Cave Crawling in Carlsbad

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Along with the Hall of the White Giant and the Left Hand Tunnel, there are many other sights worth seeing in Carlsbad Caverns, both on and off the beaten path. Sporting such poetic names as Temple of the Sun and Caveman Junction, the weird and fantastic geological highlights of Carlsbad are underground curiosities worth exploring at length.

Many cave tour routes wind through the chambers of Carlsbad Cavern, though only a part of the cave can be viewed on public tours. Beyond these passages are more underground rooms, many of them just as exquisitely decorated as the more easily accessible attractions. Altogether more than 30 miles of caves have been explored. The deepest chamber is 1,027 feet below the surface.

Visitors wishing to explore Carlsbad Caverns may select from three main tour options depending on their time, interests, and physical ability. Two of these options follow self-guiding routes, while the third is a ranger-guided tour.

Big Room Route

The basic tour through Carlsbad Cavern is the Big Room Route, a one mile, self-guided underground stroll around the perimeter of the largest room in the cave, the Big Room. Taking approximately one hour, this circular route passes many large and famous features including Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, and Painted Grotto. Highly decorated and immense, the 14 acre Big Room is a"must see" tour for all visitors to the park. Access to the Big Room is provided by elevators located in the visitor center. The relatively level and well lighted trails make this the ideal tour for visitors with limited time or walking difficulties. The Big Room is accessible to wheelchairs, with a special map available at the visitor center information desk.

Natural Entrance Route

The Natural Entrance route is a self-guided tour available to visitors with plenty of time and in good physical condition. This one-mile tour follows the traditional explorer's route, entering the cavern through the large historic natural entrance. The Natural Entrance route descends more than 750 feet into the earth, following steep and narrow trails through a tall and spacious trunk passage call the Main Corridor. The route culminates in the underground rest area, near the elevators and the Big Room route starting point. Visitors in good health who plan to take both self-guided tours may enjoy starting with the Natural Entrance route. Highlights along this route include Bat Cave, Devil's Spring, Green Lake Overlook, and the Boneyard, a complex maze of highly-dissolved limestone rock reminiscent of swiss cheese. Visitors should watch for Iceberg Rock, a single 200,000-ton boulder that fell from the cave ceiling thousands of years ago.

Kings Palace Guided Tour

A third option is the Kings Palace tour, a 1.5-hour ranger-guided tour through four highly decorated scenic chambers. Departing from the underground rest area, the Kings Palace tour descends to the deepest portion of the cavern open to the public, 830 feet beneath the desert surface. Although not as difficult as the Natural Entrance route, the one mile tour does require descending and later climbing an eight story hill. Look forward to viewing a variety of speleothems or cave decorations including helectites, draperies, columns, and soda straws. Rangers frequently conduct black-out programs during this tour, briefly turning off all artificial lights to reveal the permanent inky blackness of the natural cave environment.

All trails in the cave are paved and adequately lighted. Visitors should wear comfortable, closed toe shoes with rubber soles for maximum safety and traction. The cave temperature varies little from the annual 560F average, making a sweater or light jacket appropriate year-round. Visitors may also wish to bring a camera and a flashlight.

Slaughter Canyon Cave

Ranger-led tours of Slaughter Canyon Cave, another cave separate from the main Carlsbad Caverns visitors' area but within Carlsbad Caverns National Park take you into an underground wilderness without electricity, paved walkways, or modern conveniences. In this wild cave, darkness is broken only by the light of lanterns carried by rangers and flashlights carried by tour members. Highlights of the two hour, 1.25 mile tour are the 89 foot high Monarch, one of the world's tallest columns; the sparkling, crystal-decorated Christmas Tree column; and the Chinese Wall, a delicate, ankle-high rimstone dam. Old bat guano mining excavations can be seen. Tours are given daily in the summer and on weekends the rest of the year. A fee is charged. Reservations must be made at the visitor center or by calling the park. You have to hike a strenuous .5 mile trail to the cave entrance, where the tour begins. Sturdy walking shoes, flashlights, and water are required.

Wild Cave Tours

If you are looking for something to do that is a little different—something off the beaten path—then you may wish to participate in one of the ranger-guided wild caving trips at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. These tours cover a broad spectrum of difficulties, from the easy level walking passages of Left Hand Tunnel to the twisting belly-crawls of Spider Cave and the Hall of the White Giant. Every tour requires participants to be in good physical and mental condition to ensure group safety and protection of the fragile cave resource. Some tours have special requirements, such as 4 AA batteries for the helmet and headlamp that the guide provides, and offer particular challenges such as ladder climbs, pool crossings, tight crawls, and free climbing. The rewards—breathtaking cave formations amidst the utter darkness and quiet—are worth the extra trouble. Wild cave tours at Carlsbad Caverns will add a whole different dimension to your caverns visit. Reservations are required for all wild cave tours.

Left Hand Tunnel: With a candle lantern as your only source of light, experience Carlsbad Caverns much as the early explorers saw the cave. Highlights of this tour include a wide variety of formations, clear cavern pools, and fossils from the Permian age.

Duration: 2 hours
Requirements: Good walking shoes. Ages 6 and over.

Lower Cave: National Geographic expedition members in 1924 wrote about the wonders to be seen in Lower Cave. Visitors today can see the evidence left behind from these and other explorers. Highlights of this tour include The Rookery, with countless nests of cave pearls; the Colonel Boles Formation; and an incredible diversity of speleothems (cave formations)that compete for your attention almost everywhere you look along the trail. Ladders at the entrance to Lower Cave sometimes cause participants to back out. If you have a fear of heights or difficulties with ladders, you may wish to consider visiting Left Hand Tunnel instead.

Duration: 3 hours
Requirements: Ages 12 and over. Participants must be physically and mentally able to safely negotiate cave passages containing fragile formations without harm to the cave, yourself, or others. Good sneakers or hiking boots and 4 AA batteries are required.
Recommended: Cotton or leather gloves.

Spider Cave: Spider Cave is a three-dimensional maze cave—a caver's paradise. Even veteran cavers will enjoy the adventure of Spider. Participants will make a 1/2 mile hike down beautiful Garden Grove Canyon to get to the cave, where much crawling and climbing will ensue. Highlights of this tour include the Mace Room, Medusa Room, and Cactus Spring, as well as a stunning variety of speleothems (cave formations) and dirty cave crawls. This trip is not recommended for anyone with a fear of enclosed spaces, heights, or getting a little cave dirt in your ears.

Duration: 4 hours
Requirements: Ages 12 and over. Participants must be physically and mentally able to safely negotiate cave passages containing fragile formations without harm to the cave, yourself, or others. Hiking boots or other sturdy shoes and 4 AA batteries are required.
Recommended: Knee pads, cotton or leather gloves, long pants, and water.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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