Carlsbad Caverns National Park
|Limestone formations in the Hall of Giants, part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico (Stephen St. John/National Geographic/Getty)|
Most national parks celebrate natural beauty found above ground. At Carlsbad Caverns, the show takes place underground. More than 300 known caves lie beneath the surface of the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico and west Texas. The Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains 113 of these caves, two of whichCarlsbad Caverns and Lechuguilla Caveare among the largest and most magnificent underground formations in the world.
Amateur spelunkers of all ages are transported back in time to an episode in Earth's history far more volatile than our ownThe Jerry Springer Show notwithstanding.
One of the most extensive cave systems anywhere, Carlsbad Caverns is actually a Permian-age fossil reef. Over a period of millions of years, sulfuric acid ate away at fissures in underground limestone and fossil shelves that were at one time under a vast sea. At undetermined dates partial cave-ins occurred and created immense underground chambers, such as the Big Room, which is 33,210 square meters, and the size of approximately 6.2 football fields.
So, you may be wondering, is there anything else to Carlsbad Caves besides caves? You betcha. The park is home to the Carlsbad Caverns Wilderness Area, which at 33,000 acres boasts enough hiking trails to keep you busy for an afternoon, or a week. The park is part of the northern Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem, where grassland vegetation and desert shrub give way to pine woodlands at the highest elevations. You'll find a dazzling palette of desert flowers if you set out after a recent rainstorm. Wildlife aboundswith luck, you may see golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, even elk or cougar tracks.
With its wealth of wildlife and picturesque drives and hikes, Carlsbad has a little something for everyone.
Brave the Cave
Tours of the caverns range from the well lit and easy-to navigateeven for children as young as sixto some that the faint of heart simply should not endeavor. Do we even have to tell you which are the most fun? Some tours will have you scaling ten-foot walls and maneuvering sheer faces of rock three feet from gaping, seemingly bottomless holes. You'll be required to wear a helmet and kneepads, as you will undoubtedly knock your head and scrape your knees many times. Any experience in the caverns is incredible and well worth all this, unless you're claustrophobic.
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Hike into Solitude
Once you've resurfaced and your pupils have returned to their normal size, don't miss the chance to visit the park's rugged backcountry. The Carlsbad Caverns Wilderness Area has many miles of largely untrodden primitive trails. A hike here will be rough and often strenuous but a great opportunity to achieve the ultimate hiker's high: complete solitude.
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To the Bat Cave!
What is a cave, after all, without bats? In addition to its fantastic rock formations, Carlsbad is also famous for being home to hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats, which take flight from the caves and into the desert nightly... en masse. The sheer number of these elusive creatures, the massive, whirling, fluttering black blur disappearing into a dazzling southwestern sunset, is an unparalleled wildlife-viewing experience.
More on wildlife in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Drive the Desert
If you have a car, the Walnut Canyon Tour is a great way to spend a couple of hours. The self-guided scenic drive is approximately 9.5 miles long, but there are some great views and photo ops you may want to stop for along the way. The tour will take you along the Guadalupe Ridge, then into upper Walnut Canyon on the way back. Informational guidebooks are available at the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center.
Take a Spring Break
Rattlesnake Springs has been the main water source for Carlsbad Caverns National Park since the 1930s. Although altered by human development, the spring's stream and wetland system forms a veritable oasis used by a wide variety of reptiles, mammals, and butterflies. Among birders, the springs are renowned as a stopover for migrating birds. Rattlesnake Springs has a lovely picnic area with tables and cooking grills, and while camping is not allowed, it's an ideal spot for an afternoon picnic with the kids.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication