A Journey Underground
Your encounter with Carlsbad Caverns National Parle begins in the Chihuahuan Desert of the Guadalupe Mountains. But beyond the somewhat familiar surroundings of rugged mountains and broad plains is another world. Away from sunlight, away from the flowering cactus, away from the songs of the desert birds and the howl of the coyote, lies the celebrated underground world of Carlsbad Cavern. It is an incomparable realm of gigantic subterranean chambers, fantastic cave formations, and extraordinary features. The first adventurers entering Carlsbad Cavern had no idea what to expect as they walked, crawled, and climbed down into the darkness. Today many of the wonders of Carlsbad Cavern are well known, yet the experience of exploring its chambers is every bit as exciting.
Exploring the Chambers of Wonders
The Cave is Created and Decorated, Drop by Drop
The story of Carlsbad Cavern begins 250 million years ago with the creation of a 400-mile-long reef in an inland sea that covered this region. This horseshoe-shaped reef formed from the remains of sponges, algae, and seashells and from calcite that precipitated directly from the water. Cracks developed in the reef as it rose. Eventually the sea evaporated, and the reef was buried under deposits of salts and gypsum.
Then, a few million years ago, uplift and erosion of the area began to uncover the buried rock reef. During the uplift that would become the Guadalupe Mountains, rainwater seeped downward through cracks and faults in the limestone. At the same time, hydrogen sulfide-rich water migrated upward from vast oil and gas fields to the south and east. These two waters mixed, forming sulfuric acid, which dissolved the limestone and opened up the fractures and faults into the large chambers we see today. As the mountains were pushed up, the level where the rooms and passages in the cave were being formed moved lower into the ancient reef rock. This process created nearly horizontal levels connected by steep passages. In Carlsbad Cavern, the older Bat Cave level and the younger Big Room level are connected by the steeply descending trail from the natural entrance.
The decoration of Carlsbad Cavern with stalactites, stalagmites, and an incredible variety of other formations began over 500,000 years ago after much of the cavern had been carved out. It happened slowlydrop by dropat a time when a wetter, cooler climate prevailed. Creation of each formation depended on water that dripped or seeped down into the limestone bedrock and into the cave. As a raindrop fell to the ground and percolated downward, it absorbed carbon dioxide gas from the air and soil, and a weak acid was formed. As it continued to move down, the drop dissolved a little limestone, absorbing some of the basic ingredient needed to build most cave formationsthe mineral calcite. Once the drop finally emerged in the cave, the carbon dioxide escaped into the cave air. No longer able to hold the dissolved calcite, the drop deposited its tiny mineral load as a crystal of calcite. Billions and billions of drops later, thousands of cave formations had taken shape. Oh, the shapes they took!
Where water dripped slowly from the ceiling, soda straws and larger stalactites appeared. Water falling onto the floor created stalagmites. Sometimes a stalactite and stalagmite met and merged into a column. Draperies were hung where water ran down a slanted ceiling. Flowstone was created by water flowing over the surface of a wall or floor while depositing layers of calcite. Cave pearls, lily pads, and rimstone dams appeared where pools of water occurred in the cave. Like pearls from oysters, cave pearls developed as layer upon layer of calcite built up around a grain of sand or other tiny object. Lily pads formed on the surface of pools, while dams formed where water flowed slowly on the floor.
Another type of cave formation that decorated cave walls and even other formations was popcorn, which formed when water evaporated and left behind aragonite. Aragonite is a mineral chemically identical to calcite but with a different crystal structure. These crystals tend to be small, delicate, and shaped like needles.
Some of the more unusual formations that occur in Carlsbad Cavern are helictites. They grow seemingly without regard to gravity, their twisting shapes governed by crystal shapes, impurities, and the force of water under pressure.
