If you want to go deeper and further into the earth, consider going on the Kings Palace Tour. This ranger guided tour lasts for 1-1/2 hours and travels for close to a mile underground. It is the deepest you can get at Carlsbad on a public tour, taking you 830 feet below the surface. Highlights include helictites, columns, soda straws and draperies. You haven't been in the dark until you have experienced total cave darkness, another highlight of this tour. The tour isn't as difficult as the Natural Entrance Route, but you should be in good health. Children under four years old are not allowed on the tour.
If you want to an experience a wilder cave consider taking the Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour. This ranger-guided tour takes two hours to complete and passes through 1-1/4 miles of subterranean passageways. No trails, no electricity, no modern improvements. The only light that breaks through the darkness is from your headlamp, provided by the Park Service. Highlights include some of the most fascinating columns in the world, including 89-foot high Monarch Column and Christmas Tree Column, covered in natural semi-precious crystals.
Finally if you are an experienced caver consider taking either the Spider Cave or Hall of the White Giant tours. Both of these tours last four hours and require you to be in good physical condition, not have a fear of tight spaces or heights. These tours are down and dirty and you will be crawling, climbing, and squeezing your way into the blackness of these caves. Come prepared to get dirty and be sure to bring long pants, kneepads, gloves and 4 AA batteries. Children under twelve years old are not allowed on either of these tours.
Of course not all of the activity at Carlsbad Caverns is underground, and Carlsbad is world famous for a summertime surface activity, the flight of the bats. From April to October close to a million Mexican free-tailed bats call Carlsbad Caverns home and when the sun sets they put on an incredible display. Hundreds of thousands of bats, all flying a counterclockwise pattern, exit the cave at the same time. Park visitors can attend a free program and see this first hand at the Bat Flight Amphitheater located around the main cave entrance. If you are an early riser and don't like crowds, consider visiting the cave before sunrise. The bats repeat the same show returning to the cave from a night of feeding on insects. This spectacle reaches its peak in August and September when the young bats join their parents for a nightly flight.
Although Carlsbad Caverns is not home to a number of easy Nature Trails, it is home to 31 miles of backcountry trails that explore the dry rocky regions of the Chihuahuan Desert in the Carlsbad Caverns Wilderness Area.
Visitors wanting to take a day hike can trek down The Old Guano Road Trail. This 3.7 mile one-way trail starts at the Bat Flight Amphitheater. The trail follows a network of rock cairns through the desert before dropping sharply in elevation and ending at White's City Campground.
If you want to see the backcountry, the shortest trek is the 2.2-mile one-way Rattlesnake Canyon Trail. Visitors can take Desert Loop Drive to the small parking lot at Trailhead Marker 9. The trail crosses the canyon wash and is marked only with rock cairns. Dropping 670 feet into Rattlesnake Canyon, the trail is surrounded by seeps on the canyon walls. Ending at the park boundary, be sure not to cross the fence onto private property. Although the trail is short don't be deceived, this is a serious hike and was the backdrop to a grizzly murder in 1999.
The Guadalupe Ridge Trail is the longest in Carlsbad covering 12 miles before exiting into the Lincoln National Forest. The trail starts on Desert Loop Drive and the trailhead is clearly marked. Following an old, historic road, the trail climbs steeply along the ridge until you are over 6,500 feet above sea level. The trail continues along the ridge and offers incredible views of Slaughter and Rattlesnake Canyons. The 7.7-mile Yucca Canyon Trail, and the 5.3-mile Slaughter Canyon Trail both connect with the Guadalupe Ridge Trail.
All of the treks on the surface of Carlsbad require a strong outdoor navigational ability and skill in desert hiking and survival. In some places the trails are poorly marked and can be obscured by grasses or terrain. Visitors to the park who plan to enter the backcountry should carry at least one gallon of water per person per day, a USGS 7.5 quad map of the area, a compass, and know how to use it. If you don't know what a USGS 7.5 quad map is, you probably shouldn't explore the rugged surface of Carlsbad.
If you want to camp in more modern facilities you're not going to find a frontcountry campground or lodge at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. If you have a recreational vehicle, consider staying at Carlsbad RV Park and Campground. The commercial campground has 136 sites, 84 with full hookups, cable TV connections, and modem hookups. The campground has a dump station, laundry facilities, convenience store, RV supplies, ice, a game room, indoor swimming pool, playground and a recreation hall.
If you would rather stay at a public campground you can drive 25 miles north to the newest state park in New Mexico, Brantley Lake. The park has 51 sites with water and electrical hookups and primitive tent sites. A welcome relief from the rocky desert terrain of Carlsbad, the park's 4,000 acre lake is popular for boating, water skiing, and fishing for largemouth bass, walleye, channel catfish, white bass, bluegill, and crappie. In the summer ranger programs are held in the campground amphitheater.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is best when savored over several days and a number of the caves are explored. If you're looking for a wild and remote backcountry experience, the dry Chihuahuan Desert of Carlsbad is waiting. Whether you take the simple Big Room Route or crawl through the darkness, the subterranean beauty of Carlsbad will take your breath away.
Just The Plain Facts
Name: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Location: Southeastern New Mexico
Nearest Major Air Service: El Paso, Texas, Midland, Texas
Fees & Permits: Park access is free. Self-guided tours are $6, $3 dollars for optional audio program. Guided tours range from $7.50 to $20 per person, reservations are strongly recommended. Backcountry permits are free.
Why Visit: Largest single cavern in the world, fifth longest cave network in the world, deepest cavern in the United States, spectacular summertime display of Mexican free-tailed bats.
When To Visit: Year round, August to September to witness the bats, September to May is best if you want to explore both above and under the ground.
Essential Gear: Depends on a wide variety of activity. Sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, lip balm, camera, binoculars, light jacket, comfortable walking shoes, kneepads, gloves, clothes you can get dirty, and plenty of drinking water. Other gear is strongly recommended.
You Should Know: The desert is incredibly unforgiving. Do not underestimate the power of the sun. Stay out of washes as flash floods can happen at any time, even if it isn't raining in your particular location. Cave weather is 56 degrees so be sure to bring a light jacket. Some of the guided tours are serious business; if you have a fear of tight spaces, heights, or don't care to get dirty you are probably best off sticking to the self-guided tours. Flash photography is not allowed during the flight of the bats.
More Information: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, New Mexico 88220, (505) 785-2232. Carlsbad RV Park & Campground, 4301 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, New Mexico 88220, (505) 885-6333. Brantley Lake State Park, P.O. Box 2288, Carlsbad, New Mexico 88221, (505) 457-2384