Hiking in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- Travel Tips
- Fodor's Choice
Deep, dark, and mysterious, the Carlsbad Caverns are such a park focal point that the 30,000-plus acres of wilderness above them have gone largely undeveloped. This is great news for people who pull on their hiking boots when they're looking for solitude. What you find are rudimentary trails that crisscross the dry, textured terrain and lead up to elevations of 6,000 feet or more. These routes often take a half-day or more to travel; at least one, Guadalupe Ridge Trail, is long enough that it calls for an overnight stay. Walkers who just want a little dusty taste of desert flowers and wildlife should try the Desert Nature Walk.
Finding the older, less well-maintained trails can be difficult. Pick up a topographical map at the visitor center bookstore, and be sure to pack a lot of water. There's none out in the desert, and you'll need at least a gallon per person per day. The high elevation coupled with a potent sunshine punch can deliver a nasty sunburn, so be sure to pack SPF 30 (or higher) sunblock and a hat, even in winter. You can't bring a pet or a gun, but you do have to bring a backcountry permit if you're camping. They're free at the visitor center.
Desert Nature Walk. While waiting for the night bat-flight program, try taking the ½-mile self-guided hike that begins just east of the visitor center. The tagged and identified flowers and plants make this a good place to get acquainted with much of the local desert flora. Part of the trail is an easy stroll even for the littlest ones, and part is wheelchair accessible. The payoff is great for everyone, too: a big, vivid view of the desert basin. Easy. Trailhead east of the Visitor Center, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.
Rattlesnake Canyon Overlook Trail. A ¼-mile stroll off Walnut Canyon Scenic Drive offers a nice overlook of the green-carpeted Rattlesnake Canyon. Easy. Trail begins at mile marker 9 on Walnut Canyon Scenic Dr., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.
Juniper Ridge Trail. Climb up in elevation as you head north on this nearly 3-mile trail, which leads to the northern edge of the park and then turns toward Crooked Canyon. While not the most notable trail, it's challenging enough to keep things interesting. Allow yourself half a day, and be sure to bring lots of water, especially when the temperature is high. Moderate. Trailhead at mile marker 8.8 of Desert Loop Dr., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.
Old Guano Road Trail. Meandering a little more than 3½ miles one way on mostly flat terrain, the trail dips sharply toward White's City campground, where it ends. Give yourself about half a day to complete the walk. Depending on the temperature, this walk can be taxing, but the high desert sun can be potent any time of the year. Wear a hat and drink lots of water. Moderate. Trailhead at the Bat Flight Amphitheater, near the Natural Cave Entrance, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.
Rattlesnake Canyon Trail. Rock cairns loom over this trail, which descends from 4,570 to 3,900 feet as it winds into the canyon. Allow half a day to trek down into the canyon and make the somewhat strenuous climb out; the total trip is about 6 miles. Moderate. Trail begins at mile marker 9 on Walnut Canyon Desert Dr., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.
Yucca Canyon Trail. Sweeping views of the Guadalupe Mountains and El Capitan give allure to this trail. Drive past Rattlesnake Springs and stop at the park boundary before reaching the Slaughter Canyon Cave parking lot. Turn west along the boundary fence line to the trailhead. The 6-mile round-trip begins at the mouth of Yucca Canyon and climbs up to the top of the escarpment. Here you find the panoramic view. Most people turn around at this point; the hearty can continue along a poorly maintained route that follows the top of the ridge. The first part of the hike takes half a day. If you continue on, the hike takes a full day. Moderate. Trailhead at Slaughter Canyon Cave parking lot, Hwy. 418, 10 mi west of U.S. 62/180, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.
Guadalupe Ridge Trail. This long, winding ramble follows an old road all the way to the western edge of the park. Because of its length (about 12 miles), an overnight stay in the backcountry is suggested. The hike may be long, but for serious hikers the up-close-and-personal views into Rattlesnake and Slaughter canyons are more than worth it—not to mention the serenity of being miles and miles away from civilization. Difficult. Trailhead 4.8 mi down Desert Loop Dr., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.
North Slaughter Canyon Trail. Beginning at the Slaughter Canyon Cave parking lot, the trail traverses a heavily vegetated canyon bottom into a remote part of the park. As you begin hiking, look off to the east (to your right) to see the dun-colored ridges and wrinkles of the Elephant Back formation, the first of many dramatic limestone formations visible from the trail. The route travels 5½ miles one way, the last 3 miles steeply climbing onto a limestone ridge escarpment. Allow a full day for the round-trip. Difficult. Trail begins at Slaughter Canyon Cave parking lot, Hwy. 418, 10 mi west of U.S. 62/180, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.
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