Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park sees over 450 thousand visitors each year

Carlsbad Caverns National Park has 117 caves, the longest of which is over 120 miles (190 km) long. The Big Room is almost 4,000 feet (1,200 m) long, and the caves are home to over 400,000 Mexican free-tailed bats and sixteen other species. Above ground are the Chihuahuan Desert and Rattlesnake Springs.


The largest limestone room in the world

Carlsbad Caverns National Park preserves a portion of the Capitan Reef-one of the best-preserved, exposed Permian-age fossil reefs in the world. Water, geologic forces, climactic changes, and vast spans of time have produced and changed the fossil reef and its spectacular caves, a process that continues to the present day.

From a Permian Reef to Guadalupe Mountains
The ocean fossils here reveal a detailed picture of life along a coastline of a shallow inland sea some 265 million years ago. These fossils show that the “Capitan Reef” was built mostly of sponges and algae, not by coral like many of today’s reefs. Other marine fossils found here include ammonites, crinoids, snails, nautiloids, bivalves, brachiopods, and the occasional trilobite. This coastline eventually became a horseshoe-shaped limestone layer of rock over 1,800 feet (549 m) thick, two to three miles (three to five meters) wide and over 400 hundred miles (644 km) long. By the end of the Permian age, the Capitan Reef was covered by thousands of feet of newer sediments, burying the reef for tens of millions of years.

Local faulting and stresses of the earth’s crust, especially over the past 20 million years, has uplifted these reef sediments almost ten thousand feet. Wind, rain, snow and time eroded away the overlying younger sediments and now the ancient reef is exposed once again. The park’s deep canyons and caves now provide visitors with unique opportunities to view this fossil reef from the inside.

Cave Dissolution: The Creation of Carlsbad Cavern
There are more than 119 known caves within the park alone-they are some of the biggest and longest caves in the world. All of them reveal a very unusual ingredient in cave dissolution (creation)—sulfuric acid.

Most of the world’s limestone caves are created when surface water flows down through cracks in limestone rock and slowly enlarges the passageways. In all surface water, there is a weak acid called carbonic acid. This acid slowly dissolves and scours out the rock in more than 90 percent of the world’s limestone caves. These types of caves are typically very wet and have streams, rivers and sometimes lakes or large waterfalls in them. However, there are no flowing rivers or streams in any of the hundreds of caves in the Guadalupe Mountains and no evidence that these huge cave chambers were dissolved by carbonic acid.

It is since the 1970s that geologists have come to understand that sulfuric acid played the major role in the dissolution of all Guadalupe Mountain caves.

Evidence shows that when hydrogen sulfide (H2S) from oil deposits in the area and a whole range of newly discovered microbes combine with oxygen in the underground water table, sulfuric acid is the result. This very aggressive dissolution of passageways occurred at the level of the water table along cracks, fractures and faults in the limestone.

As the Guadalupe Mountains uplifted little by little, the level of the water table dropped in relation to the land surface; therefore, the highly aggressive “acid bath” drained away leaving a newly dissolved cave behind.

One of the many by-products of this sulfuric acid dissolution of limestone is a mineral called gypsum. Huge gypsum blocks still line the floor of the Big Room of Carlsbad Cavern. Other by-product minerals have been radioactively dated to show when this “sulfuric acid bath” occurred. It is now evident that Carlsbad Cavern was one of the last caves to be dissolved in the Guadalupe Mountains-around four to six million years ago. This method of sulfuric acid dissolution created seemingly endless mazes of both narrow and huge passageways that look to many visitors like Swiss cheese. Because these caves were dissolved deep underground, not all caves here have an opening to the world above.

The geologic history of the Capitan Reef means there is still an exceptional potential for additional cave discovery, significant exploration and research.

The Decorated Caves
Sometime in the past few million years, collapse at the top of the cave and surface erosion created the natural entrance of Carlsbad Cavern. This opened previously hidden underground cave passageways to the world above for the first time. As a result, airflow began to circulate through the cavern and allow for the final chapter of geologic development-growth of cave decorations.

The magnificent speleothems (cave formations) that continue to grow and decorate Carlsbad Cavern are due to rain and snowmelt soaking through limestone rock, then eventually dripping into a cave below and evaporating. Those water drops have absorbed gasses and dissolved minerals from the soil and limestone above. Wherever that water drop evaporates and releases carbon dioxide in an air-filled cave, a small amount of mineral-mostly calcite, is left behind. Thus, drip-by-drip, over the past million years or so, Carlsbad Cavern has slowly been decorating itself.

The slowest drips tend to stay on the ceiling long enough to deposit their mineral there. Common speleothems found on the ceiling may be stalactites, soda straws, draperies, ribbons or curtains. The faster the dripping, the more likely it is to make some type of decoration on the floor. A wide range of decorations on the cave floor include totem poles, flowstone, rim stone dams, lily pads, shelves, cave pools, and of course stalagmites.

Today, few speleothems inside any Guadalupe Mountains caves are wet and actively growing. This is a direct result of the dry desert climate. Most speleothems inside Carlsbad Cavern would have been much more active during the last ice age—up to around 10,000 years ago—when the Guadalupe Mountains received a great deal more rainfall than what today’s desert climate receives.

For the time being, Carlsbad Cavern is not dead or alive—it’s just, for the most part, inactive. A climate change above would certainly affect how fast or slow speleothems grow. The dripping heard today inside the cavern is but a fading echo of what would have been heard during wetter times long ago.

