Opportunities for Exploration In Carlsbad, New Mexico’s Own Backyard   

Just 20 miles Southwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico is Carlsbad Caverns National Park that offers many attractions. From watching the bats fly at dusk, to touring the caves, to enjoying the Cavern’s “Big Room” the opportunities are endless.

Most people have no idea so many experiences are possible until they actually come to visit. The visitor’s center at the entrance provides extensive information about the Caverns, the surrounding mountains and desert, films, maps, exhibits, and historical objects. The Caverns even has a book store, gift shop and a cafeteria that specializes primarily in Mexican food.

Park Rangers are ready to answer questions or help plan your visit. Tickets for the Cavern’s self-guided and tour-guided main trails, as well as permits for backcountry camping, backcountry caving and research can be obtained at the visitor’s center. For those who like to travel with their K-9 companions, kennels are also provided.


Exciting discoveries

Cave Swallows in the Natural Entrance. Photo Courtesy of Rick Wiedenmann.

For the less athletic among us, the Park offers the Walnut Canyon Desert Drive. Open to passenger vehicles only, this trail is perfect for exploring the beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert foliage and the many animals.

A recent visitor to the Park, DeeAnn Coalson, owner of Accounting & Tax Services, LLC of Carlsbad said, “The views are breathtaking. It’s just such a nice way to spend the day and relax. We saw a lot of deer and some Barbary sheep. I’d never seen those before. That was really a great experience.”

The Park has a number of short nature-walking trails and some fifty or more miles of primitive backcountry hiking trails. While the majesty of flora and fauna unfolds during these longer explorations, the backcountry trails are for the more experienced and agile hikers.

According to Rick Wiedenmann, a Deputy Investigator for the Office of the Medical Examiner, who is a long-time volunteer with the Caverns’ Cave Swallow Banding Research Program and someone very familiar with the dangers of the desert, “These backcountry trails are no joke. It’s easy to get turned around if you don’t pay attention, and the heat can really take its toll. I recommend taking plenty of water, a good map and some basic survival equipment.”


Educational opportunities abound

Pam Cox, Chief Interpretive Park Ranger at dusk with bats. Photo Courtesy of Pam Cox

Pam Cox, the Chief Interpretive Park Ranger for Carlsbad Caverns National Park, says the Rangers are storytellers and they love to teach others about the Caverns, the bats and their habits. The cave is primarily a maternity ward for female bats and their young, although more recently a population of males has been discovered as well,” she said.

The seasonal Bat Flight, which occurs early spring through October, is a big draw for visitors. The Rangers do an amazing job by informing and entertaining the visitors while they wait for dusk when thousands of bats make their way out of the caverns and fly off in search of food. Hours later the bats return home to feed their babies who wait patiently, suspended from the Cavern walls. Amazingly, each baby and mother recognizes each other, though there are thousands of young bats available.

The Park also puts together fun, educational programs that are free to the public. Among those programs are the “Dawn of the Bats,” “Wake Up the Cave with a Ranger,” “Star Walks” and “Moon Hikes.” Moreover, schools often schedule trips to the Caverns for their students.

“Dawn of the Bats” invites the public to come and observe the bats as they return to the cave after a night of feeding.  “Wake Up the Cave with a Ranger” allows a limited number of volunteers to accompany a ranger to turn on all of the lights before they open the cave for the day. “Star Walk’s” and “Moon Hikes” are just as they sound, participants can enjoy a ranger-guided walk or hike a desert trail and enjoy watching the night sky. In fact, during Mid-August one of the “Moon Hikes” will take place during the Perseid Meteor Shower.


Carlsbad Caverns is unique

Most caves such as Mammoth Cave in Kentucky were carved by water flowing through the limestone rock for millions of years, leaving behind smoother structures and walls. Carlsbad Caverns, however, was formed differently by hydrogen sulfide gas that caused changes in the rock and that led to the formation of the large cavernous rooms.

