Carlsbad Caverns National Park features a series of some of the longest, deepest limestone caves in the United States. Located in southeastern New Mexico near the town of Carlsbad, the park offers year-round daily guided and self-guided tours of the main caves, scenic desert walks, and bat flight viewings during summer months. In addition, tourists have the opportunity to speak with park rangers and explore the visitors' center to learn about geological and historical significance of the park.
Most visitors to Carlsbad Caverns National Park opt to take self-guided tours of the largest cavern. People can choose to hike down the natural entrance of the cave or ride down an elevator 750 feet (about 228 meters) to the Big Room. Inside the Big Room, visitors complete a 1.25 mile (about 2 kilometer) loop, where they witness pristine lakes, huge stalactites and stalagmites, and unique limestone formations. Physically-fit visitors can participate in guided tours of smaller branches of the cavern and isolated caves in other areas of the park.
Summertime bat flights are a highlight for many visitors to Carlsbad Caverns National park. Every evening around dusk, between 200,000 and 1,000,000 Mexican freetail bats spiral out of the natural entrance to embark on their nightly insect feedings. Visitors enjoy stadium seating around the entrance to view the flight and listen to a ranger's speech about the bats. During the day, the bats roost in an offshoot of the main cavern, appropriately called the Bat Cave, that is off limits to visitors.
The land that eventually became Carlsbad Caverns National Park was part of an underwater fossil reef about 250 million years ago. As the ancient ocean dried and tectonic plate activity produced budding mountains, the delicate limestone reef became buried underneath rock, soil, and natural oil deposits. Seeping water and oil gradually eroded the limestone, producing the expansive caverns and delicate formations. Historical research suggests that Native American tribes utilized the natural entrance as shelter as recently as 10,000 years ago, but it was not until the early 20th century until curious explorers started hiking and mapping cave passages. As word of the caves' beauty spread, tourists flocked to the area in the 1920s.
In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge declared the caves and the surrounding land a national monument, thereby protecting it from land developers. President Herbert Hoover and the United States congress officially designated the area Carlsbad Caverns National Park in 1930. With government funding and protection, major renovation efforts could be initiated to make the caves more visitor-friendly. A wooden staircase was constructed to lead visitors in and out of the natural entrance in 1925, and an elevator shaft that ran directly to the Big Room was installed in 1931. Since that time, countless development projects have further improved visitor access and enjoyment, such as paved, lighted trails and an interactive visitors' center.