Deep beneath the Chihuahuan Desert, in south-east New Mexico, lies one of the most incredible natural spectacles I have ever seen.
Carlsbad Caverns Big Room is a truly enormous underground cave, full of beautiful limestone formations and underground lakes.
The cave is part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park – a vast network of over 100 limestone caves and passageways.
The total size of Carlsbad Caverns is still unknown, and professional cave explorers periodically discover new sections.
It’s amazing to imagine what other parts of this extraordinary place are yet to be discovered.
However, the thing that makes this place so impressive is how well the National Park Service has managed to open it up to the public. Anyone can visit this amazing place.
Visitors can either hike down into the cave from the surface via the Natural Entrance Trail (see below) or take an elevator 750 feet (230 metres) down to the chamber.
Paved paths snake through the cave, with key features illuminated by well placed lighting. It’s extremely atmospheric, and manages to strike a perfect balance between retaining the feel of an authentic “natural” cave, whilst also being highly accessible.
How Big Is Carlsbad Caverns Big Room?
Carlsbad Caverns Big Room is the largest cave chamber in North America by volume. This is a very big cave!
It’s approximately 4,000 feet (1.2 kilometres) long, 625 feet (190 metres) wide, and 255 feet (78 metres) high at its tallest point. You could fit over six American football fields inside this one chamber.
How Deep Are The Carlsbad Caverns?
The deepest known section of the network is over 1,000 feet (300 metres) below ground.
But, as noted above, new sections are discovered from time to time. So it’s possible that Carlsbad Caverns’ depth may extend even deeper than we think today.
Carlsbad Caverns Big Room - Hall Of The Giants
Some of the limestone formations in the Big Room are truly massive. It’s impossible to get a real sense of their scale without visiting. You really need to see it to believe it.
One section of the cavern is called the Hall of the Giants. You can see why.
The Big Room is only one part of a vast network of caves – connected by a series of tunnels and passageways – that is known as Carlsbad Cavern.
Carlsbad Caverns Big Room was carved out over millions of years by acidic groundwater, which pooled and dissolved the surrounding rock.
The constant dripping of this acidic water, mixed with the air in the cave, created (and is still creating) some of the most incredible decorative rock formations imaginable.
These mineral deposits (called “speleothems”) include stalactites (hanging down) and stalagmites (reaching up), some of which are absolutely enormous.
As well as the classic stalactites and stalagmites, the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns also contains thousands of examples of other formations.
These include columns (or totem poles) – which reach from the ceiling to the floor, soda straws – hollow mineral tubes, draperies – thin wavy sheets, and popcorn – take a guess.
UNESCO has included the Carlsbad Caverns on its World Heritage List, in recognition of the “abundance, diversity and beauty” of the mineral formations found here.
Carlsbad Caverns Big Room Walking Trail
The best way to see what the Big Room has to offer is to walk the Big Room Trail.
This 1.25 mile self-guided walking trail is relatively flat, and can be done entirely at your own pace.
The trail snakes its way around various sections of the Big Room, highlighting areas of particular interest. Signs and boards provide information about the cave, and some of its notable features.
Many of these are lit dramatically, and have cool names, such as the Rock of Ages, the Painted Grotto, Mirror Lake, the Lion’s Tail, Sword of Damocles, and the Temple of the Sun.
The spookiest part of the cavern is the Carlsbad Caverns Bottomless Pit. Although it’s not actually bottomless, standing on the edge of this black chasm feels like you’re looking into the depths of the earth.
An excellent audio guide is available to rent from the visitor center. This is optional, but provides lots of information on the history of the cave, its geology, formations, and discovery.
If you’d prefer a shorter walk, the trail has a shortcut, which reduces the distance to 0.6 miles.
The Natural Entrance
Whilst you can take the elevator straight down to the Carlsbad Big Room, there is another, more adventurous, way of getting down there.
The Natural Entrance Trail is a short hiking route which takes you all the way from the surface down to the main chamber. This is the way the early explorers came when they first discovered the caverns.
It’s pretty steep, descending 750 feet (230 meters) in just over a mile, and takes about an hour. Sturdy footwear essential!
Carlsbad Caverns Bats
Between April and October, a colony of thousands of migrating Brazilian free-tailed bats roost in a section of the caverns (called the Bat Cave, naturally). As the sun sets each evening, they flock out of the Natural Entrance in search of food.
July and August are usually the best months to experience this phenomenon. This is when the bat pups first join the flight.
The National Park Service puts on daily talks between late May and October, prior to the bats’ evening flight. Reservations are not required, but check the NPS website for further info.