The World of Bats
Carlsbad Cavern is a sanctuary for hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats (also .known as Brazilian free-tailed bats). During the day they crowd together on the ceiling of Bat Cave; a passageway near the natural entrance of Carlsbad Cavern. In this darkened home they are seen only by scientific researchers. At nightfall the bats leave the cave in gigantic swarms. Silhouetted against the night sky like a dark, swift-moving could, the bats make their most dramatic display. Other extraordinary characteristics of batstheir natural sonar system and their ability to flymake these creatures of darkness of great interest.
Like most species of bats, Mexican free-tailed bats navigate and locate their prey by emitting ultra-high frequency sounds. Known as echolocation, this natural sonar system is similar to that used by dolphins and whales. When a bat's signals strike an object, they are reflected back and heard by the bat. The bat then takes whatever action is appropriate, whether it be zeroing in on a moth and other flying insects or swerving to avoid a tree limb.
As many as seven types of bats may roost in Carlsbad Cavern, but none is as prevalent as the Mexican free-tailed. This dark brown to gray bat is distinguished by its long, narrow wings and a free-dangling, skinny tail. Only a part-time resident of Carlsbad Cavern this migratory bat stays here and in other Southwest caves from early spring through October. It flies to tropical Mexico and further south for the winter.
Bat Families in the Cave
Bat Cave serves as a summer home, a daytime refuge, and, perhaps most importantly, as a maternity roost for Mexican free-tailed bats. The bats, which are mammals, migrate from Mexico to Carlsbad Cavern each year to give birth and raise their young. Young are born in June, under the cover of darkness and away from predators or disturbances. A female usually has just one offspring. Each birth occurs on the ceiling as the mother hangs by her toes and thumbs. The baby (called a pup) clings to its mother or to the ceiling. For the next four to five weeks, the youngster stays on the ceiling. During the day, mothers and pups hang in clusters on the ceiling, resting and nursing. As many as 300 bats may crowd into one square foot. At night the young are left in the cave while the adults leave to feed. How does a mother ever find her own baby in the teeming mass of pups? She remembers her pup's location, its scent, and the sound of its cry. In July or August each young bat takes its first flight, joining the adults on nightly forays. In Bat Cave, bats share their quarters with only a few insects and spiders. In late October or early November the adults and young leave for Mexicoand return again next year.
The spectacular flight of the Mexican free-tailed bat begins with a few bats fluttering out of the natural entrance of Carlsbad Cavern. Then in a matter of minutes a thick bat whirlwind spirals out of the cave up into the darkening night sky. The exodus can last from 20 minutes to 2½ hours. Once out of the cave the mass of thousands of bats undulates, serpentine fashion, toward the southeast to feed in the Pecos and Black river valleys. Once there, they gorge on moths and other night-flying insects. Using echolocation, its sonar system, each bat may catch and eat more than half their body weight in insects in a single night. With the coming of dawn, the bats begin flying back to the cave individually or in small groups. They reenter the cave in a fashion almost as remarkable as their departure. Each bat positions itself high above the cave entrance. It then folds its wings close to its body and plummets like a hailstone into the blackness of Carlsbad Cavern, making strange buzzing sounds as it does. One by one, the bats return to the safety of Bat Cave, where they sleep until dusk the next evening.
Lure of the Unknown
Over 1,000 years ago American Indians ventured into the entrance of Carlsbad Cavern. They left no record of entering the dark zone of the cave, but they did leave mysterious drawings on cave walls near the natural entrance. In the 1800s settlers discovered the cavern, drawn to it by the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of bats rising up out of the natural entrance in the evening. Some stayed on to mine the huge deposits of bat guano in the cave and sell it as a natural fertilizer. A cowboy named Jim White became fascinated by the cave and spent hours exploring it. White was eager to show the natural wonders of this extraordinary place to others, but few believed his improbable tales of a huge underground wilderness full of unusual formations. It took photographs to convince skeptics that Carlsbad Cavern was everything it was said to be.
