Batman Would Feel Right at Home in This Cavernous National Park
Robert Pattinson, come on down!
Sure, Gotham’s caped crusader might have butler service and more gadgets than James Bond, but that’s nothing compared to the serene majesty of these caves, where hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats take up residence and help tick all the boxes for that quintessential caving experience. Dark, ominous descent into the unknown? Check. Unexplained dripping noises and bottomless pits? Check, check. A nightly migration of bats, swirling upward from the cave in such mass amounts that they collectively resemble a library-quiet tornado? Check!
Hidden away in the Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns’ immense underground labyrinth of sprawling caverns—including the aptly named Big Room, the largest cave chamber in North America—pre-dates humanity by a couple hundred million years. They took shape as sulfuric acid dissolved limestone rock, steadily creating pockets and caverns filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and other geologic eye candy.
Long known to the Mescalero Apache and Zuni Pueblo Native Americans, in 1898, cowboy Jim White became the first credited explorer to venture deep into the caves when what looked like a plume of smoke billowing from the ground caught his eye. (Spoiler alert: that “smoke” was a swarm of bats.) Designated in 1930, Carlsbad Caverns is now one of America’s oldest national parks, established to preserve the vast limestone chambers and subterranean splendors.
All that, along with its far-flung middle-of-nowhere locale in southern New Mexico—affirming this state as a trippy dreamscape—might make this sound like the premise for a horror movie (or at least a campy Batman sequel with nipple suits). But Carlsbad Caverns is a place of pure awe, an underrated, overlooked national park where the only thing to fear is the FOMO you’ll have if you don’t go.
Where is Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
Located in deep southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns sits not far north of the Texas border and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. A pretty far toss from New Mexico’s better-known cities—Carlsbad Caverns is about 1.5 hours from intergalactic Roswell and nearly five hours from both Albuquerque and Santa Fe—the nearest town is (appropriately) Carlsbad, New Mexico, which sits 30 minutes north.
The best time to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park
One of the biggest benefits of visiting a national park that’s mostly underground is that you pretty much know what you’re getting into weather-wise, no matter the time of year. Sure, the forecast on the surface can fluctuate pretty dramatically—after several visits to Carlsbad Caverns, I’ve warded off heat exhaustion in the summer and bundled up in the snow in the winter—but the temperature inside the caves is about 56°F year-round, free of precipitation or wind.
In the summer, when southern New Mexico turns into a broiler with temps inching towards 100°F during the day, the caves provide a cooling respite, especially since thunderstorms tend to emerge abruptly in August and September. Winters can see snow and ice but are typically pretty comfortable, with temps lingering in the 50s.
Spring rain can add some vibrancy to the desert flora, but also make some of the hiking trails a bit muddy and slippery, while fall fluctuates between lingering heat and brisk pumpkin spice vibes. In general, fall and winter are optimal for avoiding weather extremes and summertime road trip crowds; just be aware that the park’s famed nightly bat migrations only occur through mid-fall-ish before the critters migrate south for the winter.
Witness the real-life Bat Cave (and its 700,000+ inhabitants)
Yellowstone has bison and grizzly bears. Everglades has crocodiles and alligators. Redwood has Bigfoot. At Carlsbad Caverns, the iconic resident critter is the bat. While roadrunners, javelinas, and rattlesnakes dwell on the stereotypical desert surface, it’s the sea of teeny-tiny bats in the cave that has come to be synonymous with Carlsbad Caverns—after all, without them, Jim White might never have come across it.
There are actually several bat species that reside here, but it’s the enormous colony of migratory Brazilian free-tailed bats that takes top billing. With numbers in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes as high as the population of Seattle (~770,000!), they put on quite the show each evening in the spring, summer, and fall months.
Most of the bats live up to 1.5 miles into the cave, flying out silently into the night to feast on insects and help reduce your bug spray expenses. The only flying mammals on Earth, bats like these weigh a scant half-ounce with whisper-thin wings as long as 11 inches.
As they flutter up from the cave’s natural entrance each evening, their collective mass resembles clouds of smoke or an eerily quiet, jet-black twister. Totally harmless to people, the mysterious migratory, roosting, and feeding habits of the colony is a topic of endless fascination for park rangers, scientists, and Batman fans alike.
Each night from May through October, park rangers host free Bat Flight Programs at the amphitheater area of the cave’s natural entrance, where visitors can learn about the bats before their flight. Just before the bats emerge, rangers remind everyone to put their cameras and phones away and remain completely quiet so as not to disrupt these delicate creatures, who are accustomed to total darkness and silence.
There’s something spectacular about witnessing such a feat of nature without any distractions whatsoever, an experience right on par with spotting your first bison in Yellowstone or seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time.
Descend a mile below Earth’s surface with subterranean hikes
Beyond the Bat Flight Program, there’s much to see and do at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, including fun on the surface for anyone who might be too timid for spelunking. The most popular and iconic attraction is the mere process of entering the cave via The Natural Entrance Trail and descending into the depths along a winding 1.25-mile trail that takes you 750 feet below the desert’s surface.
