Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

The Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches, underneath the Guadalupe Mountains, lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found. Water moulded this underworld four to six million years ago. Millions of years passed before the cave decoration began. Then, drop by drop, limestone-laden moisture built an extraordinary variety of glistening formations—some six stories tall; others tiny and delicate. Cave scientists have explored more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) of passageways of the main cavern of Carlsbad, and investigation continues. Visitors may tour three of these miles (five kilometres) on a paved trail. Slaughter Canyon Cave provides the hardy an opportunity to play caver, albeit with a guide. The park has more than a hundred other caves open primarily to specialists. These caves form part of the 46,766 acres Carlsbad Caverns National Park that was established on 14 May 1930.The park is off US 62/180, 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad and 164 miles east of El Paso, Texas. For the visitor centre, turn west at Whites City and drive seven miles. For Slaughter Canyon, turn west on County Road 418, five miles south of Whites City; drive another 11 miles, some unpaved, to the parking lot. Airports: Carlsbad, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas.

The weather underground remains a constant 56°F. The main cavern gets crowded, especially in summer and on major holiday weekends. Either spring or fall, when the desert’s in bloom, is an excellent time to go. You’ll see the bats fly from April or mid-May through October. One full day allows you time to tour the main cavern and take a nature walk or a drive before watching the bats fly at sunset. For a second day’s activity, reserve space on a tour of “unimproved” Slaughter Canyon Cave, if you’re ready for a more rugged caving experience. At the visitor center, select either the Natural Entrance Tour or the Big Room Tour (both are 1.25-mile walks). Try the first unless you have walking, breathing, or heart problems. It starts at the natural entrance and is mostly downhill, except for one stretch where you climb 83 feet; an elevator whisks you back to ground level. The Natural Entrance Tour is more intimate and may be less crowded than the Big Room. The Big Room Tour begins with an elevator ride directly to the Big Room, in which you can see most of the types of formations visible in areas of the cave not open to the public. If after this tour you want to see more caves, take the elevator back up to ground level and proceed with the first half of the Natural Entrance Tour. Another option, the Kings Palace Tour visits the stunning formations in the scenic rooms. Credit: National Geographic Society.