Historic wooden building in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (left) photograph courtesy of the National Park Service. San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico (right) photograph courtesy of the National Park Service.
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World Heritage Sites in the United States

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad, New Mexico
 
Natural entrance of Carlsbad Caverns. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

The natural entrance of Carlsbad Caverns descends
more than 750ft to a network of limestone caves.
Courtesy of the National Park Service

The extensive caverns of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico lie in the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains in the southeastern corner of the state. This large underground system formed 25,000 years ago and consists of more than 100 limestone caves within the national park. These caves exhibit worldwide significance due to their size, their unique origin, and the abundant diversity and beauty of the decorative rock formations. Carlsbad Caverns is one of the best preserved and most accessible cave complexes in the world available for scientific study and public access.

The park's primary caves, Carlsbad and Lechuguilla, are especially well known for the diversity and beauty of their decorative rock formations. Lechuguilla Cave exhibits rare and unique rock formations, including an abundance of large calcite and gypsum formations, including the largest accumulation of gypsum "chandeliers, some of which extend more than six meters (18 feet) in length. Carlsbad Cave is distinguished by its huge chambers as well as for its decorative mineral features. Carlsbad contains 81 known caves, a very high concentration, with Lechuguilla now accepted as the single most outstanding of these and one of the most significant caves in the world in terms of scientific value. The site contains at least 117 known caves, a very high concentration , with Lechuguilla now accepted as the single most outstanding of these and one of the most significant caves in the world in terms of scientific value. The park is also famous for its large colony of Brazilian Free-tail bats.

In short, Carlsbad Caverns contains some of the most outstanding caves in the world. The spectacular beauty, the rock formations, as well the unique plant communities found here put Carlsbad Caverns are in a class of its own.

Carlsbad’s cultural resources represent a complex chronology of human use dating as far back as the prehistoric era. Illustrating the various human adaptations to the Chihuahuan Desert environment, such events as prehistoric and historic American Indian occupations, European exploration and settlement, industrial exploitation, commercial development and tourism each contributed to the area’s rich and diverse history.

Temple of the Sun, located in the Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns. Photo courtesy of the National Park ServiceThe Temple of the Sun, located in
the Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns.
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Carlsbad Caverns became a National Park Service site in 1923, but the area has been a major tourist attraction for over a century. The Carlsbad Cave entrance became a local landmark for homesteaders and ranchers settling in the area in the 1870s and 1880s when they noticed large clouds of bats -- flying in and out of the cave -- on summer evenings. It was around this time that the Rattlesnake Springs Historic District was founded. Homesteaded and farmed since 1880, the Rattlesnake Springs Historic District is a verdant landscaped setting, surrounding a spring that creates a lush oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert. Today, visitors to the historic district can discover attractions including historic irrigation and the horticulture features of homesteaders, as well as buildings in the Pueblo Revival Style and the New Mexico Territorial Revival Style.

Tourism at the caves began around the turn of the 20th century, after cowboy James Larkin White became the first American to explore the cave. White publicized the cavern and promoted both its development as a tourist site and preservation as a park. Using ropes, ladders, and kerosene lanterns, White guided visitors through the cavern’s chambers on the primitive trails he built.

After the creation of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the cave’s natural entrance was still too precipitous to safely descend. Visitors during the park’s early years were lowered into the cavern by mining buckets and a hoist. In 1925, the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce constructed a wooden stairway over the lip of the natural entrance, providing a much safer point of entrance into the cave. The buildings of the Caverns Historic District were constructed around this time. Visitors to the park today can tour these Pueblo Revival Style and New Mexican Territory Style buildings that date back to the early 1920s and 1942. They are located at the natural entrance to Carlsbad Caverns.

Before going out and exploring, visitors can gather information at the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center. The center features a museum, book store, auditorium, and cafeteria. After orientation, access the cavern and its main chambers for a self-guided or ranger-led tour. Other attractions within Carlsbad Caverns National Park include the 9.5 mile Desert Loop Drive, traveling westward along the plateau’s top before returning via upper Walnut Canyon. The half-mile Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail offers similar scenery close to the cavern entrance, while portions of the park’s backcountry area feature several other hiking trails of varying degrees of length and difficulty.

Plan your visit

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a World Heritage Site and unit of the National Park System, is located at 3225 National Parks Highway in Carlsbad, NM. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is open daily from 8:00am to 5:00pm in the fall, winter, and spring and 8:00am-7:00pm in the summer, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Tickets for admission into the cavern, along with those for the ranger-led tours, are available in the park’s visitor center, while tour reservations are available both online and over the phone. For more information, visit the National Park Service Carlsbad Caverns National Park website or call 575-785-2232.

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