Carlsbad Caverns & the Living Desert Zoo

Next stop was down south to Carlsbad, NM where the main draw is the Carlsbad Caverns. We didn’t have a reservation for where to stay since our schedule was a bit on the fly, so on the drive down from Alamogordo Jeri started calling around to find a place to stay for two nights and pretty quickly we realized we were not going to find a vacancy. Many locations were saying no availability until May (!!), but it turns out there is an oil boom going on and workers are filling up all the housing including long term stays at RV campgrounds. We decided to stop at a Walmart in town to figure things out and just ended up staying there instead since we found a quiet place around the side/back. The revised plan would be to get up early and make the 25 mile drive to Carlsbad Caverns and just park the RV there while we did our own self guided tour, then drive back to the Walmart for a second overnight before venturing on.

So the new plan went off without a hitch, and we were at the caverns 30 minutes after they opened to get a prime parking spot. On the way up, traffic had to stop for a few minutes to allow some animals to cross the road (pic below) which was neat to see. Once we got there, we signed up for the audio tour and took advice we saw online to start at the natural entrance and then take the elevator out (yes..elevators! We live in fantastic times). The trail from the natural entrance is 1.2 miles long and descends about 750 feet so hoofing it out of there uphill the other way is no picnic.

If the time of year is right, many thousands of bats come out of the cave around dusk and there is a huge sitting area carved out of the rock right near the entrance where you can watch it. If you come in the morning like us, the bats are already back and instead cave swallow birds are swarming around the entrance eating insects during the day. We got to see those flying about as we walked in and down (see incredible video below).

As you would imagine, it would be totally dark inside, but they’ve ran in electricity and enough lighting to see the best features without needing a headlamp. The trail is paved mostly with handrails (decades in the making!) and we even saw a section of stairs that the first visitors had to use to go both down and up. Ouch! Also, down in the Big Room area 750 feet down where the elevators go they have huge restrooms, a snack bar, and lunch area to sit down and eat at which seemed incredible to me since we are basically deep in the middle of the ground.

You might ask how cold it was.. Well, surprisingly it was colder outside than in the caverns. Once you get past a certain point, the temperature stabilizes around 56 degrees and it’s consistent everywhere. Even in the hot summer. The air is crisp and breathable without pumping in fresh air since it’s naturally exchanging air with the outside through the main entrance constantly.

The self guided walking tour took about 3-4 hours total walking in, and all trails inside, then taking the elevator out. Instead of showing what floor you were on or passing, it said the number of feet deep the elevator was. No feelings of claustrophobia even though there was an unfathomable amount of rock above us the entire time. The audio tour mentioned that rocks only fell every few thousand years inside except for in the early 2000s some people managed to loosen and knock over a rock feature..for fun or accident? Leave it to the humans to cause trouble!

The last day on our way out of Carlsbad we stopped at the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens based on a recommendation I got from reddit. Being from San Diego where we have a world famous zoo, I’ll be honest I was not expecting much, but it surprised me. It’s a 1.3 mile self guided tour and focuses mostly on what you’d find in the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem. They have a couple aviaries, plants throughout, a reptile house, and a few exhibits containing a bear, wolves, elk, bison, deer, bobcats, and mountain lions. We got up and close to most of the animals compared to our zoo, and the exhibits were actually very large and well made.

Cave Swallows flying around Carlsbad Caverns entrance