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carlsbad caverns
Big room in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Exploring the Underworld at Carlsbad Caverns with kids

As a kid I thought caves were rare, spectacular occurrences since I’d only heard of the super famous ones. After traversing 26 states over the last two years, we’ve realized they’re actually quite common. Since I’m a science teacher and National Park enthusiast, I will crawl into as many caves as I can find my way to. But to many people, including my own kids, they start to look pretty redundant unless you really hunt for what makes each one special. So let’s explore what makes Carlsbad Caverns so stinking cool!

Low key night White’s City

With reservations at the White’s City Cavern Inn, we rolled in from a long day’s drive on a super cold and windy afternoon to find the restaurant closed and 30 minutes until the gas station/gift shop did as well. Luckily they had frozen fried rice and a pizza oven, so we stalked up on snacks and headed to our home away from home for the night.

Having fun with some crazy statues at the White’s City Gift Shop/Gas Station.

The town of Carlsbad (20 miles away) has more hotels and restaurants, but when my husband asked why I picked this hotel, I said “4 P’s: proximity, price and pirate ship in the pool”. What I failed to remember, is that March is cold for everyone but Phoenicians, so the pool was closed and we were stuck in our no-frills hotel room for the night. The kids actually loved the microwaved picnic and cable TV, so I suppose we take the wins where we can get them. I’d highly recommend the Cactus Cafe when they are open for yummy food, beautiful stained glass windows and some silly chairs.

stained glass window
Beautiful stained glass windows in the Cactus Cafe.

Science Alert: A cave on top of a mountain?

I was super surprised to find ourselves driving up the Guadalupe Mountain range past the entrance sign, finding ourselves at the visitor’s center on top of them! Most of the limestone caves in the world (like Mammoth Cave, Cathedral Caverns and Lost River Cave) are formed by carbonic acid created by surface water seeping through the limestone. This process is often accompanied by streams that flow underground, slowly dissolving the limestone away. But on top of a mountain range in a desert, that mechanism doesn’t work, so how was Carlsbad Caverns formed?

Carlsbad caverns visitor center parking lot view.
View from the visitor’s center/ cave entrance parking lot on top of the mountain.

The limestone mountain range began 250 million years ago as a shallow reef covered in ocean life. As sediment buried dead algae, the famous Texas oil deposits were formed, which release hydrogen sulfide. When combined with oxygen by microbes living in in groundwater, hydrogen sulfide becomes sulfuric acid. As tectonic plate motion raised the reef, this sulfuric acid bath slowly dissolved away at the limestone resulting in the magnificent cavern system. For all you chemistry nerds, the large blocks of gypsum littering the cave are a chemical byproduct of the of limestone reacting with the sulfuric acid. Similar geologic and chemical mechanisms also explain the world’s largest gypsum dunes 180 miles away at White Sands NP.

250mya map of us
The shallow reef formed 250 million years ago created the limestone mountains and the sea life buried in the area became the large petroleum deposits that create hydrogen sulfide and the resulting sulfuric acid that made the cave.

Getting Started at the Visitor’s Center

Now that I got my science teacher moment in, let’s get to the experience! First of all, you’re going to want to get your timed entry ticket before you get all the way up there. They are released a month in advance and reserve your access to the cave at a certain time for $1 each. BUT… when you get there, you must purchase your actual ticket which varies in price based the tour you are interested in and whether you have a National Park pass (check out particulars here). After getting your ticket, you have two options to enter the cave: natural entrance or elevator. Don’t forget to grab a map and a Junior Ranger book from the visitor’s center!

Natural entrance of Carlsbad Caverns.
Switch back path at Natural Entrance of Carlsbad Caverns.

Hike 1: Descending thru the Natural Entrance

We opted to take the 1.25 mile Natural Entrance Trail down, and after a short walk from the visitor center, we began switch backing into the underworld. The entrance was formed by a collapse of the cave’s ceiling a few million years ago. Along with creating a dramatic hole, it also exposed the previously isolated cave system to the dry desert air and biosphere above which dramatically slowed the growth of the formations inside and invited several guests to call the cave their home.

View of Carlsbad Caverns Bat Flight Amphitheater.
Seating at the Bat Flight Amphitheater.

Searching for Carlsbad’s beloved Bats

The most notorious residents of the cave are the 17 species of bats. Most species only call the cavern their home from late spring to early fall since winters (and early springs as we found) are pretty chilly in these high desert mountains. Many caves in the eastern US have endangered or extinct bat populations caused by human lack of respect for their homes thru mining, camping and cooking in the caves. As tourism expanded to the west, conservationists learned from those mistakes, and places like Carlsbad take precautions to preserve the habitat for the animals.

entrance of Carlsbad Caverns from inside
View from within the bat cave back to natural entrance.

