Wild Caving in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM
Carlsbad Caverns National Park in Southeastern New Mexico is home to the infamous Carlsbad Cavern. Chances are you’ve heard of it, chances are you’ve been there. After all, it is a popular summer time vacation attraction as it should be. Carlsbad Cavern is one of the most beautiful and spectacular caves in the world.
But few visitors to Carlsbad Caverns National Park realize that there are more caving opportunities in the park than just Carlsbad Cavern and that these opportunities are accessible to the general public. The National Park calls these opportunities “Off Trail Tours” and “Backcountry Wild Caving.” The park offers reservation only tours within Carlsbad Cavern for an extra fee to areas of the cave not lit with artificial light or lined with a manmade trail for visitors who want a more natural caving experience. The “Off Trail Tours” within Carlsbad Cavern are Hall of the White Giant, Lower Cave, and Left Hand Tunnel. Both Hall of the White Giant highlighted by the White Giant formation and Lower Cave highlighted by the Rookery of cave pearls require you to wear a helmet with a head lamp which the park provides and chances are you’ll get a little dirty. The Left Hand Tunnel tour is a more laid back walking tour where you will carry a park provided lantern. All of the tours offer a unique perspective to those who want to see more of Carlsbad Cavern.
For those who want to see more caves than just Carlsbad Cavern as well as test their caving fortitude, the park offers guided tours for a fee of Slaughter Canyon Cave, a walking tour and Spider Cave, a crawling tour. Both caves are primitive but lined with a flagging tape trail. Slaughter Canyon Cave requires you to hike a half mile up 500' to the cave’s entrance. You bring your own flashlight. Once inside, you’ll see some of the largest cave formations you’ve ever seen including the Christmas Tree and Chinese Wall which are properly named and the highlights of the tour.
Once you’ve seen Slaughter Canyon Cave and are now completely fascinated with caves or as cavers call it, “you’ve been bitten by the caving bug,” your next adventure should be Spider Cave. This tour is much more challenging and will bring you straight in to the real world of caving. After hiking fairly easily to the cave, you will don your park provided helmet with headlight and descend a ladder within a narrow shaft in to the cave. From there you will crawl and squeeze through a passage to a small room where your tour awaits you. Spider Cave offers the opportunity to see cave formations that will truly baffle you like the Mace (named from what it looks like) in the Mace Room and the massive nest of helectites in the Medusa Room. On your tour, you may be given the option to traverse the Grand Canyon which will give you a taste of climbing in a cave. You’ll be covered in dust and mud when you leave Spider Cave but it’ll be an experience you’ll never forget especially if you get a visit from one of the rattlesnakes that like to hang around the cave’s entrance.
For the true adventurers, the park offers 8 non-guided backcountry wild caves for you to explore. However, you must be properly experienced to obtain these permits and follow all rules and regulations. The Cave Resources Office at the park can fill you in on the details. All of the different caves offer different experiences. Some require rappelling and climbing ropes, some involve free climbing, and some require long hikes. What follows is the list of permitted caves with brief explanations of what to expect. All but Deep Cave and Chimney Cave are located in Slaughter Canyon.
Lake Cave requires the longest hike at about 5 miles round trip. When someone tells you it’s a long, hard hike, believe it. It took my group 3 hours to get to the cave entrance where we sat trying to catch our breath while cave swallows swirled around us. The view from the cave entrance of the canyon is incredible and vast. Inside the cave, the lake (giving the cave its name) is like an oasis in the desert but do not enter and contaminate it. There are also spectacular cave formations throughout the cave making the long hike well worth the effort.
Goat Cave is 2.25 miles one way and takes 1 ½ hours to get to the entrance. One of the largest cave entrances in the park, you can’t miss it. A short scramble up to the entrance where burned goat manure ash kicks up easily, the cave immediately opens to a huge 100' arched ceiling with a 40' to 200' corridor shooting straight back eventually to a length of 1,130'. A hole midway back on the right wall of the cave leads to a lower level containing exquisite stalactites dangling from the ceiling and a wall of corroded drapery columns. They are unusual and not something one would expect in a cave called Goat.
Corkscrew Cave requires a ½ mile, straight up hike taking 1 ½ hours due to the steepness. The cave entrance slopes down just enough to make setting up a handline for getting out necessary. We chimney climbed in to the cave. It’s a small but pretty cave with intricate stalactites, a few columns, and a lot of loose talus.
Christmas Tree Cave requires a 1.25 mile hike taking about 1 ½ hours. A 15' rappel gets you in to the cave. Inside, there are huge columns, many soda straws, dagger-like stalactites, and the Christmas Tree formation which is considerably smaller than the one in Slaughter Canyon Cave.
Helen’s Cave takes about 45 minutes to reach. The rappel in to this vertical cave is about 30'. Inside the high, open ceiling is decorated with stalactites hanging stoically. There is a locked gate inside. It’s another small cave but worth the rappel.
Wen Cave is a ½ mile hike and in fact is off of the Slaughter Canyon Cave trail. It is a small vertical cave with a 55' rappel. The formations inside are a pleasant surprise although the upper level has very little to see.
Chimney Cave is only a ½ mile easy hike. The entrance is a tricky, 8' climb down. Deeper inside, there is a 90' rappel in to a very large room. A lower room with popcorn formations covering the walls has holes slightly large enough to squeeze in to but dead end.
Deep Cave is just that. The hike is not very long or hard but you’ll make up for that in rope climbing. The rappel ends in an enormous room. Throughout the cave, formations of fried eggs, bacon, broom stick totem poles, shields, gigantic columns, and the eerie entrance of the cave in the far distance can be seen. You will also see fencing wire and a wooden ladder used historically to enter the cave. What brave souls they must have been!
Ogle Cave requires that a park employee must accompany your group and you will be charged a fee. The rappel through this massive hole in the ground is 180'. At the bottom of the drop is a guano covered slope that leads to a flagged trail. As we ventured in, I saw piles of broken formations. Some were naturally broken by time, some were historically broken by miners, and some were stupidly broken by vandals. Farther in, we encountered many artifacts from the guano mining days from 1913 to 1937 like hand tools as well as the wooden table covered with items found in the cave such as newspapers and Prince Albert cans. The star of the cave is the Bicentennial Column which is the second tallest in the world. Historic graffiti and the off limits fissure to Rainbow Cave is at the end of the cave but the trail continues around to an area where a shorthand line assisted climb leads to a shaft the miners dug in hopes of making an easier way in to the cave. Sadly, it was discovered to be offset from the shaft dug from the outside so the effort was abandoned. Now, 1" long stalactites have formed in the shaft. Ogle cave will be the peak of your park backcountry caving experiences.
So now you know. There’s a lot more to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park than you thought. The opportunities are as varied in skill level as the caves are varied in size and formations. If you find yourself interested in caves and caving, take a trip to New Mexico and experience all that Carlsbad Caverns National Park has to offer.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM 88220-5354
TO GET THERE:
Take Highway 62/180 south from the town of Carlsbad for about 30 miles to White’s City. From White’s City follow the park road for about 7 miles to the park visitor center. Food and lodging are available in White’s City. Food is available at the park visitor center.
NOTE: As of this writing, Ogle, Lake, and Goat Caves are closed for bat population protection. Contact the Cave Resources Office for more information.