Note – Electronic devices (including phones) can confuse the Carlsbad Caverns bats, so please don’t use these during the bat flight. Photography is strictly forbidden, as this can disorient the bats and disturb their flight.
Practical Information For Visiting Carlsbad Caverns
How to get to Carlsbad Caverns
The Carlsbad Caverns National Park visitor center is just off US Highway 62/180, about 25 miles south-west of the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico.
The closest city with a major airport is El Paso, Texas, about 150 miles to the west, via US 62. If driving this way, be sure to check out the Guadalupe Mountains National Park en route (see below). This dramatic mountain range has some epic scenery and is a highlight of any West Texas road trip.
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If you need to rent a car, check out rentalcars.com.
Carlsbad Caverns hours & entrance fees
The visitor center opens at 8am and the cavern opens at 8:30am. The last elevator out of the cavern is usually at 4:45pm, but check here for the latest info.
Both the visitor center and the cavern are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s days.
Tickets cost $15 per adult (valid for 3 days). National Park Pass holders get in for free, as do children under 15. More info here.
For a giant cave, 750 feet underground, the Carlsbad Caverns Big Room is surprisingly accessible.
Wheelchair users, with assistance, should have no trouble using the elevator to reach the Big Room. Most (though not all) of the Big Room Trail is wheelchair accessible.
The Natural Entrance Trail is not wheelchair accessible.
For more info on accessibility within the cavern, refer to the NPS’ Accessibility Guide.
Best time to visit Carlsbad Caverns
You can visit this amazing place any time of year. The temperature inside the Carlsbad Caverns stays constant throughout the year – about about 56ºF (13ºC).
If you are keen to see the bat flight, the best time to visit Carlsbad Caverns is in July and August. However, bear in mind that it will be very hot outside during these months.
Where to stay near Carlsbad Caverns
There are many hotels (including the standard chains) in the town of Carlsbad itself, which is 25 miles from the caverns.
If you’d like to stay closer to the caverns, you’ll find a couple of budget motels in Whites City, a tiny community on US Highway 62, near the entrance to the national park.
Camping near Carlsbad Caverns
For those looking for a campsite with facilities, Kampgrounds of America (KOA) has a great site north of Carlsbad, just off US 285. (Note, this is a little far from the Carlsbad Caverns visitor center – about 45 miles.)
Backcountry/wild camping is allowed in certain sections of the park (west of the Rattlesnake Canyon trailhead, off the Desert Scenic Loop Road, and south of the Guadalupe Ridge Trail). This requires a permit, which is free from the visitor center. Fires are prohibited. Beware of scorpions and snakes, and bring lots of water! See the NPS website for more info.
Check out this article where I review the best tents for wild camping.
In short… One of the best tents that money can buy is the MSR Hubba Hubba 2-person tent.
- Don’t bring food and drink (except plain water) into the caverns.
- Cameras are permitted, except during the bat flight.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes when inside the caverns.
- You must walk on bio-cleaning mats after leaving the caverns, to prevent the spread of a fungus which causes White-Nose Syndrome, a disease which is fatal to bats.
Lechuguilla Cave, a separate cave network in another section of the national park, is far longer and deeper than Carlsbad Cavern. It’s still being explored, but is at least 140 miles (225 km) long, and 1,600 feet (490 m) deep. However, this enormous cave is not open to the public, and access is only given for research and exploration purposes.
Other Places To Visit Nearby
Once you’ve finished exploring the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns, why not check out some of the other fantastic places nearby.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is located about halfway between Carlsbad and El Paso, Texas. From the Carlsbad Caverns visitor center, it’s just under an hour’s drive south-west, along US 62.
The towering Guadalupe Mountains rise steeply from the surrounding desert. Included in the range are two famous peaks – the iconic El Capitan and Guadalupe Peak, the tallest mountain in Texas (8,751 ft / 2,667 m).
Here you’ll find some exceptional hiking trails. Just be aware that the terrain is very steep in places, and the heat can be extreme, with temperatures regularly exceeding 105ºF (40ºC) in the summer. Prepare well, and bring lots of water!
Check out this blog for an excellent guide to hiking the Guadalupe Peak trail.
There are over 100 different caves in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Although the Big Room is the most visited (and should not be missed), the National Park Service organises several fantastic ranger-guided adventure tours in various sections of the park which are not usually open to the public.
These tours vary in length and difficulty, and explore areas such as the Lower Cave (a huge area beneath the Big Room), the Hall of the White Giant, and Slaughter Canyon Cave.
Reservations are essential. Check here for further info.
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Is Carlsbad Caverns the biggest cave you’ve ever visited? Which other caves have you explored? How do they compare? Let me know in the comments below!