Before our visit to Carlsbad Caverns, I would say that I was sort of “meh” about caves. I mean, sure, they are kind of interesting, and I would (and have) gone to visit one, but I wasn’t so into stalactites (from the ceiling), stalagmites (from the ground), columns, drapes, cave bacon, etc. But I will say that Carlsbad Caverns has converted me! Still not sure I’d go out of my way to go to another cave, but WOW – The Big Room was amazing and I’d sure go back there!
I will say upfront that my pictures can’t capture how cool it is, and you should just go visit it.
Carlsbad Caverns offers a self-guided tour of The Big Room, as well as ranger-guided tours that can be reserved in advance. We didn’t reserve in advance, so we arrived when the visitor center opened at 8am to see if we could get last-minute tickets to the King’s Palace tour, the least strenuous tour (and only one allowing 4-year olds). They informed us the tour was sold out, however, the elevator was down for the day, so the only option to get into the cave was down the steep 1.2 mile Natural Entrance trail. I was betting on at least a few people not showing up once they knew the elevator was out. The ticket agents wouldn’t sell us tickets until 9am, so I checked in at 9, and they had tickets! Score! However, the walk down the natural entrance took 45 minutes, and they wanted us there by 9:35! No problem for a family with 3 kids, right? 😉
We hustled to get down into the cave on time, and it was a little hard, because L is REALLY afraid of heights, and even though the path was wide with a handrail and short wall, he obviously still considered that “heights” so he slowly walked his way down, holding onto my hand and yelling at me if I “pulled” him and made him go too fast (plus at the end of every switchback, we had to stop so he could cautiously creep over to the handrail on the other side). Poor guy!
In any case, we made it on time, and took our tour around the King’s Palace room and a few other rooms that could be viewed only by tour. The guide told us some cool facts about the cave and how it was formed (from an ancient reef dissolved by sulfuric acid (same stuff in soda, but weaker (!!)). Our family’s favorite part was when he turned out the lights in the cave so we could see just how dark it really was in there! Overall, the tour was fairly interesting and the formations pretty cool, but again, nothing that was changing my mind about caves being just okay. I wouldn’t say it was a “must do” kind of thing.
The tour was 1.5 hours long, and the boys were getting pretty crabby by the end, so we went to the underground restaurant and had lunch (how cool is that?! lunch in a cave!) The food was about as good as you would expect food in a cave to be, but it was a cool experience and it put everyone in a better mood.
After our lunch break, we headed to The Big Room. The Big Room lives up to its name. It is the largest single cave chamber by volume in the US, according to the NPS website. To imagine how big that is, the walk around the perimeter of the room takes about an hour! Imagine that hour filled with amazing, crazy formations. Mother nature (and sulfuric acid) is amazing! It really felt like you were in a fairyland of goblins and giants. Again – my warning is that my pictures are not as good as the real thing, so go see it yourself!
After our tour of The Big Room, we psyched ourselves up for the big back out. At this point, the boys have already hiked around 3.5 miles, with over a mile uphill left to walk. This was going to be a big day of walking for them! But they did AMAZING! We just went slow and steady. It obviously wasn’t too hard for N, despite being only 4 years old, because he was chatting the whole way up. We made it to the top, stopped by the Visitor Center for the boys’ junior ranger badges, and then headed back to the hotel for a few hours.
Why only a few hours? Because we were heading BACK at sunset to watch the bats (who were asleep in a part of the cave that is inaccessible to visitors while we were inside) fly out of the mouth of the cave! It is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 Brazilian (aka Mexican) free-tail bats make their home in Carlsbad Caverns from approximately May – October every year. During that time, you can go at sunset and watch the bats emerge from the cave to go out hunting for the night. The park works hard to provide visitors with the experience of seeing the bats, yet not disturb the bat’s normal behaviors. To that end, they have built an amphitheater above the mouth of the cave for the visitors to sit in, but they also enforce a strict no electronics or cameras policy. They also want you to stay seated and quiet when the bats start coming out. We arrived about 7:30 and a ranger was there to tell us a bit about the bats and answer questions while we waited for the bats to start coming out (as the ranger said – they are wild animals, so you can’t just push a button and they all fly out!) Around 8:15 or so (I’m guessing because, of course, my phone was shut off!!), the bats started coming out. It was pretty cool. They didn’t come out in swarms, but a few would come out, then a swarm of 20-50, then a few more, and it continued like that for about half an hour (again – guessing here!) Most would fly straight out and away from us, but a few would circle above us. It was very cool to watch them. They were still coming out when we left, but by that point, it was way past bedtime and N’s head was starting to bob.
If my description wasn’t vivid enough for you, you can check out a picture and more info on the bat flight here