Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Natural Entrance

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Carlsbad Caverns is every bit as impressive as the Grand Canyon or Yosemite.  The only difference is, it’s underground–a fact that hides its grandeur from anyone who hasn’t been inside.

Carlsbad Caverns is closer to White’s City than it is to its namesake, Carlsbad New Mexico.  From Carlsbad, take US 62/180 south/west for 20 miles, then hang a right at White’s City.  You’ll drive through Walnut Canyon for a few miles, until you reach the visitor’s center and parking area.

Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns is $6 per person, but fortunately, your annual parks pass covers everyone.  (Officially, it only covers your spouse and children, but the park may allow it to cover others as well.)  You’ll probably want to rent at least one pre-recorded audio tour guide for $3–it’s a long stick with a speaker and a keypad.  When you reach a signpost, punch in the number to hear the proper message.

From the Visitor’s Center, you can choose to take an elevator directly to the “Big Room” (the easy way), or walk into the caverns, by way of the Natural Entrance (the hard way!).  If you choose the Natural Entrance, you can still see the “Big Room”… but if you choose the elevator, you’ll miss out on the leg-straining mile-long, 750 foot descent.

Bat Cave Amphitheatre, Natural Entrance, Carlsbad Caverns

As you approach the Natural Entrance, you’ll find this amphitheater.  Crowds gather here in the summer months to watch the nightly exodus of bats from the mouth of the cave.  Hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats create a living black cloud in the sky.

The best bat flights occur in August and September.  Between November and April or May, the bats are gone (they migrate to Mexico for the winter).  The bats leave around sunset, so check with the park for an exact time.  You can also watch the bats return to the cave, if you’re willing to show up before dawn.  Oh, and don’t bother bringing your camera–since flashes could disorient the bats, no cameras (still or video) are allowed without a special permit.

Trail down into Natural Entrance, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

As you prepare for this part of the trail, remember, it’s not too late to turn back!  If you’re not in good shape, your legs will soon feel weak, and you’ll need to make plenty of rest stops.  Heck, even if you are in good shape, this trail will take its toll on your legs.

Natural Entrance Trail, Carlsbad Caverns

Once you’re inside, the switchbacks continue.  The trail only takes you through a small portion of this first room.  Notice that dark area in the background?  The room keeps going, even though it’s unlit, and there’s no trail into that area.  Instead, the trail backtracks, passing underneath the Natural Entrance.

Light beaming down from natural entrance

That’s the Natural Entrance above.  At this point, you’re almost far enough from it to stop smelling the bat guano.  Oh, and enjoy the natural light–it’s the last you’ll see for quite some time.

Native Americans were the first to enter the Carlsbad Caverns, although they had no way of knowing the caverns’ immense size.  While they used the Natural Entrance for shelter, they couldn’t go any farther than the sunlight allowed.

Devil's Spring, Natural Entrance, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

You’ll find a small, still, reflective pond at Devil’s Spring.

If you plan to take pictures inside the caverns, there’s only one way to do it: turn off the flash, and use a tripod.  A flash will only light an area within a few feet of the camera, and will wash out most of the color.  If you turn off the flash and try to “hold still” you’ll still be disappointed.  A good exposure often takes 15-30 seconds, and even the steadiest hand can’t hold that still, that long.  So, unless you’re planning a serious photographic effort, just buy some postcards and free up your time to enjoy the scenery.

Whale's Mouth, Natural Entrance, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

You’ll pass the Whale’s Mouth at about the halfway point between the entrance and the snack bar.

old stairs into Carlsbad Caverns National Park

After passing through a couple of big rooms and a few narrow passages, you’ll spot these old wooden stairs at the side of the trail.  This is the entrance constructed decades before the elevators were installed.  Visitors had to climb down, then up, flight after flight of rickety stairs (and you thought your legs were weak from the Natural Entrance!).  Aside from being incredibly exhausting, the stairs were also unsafe, since the moist air quickly rotted the wood.

Snack bar, big room, Carlsbad Caverns

A little further, and you’ve made it!  Welcome to the underground rest area, complete with bathrooms, a snack bar, and a couple of souvenir-stocked kiosks.  There are also rows of benches here, so you can enjoy your food and rest up from the long hike into the caverns.

This is the only area of the caverns where cans and bottles of soda and other drinks are allowed.  You can, however, carry bottled water with you throughout the caverns.

elevators and bathrooms, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Just off from the snack bar, you’ll find the elevators waiting to take you back to the surface.

Here are some fun facts about the elevators at Carlsbad Caverns, from the NPS website: – The elevators make the 754 foot trip in 57 seconds – The two passenger elevators make 49,000 round trips a year, totaling 14,000 miles – If one elevator fails, visitors can be transferred into the other elevator

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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