Touring the Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

So this week’s entry into the #throwbackthursdaytravels is from our brief trip out to southern New Mexico a little over three years ago (and actually was the last vacation I’ve taken). While my parents had briefly been to Roswell, Carlsbad Caverns, and the White Sands I hadn’t been so we decided to take our mid-May mini-vacation to New Mexico so that I could see the caverns, white sands, and of course Roswell.

Looking towards the natural entrance trail at Carlsbad Caverns

I managed to create the page for Roswell shortly after our trip, so that page has been live under the travels tab for a couple of years. The page for White Sands National Park will probably be live next week (as that it is next on the list).

In terms of directions: Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the southeastern part of New Mexico, just outside of Whites City off of highway US-62. In terms of directions to get there, I suggest using Google maps. We came down from Oklahoma, and drove through part of the Texas panhandle before entering New Mexico. Another note: you could also be possibly changing time zones (we went from central to mountain)–so remember to change anything that needs it (such as analog watches).

Carlsbad Caverns National Park was created in early 1930, though it had already been granted National Monument status seven years earlier. The area has a rich and complex history, so here are just a few key highlights:

1400–Mescalero Apaches come to the Guadalupe Mountains area

1536–Cabeza de Vaca is the first of the Spanish explorers to cross southeastern New Mexico

1724–Engineer, Francisco Alvarez y Barriero (working under Pedro de Rivera) is the one of the first to map the Guadalupe Mountains

1840s–US acquired the southwest from Mexico

1870–Billy the Kid frequents the area

1912–New Mexico becomes a state; 62 years after becoming a territory

1923–Carlsbad designated as a National Monument

1930–Carlsbad Caverns designated as a National Park

1931–The first elevator was installed

1995–Carlsbad Caverns National Park declared a World Heritage Site

2005–Lechuguilla Cave tops 110 miles in passage

Some other interesting numbers for the park include:

Within the park there are over 750 different plant species, 67 different mammals (17 of which are bats), 357 different bird species, and 54 different amphibian and reptile species.

Various yucca or other succulents seen within Carlsbad Caverns National Park

I managed to get pictures of various plants and flowers during our brief time within the park, but didn’t see any birds or mammals (may have heard a rattlesnake or two).

Some type of wildflower, possibly a type of violet…..

There are currently 120 known caves within the caverns, but as exploration continues that number could go up.

The four largest caves are:

Lechuguilla Cave (>140 miles)–is limited to research and exploration only

Carlsbad Cavern (>30 miles)–home to the ‘Big Room’ (the largest accessible cave chamber in North America)

Spider Cave (~3.52 miles)–guided tours only

Slaughter Canyon Cave (~2.3 miles)–guided tours only

There are numerous things that one can do within the park, and to take advantage of the parks offerings one should probably plan on spending a couple of days within the park. We spent basically an afternoon within the park, and still managed to see a good portion of it.

So the things one can do within the park:

Take a self-guided tour of the Big Room and Natural Entrance Trail (which is what we did).

To get to the big room, one has two choices–taking the elevator down from the visitor’s center, or entering via the natural entrance trail.

We took the natural entrance trail, which is a little over a mile long, and is extremely steep and winding. I think it took us a littel over an hour to slowly walk down the trail, and take pictures along the way. As the park states on their page ‘the trail is not recommended for visitors with heart or respiratory conditions’.

Looking down the natural entrance trail

Once you make it to the bottom of the trail, you will enter the Big Room, which is the largest single cave chamber (by volume) in North America. The trail again is a little over a mile, but this time relatively flat (compared to the natural entrance trail).

Wandering along the trail, it took us probably an hour and a half to two hours to wind our way through the cave to the elevators and concession stand. Instead of trying to wander back towards the natural entrance and then hike out, we decided to take the quicker route back to the surface and got in the elevator.

One of the many formations and sights you see as you explore the big room

I took probably well over a hundred pictures as we wandered through the big room, and instead of sharing all of them I decided I’d pick a few of my favorites to share:

The Big Room
Teeth or a curtain…….
Someone’s drapes need to be ironed
It looked like a petrified animal…

So after we spent the time exploring the Big Room, we then wandered the Visitor’s Center for awhile.

Educational information on the Permian period

Since the area had been part of a shallow sea millions of years ago–it was interesting to see the information on that fact.

How they harvested the bat poop

Guano harvesting was a big thing in the early part of the 1900s..

As we were leaving we decided to drive the Walnut Canyon desert drive (a ~9 mile loop) that took us through part of Rattlesnake Canyon.

Looking out over Rattlesnake Canyon

Then as we finished the loop, we pulled off on the Walnut Canyon Overlook, to get this picture:

Road entering the park
More desert wildflowers
Close-up of a cactus flower

Other things that one can do in the park include:

Taking a ranger guided tour of other caves. Currently though, all guided tours are temporarily suspended (due tothe SARS-CoV2 virus). But once they start back up there are several different tours that one can purchase a ticker for and they include:

Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour

Lower Cave Tour

Hall of the White Giant Tour

Left Hand Tunnel Tour

I had thought of trying to do one of the guided tours when we were there, but these aren’t short tours (for the most part), the round trip is at least 2-3 hours (possibly longer depending on the tour), and while I was wearing closed toed shoes, they weren’t hiking books and I wasn’t sure if they would have gotten me through the trip. Hopefully next time I’m there I can try one of the guided tours.

Hike a trail; there are several different trails that wind throughout the park. One thing–make sure that you follow thier list of things to pack for hiking, as this is ‘desert’ country, you want to make sure you’re prepared for anything that could happen. The trails are (from shortest to longest):

Walnut Canyon Overlook, we did this very short hike as we were ready to leave the park.

Chihuanhuan Desert Nature Trail

Slaughter Canyon Cave Trail

Old Guano Trail

Juniper Ridge

Lower Rattlesnake Canyon; we drove through a little bit of the canyon as part of the Walnut Canyon desert drive, so we stopped and took some pictures at the entrance to the trail, but didn’t actually get on the trail.

Upper Rattlesnake Canyon to Guadalupe Ridge loop

Slaughter Canyon

Yucca Canyon

Guadalupe Ridge

Guadalupe Ridge Trail–this is the longest trail, and is also a national recreation trail

Since there are three different species of bats roosting within the Caverns, they also host programs to watch the bats emerge from the caves at night, and then return to the caves at dawn. Picture taking of either program is forbidden as the flashes disturb bats. I think it would have been fun to be able to watch bats emerge from the caves at night, but we decided not to make the drive back to the park, and none of us are really extremely early morning risers, so it didn’t even register to think of heading back to the park super early to catch sight of the bats returning to the caves.

They usually also offer night sky programs, but they are temporarily suspended due to the ongoing SARS-CoV2 pandemic. Once they’re allowed to offer the night sky programs, there are three to chose from: star walks, moon hikes, and meteor shower viewing. Gazing up at the stars is something that I like to do, when there is minimal light pollution around (usually only happens when we’re on vacation to northern Minnesota). But maybe next I’m back in New Mexico, I’ll be staying somewhere that will have minimal lights on in the evenings and I can sit out and look at the stars.

While we were only within the park for an afternoon, we still managed to get in a hike throughout the Big Room, and see parts of the desert surrounding the caves. I would love to go back to the park at some point, and try taking a guided tour of one of the other caves, and doing a partial hike along one of the trails, in addition to going to Rattlesnake Springs to bird watch.