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Carlsbad Caverns Backcountry Caves

Updated on June 26, 2014

Carlsbad Caverns New Mexico

Carslbad Caverns National Park is located in southeastern New Mexico and contains some of the worlds largest and most impressive cave formations. Tourists can explore Carlsbad Caverns, the famous 'big' room on a self guided walking tour that is paved and well lit. For the more adventurous, guided tours within the main cave that involve crawling through narrow passageways such as in the Hall of the White Giant can be taken, or other nearby caves such as Slaughter Canyon Cave or Spider Cave can be explored.

For the even more adventurous and experienced caver however, there are 9 backcountry caves that you can explore within the park and the Guadalupe Mountains. A permit is required for entrance into all of these caves. Six of these caves are vertical caves meaning they require the use of vertical caving techniques and gear and 3 are horizontal caves meaning that vertical technique is not necessary but some technical gear may be.

Over the course of 5 seperate trips, I have had the opportunity to explore 7 of these truly amazing backcountry caves and these are the ones that I have highlighted in this page. All photos on this page are from my trips.

As mentioned, all of these caves are technical and require experience in climbing, rapeling to get down into the cave and ascending (jugging) up a fixed rope to get out of the cave.

Wen Cave

Carlsbad Caverns Backcountry Caves

Elevation: 4,747 feet

Distance from trailhead: .5 mile

Approximate hiking time: .5 hour

Group Size: minimum 3, maximum 6

Equipment: one rope at least 100' long; vertical gear for each person.

Wen cave was the very first backcountry cave I explored. It was an excellent first cave and introduction to vertical caving as it is easy to locate and easy to get into and out of with the drop distance being only 55 feet.

The cave itself is pretty small and has two sides to explore. To the north, the cave terminates in a flowstone block. Much of the formations in this cave are flowstone with some columns, shields and pool features as well as some very fragile formations.

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Helens Cave

Carlsbad Caverns Backcountry Caves

Elevation: 4,580 feet

Distance from trailhead: 1 mile

Approximate walking time: 1 hour

Group size: minimum 3, maximum 6

Equipment: one rope at least 100' long and ropepads; vertical gear for each person

The drop into this cave is only 30 feet but setting up and anchor is rather difficult so at least a 100 foot rope is recommended. Below the entrance drop, the cave heads off in two directions. The main chamber is decorated with a variety of delicate speleothems.

The term speleotherm simply means cave formation. This can include stalactites, soda straws, stalagmites, flowstone, chandeliers and columns. For more information on these various formations, click here .

One thing I remember about this cave was a 15 foot climb through a narrow passage which was heavliy decorated with many interesting formations.

Flowstone Cave Formation

Flowstone Cave Formation
Flowstone Cave Formation

Learn Caving Technique

Cave Exploring: The Definitive Guide to Caving Technique, Safety, Gear, and Trip Leadership (Falcon Guides Cave Exploring)
Cave Exploring: The Definitive Guide to Caving Technique, Safety, Gear, and Trip Leadership (Falcon Guides Cave Exploring)

This intructional guide to cave exploring will help readers select the right gear for a caving expedition and understand the proper techniques for exploring safely and with minimal impact. Cave Exploring also discusses the very important topic of trip leadership, something most other caving books give only passing treatment to if any at all.

 
Beautiful cave formations
Beautiful cave formations

Christmas Tree Cave

Carlsbad Caverns Backcountry Caves

Distance from trailhead: 1.25 miles

Approximate walking time: 1.25 hours

Group Size: minimum 3, maximum 6

Equipment: 50' handline, sit harness, and a safety ascender

Christmas tree cave stands out in my mind for 2 reasons. The first being how difficult it was to find. We spent over 2 hours hiking up and down various gulleys and trails in the broiling hot sun before we actually found the cave. It was quite a relief to get into the cool darkness after that! The second reason was the beautiful Christmas tree formation that the cave is named for.

As you explore the cave and reach the rear of the large chamber, you pass through an area of large blocks that leads into into a lower chamber. Having a very powerful light source will allow you to illuminate this area and see the christmas tree formation in all of its splendor. It is difficult to get a decent photo of it however as it is quite far away in a large room with limited access. Also the whole area is well decorated and fragile with many beautiful delicate formations.

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carlsbad

Chimney Cave

Carlsbad Caverns Backcountry Caves

Elevation: 4,328 feet

Distance from trailhead: .5 mile

Approximate walking time: .5 hour

Group Size: minimum 3, maximum 6

Equipment: one rope at least 120' long; vertical gear for each person; one 15' handline (optional).

To get into chimney cave, an 8 foot downclimb is required. Then well into the dark zone you find the entrance into the main chamber of the cave which is a 45 foot vertical drop. Also, the entrance into this cave is quite small! (see photo above).


