Carlsbad Caverns is famous for the beauty and breadth of its inky depths, as well as for the accessibility of some of its largest caves. All cave tours, except for the self-guided Natural Entrance and Big Room, are ranger led, so safety is rarely an issue in the caves, no matter how remote. There are no other tour guides in the area, nor is there an equipment retailer other than the Walmart in Carlsbad, 23 miles away. Depending on the difficulty of your cave selection (Spider Cave is the hardest to navigate), you'll need at most knee pads, gloves, flashlight batteries, sturdy pants, hiking boots with ankle support, and some water.
Hall of the White Giant. Plan to squirm through some tight passages for long distances to access a very remote chamber, where you'll see towering, glistening white formations that explain the name. This strenuous, ranger-led tour lasts about four hours. Steep drop-offs might elate you—or make you queasy. Wear sturdy hiking shoes and bring gloves, kneepads, and four AA batteries with you. Visitors must be at least 12 years old. At the visitor center, 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444–6777. $20. Reservations essential. Tours Sat. at 1.
King's Palace. Throughout this regal room, stunningly handsome and indeed fit for a king, you'll see leggy "soda straws" large enough for a giant to sip, plus bizzare formations that defy reality. The tour also winds through the Queen's Chamber, dressed in ladylike, multitiered curtains of stone. The mile-long walk is on a paved trail, but there's one steep hill toward the end. This ranger-guided tour lasts about 1½ hours and gives you a "look" at the natural essence of a cave—a complete blackout, when artificial lights (and sound) are extinguished. While advance reservations are highly recommended, this is the one tour you might be able to sign up for on the spot. Children younger than 4 aren't allowed on this tour. At visitor center, 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444–6777. $8. Tours: late May–early Sept., daily 10, 11, noon, 2, and 3; early Sept.–late May, daily 10 and 1.
Left Hand Tunnel. Lantern light illuminates the easy half-mile walk on this detour in the main Carlsbad Cavern, which leads to Permian Age fossils—indicating that these caves were hollowed from the Permian Reef that still underlies the Guadalupe Mountain range above. The guided tour over a packed, dirt trail lasts about two hours. It's a moderate trek that older kids can easily negotiate, but children under 6 aren't allowed. At visitor center, 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444–6777. $7. Tours daily at 9.
Lower Cave. Fifty-foot vertical ladders and a dirt path lead you into undeveloped portions of Carlsbad Caverns. It takes about half a day to negotiate this moderately strenuous side trip led by a knowledgeable ranger. Visitors must supply gloves and four AA batteries. Children younger than 12 are not allowed on this tour. At the visitor center, 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444-6777. $20. Reservations essential. Tours weekdays at 1.
Slaughter Canyon Cave. Discovered in the 1930s by a local goatherd, this cave is one of the most popular secondary sites in the park, about 23 miles southwest of the main Carlsbad Caverns and visitor center. Both the hike to the cave mouth and the tour will take about half a day, but it's worth it to view the deep cavern darkness as it's punctuated only by flashlights and, sometimes, headlamps. From the Slaughter Canyon parking area, give yourself 45 minutes to make the steep ½-mile climb up a trail leading to the mouth of the cave. Arrange to be there a quarter of an hour earlier than the appointed time. You'll find that the cave consists primarily of a single corridor, 1,140 feet long, with numerous side passages.
You can take some worthwhile pictures of this cave. Wear hiking shoes with ankle support, and carry plenty of water. You're also expected to bring your own reliable two-D-cell flashlight. Children younger than 6 are not permitted. It's a great adventure if you're in shape and love caving. End of Hwy. 418
, 10 mi west of U.S. 62/180
, Carlsbad Caverns National Park
. Adults, $15; children and seniors, $7.50
. Reservations essential
. Memorial Day–mid-Aug., daily at 8:30 am; mid-Aug.–Memorial Day, weekends at 8:30 a.m.
Spider Cave. Visitors may not expect to have an adventure in a cavern system as developed and well stocked as Carlsbad Caverns, but serious cavers and energetic types have the chance to crawl on cave floors, clamber up tight tunnels, stoop under overhangs, and climb up steep, rocky pitches. This backcountry cave is listed as "wild," a clue that you might need a similar nature to attempt a visit. Plan to wear your warm, but least-favorite clothes, as they'll probably get streaked with grime. You'll also need soft knee pads, a flashlight (with spare batteries), leather gloves, and water. It will take you half a day to complete this ranger-led tour noted for its adventure and for its continuing role as a living research laboratory. Visitors must be at least 12 years old and absolutely not claustrophobic. The cave is named after the hordes of daddy longlegs that pulsate on the walls of the opening, but they're harmless. Meet at visitor center, 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444–6777. $20. Reservations essential. Tours Sun. at 1.
Sound like a serious caver with this cavemen cheat sheet. These speleothems (cave formations) are ones you may see at Carlsbad Caverns.
Boxwork: Composed of interconnecting thin blades that were left in relief on cave walls when the bedrock was dissolved away.
Cave balloons: Thin-walled formations resembling partially deflated balloons, usually composed of hydromagnesite.
Flowstone: Consists of thin layers of a mineral deposited on a sloping surface by flowing or seeping water.
Frostwork: Sprays of needles that radiate from a central point and are usually made of aragonite.
Gypsum beard: Composed of bundles of gypsum fibers that resemble a human beard.
Logomites: Consists of "popcorn," small calcite nodes that form on cave surfaces and superficially resemble a hollowed-out stalagmite.
Pool Fingers: Deposited underneath water around organic filaments.
Ribbons: Thin, layered formations found on sloping ceilings or walls that resemble curtains or scarves.
Soda straws: Hollow tubes that hang from a ceiling, often in clusters.
Stalactites: Carrot-shape formations that hang down from a cave ceiling and are formed from dripping water.
Stalagmites: Mineral deposits that build up on a cave floor from dripping water.
Cave Resources Office. Those who want to go it alone outside the more established caverns can get permits and information about 10 backcountry caves from the Cave Resources Office in the visitor center. Heed rangers' advice for these remote, undeveloped, nearly unexplored caves. 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 575/785–2232.
Ranger-Led Tours. Cavers who wish to explore both developed and wild caves can go on ranger-led tours, some of which require knee pads, gloves, and flashlights. Reservations for the six different tours (Hall of the White Giant, Lower Cave, Slaughter Canyon Cave, Left-Hand Tunnel, King's Palace, and Spider Cave) are required at least a day in advance. Payment is by credit card over the phone or online, or by mailing a check if you're making reservations 21 days or more in advance; confirm first that space is available. 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444–6777. www.nps.gov/cave.