Carlsbad Caverns National Park was a must-do on our cross country road trip. My husband had visited as a young boy and had often talked about descending 750 feet via elevator into the Big Room, the main cave at the park. This time, he was eager to hike in through the Natural Entrance. I was not as enthusiastic as he, especially since that route meant an hour of walking the equivalent of 79 stories down steep, narrow paths (BEFORE reaching the Big Room) with our 3 elementary school-aged children. However, they were game, so I was willing to give it a try.
The Natural Entrance closes at 3:30 during the summer, so after eating a late lunch at the cafeteria, we hurried down the path to the Natural Entrance where a ranger briefed us on the site and rules (no touching the formations!) before inviting us to enjoy this wonder of nature. As the large, gaping hole on the side of the mountain greeted us, I was filled with a sense of adventure and was immediately glad that I had decided to take this route.
Sparrows flitted and chirped around us, their scent unmistakable, as we entered. Eventually, the New Mexican sunshine that was lighting our way was completely blocked out. We wished then that we had thought to bring along a small flashlight, but our eyes adjusted to the dimly lit caverns. At times during the hike, I felt as if we were descending into the Mines of Moria in Middle-earth (Tolkien reference, for those of you who are non-geeks). The experience was at once eerie and fascinating, and the sheer immensity of the caves almost incomprehensible.
Although it sounded intimidating at first, the hike itself, though very steep and slippery in spots, was not overly difficult. The hardest part was keeping our 5-year old from running downhill at full speed! There are handrails and frequent turn-outs to rest or just take in the atmosphere. The temperature was not too chilly, and we were comfortable in shorts, light jackets, and hiking sandals.
It took us about an hour to reach the Big Room. There are restrooms and a concession stand available. We wanted to try something from the snack bar - just to say that we dined at 750 ft below the Earth's surface - but by the time we got around to it at the end of our tour, it was closed.
It is suggested that visitors take an hour-and-a-half or so to do the full self-guided tour around the Big Room, but there is a short-cut if you have neither the inclination nor the time to do so. The paths are relatively flat, but a few spots are too narrow and/or steep for wheelchairs. Photography is allowed.
The Big Room, vast and other-worldly in its beauty, became a little tiring for our younger children towards the end of the tour. To keep them amused, I started giving names to the all the different formations. One that I dubbed "The Pinecone" was actually called "Rock of Ages." So much for my stalagmite-naming skills! I, myself, was really awestruck by "Top of the Cross" (the ceiling of the Big Room at its highest point) but was disappointed by "Bottomless Pit" (spoiler alert: it's not bottomless).
At the end of our tour, we rode the elevator back up into the Visitors' Center where little paper cups and a pitcher of ice-cold water with lemon slices was waiting for anyone who needed some refreshment. Nice touch! It was a pleasant way to end an amazing visit!