In 1915 black-and-white pictures taken by Ray V. Davis, who accompanied White on a cave trip, were displayed in the town of Carlsbad, N.M. They created a sensation. People clamored to see the marvelous cave. White took them on tours that began with a 170-foot descent in a bucket once used to haul bat guano from the cave.
Word of the cave spread, finally reaching Washington, D.C. Again, there were nonbelievers. In 1923 the U.S. Department of the Interior sent Inspector Robert Holley to see whether Carlsbad Cavern was truly an outstanding natural scenic wonder. Originally a skeptic, Holley wrote in his final report: "I am wholly conscious of the feebleness of my efforts to convey in words the deep conflicting emotions, the feeling of fear and awe, and the desire for an inspired understanding of the Divine Creator's work which presents to the human eye such a complex aggregate of natural wonders."
Later that year Carlsbad Cavern was proclaimed a national monument. White, who continued cave explorations for most of his life, became its first chief ranger. In 1930 Congress created Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Through illustrated articles in magazines like National Geographic and by word of mouth, Carlsbad Caverns became one of the world's most celebrated cave systems and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1995. The park has expanded and now includes 46,766 acres and over 100 other caves.
Experienced underground explorers, or cavers, and cave scientists are the Christopher Columbuses of todayjourneying beyond what is known into the unknown. For many years cavers felt a strong breeze blowing from the floor of a small cave known as Misery Hole. In 1986 they received permission to explore and break through this level. Their discoveries opened Lechuguilla Cave.
Lechuquilla Cave extends over 112 miles and holds a spectacular but fragile ecosystem. To protect this system, entry into Lechuguilla is restricted to exploration and scientific groups. Lechuguilla Cave will probably not be opened to the public. Within, cave scientists have discovered microbes that produce enzymes capable of destroying cancer cells. Scientific discoveries continue to give us clues about the complex creation of the area's caves, about bats and other members of the cave community, and how human activities affect these fragile underground worlds.
The Bat Flight
The evening flight of the bats of Carlsbad Cavern is a natural phenomenon as fascinating as the cave itself. In a mass exodus at dusk, thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats (also known as Brazilian free-tailed bats) fly from the cave for a night of feasting on insects. You can view this exciting spectacle from the outdoor amphitheater at the cave's natural entrance. Before each flight a park ranger gives a short talk on bats. Because the bats winter in Mexico, the flights occur only from early spring through October. Check at the visitor center for the scheduled time. To protect the bats, cameras and camcorders are not allowed at the bat flight program.
Preserving a National Treasure
Protection and preservation of Carlsbad Cavern is the mission of the National Park Service. It's your responsibility, too. Unfortunately, over the years careless people have damaged many of the cave's smaller and more delicate formations.
Experimental techniques, like those that enable rangers to match pieces of broken stalactites and painstakingly glue them back together, are sometimes successful, but in practically all cases damage is irreversible.
Touching any cave formation is prohibited. Formations are easily broken, and the oil from your skin permanently discolors the rock.
Smoking or any use of tobacco is not permitted. Eating and drinking are not permitted except in the underground rest area and lunchroom.
Throwing coins, food, or other objects in cave pools is forbidden. Foreign objects ruin the natural appearance of the pools and are difficult to remove. Also, the chemical reaction among the foreign objects, the water, and the rock can leave permanent stains.
Photography is permitted on most cavern tours. Photographers should not step off the trails or rest tripods or other camera equipment on formations.
Strollers are not permitted because parts of the trails are steep and narrow.
Exploring the Cave
You may choose from three main cave tour options depending on your time, interest, and physical ability. Two are self-guiding; the third is a ranger-guided tour.
Your first stop for any cave tour is the visitor center information desk, where rangers can answer your questions about tours, and you may purchase tickets. The basic entry fee allows you to take either, or both, self-guiding tours. Rangers at the information desk can provide information on special ranger activities. They can tell you about wild cave tours that may be available.