Pam explained, “The Caverns are magical, some people think caves are dark, damp, scary places where you have to squeeze through narrow passages and use ropes. Yes, there are plenty of those opportunities, but Carlsbad Caverns is really anything but dark. It’s artistically lit and beautiful. It is huge. In fact, it’s hard to wrap your mind around the size it is so immense. The area of the main cave known as the “Big Room” is approximately four thousand feet long, six hundred feet wide and two-hundred-fifty feet tall. It’s like the Grand Canyon with a roof on it. I often compare it to the Grand Canyon, and I can say that because I worked there for many years.”

“You know,” she said, “even the people who work in the Caverns will tell you every time they go inside they see something different, something they have never noticed before. And just recently we put in a new lighting system. These are LED lights and not as hot as the old lighting system. People swear to me that we have colored lights in the caves; but no, it’s just the way the lights reflect off the formations that make them appear colorful. In the past, the hot lights used to encourage algae to grow on the walls, but the new cooler ones shouldn’t cause that problem now.”


The Caverns have broad appeal

Sonya Quinn and Frank Everitt doing restoration work in the Rookery in Lower Cave. Photo Courtesy of Rick Wiedenmann.

Pam said “One of the things that sets Carlsbad Caverns apart is that it is accessible to everybody. The caverns have paved trails that are self-guided and tour-guided, and they are wheelchair accessible. Visitors can hike in via the natural entrance or there is an elevator to get up and down. For other visitors, some of the tour-guided trails are quite challenging and require only people who have great physical fitness and training.”

Pam’s Husband, Paul Cox, also works for Carlsbad Caverns National Park as the Fee Program Manager. “There are over one-hundred named caverns in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  Most are only available to scientists and trained surveyors in order to protect the environment, but there are a number of areas for permitted explorers such as the Lower Cave and Spider Cave.” These areas require headlamps and safety equipment, which are provided by the National Parks Service to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome, a fungus that affects the bats. By using equipment exclusively at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the White Nose Syndrome isn’t spread from one bat population to another by Cavers. Fortunately, Carlsbad Caverns is White Nose Syndrome free at this time.


Volunteering at the Caverns

There are many kinds of volunteer opportunities offered at the Caverns. It’s a great way to get access to and explore areas not often open to the general public. According to Pam, the Caverns require constant attention, as such; volunteers are much appreciated because they handle a great deal of necessary on-going work.

One such example for volunteers is removing algae or lint from the formations and trails. “You have no idea how much lint three-thousand visitors a day leave behind, and it all has to be removed,” Pam said.

Not only are there bats in Carlsbad Caverns, but there are swallows too. The swallows appeared at the Caverns around 1950. Their arrival gave rise to such programs as Cave Swallow Banding, where volunteers band each swallow and then track it for research. In addition, trained, volunteer cavers from all over the country come and survey some of the uncharted caves like Lechuguilla, which is currently closed to the general public to protect its delicate environment.

Whether you need to entertain a scout troop, have visiting guests, are just looking for a day trip or whether you are an avid caver, Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers boundless opportunities for enjoyment and exploration to people from all walks of life.


Cave Exploration 101

Cave exploring (also known as caving or spelunking) is the art of safely moving through a natural cave to a destination and returning to the surface without hurting yourself or the cave. With an estimated 45,000 caves within the contiguous United States, there’s a whole world to explore beneath the surface, from the “Cave State” of Missouri to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. According to cave-exploring.com, there are three basic rules of cave exploring:

  • Take Nothing but Pictures – leave everything the way you found it so others can appreciate the cave the same way you did.
  • Leave Nothing but Footprints  – Minimize your impact to the cave; do not leave crumbs, trash, and paint in the cave. Even minimize the impacts of your footprints; stick to established trails and be careful to step where those before you have already stepped.
  • Kill Nothing but Time – You are the visitor to the cave so leave the natural inhabitants alone.