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Located in what seems unpromising territory, the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico is sited in the same region that houses the Chihuahuan Desert and the Guadalupe Mountains. Underneath, however, are some 300 known caves, 113 of which are contained in the park and are some of North America's largest. Their location is between El Paso, TX (which is 151 miles east) and Carlsbad NM (23 miles to the northeast). Unlike many limestone caves, these were not carved out by running water and streams, but were dissolved by sulfuric acid in the stone. The park was first a National Monument (from 1923), but became a National Park in 1930.

Highlights

Take a self-guided tour of the Big Room, which covers 8.2 acres, or of other more difficult routes into smaller chambers. You can ask for a guided tour by reserving at 877/444-6777. Another popular cave is the Hall of the White Giant. The temperature in the caverns is about 56 degrees year round, and the floors can be slick, so jacket and good rubber-soled shoes are a must. A stop at the Visitors Center is always a good idea. Here you can see a three-dimensional model of the caves, and displays of the park's geology and history, as well as visit a good bookstore and gift shop. There's also a family-style restaurant.

The only way to see the Queen's Chamber is to take the King's Palace guided tour, reservations strongly recommended, cost $8 for adults, $4 for children, seniors and Access Pass holders. There are five other tours, to the Left Hand Tunnel, Slaughter Canyon Cave (slippery), Lower Cave (up and down 50 feet of ladders), Hall of the White Giant (physically demanding) and Spider Cave (very strenuous), all ranger-guided, for prices between $7 and $20 for adults, $3.50 to $10 for children. Note that kids under 6 are not permitted in Left Hand Tunnel or Slaughter Canyon, under 12 not permitted in Hall of the White Giant or Lower Cave.

Activities

In addition to the tours of the caves themselves, you can go hiking or camping above ground, or attend lectures and other programs in the visitor center. A big hit is the daily exodus of Mexican free-tail bats, thousands of them, out of the cavern at dusk in summer (mid-May through mid-October). More than 400,000 bats live here each summer, and are said to eat tons of insects each night. Rangers give a bat talk each evening in summer at the Natural Entrance.

Flora & Fauna

The park is part of the northern Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem (most of which is in Mexico), which it claims is more biodiverse than the Everglades. Among the animals are cougars, mule deer, coyotes, foxes, cave swallows and more. They say there is a total of 67 species of mammals, 357 of birds, 55 of reptiles and amphibians, 5 species of fish, and more than 600 kinds of insects. As for flora, they say there are more than 900 species and subspecies.

Number of Visitors

The official web site says there are more than 300,000 visitors per year.

Entrance Fees & More

Entrance to the Caverns is $6 for adults, free for Children 15 and under. The ticket is good for three days. Your National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Pass, annual pass, senior pass, Access Pass and Volunteer Pass are also good. The pass admits the cardholder plus three adults. The last entry into the cave every day is 3:30pm (5pm in summer), so plan your trip accordingly. The cavern is open daily except December 25.

An elevator will take you to the Big Room, but if you are hale and hardy, you might want to use the Natural Entrance, which has a very steep trail down into the caverns. You might want to hike down, then go over to the Big Room, and take the elevator back up.

2008 News

You should allow extra time to get here now, as construction began on Highway 62/180 on May 24, 2008.

Contacts

The official site for Carlsbad Caverns National Park is www.nps.gov/cave. Phone 505/785-2232 for general information, 505/785-3012 for bat flight information.

The site of the Carlsbad Caverns Guadalupe Mountains Association, a non-profit group aiming to provide interpretation for the visitor and support of the NPS here, is www.ccgma.org.

A good commercial site with lots of information on visiting the park is www.carlsbad.caverns.national-park.com.

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