Grand Canyon with a Roof on It: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Cave Tours
Carlsbad Caverns is renowned for its cave tours, especially the Big Room Tour and the Natural Entrance Tour. While no reservations are needed for these self-guided tours, ranger-guided tours do require reservations, and some fill up quickly.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Guadalupe Mountains, a mountain range that runs from west Texas into southeastern New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All ranger-guided tours can be reserved on a space available basis up to two days prior to the date of the tour. Any unsold tickets are sold at the Park’s ticket office on a first come-first serve basis.

The temperature in the caves is 56 degrees Fahrenheit year round, so you’re advised to bring a sweater or light jacket with you. You’ll do a fair amount of walking, so wear comfortable shoes with rubber soles for good traction.

Self-Guided Tours

The basic cavern entry is by way of two self-guided routes, the Big Room Route and the Natural Entrance Route.

Big Room Tour

Every visitor wants to see the Big Room, a chamber so large you could fit the U.S. Capitol into just one corner. Elevators at the visitor center take you to lighted passageways—essentially a trail system—lying 754 feet below the surface and equivalent to a 75-story building. The elevator emerges at the Underground Lunchroom, which offers restrooms and drinking fountains as well as a snack bar.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains more than 110 limestone caves, the most famous of which is Carlsbad Cavern. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there you take the Big Room Trail, a one-mile trail that loops around the perimeter of the cave’s largest chamber. The trail is well lit, wide, and gently sloped; a portion is wheelchair-accessible. You can take a self-guided tour of the Big Room in about 90 minutes. You’ll end your cave tour as it began with an elevator ride.

Natural Entrance Tour

Somewhat more demanding is the Natural Entrance Route, a mile-long trek that follows the path of Jim White and other early explorers.

In a spiraling descent from the surface and through the main corridor, this route culminates in the cavern lunchroom. Along the way, visitors pass the Bat Cave, Devil’s Spring, the Devil’s Den, the Witch’s Finger and Iceberg Rock, a 200,000-ton limestone boulder that geologists believe fell from the cavern ceiling thousands of years ago.

Consider substituting the Big Room Tour for the Natural Entrance Tour. The Natural Entrance Tour (i.e. a complete cave tour) enters the cave via a natural entrance and returns to the surface via the visitor center elevators.

You’ll enter the natural entrance on a switchback trail and walk downward into the cave complex. Make sure you are capable of handling the physical demands of the Natural Entrance Tour. Considered moderately strenuous, this tour involves a 750-foot descent in about one mile and involves a number of steep descents and switchbacks. About three miles of walking is required.

Combining the cavern entry with the Big Room tour will take about 3 hours.

Ranger-Guided Cave Tours

Carlsbad Cavern receives more than 300,000 visitors each year and offers a rare glimpse of the underground worlds preserved under the desert above. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Six guided tours are available—King’s Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Slaughter Canyon Cave, Lower Cave, Hall of the White Giant, and Spider Cave.

Reservations are highly recommended for all guided tours. For advanced reservations, call (877) 444-6777 or visit the Recreation.gov website.

Guided tours range in difficulty from walking on paved trails to walking rough dirt trails to crawling through narrow cave passages. Consult the park newspaper, the website, or check with a ranger for more information regarding difficulty and required equipment.

Note: This is the second of a three-part series on Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Part 1: Underground Wonderland

Part 3: Beauty & Wonder

Did You Know?
Most of the formations—or speleothems—found inside Carlsbad Cavern today were active and growing during the last ice age when instead of having a desert above the cave, there were pine forests.

Worth Pondering…

The beauty, the weirdness, the grandeur … absolved my mind of all thoughts of a world above. I forgot time, place and distance.

—Jim White

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