Remember the photos of caves you used to see in elementary school books? There were pictures of stalactites and stalagmites that looked fantastical. I never saw them in person but trusted that they existed somewhere in the world because my book told me so. Where exactly that location was, I couldn’t tell you. But, let me tell you (because now I know): it’s in southern of New Mexico! There’s a GIGANTIC cave system there called the Carlsbad Caverns. And it’s amazing. No, I take that back. Not amazing—
it’s a positively spectacular, awe-inspiring, magnificent, jaw-dropping
cave of wonders in the middle of the desert.
It’s one of the most beautifully decorated (meaning stalactites, stalagmites, columns, straws, etc.) caves and although it doesn’t hold any “biggest” or “longest” cave titles, it is breathtakingly large. I was walking around either with my mouth open in awe or with a smile for the entire 7 hours we spent there.
It starts with a museum/visitor’s center. There’s a short intro movie you can watch and then a couple exhibits to learn about the cave, how it was formed, and the bats that live there. There are two ways down into the cave: an elevator and to hike down the natural entrance. The elevator takes you straight into the heart of the cave and is the best option for leaving the cave. We opted for the natural entrance because we didn’t want to miss a thing!
There are signs along the path to give you a bit of info of what you’re looking at, but we also picked up an audio guide ($5) which went into more detail at each of those stops. Hiking down the natural entrance took us 1 hour. It’s possible to go quicker if you don’t stop to take as many photos as we do. 🙂
The natural entrance is part of the “self-guided” tour (included in the park entrance fee) and that’s where those signs come in handy—so you can learn about the cave as you go through it. The natural entrance leads you to a visitor’s center-like area inside the cave—complete with bathrooms and a gift shop. From there, you can start the self-guided Big Cave tour. It’s a BIG CAVE. You’ll keep thinking you’ve reached the big part of the cave, but then there’s more! It took us about 3 hours to get through it all! We couldn’t help stopping and shining our flashlight on things that weren’t lighted and admiring what nature has done over the past million years.
We ran into David, a retired hair stylist from L.A., a few times while wandering around and had some lovely chats with him. He recommended we do a ranger-guided tour of the King’s Palace. We decided to take his recommendation and were able to secure a spot on the next departing tour. (Note: It’s recommended to book tours in advance because they do fill up!).
On this tour and others, you get to see areas that aren’t included on the self-guided tour. They take you into parts of the cave that are otherwise blocked off to guests. We saw some really delicate and decorated rooms. It turns out, the guy who is credited with discovering the caves, Jim White, would name things for how they looked. So, for the King’s Palace, he noticed a formation that looked like a royal family in a room that he felt looked like a ballroom. Therefore, he named it the King’s Palace.
We planned to spend half a day at Carlsbad Caverns based on a recommendation that we’d need a few hours. I mentioned earlier that we spent 7. SEVEN. This cave (not really literally) blew our minds! We would have stayed longer if they didn’t have a closing time. Our recommendation is to spend at least a day there, if not longer. Because we had to be at our Airbnb at a certain time (and we already pushed it back when we spent extra long at the caverns), we also had to skip out on the summer-only activity of witnessing all the bats leave the cave for the night. David spoke very highly of this experience, so we were a little bummed to miss it. However, our day at the caverns did not disappoint in any way, shape, or form. Because there were tons of forms. Weird, million-year-old forms. 😉
Here are a couple of things that we learned on our visit that we can pass on to you:
- Dress in layers and/or wear some warm clothing—it’s much cooler than the desert above ground.
Bring some layers. Brian was prepared, but I went in leggings and a sweatshirt and found myself a little chilled at points. If I could go back, I would’ve chosen jeans instead.
- You can’t eat on the cave trails, BUT you can bring food in with you.
We were told we couldn’t eat in the cave at all…that was incorrect. They have an area called the Lunchroom where you can eat. You cannot, however, eat anywhere else in the cave. If you plan to spend an entire day below the surface of the earth and don’t want to waste time taking the elevators out of the cave, pack a sack lunch and eat it in the Lunchroom!
- Bring a flashlight with you.
The entire cave is well lit. Beautifully lit actually—the lighting was designed by a Broadway lighting guy. But, you are in a cave—it’s not like they light it up like normal building. Many of the lights are spotlights to highlight certain areas of the cave. If you bring a flashlight into the cave with you, you can light up anything that want! If an area is pitch black, light that baby up! We use a small and portable tactical flashlight that allows us to see more detail when things are further away.
Enjoy your visit! And let us know about the bats if you get to see their majestic cave exit!