As long as you’ve got good hiking shoes with a firm grip, you’ll be in for a treat as you zigzag through the cave’s broad amphitheater entrance, into the literal Twilight Zone (the term used to refer to the portion of the cave where natural light from the surface dwindles and mixes with total darkness), and down through various caverns and speleothems, formed slowly by dripping water over the course of a million years to create stunning formations like stalactites, ribbons, curtains, and hunger-inducing cave “popcorn” and cave “bacon,” which look exactly how they sound.
A note: As signage points out, this is roughly the equivalent of hiking the Empire State Building, so mentally prepare accordingly! And luckily, if descending the equivalent of the Empire State Building isn’t your cup of tea, there’s also an elevator that takes guests both down and up.
The Natural Entrance Trail, like all other self-guided trails, is illuminated by periodic lamps (ya know, so you don’t collide head-first into the 200,000-ton Iceberg Rock), and it culminates at the Big Room Trail.
If there’s one thing you do in Carlsbad Caverns, make it this 1.25-mile loop through a chamber so massive and stunning that it’ll blow your mind whether it’s your first visit or your fifteenth. The largest cave chamber on the continent—big enough to host the Super Bowl—it’s been nicknamed “The Grand Canyon with a Roof Over It.”
One glimpse at this spectacular subterranean wonderland will show you why: At nearly 4,000-feet long and 625-feet wide, it’s a mostly flat, wheelchair-accessible tour de force of cave formations with whimsical names like Rock of Ages, Giant Dome, Painted Grotto, and Fairyland. Along the way, you’ll pass crystal-clear cave pools and wooden ladders dangling into eerie black pits, and you half expect Gollum to scurry out at any moment.
Beyond the show-stopping Big Room, if you want to explore more of the cave, you’ll need to join a ranger-guided tour to see other, more intimate chambers like King’s Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, or Hall of the White Giant. At .75 miles of flat terrain and wide-open space, King’s Palace is the easiest and least intimidating, while Left Hand Tunnel is a blast from the past, with visitors carrying lanterns and experiencing what the caves are like in total darkness. The Lower Cave tour is a deeper and more strenuous version of the lantern-lit Left Hand Tunnel on 1.2 miles of unpaved trail. For the truly adventurous, Hall of the White Giant entails crawling through tight passageways, climbing ladders, and squeezing through formations like Matlock’s Pinch.
Make time for fun above ground
If the idea of spelunking deep beneath the Earth’s surface makes you shiver, you’ll find claustrophobia-free alternatives on the surface. While the underground caves rightly get most of the attention at Carlsbad Caverns, the park actually has some 50 miles worth of hiking trails through the Chihuahuan Desert, and considering a majority of visitors skip right to the caverns, you’re likely to have them all to yourself.
Trails range from short and easy (Walnut Canyon Overlook), to moderate (Lower Rattlesnake Canyon), to masochistic marathons (the 100-mile Guadalupe Ridge Trail, which connects Guadalupe Mountains National Park with the eastern entrance of Carlsbad Caverns National Park for one epic desert thru-hike).
And when you inevitably get hungry—whether post-spelunking or post-hike—Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center has one of the better visitor center dining options in the National Park Service, with cafeteria-style breakfast and lunch items that go above and beyond by sourcing most ingredients locally for the likes of Hatch chile quesadillas and barbecue tortas.
The cave also has a small cafe just outside of the elevator bay, with basic snack items, drinks, and sandwiches. Trust us: There’s really something special about eating a yogurt parfait 750-feet beneath the Earth’s surface in the bowels of North America’s quintessential bat cave.
What to know before you go
Like any national park, preservation and protection of the natural environment are of the utmost importance. In a fragile ecosystem like Carlsbad Caverns, this primarily concerns the delicacy of the cave formations and its winged residents. This is why cameras, lights, and noise are strictly forbidden during bat flights: to ensure the comfort and safety of the animals, and to ensure they don’t abandon the park for quieter confines.
Another crucial thing to be mindful of is White-Nose Syndrome, a lethal fungus that’s killed millions of bats across the US. Though harmless to humans, you can easily transfer the fungus into Carlsbad Caverns if you’ve visited another cave recently. That’s why it’s strongly recommended you don’t wear shoes you’ve worn into another cave or at least thoroughly disinfect and wash the soles of said shoes.
It’s also important to protect the cave by not touching its walls. The oils on your skin can cause erosion and discoloration on cave walls, altering the natural process of formation. Similarly, don’t throw coins (or anything else) into cave pools—save your wishes for a fountain. As sturdy, firm, and resilient as this underground realm might seem, it’s all too easily affected by humans and foreign elements, so tread carefully and leave it better than you found it.
Where to stay near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Whether you’re hoping to camp, park an RV, or stay in a cabin or hotel, there are plenty of lodging options in and around the park. Primitive backcountry camping is the only option inside the park, though there’s a small campground and RV park just outside the park entrance in White’s City.
Most of the amenities will be found in the nearby city of Carlsbad, where campgrounds, Airbnbs, inns, and hotels (including budget-friendly chains) abound. For a boutique option, The Trinity Hotel is your best bet. It’s a gorgeous, historic, brick-clad building that first served as a bank in 1892, and has since been converted into an intimate inn with nine rooms and an all-day restaurant slinging rib-eye steaks, manicotti, and chicken Marsala, along with New Mexican wine and beer.