Big Room Route
Natural Entrance Route
Kings Palace Guided Tour
All trails in the cave are paved and well lit. You should wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes with rubber soles for maximum safety and traction. The cave temperature varies little from the annual 56°F average, making a sweater or light jacket appropriate year-round. You may want to bring a camera and a flashlight. Strollers are not allowed in any underground cave area, but infant backpacks are permitted on the self-guiding tours.
A pre-tour restroom stop is advisable because restrooms are only available in the visitor center and at the underground rest area and lunchroom. All tours are preceded by a mandatory cavern orientation briefing to promote resource protection and cavern safety. All tours exit the cave by elevator.
Rangers are available throughout the cave to protect park resources and to help you with information and questions. On both self-guiding tours, audio guides are available to provide you with in-depth information about ecology, history, and cave formation. To enjoy the natural quiet of the cave, please speak quietly.
The cavern is open daily except December 25 and operates on summer and non-summer hourly schedules. For current hours and information contact the park at www.nps.gov/cave.
Safety in the Park
To ensure that your tour of Carlsbad Cavern is comfortable, enjoyable, and safe, please follow these important rules and recommendations.
• Wear low-heeled, non-skid shoes for walking on the paved cave trails, which can be steep and slippery. • Use handrails where available. • Take a jacket or sweater; the cave's temperature is a constant 56°F. • Stay on trails. Beyond the trails are steep drop-offs where you could fall and injure yourself, and there are unlighted passages where you could get lost. Also, fragile formations on the floor, walls, and ceilings can be damaged by anyone straying from the trails. • Do not leave pets unattended in vehicles during the summer months. Kennel services are available at the visitor center.
Other Park Activities
Camping and Picnicking
Slaughter Canyon Cave
Source: NPS Brochure (2012)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
A Guide Book to Carlsbad Caverns National Park The National Speleological Society Guide Book Series No. 1 (Paul F. Spangle, ed., 1960)
A Vegetation Map of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/CHDN/NRTR-2012/635 (Esteban Muldavin, Paul Arbetan, Yvonne Chauvin, Amanda Browder, Teri Neville and Paul Neville, October 2012)
Amphibians and Reptiles of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, and Adjacent Guadalupe Mountains (Frederick R. Gehlbach, 1964)
Animal Life of the Carlsbad Cavern Monographs of the American Society of Mammalogists Number 3 (Vernon Bailey, 1928)
Descriptive Geomorphology of the Guadalupe Mountains, South-Central New Mexico and West Texas Baylor Geological Studies Bulletin No. 43 (Cleavy L. McKnight, Spring 1986)
Biological Investigations in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas NPS Proceedings and Transactions Series No. 4 (Hugh H. Genoways and Robert J. Baker, eds., 1979; Proceedings of a Symposium held at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, April 4-5, 1975)
Welcome (J. Knox Jones, Jr.)
Introduction (Roland H. Wauer)
Geology of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park (John P. Brand and Alonzo D. Jacka)
Late Pleistocene Plant Communities in the Guadalupe Mountains, Culberson County, Texas (Thomas R. Van Devender, W. Geoffrey Spaulding, and Arthur M. Phillips, III)
Preliminary Report of the Ecology of Fire Study, Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks (Gary M. Ahlstrand)
The Guadalupe MountainsA Chink in the Mosaic of the Chihuahuan Desert? (Marshall C. Johnston)
Summary of the Vegetative Zones of the Guaoalupe Mountains National Park, Texas (David K. Northington and Tony L. Burgess)
Status of Rare and Endangered Plant Species of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas (David K. Northington and Tony L. Burgess)
AgaveComplex of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Putative Hybridization Between Members of Different Subgenera (Tony L. Burgess)
The Land and Freshwater Mollusca of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas (Richard W. Fullington)
Plusiotis woodi and Plusiotis gloriosa (Scarabaeidae): First Report of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Richard W. Fullington and Don Harrington)
Notes on the Bionomics and Nest Structure of Pogonomyrmex maricopa Hymenoptera: Formicidae) (James V. Moody and David E. Foster)
Limnology of McKittrick Creek, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas (Owen T. Lind)
The Quaternary Vertebrate Fauna of Upper Sloth Cave, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas (Lloyd E. Logan and Craig C. Black)
Environmental Implications of Herpetofaunal Remains From Archeological Sites West of Carlsbad, New Mexico (John S. Applegarth)
The Biogeographical Relationships of the Amphjbians and Reptiles of the Guadalupe Mountains (John S. Mecham)
Compositional Aspects of Breeding Avifaunas in Selected Woodlands of the Southern Guadalupe Mountains, Texas (George A. Newman)
Post-Pleistocene Mammals From Pratt Cave and Their Environmental Significance (Ernest L. Lundelius, Jr.)
