This place blew my mind. It’s huge, it’s beautiful, and I was happy and surprised to discover that it’s so accessible that even those in wheel chairs can tour a large portion of this national treasure.
I’ll start with the huge part. There are larger caves in the world, but there aren’t any with more space available to visit if you aren’t a scientist with permission to go slithering through the mud and crawl spaces on your own. That is definitely not my jam. Carlesbad is by far the largest cave in the world that is open for tourists. There are actually 117 known caves in Carlesbad Caverns National Park, with the largest being Lechuguilla Cave, which has a current mapped length of 135 miles. Lechuguilla is limited to research and exploration, with skilled technical ability, and it’s actual location is not disclosed in order to protect it from tourists and spelunkers. Carlesbad Cavern, which all of us can visit, is more than 30 miles long, and is the largest accessible cave in North America.
I entered through the Natural Entrance Tour, which is a self guided walk down 1.25 miles that descend 800 feet into the cave. The scent of bat guano definitely permeates the air at this entrance. It’s not overpowering, just present, and you move past it fairly quickly as you pass the entrance to the Bat Cave within. Along the way, there are information kiosks that explain what you are looking at as you pass the other worldly formations. The formations are fascinating and strikingly beautiful. As I descended into the cave, I remembered the advice of my pilates trainer who constantly reminds me to “Use your glutes when climbing up or down and not your knees!”, so I kept shifting my weight back to my heels and butt. That may seem like a strange thing to share, but a week earlier I met a couple who had visited Carlsbad just a few days earlier and they commented how sore their legs were afterwards, despite being a very active couple. I didn’t have any problems, even though my Fitbit registered 49 flights of stairs that day.
The Natural Entrance Tour ends in The Big Room, which is 800 feet below the entrance (this translates to about 80 stories), and covers roughly 8 acres on a walkway of about 1.25 relatively flat miles. The Big Room is a big deal not only because it’s beautiful and awe inspiring to walk through, but because it is accessible to literally everyone. The reason for this is a set of elevators which allows visitors with physical challenges to skip the Natural Entrance Tour altogether and go directly to this part of the cave. This part of the also has restrooms, a restaurant, and a small souvenir shop.
The Big Room is spectacular. I found the sheer size of it is hard to wrap my head around, and it’s filled with extraordinarily beautiful formations. To me, it felt like I had entered Tolkien’s fantasy underworld. The space is open enough that along the way there is even a small amphitheater.
I stood there a while and pondered a question that comes to me every time I visit a National Park, “Is this my favorite one?” I was inclined to conclude “yes” this time, except that it’s an impossible question to answer. Each park is so strikingly different from the others that comparisons are difficult. What I can say with absolute certainty though, is that our Park Service Rangers are complete rock stars. Every place I’ve visited in the National Park system, I’ve found rangers who were informed and very willing to share what they know with gracious professionalism and courtesy. Even when I’ve seen them in a position where they have to tell people to stop doing things, they’ve been polite and explain why. I have nothing but complete admiration for them, and I was surprised at Carlsbad when I learned that I couldn’t book one of the cave tours because they were sold out months in advance to mostly school and tour groups. There are usually slots open for people who arrive that day if you get there the first thing in the morning, but I was informed that due to budget cuts, they weren’t able to hire additional rangers so they could offer that option anymore. That was disappointing, and the only disappointment during my visit.
After I was finished with the cave tour, I decided to also drive the Walnut Canyon Desert Drive (not for low clearance vehicles or RVs) which winds through a portion of the Chihuahuan Desert for a close up look at a variety of plant life and access to several hiking trails. That was a beautiful drive, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it with a car. I have a Ford F-150 4×4, and had plenty of clearance for the rough parts. I was tempted to do one of the hikes, but decided I wasn’t comfortable on the narrow trails in rattlesnake country, in the desert, on my own.
Overall impression: I want to bring everyone I know back to see this place! It’s extraordinary in a way that has to been seen to be believed.
Costs: There is a $10 entrance fee to the park, but I had free entrance with my National Park Annual Pass. Additional fees of $6-20 are also charged for the various cave tours offered, but you’ll need to buy those well in advance. Concessions are available at the visitor’s center and also in the cave in the same area as the elevators. I stayed at the Carlesbad KOA, which was $91 for three nights, including my rewards discount of 10%. The campground is located right off of the main highway, north of the actual city of Carlsbad. It’s out there on it’s own in the desert, and the evening serenade of coyotes and night birds definitely added to the ambiance! They also delivered homemade BBQ to my camper, so that was a total home run.