Exploring a Natural Wonder Underground

Carlsbad Caverns, a UNESCO World Heritage Site New Mexico is filled with hidden gems and must-see attractions. But there is one place in particular, hidden below southern New Mexico’s desert surface, that is sure to thrill even the most seasoned traveler: Carlsbad Caverns. In this network of underground caverns you’ll get up close to ever changing rock formations that almost defy belief. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to over 119 known caves and is about 3 hours from Las Cruces.

Stalactites at Carlsbad

Stalactites at Carlsbad

Visiting

When planning your trip to Carlsbad Caverns, make sure to give yourself plenty of time. To get the most bang for your buck, arrive as soon as the park opens around 8 a.m. The rangers begin closing the Big Room around 3:30 p.m., so make sure to arrive no later than 1 p.m.

There are two entrances to the caves, the elevator down from the visitor center and the natural entrance where you can hike into the mouth of the cave, like the early explorers would have done. The hike down the 750-foot trail can be challenging with steep downhill terrain and many switchbacks but it is worth all the effort. You’ll pass through different levels of the cave and see formations with markers and information all the way through. There are many places to stop and rest during your walk down. To get the full experience hike down the natural entrance in the morning and take the elevator back up when you’re done.

When you’ve gone down the natural entrance, grab a drink and a bite at the underground café or get right to exploring. You’ll take the trails through the Big Room, past formations that will truly dazzle you, from flowing stalactites hanging above that seem to defy gravity or stalagmites as big as houses that crop out from the ground. You’ll remember the difference between the two by noting that stalactites must “hold tight” to the ceiling. You can spend a full day walking among the formations and reading about them. The trails in the Big Room are well lit and fairly even, and seating is dispersed along the way for resting. Bring your camera, but take some time to familiarize yourself with low-light photography before you go. Flashes can often distort the images.

Guided Tours

Stalagmites growing up from the cave floor

Stalagmites growing up from the cave floor

If walking the well-lit, evenly-paved trails of the Big Room isn’t enough adventure for you, try a guided tour. You’ll climb, shimmy, bear crawl and scramble through the cave system to view formations that only few have seen. Everyone is required to wear gloves and a head lamp or carry their own lantern for these tours (provided by the rangers). Tours are available April through August and require purchasing tickets in advance. (Tickets are only about $8-$20 per person.) Tours range in activity level from easy to strenuous and those fearing the dark, heights or small enclosed spaces should think twice before going, so it’s important to do some research ahead of time.

nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/tour_schedule.htm

Bat Flight

The perfect way to end any trip to Carlsbad Caverns is to watch the Bat Flight at dusk. For this, you’ll sit in the outdoor amphitheater and hear a short talk given by a park ranger before the bats take flight.

Because of the risks to the bats, you’ll be required to turn off your electronic devices during the flight, including cell phones and cameras. This program happens May through October, though the best time to see the most bats is August –September since the baby bats join the flight with the adults.

nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/bat_flight_program.htm

So grab your camera, friends and your sense of adventure and prepare to be amazed by Carlsbad Caverns!

Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces is a great starting-off point for a trip to Carlsbad Caverns. Visitors can enjoy comfortable rooms, local cuisine, a resort-style pool and hot tub after a day of spelunking.

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