Carlsbad Cavern National Park

Our Northbound Tours (departing late August and early May) make their first stop at Carlsbad Cavern, one of the world's most extraordinary natural wonders. As a final stop for the Southbound Tour (departing late September), this is a spectacular ending.

The National Park Service offers this pleasantly understated description on the official website: "The magnificent speleothems (cave formations) that continue to grow and decorate Carlsbad Cavern are due to rain and snowmelt soaking through limestone rock, then eventually dripping into a cave below and evaporating. Wherever that water drop evaporates and releases carbon dioxide in an air-filled cave, a small amount of mineral-mostly calcite, is left behind. Thus, drip-by-drip, over the past million years or so, Carlsbad Cavern has slowly been decorating itself."

Southern New Mexico can be very hot almost any time of year, but there is no cause for concern - just head underground! The Cavern generally maintains a temperature of about 56°F = 13°C, and the sensation of coolness is enhanced by very minimal lighting intended to heighten your sense of being in a cave.

Carlsbad Cavern Big Room Walk

Left • The handrail is the only clue to the size of a passageway in the Big Room walk. Right • A glimpse of handrail again reveals the size of this small grotto area. (Click for larger image.)

The lighting, though suitable for dramatic effect, makes photography a major challenge, as does the sheer size of the individual rooms. The "Big Room", the primary destination of most park visitors, is much too big for a camera flash to reach the far wall. Consequently, the task of trying to convey the scale of the place is particularly difficult. In the two photos above, which you can see in a larger version by clicking on the panel, the handrails provide some sense of scale. The railing in the photo on the right is barely visible, and yet the room beyond is only a side chamber off the main room.

Carlsbad Formation

Rescuing beauty from the darkness in Carlsbad Cavern

Fans of Ansel Adams will remember him for his amazing skill in using natural light to create drama in the images he captured. They might also remember that he photographed most of the USA national parks during his career. There is a small room in the Carlsbad visitor's center devoted to the photographs of the cavern taken by Ansel Adams, who was so unsatisfied with his artificially lit photos that he destroyed all the prints and negatives. We know of his Carlsbad work only due to a single set of prints that was in the possession of the Park Service. So, don't be too hard on yourself if you have trouble capturing the essence of the place with your camera.

Walking into the cavern via the "Natural Entrance" is definitely recommended - you can always take the elevator up on the way out. The walk down is not difficult, the path is paved, and some of the formations on this route are unique.

If you do take the elevator in, the Big Room walk itself is only one mile, and it is well worth doing more than once while you are in the area. You will notice many features that you overlooked the first time through - there are that many amazing things to see. So, walk in via the natural entrance the first time you visit, and use the elevator for any return trips, and you can make excellent use of your time.

It is unusual for a National Park to be closely associated with a single person, but Jim White is the exception. Beginning at age 16, Jim began exploring the caves with a young Mexican friend, some torches, and a roll of string. Early commercial exploitation had more to do with the mining of guano left by the millions of bats that made their home in the cavern than with tourism. For a period of time, Jim lowered visitors into the cave with a large guano bucket. It took 25 years from the time Jim White first entered the cave until the area was designated as a National Monument, and another seven years before it became a National Park.

A plaque in his honor sums it up this way: "James L. White, 1882-1946. Beginning in 1901, Jim White made the first known extensive explorations of the Carlsbad Cavern. He was chiefly responsible for bringing the attention of the public, scientific groups and the federal government to the importance and significance of the caverns."

Carlsbad Cavern Formations

Large and delicately detailed formations are around every corner in Carlsbad Cavern

The trip between Santa Fe and Carlsbad Cavern is one of only two days during the Epic American West Tour where travel time may be longer than sightseeing time (depending on how late the northbound group stays up during their first night in Santa Fe). The drive itself is somewhat uneventful.

Highway 285 - New Mexico

Highway 285 - New Mexico • Despite what some might say, it is not true that there is "nothing" to see in eastern New Mexico. Please note the grasses, cacti, and two telephone poles.

 

Destinations by Area

Northern Segment

Glacier National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Aspen Area

Southern Segment

Utah Parks

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Santa Fe Area

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