Experienced cavers with the proper gear can request permits from the park's Cave Resource Office (tel. 575/785-3105 or 575/785-3107) to enter one of several undeveloped caves in the park on their own. Permits for most caves are free; applications should be submitted at least 1 month ahead of time. At this writing, Ogle Cave was closed for bat protection. However, if and when it does again become available for caving, it will be open to experienced vertical cavers on ranger-led trips, and there will be a fee. Further information is available from the Cave Resource Office.
Hiking & Backpacking
Most of the hiking here is done underground, but there are opportunities on the earth's surface as well. The park's busiest trail is the Nature Trail, a fairly easy, 1-mile paved loop that begins just outside the visitor center and has interpretive signs describing the various plants of the Chihuahuan Desert.
About a half-dozen other trails wander through the park's 30,000 acres of designated wilderness. These backcountry trails are usually poorly marked -- rangers strongly recommend that hikers carry topographical maps, which are for sale at the visitor center. Watch for rattlesnakes, especially in warmer months. Lighting fires and entering backcountry caves without permits are prohibited. For overnight hikes, you'll need to pick up a free permit at the visitor center.
Backcountry trails include the 3.7-mile (one-way) Old Guano Road Trail, with an elevation change of 710 feet; the 2.2-mile (one-way) Rattlesnake Canyon Trail, with an elevation change of 670 feet; the 5.3-mile (one-way) Slaughter Canyon Trail, which has an elevation change of 1,850 feet; the 7.7-mile (one-way) Yucca Canyon Trail, with a 1,520-foot elevation change; the 12-mile (one-way) Guadalupe Ridge Trail, with an elevation change of 2,050 feet; and the 2.8-mile (one-way) Juniper Ridge Trail, with an 800-foot elevation change. Backcountry camping is allowed (with a free permit) on all of the above trails except Old Guano Road. Additional trail information is available from park rangers.
Wildlife Viewing & Bird-Watching
At sunset, roughly from April or May until late October or early November, a crowd gathers at the Carlsbad Cavern Natural Entrance to watch hundreds of thousands of bats take off for the night. All day long, the free-tailed bats, which spend the winter in Mexico, sleep in the cavern; they strike out on an insect hunt each night. An amphitheater in front of the Natural Entrance provides seating, and ranger programs are held each evening from mid-May through mid-October (check the schedule at the visitor center or call tel. 575/785-3012). The most bats are seen in August and September, when baby bats born earlier in the summer join their parents, along with migrating bats from the north, on the nightly forays. Early risers can see the bats return just before dawn. Cameras, including video cameras, are not permitted.
Bats aren't the only wildlife at Carlsbad Caverns. The park has a surprising number of birds -- more than 300 species -- many of which are seen in the Rattlesnake Springs area. Among species you're likely to see are turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, scaled quail, killdeer, mourning doves, lesser night-hawks, black-chinned hummingbirds, vermilion flycatchers, canyon wrens, northern mockingbirds, black-throated sparrows, and western meadowlarks. In addition, several thousand cave swallows build their mud nests each summer on the ceiling just inside the Carlsbad Cavern Natural Entrance. (The bats make their home farther back in the cave.)
Among the park's larger animals are mule deer and raccoons, which are sometimes spotted near the Natural Entrance at the time of the evening bat flights. The park is also home to porcupines, hog-nosed skunks, desert cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbits, rock squirrels, and the more elusive ringtails, coyotes, and gray fox. These are sometimes seen in the late evenings along the park entrance road and the Walnut Canyon Desert Drive. In recent years there have also been a few sightings of mountain lions and bobcats.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.