It was quite the adventure on my way to Carlsbad Caverns. Driving through West Texas oil country at night felt like stumbling into some dark occult ritual uninvited. Huge fireballs dotted the horizon in every direction. Each one surrounded by a semicircle of big chrome machinery. Floodlights blinded me in the pitch-black. My tires screeched to avoid hitting a lone coyote in the chilly 28-degree winter air. It was a rough entry into New Mexico.
The next morning, I drove through the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico to pay a visit to Carlsbad Caverns. I was immediately struck by how developed the entrance was. Unlike most other parks on my list, the main attraction here is the central cave itself. This means that the ticketing window, restrooms, gift shop, restaurant, and elevator to the cave are all housed together in one giant building. It feels more like a scene out of Disneyland than a U.S. National Park. I flashed my parks pass, paid for the ranger-led King’s Palace Tour, and stepped into the elevator that would carry me down, down, down, 750 feet below the surface.
It was beautiful!
At the bottom of the elevator? More Disneyland. Shiny glass doors and a silver roundabout marked the entrance to the cave itself, complete with an underground gift shop, flush toilets, and a cafeteria.
Thankfully, the tour lightened the mood a bit. I meandered through a series of enormous subterranean passageways with 20 other visitors, staring up slack-jawed at delicate calcite speleothems. A variety of rock formations—rippling draperies, pencil-thin soda straws, and melted chandeliers—hung high above our heads as we traversed a series of caverns just off the park’s famous Big Room area.
However, my initial upset about the nearby oil wells came rumbling back when our guide mentioned that all the lights from the surrounding oil fields above are the primary reason Carlsbad Caverns isn’t yet recognized as a dark-sky park.
I was hoping for peace and instead found civilization everywhere.
I had the afternoon completely free to wander, so I took the elevator back up to the surface and decided to hike down the cave’s 1.25-mile Natural Entrance Trail. With the park’s bat colony vacationing in Mexico for the winter and the lion’s share of park visitors arriving in March, I found myself descending the steep switchbacks into the cave in silence.
“Finally,” I thought to myself, “stillness.”
The farther I hiked down the paved pathway, the more I began to notice magnificent cave formations appearing out of the darkness. Much like with cloud-watching, my mind began to define each shape with a strange, psychedelic precision. I walked past a 20-foot-tall whale’s mouth, a spiny marionette, and a hoard of goblin fingertips reaching up and through the earth.
Winter is the slow season at Carlsbad, and I had the Big Room mostly to myself, save for a few international families and retired couples milling about. The silence was tremendous. It was exactly what I needed.
I found a bench with a 180-degree view of the cave’s Top of the Cross area and sat in the deep quiet for a long while. The trip may have gotten off to a rocky start, but this hushed tranquility was pretty damn perfect.
62 Parks Traveler Carlsbad Caverns Info
Size. 46,766 acres
Location. Southeastern New Mexico
Created In. 1923 (national monument), 1930 (national park)
Best. Caving, hiking, backpacking, accessible trails
When to Go. Year-round. The temperature in the caverns remains a steady and humid 56 degrees in every season. Although surface-level temperatures can soar during the summer months, hitting over 100 degrees.
Where to Stay. Though no vehicle camping is allowed inside the park, Whites City offers convenient tent sites and an RV park. The town of Carlsbad is also home to dozens of affordable chain-hotel options, many of which have pools and offer free breakfast.
Where to Eat. My Daddy’s BBQ is a sight for sore eyes in the barren restaurant desert of Carlsbad. Go for the pulled pork, stay for the coleslaw.
Mini Adventure. Take a self-guided tour of the park’s Big Room area by purchasing a general-admission ticket. Riding the elevator or walking the Natural Entrance Trail down to the main caverns. About half of the self-guided tour is wheelchair accessible. Visitors can spend as much or as little time as they want inside the cave until it closes at 4:45 P.M. In the warmer months, be sure to stick around for sunset, when hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats soar out of the cave’s mouth.
Mega Adventure. Go on the ranger-led Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour or the Hall of the White Giant Tour. Don a headlamp and prepare to crawl, hike, and squeeze your way through a wild cave system that’s only permitted with a guide.
Be sure to add Carlsbad Caverns to your Bucket List!