, lit only by a handheld lantern; shimmy through a chimney in Spider Cave; squeeze through a pinch in Hall of the White Giant; climb down a ladder in Lower Cave tour and be amazed at the shimmering Christmas tree formation in Slaughter Canyon Cave. All ranger-led tours are reservable and require an additional fee.
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.
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 caverntion.
Big Cave is the biggest cavern, measuring approximately 3,800 feet long by 600 feet wide. It boasts some of the largest and most colorful rock formations, which are illuminated by white lights. Lower Cave also contains remarkable formations, and Left Hand Tunnel is renowned for its cave pools and fossils. The King’s Palace is a series of four chambers, located in the deepest accessible area of the caverns, which contain unusual rippled rock formations known as the Queen’s Draperies. The Hall of the White Giant is a remote cavern famous for its huge white stalagmite. All of these caves can be visited via a guided or self-guided tour. You can enter Big Room on foot, via the Natural Entrance, which offers a steep, 1.25-mile descent, or by elevator. Self-guided tour routes are of varying difficulty, and some — such as Spider Cave and the Hall of the White Giant — require crawling through passageways. The Big Room route is easiest, and takes approximately two hours. You can rent a hand-held audio guide to accompany the tour. Guided tours should be booked in advance as spaces are limited. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult, and children under 3 are not permitted on tours. If you visit between mid-May and mid-October, stay until dusk to witness the incredible sight of thousands of Mexican free tail bats flying out of the caverns to hunt for bugs.