 
Once down, the cave has one large chamber which is around 100 feet and has many large formations and a bell canopy. Canopies are a subtype of flowstone that overhangs from a cave wall or speleothem such as a column or stalagmite. A Bell Canopy, is a canopy that is shaped like a mushroom due to variations in the flowing water that forms the flowstone.


 

 

Get What You Need For Caving Here

There are various ways to descend (rapel) and ascend (jug) into and out of a cave. We used one hand held ascender and one chest ascender, shown below. A static rope is better than a dynamic one for jugging as there is less stretch. When caving, multiple sources of light are necessary per person. Knee pads are also a necessity.

Stalactites Cave Formation

Stalactites Cave Formation
Stalactites Cave Formation

Corkscrew Cave

Carlsbad Caverns Backcountry Caves

Elevation: 4,803 feet

Distance from trailhead: .5 mile

Approximate walking time: 1/2 hour

Group size: minimum 3, maximum 4

No specific equipment required as this is a horizontal cave

Corkscrew cave is small and it is the only cave that we did that did not require vertical caveing gear, it is a horizontal cave. it did require being able to chimney, which is a rock climbing and caveing technique used to climb over or through or down two vertical walls.

There were some delicate formations in this cave and also a large shield. A shield is a formation that looks like a pancake, flat circle or shield. It forms as calcite-rich seep water under hydrostatic pressure is forced from tiny cracks in a cave wall, ceiling or occasionally, floor. As this seep water loses carbon dioxide to the cave air, calcite is deposited as parallel extensions to the cracked walls. The result: two thin, sandwiched disks.

We were in this cave after the sun had set and on the climb out, the entire entrance was covered with thousands of daddy longlegs spiders who tend to come out after dark. Made for an interesting ascent out the small hole!

The Long Rapel Into Deep Cave

The Long Rapel Into Deep Cave
The Long Rapel Into Deep Cave

Deep Cave

Carlsbad Caverns Backcountry Caves

Elevation: 5,946 feet

Distance from park boundary: .25 mile

Approximate hiking time: .75 hour

Group Size: minimum 3, maximum 6

Equipment: 350' rope/150' handline to reach rig point; vertical gear for each person

Deep cave is certainly memorable. To reach the cave you need 4 WD and have to travel through a very rough and rocky road through the Lincoln National Forest. The entrance into the cave starts off as a sloping descent for about 50 feet until you reach a small stalagmits and boulder. At this point you rig up the vertical gear to get into the cave. The drop is a long 350 feet brings you to the top of a breakdown hill in a large, dome-shaped room. The passage then runs back another 500'.

The cave is huge, beautiful and is well decorated with totems (tall, narrow stalagmites), shields, dog-tooth spar, bell canopies and helictites. Dog tooth spar are very large calcite crystals resembling dogs' teeth (hence the name). They are usually found in caves near standing water or where water once was, where crystals can grow for a very long time. Helictites are, perhaps, the most delicate of cave formations. They are thin and needle like projections and often have radial symmetry. Sometimes they are just called ribbons or worms.

Looking Up At The Long Climb Out Of Oogle Cave

Looking Up At The Long Climb Out Of Oogle Cave
Looking Up At The Long Climb Out Of Oogle Cave

Oogle Cave

Carlsbad Caverns Backcountry Caves

Elevation: 4,854 feet

Distance from trailhead: 1.25 miles

Approximate hiking time: 1.25 hours

Equipment: one rope at least 250' long; vertical gear for each person.

Save the best for last! Oogle cave was once the site of a large quano mining operation. Old mining equipment and artifacts can still be found within the cave. Because of this it is required that all parties going into this cave be accompanied by a park ranger. There is also an additional cost ($15) for this required service.

This cave also has a long vertical drop of 250 feet. it is one of the largest caves in Carlsbad with the main room extending 1,450 feet. Another room leading off of the main room is 6000 feet in size. Formations in the cave include shields, breccia, helictites and massive stalagmites.


 

 

In addition, this cave also has the second tallest cave column in the world called the Bicentennialin at a height of 106 feet. This feature, the vastness of the cave, the spectacular drop into the cave and the interesting mining history and equipment make oogle cave a unique and memorable experience.

In this photo, notice the mining equipment up and left and my friends heads down and right for scale.

please rate this lens above as well, many thanks.

Comments For Carlsbad Caverns Backcountry Caves - I would love to hear from you!

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    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      i loved it cool pics i love carlsbad caverns!:)

    • soulswallo profile image

      soulswallo 6 years ago

      Very nice. Thank you for sharing.

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 7 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      What great lens with some fantastic pictures.

    • RobW1 profile image

      RobW1 7 years ago

      Great trip to the caves! Nice job! Blessed!

    • groovyfind profile image

      Samantha Devereux 7 years ago from Columbia Mo

      Very cool, Great pics!

    • profile image

      JFB91 7 years ago

      Terrific, adventurous and informative! Thanks