• Photo of the steep natural entrance of Carlsbad Caverns

    Carlsbad Caverns

    National Park New Mexico

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  • Cave Lighting Project

    We are undergoing a year-long lighting project in the cavern. Please be aware of caution tape along pathways inside the cave and use due care.

  • Road Resurfacing Project

    Possible 15 minute traffic delays due to road resurfacing project in the park.

Cave / Karst Systems

A karst area is one generally characterized by numerous caves, little surface drainage, sinkholes and springs. The Guadalupe Mountains contain many caves, but few of the features are traditionally used to define karst. The caves of the Guadalupe Mountains pre-date the large canyons and well-defined surface features we see today. Since the development of the caves is much older than the surrounding landscape, we see very few of the typical karst features found when caves and the landscape develop at the same time.

Speleogenesis: How Carlsbad Cavern was Formed
Most of the caves people are familiar with (such as Mammoth Cave in Kentucky) were formed by rainwater slowly dissolving limestone. Water sinking through enlarged fractures and sinkholes eventually grew to become underground streams and rivers carving out complex cave systems. The caves of the Guadalupe Mountains were formed in a much different way.

Between 4 and 6 million years ago hydrogen-sulfide-rich (H2S) waters began to migrate through fractures and faults in the Capitan limestone. This water mixed with rainwater moving downward from the surface. When the two waters mixed, the H2S combined with the oxygen carried by the rainwater and formed sulfuric acid (H2SO4). This acid dissolved the limestone along fractures and folds in the rock to form Carlsbad Cavern. This process left behind massive gypsum deposits, clay, and silt as evidence of how the cave was formed.

With time, the active level dropped to form deeper cave passages. In abandoned cave passages above, blocks fell from the ceiling and speleothems (cave formations) began to grow. Around 4 million years ago, speleogenesis ceased in the area around Carlsbad Cavern and the cave began to take on the look it has today.

Generalized Stages of Cave Development [214k PDF]

Cave Exploration
Carlsbad Cavern is the most well-known cave in the park and has an exploration history dating back to prehistoric times. Modern exploration continues in Carlsbad Cavern and in Lechuguilla Cave, the longest cave in the park at more than 136 miles.

Did You Know?

Jim White in Carlsbad Cavern.

Jim White is the cowboy credited with being the premier explorer of Carlsbad Cavern. He began to explore the cave as a teenager in 1898, using a handmade wire ladder to decend 60 feet into the cave. For more than a decade, he couldn't convince many locals that there was much to Carlsbad Cavern.