The caves at Carlsbad, New Mexico are a world-famous attraction and a picturesque playground for social media stars and professional photographers alike. There are more than 300 of the limestone caves in the system, remnants of an ancient inland sea. The Carlsbad Caverns National Park runs a variety of day and night programs around various aspects of the underground systems, including guided tours and observation of the caverns' current residents—thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats.
There are many ways to experience the Caverns, but for visits during busy times, such as Spring Break, you need to book in advance. Exploring certain sections of the Caverns require a ranger guide and special equipment, and these tours fill up fast. Avoid disappointment by visiting the Carlsbad Caverns National Park website and making a reservation as soon as you know your travel dates.
The Natural Entrance is the original opening discovered by white settlers in the late 1800s. It comes at the end of a steep 2-kilometer trail of switchbacks. Although it's not the only way modern visitors can access the cave complex, it is the most Instagram-worthy. Once inside, there are a number of trails to follow to various sections of the underground system. There's also an elevator back to ground-level for when you've had enough.
Over the summer and into early fall, migrating Brazilian free-tailed bats make the Caverns their home, leaving nightly en masse to hunt. The Park's Bat Flight Program is free and takes place at a purpose-built bat viewing amphitheater, where the audience gathers to witness the 500,000 tiny flying black bodies exiting the caves. Early risers can catch their equally dramatic return between 4 and 6 am.
There's something for everyone at Carlsbad Caverns. Independent types can self-guide through the easy-to-navigate two-kilometer Big Room Trail. Romantics will enjoy guided candlelit tours that make the most of dramatic stalactite and other mineral formations. Information junkies and adventurers might prefer ranger-guided explorations of the narrow-tunneled Hall of the White Giant and Slaughter Canyon. And animal-lovers will want to experience the rare sight of a massive bat colony exiting and re-entering their cave home at nightfall and sunrise.
New Mexico is generally very hot and dry during the day, so it's easy to forget that temperatures below ground average around 56F. Bring a sweater or jacket. A headlamp or flashlight might also come in handy if you're doing a self-guided tour. Because some of the underground trail paths are steep and possibly slippery from dripping water, close-toed shoes with a bit of traction are a much better option than flip flops, flimsy sandals or sneakers
When the moisture from dripping rain and snowmelt meets limestone, over time speleothems, or rock formations, are created. Minerals and trapped gases get involved and this eventually leads to the surreal and still-growing subterranean scapes of the Carlsbad Caverns. Must-see formations include the soda straw formations in the Guadalupe Room; Spirit World, a collection of white stalagmites that resemble angels in the upper reaches of the Big Room; and the fossils and cave pools of the Lower Cave.
You'll want to capture the spectacular formations within the caves. Though flash is permitted and there is artificial white light in most of the caves, taking pictures will be a challenge due to the lack of natural light. If you're a pro, you may have better luck with a separated or slave flash. The best bet is to use a phone or camera with low light capabilities. Use long exposures to capture as much of the color in the formations as possible.
Slaughter Canyon is a series of outdoor trails some distance from the main entrance. If you're looking for a workout, it's worth setting aside a bit of time for a strenuous hike to the cave entrance and gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. Underground, the Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour is strictly for adventurers, as this ranger-guided tour is done without electricity, groomed trails and other amenities. Braving the tunnels and turns 19th-century explorer-style yields rewards such as glimpses of the Christmas Tree and the Monarch, massive formations made of crystals and calcite columns.
Geology inspired souvenirs such as geodes and fossils are sold in the on-site gift shop, along with New Mexican tribal jewelry and the requisite t-shirts and mugs. But not far, in the town of Carlsbad proper, more options for food and shopping may lead you to the Apache Canyon Trading Post or White's City Gift Shop, both of which stock kitschier items such as alien figurines—a nod to nearby Area 51—and taxidermy buffalo heads.
Located an hour and a half north of Carlsbad, Roswell, New Mexico is ground zero for international extraterrestrial culture. UFO-related attractions include the Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center, which features an extensive library and exhibits about the Roswell Incident of 1947, during which a UFO crash-landed on a nearby ranch. If you're visiting in July, also a great time to view the bats at Carlsbad btw, the annual UFO Festival is a 3-day gathering of UFO enthusiasts and educators of all kinds.