Ground Sloth Dung of the Guadalupe Mountains (W. Geoffrey Spaulding and Paul S. Martin)
Mammals of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas (Hugh H. Genoways, Robert J. Baker and John E. Cornely)
Demographic Patterns of Small Mammals, a Possible Use in Impact Assessment (Peter V. August, John W. Clarke, M. Houston McGaugh, and Robert L. Packard)
Population Size of Tadarida brasiliensis at Carlsbad Caverns in 1973 (J. Scott Altenbach, Kenneth N. Geluso, and Don £: Wilson)
Coexistence of Two Species of Kangaroo Rats (Genus Dipodomys) in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas (Margaret A. O'Connell)
Ecological Distribution of Woodrats (Genus Neotoma) in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas (John E. Cornely)
Status of the Guadalupe Mountains Vole, Microtus mexicanus guadalupensis (Dallas E. Wilhelm, Jr.)
Food Habits of Mule Deer on Foothills of Carlsbad Caverns National Park (Walter H. Kittams, Stanley L. Evans, and Derrick C. Cooke)
Biomes of the Guadalupe Escarpment: Vegetation, Lizards, and Human Impact (Frederick R. Gehlbach)
Research in National Parks (Robert J. Baker and Hugh H. Genoways)
Canyons & Caves: A Newsletter from the Natural Resources Office, Carlsbad Caverns National Park (Issue #)
2008: 38 (Winter)
Capitan Reef Complex Structure and Stratigraphy (Allan Standen, Steve Finch, Randy Williams and Beronica Lee-Brand, Texas Water Development Board, September 2009)
Carlsbad Caverns: Silent Chambers, Timeless Beauty (John Barnett, ©Carlsbad Caverns Natural History Association, 1981)
CAVE History Update: A Newsletter from Carlsbad Caverns National Park's Cultural Resources Office in the Resources Stewardship and Science Division
Community Structure of the Arthropods of Carlsbad Cavern Emphasizing Raphidophoridae of the Genus Ceuthophilus (©Diana Eleanor Northup, Mater's Thesis, December 1988)
Descriptive Geomorphology of the Guadalupe Mountains, South-Central New Mexico and West Texas Baylor Geological Studies Bulletin No. 43 (Cleavy L. McKnight, Spring 1986)
Determining water infiltration routes from structures located above Carlsbad Cavern, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Carlsbad, New Mexico Final Report (Paul K.M. van der Heijde, Kenneth E. Kolm, Helen Dawson and Mark Brooke, January 1997)
Economic Impacts of Carlsbad Caverns National Park on the Local (Eddy County, NM) Economy, 2002 (Daniel J. Stynes, February 2003)
Ethnographic Overview and Assessment of Carlsbad Caverns National Park (Adolph M. Greenberg, September 12, 1996)
Factors Altering the Microclimate in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico US Geological Survey Open-File Report 76-171 (J.S. McLean, February 1976)
Familia Mormoopidae (Sergio Ticul Alvarez-Castañeda, extract from Mamíferos del noroeste de México, 1999)
Fossilization of Bat Skeletons in the Carlsbad Caverns (James K. Baker, extract from Bulletin of the National Speleological Society, Vol. 25 Part One, January 1963, ©National Speleological Society, Inc.)
