Over 120 caves make up what is now known as Carlsbad Caverns. Uniquely, these caves were formed not by the running water of streams, but rather limestone decomposition by means of sulfuric acid, leaving behind a world of caverns beneath the Earth’s surface. Limestone rock that encloses Carlsbad Caverns comprises of ocean fossil plants and animals from a reef complex created ages before the dinosaurs. At that time the southeastern corner of New Mexico paralleled that of Key West along the Florida coastline. Jim White is credited as the first explorer of the cave in 1898, utilizing a handmade wire ladder to descend 60-ft into the depths of the cave.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is part of a protected ecosystem, which includes the northern territory of the Chihuahaun Desert. Bones of animals from the ice age, including lions, jaguars, and giant sloths have been found at the entrances of some of these caves.
The formations in the caves, called speleothems, are secondary mineral deposits formed from a mixture of dissolved calcium and groundwater. Stalactites, stalagmites, and other formations can undergo a process called radiometric dating to determine the age of calcium carbonate materials. Stalactites hang from the ceiling of the caverns (think of the “T” as hanging downward) while stalagmites rise from the floor of the caverns (think of “M” as growing from the ground). Other descriptors used to illustrate the cavern’s formations include columns, draperies, soda straws, and popcorn. The speleothem formations observed today are known to have been actively growing during the last ice age, when the terrain above the caverns consisted of pine forests instead of desert dunes.
During the summer months (from mid-April to late-October) Carlsbad Caverns house over 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats. Crowds gather each evening in the summer waiting for the cloud of bats to exit the caverns in search of food. An outdoor amphitheater has been created for guests to observe and enjoy this spectacle. The bats often migrate south for the winter in late-October or early-November only to return in the spring, often in April or May. The best viewing often occurs in August or September where baby bats, often referred to as “pups,” can be observed joining other colonies of migratory bats.
Bring a jacket and wear comfortable shoes. The cave is often 50 – 60 degrees Fahrenheit and is rather humid – if you are a habitual inhaler-user, it is recommended that you bring it with you. No food is allowed and the only beverage allowed into the caves is plain water. However, there is a concession stand and restrooms should visitors continue their exploration to the Big Room. Visitors that have entered other caves east of Carlsbad must wipe their shoes (and potentially camera equipment) with disinfectant due to a fungus deadly to bats called “white-nose syndrome.” Wiping your shoes will ensure the safety of the bat population that frequent these caverns 6 months out of the year. Enjoy the 9.5 mile scenic loop drive of the Walnut Canyon Desert as you leave. It’s a great opportunity to observe local wildlife, including mule deer which is often spotted in the area.
Carlsbad Caverns Details:
- Hours: 8:30 AM – 2 PM (Natural entrance hike-in closes at 2 PM. Hikers must be out of the cave by 3 PM)
- Cost: Adults are$10/individual and children (15 and under) are free
- Distance: 3 miles from the Natural Entrance to the Big Room (or take the elevator)
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Best time to visit: August – September
- Events: Bat Flight Program, Cave Tours, and Night Sky Events
- Tip: There is no service in the cave. Put your phone on airplane mode to prevent your battery from dying early in the day.
For more information about Carlsbad Caverns.
NOTE: All blog posts, articles, and photographs are the intellectual and creative property of Melissa J. Koziol. Thank you for reading!