Cave Tours: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park Caving Highlights

  • Carlsbad Caverns began forming some two million years ago with water percolating through the honeycombed Guadalupe Ridge just south of where the town of Carlsbad now lies. Limestone and calcite deposits at times appear lunar, and at times like something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. The caverns are among the most famous in the world, and many of the otherworldly caves are open for public, ranger-led, and self-guided tours and exploration.
  • The self-guided Natural Entrance Tour begins at the visitor center and enters the cave through the main entrance—the same gaping hole from which bats depart on summer evenings. The moderately steep paved trail wanders by a number of stunning formations, including Whale’s Mouth, Iceberg Rock, and the Boneyard.
  • Also self-guided, the Big Room Tour begins with a 750-foot elevator descent to the cave’s floor, where a circuitous but mostly flat 1.25-mile trail explores the Big Room, including the 42-foot-high Twin Domes, the 62-foot-high Giant Dome in the Hall of Giants, and the Bottomless Pit, now known to be 140 feet deep.
  • More adventurous visitors can tour the primitive Slaughter Canyon Cave, which does not have electricity or paved paths. A strenuous half-mile walk takes you to the entrance, where rangers lead 25-member groups inside. Allow about three hours, wear sturdy shoes, and bring a flashlight and water for the excursion. Reservations are mandatory, so call 877-444-6777. To get to the parking lot, turn off of Highway 62/180 about five miles southwest of White’s City.

The basic cavern entry is by way of two self-guided routes, the Big Room Route and the Natural Entrance Route. Tickets are sold at the visitor center each day, except December 25, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Basic cavern entry tickets are good for three days but do not include guided or other special tours. Summer hours are in effect from the Memorial Day through the third Sunday in August.

Guided Tours

Kings Palace Guided Tour
The Kings Palace tour, a 1.5-hour ranger-guided tour through four highly decorated chambers, departs from the underground rest area. You will descend 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, this one-mile tour does require descending, and later climbing, an eight-story hill. Look forward to viewing a variety of cave formations including helectites, draperies, columns, and soda straws. Rangers frequently conduct black-outs during this tour, briefly turning off all artificial lights to reveal the natural darkness of the cave.

Reservations are required for the Kings Palace tour. To make reservations call 1-800-967-CAVE. Tour participants must also have purchased a basic cavern entry ticket for the day of the tour. Children under four years old are not permitted on the Kings Palace Tour.

Memorial Day weekend to mid-August hours—9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m.
Mid-August to late May hours—9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.

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 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 we provide, 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 cave visit.

Reservations are required for all guided cave tours. Make reservations by calling 800-967-2283. A basic cavern entry ticket is required in addition to the wild cave tour fee for Kings Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Lower Cave, and Hall of the White Giant.

Make reservations for guided tours by calling 800-967-CAVE or make them online at http://reservations.nps.gov. Some tours are are limited and fill up quickly, so plan well in advance.

Self-Guided Tours

Big Room Self-Guided Route
The basic tour through Carlsbad Cavern is the Big Room route, a one-mile, self-guided underground walk around the perimeter of the largest room in the cave, the Big Room. The Cavern Audio Guide notably enhances the tour. 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 should be seen by all park visitors. 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. Most of the Big Room is accessible to people using wheelchairs, an access guide is available at the visitor center information desk.

Memorial Day weekend to mid-August hours—8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Mid-August to late May hours—8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Closed December 25.

Natural Entrance Self-Guided 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 called the Main Corridor. The route culminates in the underground rest area, near the elevators and 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.

Memorial Day weekend to mid-August hours—8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Mid-August to late May hours—8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m
Closed December 25.

The Cavern Audio Guide
Visitors taking the self-guided Natural Entrance and Big Room routes can rent the Cavern Guide, a CD-ROM audio guide, for $3. The audio guide is automatically triggered by electronic signals along the trail. As you tour the cave's grand rooms and look at magnificent cave formations, you will also be listening to the commentary of park rangers, geologists and cavers—complete with music, interviews, and sound effects. The audio guide is available in English and Spanish.


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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