The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns


After my long hike to Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park (just a few miles down the road from Carlsbad Caverns), I realized that my day was only half-over, and I didn’t know what I should do.  My feet didn’t like the idea of another hike, and at GMNP, that’s about all there is to do.  There wasn’t even a gift shop or restaurant near GMNP, where I could rest my feet and recharge.  So, I came up with a plan.  I would make a very quick trip out of Texas, and into New Mexico, to explore one of my favorite national parks, Carlsbad Caverns.

I was lucky to arrive in time.  I didn’t realize the caverns kept banker’s hours.  After a half-hour drive from Guadalupe Mountains to Whites City (the turn-off point for the Caverns), I saw a sign advising that the last entry to the caverns was at 3:30 p.m.  I glanced at the clock: 3:21.  I had five miles to go, driving at the snail’s pace NPS speed limit.  Oh boy.

Obviously, since you’re looking at pictures of the caverns, I made it, but only with a minute or so to spare.

Because I arrived so late in the day, I was only able to tour the “Big Room”.  During a visit to the caverns in 2006, I entered the caverns via the Natural Entrance.  If you have time, and strong legs, I’d suggest you take the Natural Entrance into the caverns — the route ends at the Big Room, so you can see it, too.  No matter which you choose, you should check the NPS website for ticket prices and entry times.

A walk around the Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns can be quick, or take hours, depending on how much time you spend simply staring at these wonders, and taking it all in.  The Big Room tour is self-guided, so you can go at your own pace…

… and admire all of the incredible formations.

Don’t forget to look above you, and notice the icicle-looking stalactites hanging from the ceiling.  (Remember, stalactites hang tight to the ceiling, while stalagmites might cause you to trip, because they’re on the ground.)

For some perspective, notice the tiny people in the middle of this picture, just right of center.  And just think — this is only one part of the Big Room!

How big is the Big Room? It’s nearly 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 350 feet high at its highest point — making it big enough for a dozen football fields and a 35-story skyscraper.  It’s the third largest chamber in North America, and seventh largest in the world.

Carlsbad Caverns is a joy to photograph, thanks to the creative lighting put in place by the park service.  Everything is quite dim, but lights of varying colors are strategically placed to highlight the most remarkable corners of the caves.  If you plan on taking pictures, you really should consider bringing a tripod (which is allowed!).  The dim lighting requires longer exposures, and without a tripod, your pictures will look blurry.  Using your camera’s flash will wash out everything that’s close to the camera, and leave distant objects in the dark.  Oh, and everyone near you will get really tired of all that flashing.

Don’t be surprised if you start to see some “other” things in these formations.  I’m willing to bet this is one of the most photographed features at Carlsbad Caverns!

And then there’s this one, dangling right over you as you walk underneath.

I tried to take as many pictures as I could, as quickly as possible, while staying a few steps ahead of the park ranger who was sweeping through the caves, pushing people towards the exit and turning off lights.  Even though it wasn’t any fun to hurry up and leave, it was interesting to be one of the last people in the caverns.  With no one behind me but the ranger, the caves fell silent and dark, with only the eerie sound of occasional drips falling from the ceiling.  The painstakingly slow process of decorating the caverns continues.

As of spring and summer 2011, Carlsbad Caverns was repairing its primary elevators, which take people to and from the retro-styled underground snack bar and gift shop.  Since I was one of the last people out of the caves, I was also one of the last people to queue up for the trip to the surface.  After spending a little less than an hour exploring the Big Room, I spent an equal amount of time in this line.

The remarkable thing is, I didn’t care about the wait.  Carlsbad Caverns continues to be one of my most favorite national parks, and for that matter, one of the places I love most on earth.  I almost hadn’t visited it on this trip, but I’m so glad that I did.

Once I finally resurfaced, I headed out of the park, making a quick stop at Whites City.  This community is located at the turnoff from US 62/180 into the park.  All you’ll find here are a couple of aging motels, a few touristy attractions, and of course, gas and food.  The gift shop I visited was half-empty, almost as if its owners were trying to sell as much as they could before shutting the place down.  In general, all of Whites City has this old, worn-out feel to it.  But there was one reason to celebrate: I bought a huge bottle of Carrizozo Cherry Cider.  I suddenly remembered how I had discovered it during my trip to New Mexico in 2006.   It was powerful, but delicious.  New Mexico’s ciders might be the state’s second-best product (of course, following green chile).

Drivelapse Video

Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Guadalupe Mountains National Park to Carlsbad Caverns National Park:

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