With 116 documented caves including the world-famous Carlsbad Cavern and Lechuguilla Cave at over 125 miles in length, Carlsbad Caverns National Park deserves its international reputation. Approximately 250 million years ago, a reef grew on the edge of an ancient sea. Much later this area was raised up through mountain-building processes, and the limestones and dolomites in the now-uplifted reef fractured, allowing rainwater from above to begin the process of forming caves. At the same time, hydrogen sulfide from oil and gas deposits below the area began moving upward, intersecting the water table and forming a mild sulfuric acid that carved out the large rooms and passages we see today. As the mountain-building processes continued, the large rooms and passages eventually drained of water and elaborate speleothems or formations began to form in the caves.
The landscape above ground is just as rugged and dramatic, with steep, rocky ridges and craggy canyons. Elevations range from 3,600 feet to 6,350 feet. At the northern edge of the vast Chihuahuan Desert and western edge of the Great Plains, the park’s biodiversity is quite high. The species lists so far include at least 950 plants, 357 birds, 55 reptiles and amphibians, and 67 mammals. The mammals include a main attraction – an astounding colony of hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats who live in the Cavern from spring through fall, emerging in a cloud at dusk for their nightly feeding. In fact, the park has documented 17 different species of bats using its various habitats.
Caves found within the wilderness areas of the park are managed as wilderness. Almost three-fourths of the park is designated wilderness. Trails provide foot access. The park has about 43 miles of hiking trails, of which about 25 miles are in wilderness. In addition, the 12-mile-long Guadalupe Ridge Trail (an abandoned dirt road) follows the edge of the wilderness to the northwest.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Carlsbad Caverns Wilderness.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is in southeastern New Mexico, about 150 miles east of El Paso, Texas. Wilderness makes up much of the park (71 percent), excluding the eastern end, the mouth of Slaughter Canyon, and the area northwest of the Guadalupe Ridge Trail. The visitor center is reached via the 7-mile entrance road west of Whites City off U.S. Hwy. 62/180. Near the park visitor center, the Desert Scenic Loop Drive (9 miles of graded gravel) provides access to wilderness trails in Rattlesnake Canyon and Juniper Ridge, as well as to the Guadalupe Ridge Trail. The Slaughter Canyon and Yucca Mesa trails are accessed via roads south of the park. The remote and faint Ussery Trail in the southwest corner of the park is best accessed from the west through the Lincoln National Forest.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
Besides backpacking, recreational caving and technical climbing (which requires a special permit), a primary use of the park's wilderness is wildlife watching.
Various guided cave tours are offered for off-trail areas in Carlsbad Cavern and with three other park caves. Rattlesnake Springs, a detached unit of the park with a short forested wetland, contains no wilderness but is one of the premier bird watching areas in New Mexico. In addition to the Natural Entrance of Carlsbad Cavern, it has been declared an Audubon Important Bird Area. At the entrance to Carlsbad Cavern, visitors can also enjoy formal evening Bat Flight programs from mid-May through mid-October.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
The park lies at the northeast edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest warm desert in North America. It is subject to all the heat and harsh hiking conditions of desert summers, plus has the potential for long, cold snowstorms in fall, winter, and spring. Dense fog is also a common component of many winter mornings, making navigation more difficult.
Caving and technical climbing require special equipment and permits. Be sure to dress warmly before venturing into the chilly underground caves. Rubber-soled shoes are recommended for walking on the slick surfaces of the paved trail in Carlsbad Cavern. Sturdy boots with non-marking soles, knee pads, helmets and lights, and other important clothing and gear are necessary for safely entering guided off-trail areas of Carlsbad Cavern and other park caves and the unguided recreational caves in the park.
There are no reliable water sources in the park. Be sure to carry at least a gallon per person per day.
Safety and Current Conditions
Hiking in the desert is a very rewarding experience. It can also be dangerous for the unprepared or careless. Remember that there is no reliable water source in the park's backcountry areas. Pack plenty of water, at least a gallon per person per day. Check the weather forecast. Expect temperature changes and storms, possibly even thunderstorms, in any season. If lightning is nearby, avoid open areas and cave entrances. Wear clothes appropriate for rough trails, weather conditions, sun exposure, and spiny plants. Consider that many things in the desert stick, sting, or bite. Give cacti and rattlesnakes plenty of space and do not harass them – they are protected like all other plants and wildlife in the park. Be aware that cell phone signal strength is rare and variable.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.