The harsh Chihuahuan Desert landscape of cactus, grass, thorny shrubs and rock in the southeast corner of New Mexico hides an almost alien world of stunning beauty — putting a new twist on the notion of judging a book by its cover. The size and beauty of the caves that comprise Carlsbad Caverns National Park — rooms filled with glistening limestone formations — prompted none other than Will Rogers to declare the caverns “the Grand Canyon with a roof on it.”
Carlsbad Caverns National Park also offers a chance to witness one of the great animal migrations — the daily trip of 400,000 bats from their daytime roosts in the cave into the insect-rich night skies over New Mexico.
Jim White, a 16-year-old cowboy, is credited with discovering the cave in 1898. White was drawn to the cave opening after spotting the sunset exit of bats. He thought it was smoke or a tornado. President Calvin Coolidge signed a proclamation on Oct. 25, 1923, creating Carlsbad Cave National Monument to protect Carlsbad Caverns and the area around it. The U.S. Congress designated the monument as Carlsbad Caverns National Park on May 14, 1930.
Things to do
There are two self-guide trails in the caverns: the Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room Trail. The Natural Entrance Trail is just 1.25 miles but very steep, dropping about 75 stories into the earth. Along the trail you’ll see the Boneyard, a maze of highly dissolved limestone rock that looks like Swiss cheese, and Iceberg Rock, a single 200,000-ton boulder that dropped from the cave ceiling eons ago.
The level Big Room Trail is also accessible by elevator. The Big Room lives up to the name. The Big Room is more than eight acres and the trail takes you past the Bottomless Pit (which is only 140 feet deep), Giant Dome, Rock of Ages and Painted Grotto.
There are ranger-guide tours ranging from mild to down-and-dirty. The King’s Palace tour is a mile long and follows a paved path through four ornately decorated chambers. The Slaughter Canyon Cave tour, at the other extreme, requires a steep half-mile hike to the cave entrance and the tour of this backcountry cave is muddy. The more rigorous cave tours require you to bring flashlights or batteries, gloves and kneepads.
Why you’ll want to come back
There are 117 known caves in the park.
Flora and fauna
There are more than 65 species of mammals found in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but most people come here to see the 17 species of bats. At sunset each day, the 400,000 or so Mexican free-tail bats that spend the daylight hours in the caves pour out to search for food. The exit flight may last anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours and the drama of varies from day to day. Some evenings a torrent; some evenings a trickle.
Other critters visitors may see include mule deer and javelina.
Rattlesnake Springs, a wooded riparian area within the park, is an oasis that draws a wide variety of birds. More than 350 species of birds have been documented in the park, including the ladder-backed woodpecker, the second-smallest North American woodpecker.
By the numbers:
- Website: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- Park size: 46,766 acres or 73 square miles
- 2010 visitation: 428,524
- Funky fact: The caverns’ interior stays around a chilly 56 degrees. Bring a sweater — even in August.