Introducing Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Scores of wondrous caves lie hidden beneath the desert hills at this unique national park, 25 miles by road southwest of Carlsbad. The cavern formations are a weird wonderland of stalactites and fantastical geological features. To reach them, you can either ride straight down from the visitor center in an elevator that drops the height of the Empire State Building in under a minute, or, more enjoyably, take a spooky 2-mile subterranean walk from the cave mouth. Bear in mind that to ensure that visitors have enough time to see the caves, the last admission is at 5pm in summer, 3:30pm otherwise.
Either way, you’ll find yourself in the aptly named Big Room, an underground chamber 1800ft long, 255ft high and over 800ft below the surface, where you’re free to walk an intricate loop trail past the pick of the amazing sights. Bring long sleeves and closed shoes: it’s always chilly down here. All visitors return to the surface by elevator.
The cave's other claim to fame is the 300,000-plus Mexican free-tailed bat colony that roosts here from mid-May to mid-October. Wait at the cave mouth at sunset, to watch them cyclone out for an all-evening insect feast.
Guided tours of additional sectors of the main caverns are available, and should be reserved well in advance. If you want to scramble to lesser-known areas, further afield, ask about Wild Cave tours. Wilderness backpacking trips into the desert are allowed by permit (free); the visitor center sells topographical maps of the 50-plus miles of hiking trails. November to March is the best time for backpacking – summer temperatures are scorching, while the countless rattlesnakes should be sleeping in winter.
Somewhere deep within the park's backcountry lies Lechuguilla Cave. With a depth of 1604ft and a mapped length (so far!) of some 136 miles, it's the deepest cave and third-longest limestone cave in North America. Sounds incredible – but it's only open to research and exploration teams, with special permission from the park.