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Descending into the Natural Entrance route of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a curtain of darkness gradually fell as my other senses were heightened. The air smelled moist — a stark contrast from the arid Chihuahuan Desert above. Beneath my feet, the switchbacks were slippery from water dripping down from the stalactites.
The trail I tackled is a busy one, with more than a half-million visitors traipsing through what has become one of New Mexico’s most popular and iconic attractions. Although the park includes desert hiking trails above ground, it’s better known for the karst landscape that earned UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995.
As I continued into the depths, my eyes adjusted, and fantastical cave formations began to emerge. The rock curtain of the Whale’s Mouth, one of several named formations, looks like the baleen of a great whale.
Cavern is an apt name — the cave is gargantuan — yet after just more than a mile, I emerged into the Big Room’s expanse. It’s the largest cave chamber in the country; the U.S. capitol building could fit inside twice. Now mostly level, a circular route through the “room” meanders past shallow turquoise pools and hidden grottoes of covered-in cave popcorn, pearls and soda straws. The aptly named Lions Tail hangs tantalizingly above the path, as though some great beast was perched above. The Giant Dome Column rises 62 feet above the trail. The stalagmite obelisk is just one testament to the geological shifts, tumult of gases and water that formed these caves some 250 million years ago.
Hiking the 750 feet down into the caves through the explorer’s entrance, I felt the same mystery and intrigue Jim White likely felt when the 16 year old “discovered” the caves in 1898. The caverns are more visitor-friendly than when people first toured the depths with ropes and handheld lanterns in the 1920s. Today, the paved trails are relatively well lit, so I had no trouble finding my way.
Despite the park’s popularity, I occasionally found myself alone around a bend and breathed in the quiet and awe-inspiring expanse. Having toured the Big Room, I stopped at the snack bar, an unexpected pop of civilization in a place that is otherwise so natural and untamed. In the elevator, back into the light, I tried to hold on to the sense of wonderment the caverns had inspired.
When to VisitThe caves averages about 56 degrees year-round, so there’s never truly a bad time to visit. May to October is the most popular time to explore, since visitors can pair a hike through the caverns with another phenomenal activity: watching hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats exit the caves at sunset. During nightly bat flights, spectators can see the cloud of nocturnal creatures spiral out of the caves to hunt. (The bats live in a part of the cave closed to visitors, so they are unlikely to encounter them below.) If visitors are looking for more solitude, they should plan to visit over the winter months.
Cave ToursThe Big Room is the park’s top attraction. However, there are more than 100 known caves here. Visitors looking for off-the-beaten-path or more hard-adventure experiences can join ranger-led tours to other destinations. The tour to King’s Palace gets explorers off the main route and descends into the deepest part of the cavern open to the public. Tours to Spider Cave and Hall of the White Giant will have cavers traversing slippery surfaces, belly crawling and free climbing short distances.
Where to StayThere is no lodging available at the park. The nearby town of Carlsbad, N.M., has a thicket of chain hotels. Since Carlsbad is the only town nearby, travelers will pay a premium to stay here — chain hotels may cost upwards of $200 per night during summer. The only boutique hotel worth mentioning is The Trinity hotel, which is housed in the former First National Bank building and offers sleek accommodations and a solid in-house restaurant. Bargain hunters will have to sleep further afield, in towns such as Artesia, N.M.
More to KnowIt takes nearly 45 minutes to drive from the center of Carlsbad to the park information center, where visitors can purchase tickets to the caves. Many scheduled tours depart from the base of the natural entrance, so visitors should plan to arrive at least an hour prior to the tour departure time to allow for transit (either via hiking the natural entrance or descending via elevator). Dogs are not allowed in the park and should not be left in cars; however, there is an on-site, day-use kennel service.
Carlsbad Caverns National Parkwww.nps.gov/cave