Foundation Document, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico (February 2017)
Geologic Resource Evaluation Report, Carlsbad Caverns National Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2007/003 (J. Graham, June 2007)
Geology of Carlsbad Cavern and other caves in the Guadalupe Mountains, New Mexico and Texas New Mexico Bureau of Mines & Mineral Resources Bulletin 117 (Carol A. Hill, 1987)
Geology of the Guadalupe Mountains, New Mexico USGS Professional Paper 446 (Philip T. Hayes, 1964)
Inventory of High Elevation Breeding Birds at Carlsbad Caverns National Park NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/CHDN/NRDS-2012/314 (Steve West, April 2012)
Living on the Land: 11,000 Years of Human Adaptation in Southeastern New Mexico Cultural Resource Series No. 6 (Lynne Sebastian and Signa Larralde, January 1989)
Mammals of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico (Kenneth N. Geluso and Keith Geluso, extract from Bulletin of the University of Nebraska State Museum, Vol. 17, 2004)
Memories of Childhood: Our Wonderful Trip to Old Mexico or "The Hat 'N the Bat" (Nancy K. Gooch Hultgren, March 1952)
Mountain Lion Population Trends Monitoring in Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks (Tim Smith, Ronald Duke and Michael Kutilek, Harvey & Stanley Associates, Inc., March 18, 1988)
Mountain Lions (Felix concolor) in the Vicinity of Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks: An Ecological Study (Final Report) (Abstract) (Harvey and Stanley Associates, Inc., March 6, 1986)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Forms
Rattlesnake Springs Historic District (Betsy Swanson, October 1986)
The Caverns Historic District (Betsy Swanson, August 1986)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Carlsbad Caverns National Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/CAVE/NRR-2017/1466 (Kevin M. Benck, Kathy Allen, Andy J. Nadeau, Hannah Hutchins, Anna M. Davis and Andy Robertson, June 2017)
Paleontological Resource Inventory (Public Version), Carlsbad Caverns National Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/CAVE/NRR-2020/2148 (Scott Kottkamp, Vincent L. Santucci, Justin S. Tweet, Rodney D. Horrocks, Erin Lynch and Gary S. Morgan, June 2020)
Reconstruction of Visitor Center Parking Areas and Rehabilitation of Walnut Canyon Entrance Road, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Eddy County, New Mexico Environmental Assessment/Assessment of Effect (January 2007)
Research in Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Scientific Exploration and Discovery (Harry Burgess, Steve West, Jason Richards, Pat Jablonsky, Bill Route, Ken Geluso, Gary Vequist, David Roemer, Dale Pate and Pat Mulligan, 1997)
Springs, Seeps and Tinajas Monitoring Protocol: Chihuahuan and Sonoran Desert Networks NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SODN/NRR-2018/1796 (Cheryl McIntyre, Kirsten Gallo, Evan Gwilliam, J. Andrew Hubbard, Julie Christian, Kristen Bonebrake, Greg Goodrum, Megan Podolinsky, Laura Palacios, Benjamin Cooper and Mark Isley, November 2018)
The Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico: Its History and Geology (A.W. Anderson, 1928, revised 1939)
The Prehistory of the Carlsbad Basin, Southeastern New Mexico (Susana R. Katz and Paul Katz, November 1985)
Vertebrate Paleontological Resources from National Park Service Areas in New Mexico (Vincent L. Santucci, Justin Tweet, David Bustos, Jim Von Haden and Phillip Varela, extract from New Mexico Museum of Natural History Bulletin 64, 2014)
Western Texas and Carlsbad Caverns International Geological Congress XVI Session Guidebook 13: Excursion C-1 (N.H. Darton and P.B. King, 1932)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 15-Apr-2022