Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park (Corbis)

The park contains 33,125 acres of rugged wilderness backcountry terrain with jagged limestone outcrops, sharp pointy plants, and no water. The challenging desert wilderness of Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation.

While Carlsbad Caverns National Park is best known for its spectacular caves, a less popular yet rewarding destination for park visitors is the rugged backcountry. Much of the park backcountry was designated as wilderness by Congress in 1978 for the outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation that exist there. Several primitive hiking trails traverse washes and steep canyon walls, leading to the Carlsbad Caverns Wilderness Area—13,406 hectares (33,125 acres) of remote and challenging terrain. The inclusion of these lands in the National Wilderness Preservation System represents a national affirmation of the importance that these areas have as the last best untrammeled landscapes in the nation. Whether we go there for recreational, spiritual, educational, or scientific reasons—or simply to take refuge from the paved and ordered domain of our daily lives—we can find quiet contemplation and solitude in the deep canyons and tree-lined mesas of the Carlsbad Wilderness.

Elevations within the park backcountry rise from 1,180 meters (3,596 feet) in the lowlands to 2,090 meters (6,368 feet) on the escarpment. The Carlsbad Caverns Wilderness is part of the northern Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem, with desert shrub and grassland vegetation predominant. Small pockets of pine woodlands are found at the highest elevations in the western third of the park. There are short day hikes for those with limited time (Rattlesnake Canyon Trail), longer trails for the backpacker (Slaughter Canyon Trail), and primitive trails marked with rock cairns for the more adventurous. Cross-country travel is not recommended for those without experience hiking in these mountains. Because there are no designated camping areas, you are free to choose a canyon floor or a flat, quiet ridge as your campsite. Remember to fill out a backcountry permit for overnight camping, and practice "leave no trace" wilderness ethics during your visit.

Hiking in the desert is a challenging yet rewarding experience. To fully enjoy your hike, remember that desert hiking requires time and preparation. Trails have been left undeveloped in order to preserve and enhance the wilderness experience. Carrying a topographic map and compass is highly recommended. The climate is hot and dry in the summer, cold and dry in the winter. Temperatures may range from over 110 degrees Fahrenheit in summer to near 0 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. Temperatures may change as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit in 24 hours. Summer rains may bring flash flooding in canyon bottoms.

In the higher elevations of the park you may be lucky enough to see golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, western diamondback rattlesnakes, elk, or the tracks of cougars. After a spring rain you may see the desert come alive with flowers. Pipistrelle bats are commonly seen on summer evenings in the western canyons. And the spiny desert plant that punctured your therma-rest is probably lechuguilla. Be sure to wear sturdy, comfortable hiking boots as well as long pants to protect yourself from such pointy things.

Except for a few permanent seeps draining down canyon walls, water is scarce and unreliable in the wilderness. Be sure to bring at least one gallon per person per day. In the early part of this century, goat and sheep ranchers constructed small check-dams at many seeps. Remains from these activities and further impacts from early ranching can still be seen upon the landscape. Actions such as careless off-trail hiking will affect the plant community in such a way that it will take years to recover. In this dry, windy environment the danger of fire is great, so no open fires are permitted, although containerized fuel stoves may be used.

National Park Wilderness Areas are of immeasurable value to our natural and spiritual well-being, and are special places that should be treated with reverence and respect. Please practice "leave no trace" principles when in the wilderness, and be sure to follow the backcountry rules in order to provide for your own safety as well as to maintain and preserve the fragile desert environment.

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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