Guests shouldn’t wear shoes that have been worn in another cave to limit the introduction of the White Nose Syndrome causing fungus from infecting the Carlsbad populations. The Bat Flight Amphitheater also prohibits noise and photography to ensure that the Brazilian Free-Tail Bats have a seamless exit from the Natural Entrance about 28 minutes after sunset May-October to pollinate the plants in the surrounding desert. Fun fact: Many plants in the desert are pollinated exclusively by bats!

switchbacks in carlsbad caverns
Switchbacks in the Devil’s Spring room within the Main Corridor.

As the trail continued beyond the bat cave, the light from the natural entrance dimmed and our eyes adjusted to the subterranean wonderland. Impeccable lighting accentuates notable features within the system without over bearing the senses. We were really taken back by how far down we ventured (750 ft) and how dry the cave seemed compared to the previously mentioned carbonic acid caves we’ve visited. While steep and maze-like in some places, the trail is well marked and manicured, providing an informational self-guided experience.

formations in Carlsbad Caverns
This stunning stalactite was marked as the Witch’s Finger.

Underwhelmed by the Underground Cafe

Most caves are no-amenity experiences, so we were super curious to check out the facilities in between the hikes. The restrooms were surprisingly modern with flushing toilets and hand dryers but the grab-and-go gas station quality fare at the cafe was definitely underwhelming. After a few activities in Junior Ranger books and quick snack from my adventure bag, we were off to see more formations.

While an impressive feat of engineering, offerings at the snack bar were underwhelming.

Hike #2: Big Formations in the Big Room

If Carlsbad is your first cavern encounter, every step is sure to be an awe inspiring experience. But since this was our third notable cave in 9 months, the kids (5 & 10 years old) were less than blown away by the formations once in the Big Room.

The enormous big room cave has every type of formation imaginable

Geologists are a bit like cloud watchers when naming formations, so my first tip for keeping kids engaged is keeping a “Where’s Waldo” vibe about your walk. NPS maps and Junior Ranger books are great resources for cueing into interesting features at any National Park. Some of our favorites were the “Lion’s Tail”, the “Twin Domes”, the “Bottomless Pit” and the “Doll Theater”.

carlsbad caverns lions tail formation
The lion’s tail is a stalactite with cave popcorn on the end!

My second tip is to find out what makes each cave really special, which often includes the discovery, geology and often animals that live there. The highest and lowest points are often spots of great interest to cave explorers.

Carlsbad Caverns ladder to bottomless pit
Ladder from 1924 National Geographic Expedition to find depth of “Bottomless Pit”.

In 1924, National Geographic led and expedition to find the depth of the Bottomless Pit. The answer is a somewhat disappointing 140ft. In 1985, a helium filled balloon tied to a rope was sent 225ft to the top of the Big Room. Explorers discovered a new room and coined it The Spirit World.

Carlsbad caverns big room
A thin line seen in the top center of this photo is the rope from the 1985 discovery of The Spirit World room on top of the Big Room.

What are formations?

Because there isn’t much water flowing through the cave these days, most of the formations haven’t grown for thousands of years, and those that are growing are doing so very slowly. Fun fact: Stalactites actually grow faster in slower flowing water!

Confused about cave formations…. here’s a few tips. Stalactites (hold tight to the roof) can be very large, super thin and hollow (soda straws), long and thick (draperies) or small and rounded (cave popcorn).

Stalagmites (might fall over) can be short or tall, thin or very thick or even rounded balls (cave pearls). Sometimes they grow together and make one giant column!

Flowstone is made when the water flows over the stones (love it when scientists keep it simple). Lily pads and rimstone dams result when water stagnates in one spot resulting in mineralization of the rocks.

Take a ride up on the Elevator

After our hour long walk through the Big Room, we found our way to the elevators, which are a really striking feat of engineering. There was deep concern about drilling the hole for the elevator shaft. A difference in air circulation can completely destroy a cave, but great care was taken to minimize the impact. The 750ft voyage takes less than a minute, so waits are short and we were at the top of the mountain in a few shakes of a bat’s tail (yes, they have tails!).

elevator in carlsbad caverns
Waiting for the elevator in Carlsbad Caverns.

Junior Ranger Mission Complete

Since the elevator comes right back to the visitor’s center, it’s easy to complete the Junior Ranger program. After their work was checked by a Park Ranger, the kids were sworn in and received their official Carlsbad Caverns pin. While stamping Passport books we stamp the back of the pin too, then picked out water bottle stickers and were headed off to check out the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

kids doing junior ranger books
Kids finishing their Junior Ranger books in Visitor’s Center.

Have you been to Carlsbad Caverns?

Share your adventures and advice in the comments:)


Eternally on the hunt for the science in every adventure.

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