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Native American History

The Native American carved petroglyphs into the cave walls

Park History

How Carlsbad Caverns became a National Park

The park’s cultural resources represent a long and varied continuum of human use starting in prehistoric times and illustrating many adaptations to the Chihuahuan Desert environment. Human activities, including prehistoric and historic American Indian occupations, European exploration and settlement, industrial exploitation, commercial and cavern accessibility development and tourism have left reminders of their presence, and have contributed to the rich and diverse history of the area.

The park has two historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places—the Cavern Historic District and the Rattlesnake Springs Historic District. The park museum, including the park archives, contains approximately one million cultural resource artifacts that are being preserved and protected.

Legislative History
October 25, 1923: Creation of Carlsbad Cave National Monument
April 2, 1924: Executive Order
May 3, 1928: Supplemental Executive Order
May 14, 1930: Creation of Carlsbad Caverns National Park
June 17, 1930: Executive Order

A Chronology
Carlsbad Cavern is one of over 300 limestone caves in a fossil reef laid down by an inland sea about 265 million years ago. Twelve-to-fourteen thousand years ago, American Indians lived in the Guadalupe Mountains. Some of their cooking ring sites and pictographs have been found within the present day boundaries of the park. By the 1500s, Spanish explorers were passing through present-day west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Spain claimed the southwest until 1821 when Mexico revolted and claimed independence. Mexico, fighting the westward expansionist United States (US) in the late 1840s, lost the southwest to the US. In 1850, New Mexico Territory was created, and for the next 30 years the cultural conflict between American Indians and the US government continued. Eddy, New Mexico, the future Carlsbad, was established in 1888 and New Mexico became a state in 1912.

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The best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park

  1. Cave Tours – on your own
  2. Cave Tours- led by a park ranger
  3. Bat flight program
  4. Night Sky Programs
  5. Dawn of the Bats Program


Above the caverns, a beautiful plant life thrives

The vegetation communities of Carlsbad Caverns National Park are diverse and, in most cases, beautiful. This diversity is further benefited by the position of the park at the intersection of the northern Chihuahuan Desert, southern Rocky Mountain, and southwestern Great Plains biogeographic provinces.

Vegetation Map
Ecologists use the concept of “plant associations” to help describe and recognize patterns in the way vegetation occurs in the landscape. The park’s vegetation map, completed in 2003, verifies the uniqueness and diversity of its vegetation. It documents 85 different plant associations in the park. These range from desert shrublands and semi-grasslands of the lowland basins and foothills up through montane grasslands, shrublands and woodlands of the highest elevations.

Of those 85 plant associations, 28 are new associations that were not previously described elsewhere.

The vegetation map documents that more than half the park is shrubland, with 17,858 acres (7,227 hectares) of montane shrubland and 9,295 acres (3,762 hectares) of desert shrubland. About a third of the park—14,586 acres (5,903 hectares)—is covered in various grassland associations. Other smaller map units include 1,753 acres (709 hectares) of arroyo riparian woodland and shrubland, 1,765 acres (714 hectares) of woodland, and 1,989 acres (805 hectares) of “other,” which includes small areas of some very interesting communities, such as scattered herbaceous wetlands, the forested wetland at Rattlesnake Springs, and various cliff/rock/barren/arroyo communities.

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Animal Life

The bat flight happens every night from spring to fall

The diversity of habitats in the park, including permanently flowing water at Rattlesnake Springs, provides for an exciting array of wildlife. This diversity is further benefited by the position of the park at the intersection of the southern Rocky Mountain, northern Chihuahuan Desert, and southwestern Great Plains biogeographic provinces.

Many animals occur here at the geographic limits of their ranges. For example, several species of reptiles are at the edges of their distributions.

The deserts of the Southwest contain some of the highest diversities of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects in the United States. The park provides important year-round habitat for top predators such as cougars, and nesting habitat for migratory species such as the large colonies of cave swallows and Brazilian free-tailed bats that raise their young in Carlsbad Cavern.

Rattlesnake Springs, a rare desert wooded riparian area that has been designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the National Audubon Society, draws birders from around the world to see some of the 300-plus species that have been noted there. The Natural Entrance is also an Audubon IBA because of the large colony of cave swallows that resides and breeds there in the summer.

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Hiking Trails

Most trails require a ranger-led tour

Explore Carlsbad Cavern at your own pace with these two trails. Access is available by elevator or hiking and requires an entrance ticket.

Notice: All visitors who enter the cavern are required to walk on bio-cleaning mats after exiting. This extraordinary measure is due to the potential presence of the fungus which causes White-nose Syndrome in New Mexico.

Big Room Trail
The most popular route, the Big Room, is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. This 1.25 mile (2 km) trail is relatively flat, and will take about 1.5 hours (on average) to walk it. Actor and comedian Will Rogers called the cavern, “The Grand Canyon with a roof over it.” You will be rewarded with spectacular views, cave formations of all shapes and sizes, and a rope ladder used by explorers in 1924.

If you are seeking a shorter experience, the Big Room has a shortcut which reduces the walking distance to about 0.6 miles (1 km). The hiking time is about 45 minutes.

Parts of the Big Room Trail are wheelchair accessible. You can ask for more information about accessibility at the visitor center. 

Browse photographs of the Big Room in our photo gallery.

Natural Entrance Trail
The 1.25 mile (2 km) Natural Entrance Trail is extremely steep. Depending on if you decide to hike up or down, you gain or lose about 750 feet (229 m)—equivalent to walking up or down a 75-story building. The hike takes about one hour (on average) to complete. This trail is not recommended for visitors with heart or respiratory conditions.

You have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of early explorers as you see formations like Devil’s Spring, the Whale’s Mouth, and Iceberg Rock.

The Natural Entrance is not an accessible trail.

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