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Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Getting There

Carlsbad Caverns is: 150 miles from El Paso, Texas, 200 miles from Lubbock, Texas, and 300 miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Paso is the closest city with a major airport so our road trip will start from there.

From El Paso, take US Highway 62/180 east toward Carlsbad, New Mexico. Distance between El Paso and Carlsbad Caverns: 150 miles/2.25 hours.

Travel tip: fill up with gas, use the restroom, and grab a few drinks and snacks before leaving El Paso. Services are very minimal along this desert highway. Watch for the salt flats and beautiful mountain peaks of Guadalupe Mountains National Park along the way.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park – view from the highway at Guadalupe Pass

Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Information

Learn Before You Go

Do you know the difference between stalagmites and stalactites? A stalagmite grows on a cave’s floor, so watch where you’re walking, or you might (mite) trip over it. Stalactites grow from a cave’s ceiling, so if they don’t hang on tight (tite) they could fall. A park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns told us this years ago, and we haven’t forgotten his wise words!

Travel tip: the temperature in the cave is a constant 56 degrees, so a light jacket is recommended, along with sturdy, closed toe walking shoes with non-slip soles.

The Dolls Theater is a perfect example of columns and soda straws

Carlsbad Caverns

Prepare to descend seventy-five stories beneath the earth into a dark and magical place like no other in the world. Stalagmites, stalactites, domes, totems, mirror-like pools, and even chandeliers make for breathtaking sights (as well as exceptional photo ops) on your journey through Carlsbad Caverns. Walk into the caverns via the natural entrance if you are up for the challenge or take the speedy elevator to the entrance of the Big Room. The Big Room Trail is a little over a mile long, and it is definitely worth every step. Plan to spend at least two hours in the cavern.

Huge drippy “fountains” of calcite grow from the floor of the cave
Interesting drapery formations seem to cascade out of the cavern’s walls
This gorgeous dome started out as a tiny stalagmite on the cavern’s floor

The Park is More Than a Cave

Most people visit Carlsbad Caverns to see the caves, but the park has much more to offer such as:

A stalagmite “Christmas tree” inside the cavern’s wall is framed by calcite popcorn and soda straw “icicles”

Carlsbad Caverns National Park and neighboring Guadalupe Mountains National Park are part of an ancient reef that was created by an inland sea about 250 million years ago. Approximately 300 known caves have been found in the areas surrounding the parks with 119 of them in Carlsbad Caverns National Park alone. The parks lie in the Chihuahuan Desert which covers 250,000 miles and reaches into parts of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, although ninety percent of the desert lies in north-central Mexico.

Chihuahuan Desert heat and haze as far as the eye can see

Discovery of the Caverns

Indigenous people are said to have known about the caves long before modern exploration, however, cowboy Jim White is credited with the discovery of the caverns. In 1898, sixteen-year-old White was searching for stray cows when he saw smoke rising up from the ground. Upon approach he quickly realized the smoke was actually thousands of bats emerging from a large hole. Jim fashioned a rickety ladder from fence wire and sticks, and a few days later he climbed down into the hole carrying nothing but a lantern and an axe. How terrifying it must have been to take those first steps into the unknown! Jim continued to explore and map the caverns throughout the years and even assisted with building the improvements to make the cave accessible to visitors. White also served as Chief Ranger of Carlsbad Cave National Monument from 1926-1929.

Jim White’s ladder can still be seen in the cavern today

Creation and Sustainability of the Park

The park averages almost half a million visitors per year which may be detrimental to the cave. Visitors are instructed not to touch the formations because the build-up of bodily oils causes them to die. Carbon dioxide from our breath can even damage the delicate ecosystem of the caverns. During our visit we saw park volunteers using small paintbrushes to painstakingly remove lint, yes lint, left behind from visitors’ clothing and skin. Lint builds up in nooks and crannies along the trail and also attracts unwanted insects, so the park has it removed – about 44 pounds of it per year in the Big Room alone!

These draperies remind us of bacon
Rock of Ages
Dagger-like stalactites and soda straws dangle from the Big Room’s ceilings.

Lechuguilla

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is also home to another one of the deepest and most beautiful caves in the world – Lechuguilla. The cave’s name (pronounced letch-uh-ghee-a) comes from a type of agave plant that grows only in the Chihuahuan Desert. Bat guano was mined from the cave’s entrance through the early 1900s, but after mining operations ceased the area was basically forgotten. A Colorado exploration company, suspecting another large cave lay hidden beneath the park, got permission to begin digging in 1984. In 1986, they broke through to discover a virtual fairyland. So far, explorers have found huge draperies, delicate chandeliers, cave pearls, and colorful pools, though their explorations continue. Lechuguilla is not open to the public and is only accessible to scientific researchers and authorized exploration teams. Click here for a National Park Service photo gallery: Lechuguilla Cave Gallery. Click here for a YouTube video: Lechuguilla Cave Video.

The lechuguilla plant, also called shin dagger, looks like it could cause some pain! The plant flowers once in its life then dies.

Nearby Attractions:

Also check out our Quick Stop post that features Carlsbad’s famous flume. The “It’s a Fact, Jack” section is interesting too. Here’s the link: Quick Stop – The Flume

Chinese Theater

Want to lean about other national parks sites? Click on these exciting destinations:

10 Amazing Things to See and Do at Big Bend National Park
Gettysburg National Military Park
Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine
Grand Canyon National Park
Last look: draperies, like clusters of jellyfish, appear to spill from a hole in the ceiling of the cave. It’s hard to believe that slow dripping water created these amazing formations!

We sincerely hope our road trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park inspires you to grab your camera, hop in the car, and head that way.

Mike and Kellye

 

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our opinions are our own.

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