Big Room Loop

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Trip Date: Friday, February 15th, 2019
Last Updated: Thursday, March 14th, 2019
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★★(5/5)
Overall Difficulty Easy
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 1.25 miles roundtrip
Time 1.5 hours
Terrain A few hills
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly Yes
Dog Friendly No
Accessible Yes

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

Without a doubt, the Big Room is the attraction at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Despite being 800 feet underground, this cave hike is anything but claustrophobic. In fact, this is largest cave room in North America with ceilings up to 300 feet high! I've visited 4 other caves in the U.S., and none of those compare to the decadent grandeur of cave formations you'll see here. And unlike those other caves, you can walk the looping path in the Big Room at your own pace, without a ranger guiding you or a tour group of 20 other strangers. Take your time to enjoy this beautiful place, famously referred to as the "Grand Canyon with a roof" by Will Rogers.

Your cave adventure will begin by purchasing tickets at the visitor center. Depending on your level of fitness and group's needs, you can either enter the cave using the elevators near the ticket counter or by following signs outside for the Natural Entrance Trail. If you can handle an extra mile on a steep downhill trail, I highly recommend the Natural Entrance Trail, especially because it's less crowded than the Big Room and allows your eyes to gradually adjust to the darkness.

Should you choose the elevator route, you're in for a wonderful surprise almost immediately after stepping into the cave. Even along the path from the elevators to the Big Room, fantastic formations line the walls with some particularly good cave popcorn (similar to the picture below) on the right side as you go right from the elevators. You'll know it once you've entered the Big Room -- the passage opens wide into a vast jungle of rocky spires and hanging spikes. As indicated by the "wrong way" signs on one end of the loop, the trail is one-way only, completed counter-clockwise.

Draperies and cave popcorn are two unique formations you'll see

Draperies and cave popcorn are two unique formations you'll see

Even if you've been in another cave before, the formations in the Big Room will blow you away. As shown in the first picture below, the stalactites and stalagmites are utterly massive and found in every direction. I thought my tour of Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park was impressive with its unique rooms and fun formations, but the cave decorators of the Big Room spared no expense. In some places like the second picture below, the entire ceiling is completely covered with hundreds of stalactites! Periodically, you'll pass benches to rest and enjoy the splendor and signs naming iconic features and explaining a bit about their formation and/or history.
Stalactites and stalagmites line the trail throughout the Big Room

Stalactites and stalagmites line the trail throughout the Big Room

Hundreds of stalactites decorate the ceiling

Hundreds of stalactites decorate the ceiling

After about a quarter of a mile, you'll reach the shortcut where you can choose to shorten your journey by half if necessary. Just past the shortcut on the left side, you'll see the rickety old rope ladder pictured below. Would you like to climb that like the early cave explorers did? Or do you prefer the modern concrete path and elevators?
An old rope ladder used by early cave explorers

An old rope ladder used by early cave explorers

Further ahead, the trail gradually climbs uphill and the dark expanse of the Lower Cave will be visible below. Tours are available for the Lower Cave, allowing you to see a less-visited part of the cavern. The picture below shows one small group lighting the way deeper into the Lower Cave.
Flashlights illuminating a small group tour entering the Lower Cave

Flashlights illuminating a small group tour entering the Lower Cave

The accessible part of the trail ends near the viewpoint of the Lower Cave, indicated by signs and metal railings blocking half of the path. The trail climbs somewhat steeply uphill, and then you'll reach the Top of the Cross, so named because of the shape of the Big Room (a sign here illustrates this cross-shape much better than I can attempt to describe for you now). Take the side trail to the amphitheater for my absolute favorite view in the entire Big Room, pictured below. The large, pyramidal cave drapery hanging from the center of the room is known as the Chandelier. Everywhere you turn, you can see stalactites and stalagmites in this Hall of Giants, named because they're all taller than you!
The Chandelier as seen from the Top of the Cross

The Chandelier as seen from the Top of the Cross

Beyond the Top of the Cross, you'll encounter the Bottomless Pit to the right of the trail. When early explorers found this giant, dark hole, it seemed like an endless abyss. In reality, the hole is only 140 feet deep and seemed endless to them because of their poor lighting. Despite the error in its naming, this place is still notable because the expanse from the bottom of the Bottomless Pit to the ceiling above is one of the highest in the cave at 300 feet.
This black abyss known as the Bottomless Pit is actually only 140 feet deep

This black abyss known as the Bottomless Pit is actually only 140 feet deep

Past the Bottomless Pit, the trail snakes around and you'll have more views of the Chandelier and the giant stalagmites jutting up from the floor. After the intersection with the shortcut, you'll soon reach the Crystal Spring Dome, one of the few formations in the cave that is still growing, as evidenced by its wet surface. This Jabba the Hut blob of a stalagmite along with the Rock of Ages a bit further down are some of the largest such formations in the cave -- so large that I was unable to photograph them well for you. After the Crystal Spring Dome, the trail rises uphill where you'll have another great viewpoint with an ideally placed bench.

One of the final named places on the loop is the Painted Grotto. Unlike the rest of the cave, the stalactites and stalagmites here were stained orange and pink by iron oxide (aka rust) present in the dripping water.
The many colored stalactites of Painted Grotto

The many colored stalactites of Painted Grotto

This hike itself is reason enough to book a trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. In just over a mile, you'll see a vast array of amazing cave formations and learn a little about the cave itself. Definitely somewhere to visit at least once in your lifetime! Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

Dogs are not allowed inside the cavern, but a kennel service is available at the visitor center (at a very reasonable $10/day rate). Dogs may not be left unattended in vehicles, and if temperatures rise above 70 degrees, law enforcement will remove them from the vehicle.

Most of the Big Room Loop is wheelchair accessible except for a few parts with steep grades -- read the accessibility brochure for more information and a map of the accessible route.

This is an excellent experience for kids; as opposed to a ranger-led tour, this self-guided cave route provides flexibility (like being able to take a child to the bathroom at any point or choosing the shorter 0.6 mile route if the kids are tired). Note that strollers are not permitted in the cave.

The cavern is open all year with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's days. No matter the temperature outside, the interior of the cave is at a constant 56 degrees -- wear a sweater or jacket! If you've visited any caves in the past 10 years, make sure to wear different clothing and footwear to prevent the spread of the bat-killing White-Nose Syndrome. No food or drink are allowed in the cave except for plain water.

As the main attraction in the park, this trail can become crowded. Plan to arrive as soon as the park opens at 8 to beat the crowds.

Directions

From El Paso, take U.S. Highway 180/62 east towards Carlsbad. After about two hours, turn left onto New Mexico Highway 7 signed for Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Park in the lot for the visitor center.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Unlike other national parks, there is no vehicle entrance fee for the park; rather you pay for tickets to enter the cavern. Tickets are $15 per adult age 16 and older and free for ages 15 and under. Interagency and other annual pass holders can receive up to 4 free adult tickets. The visitor center has information, educational exhibits, a gift shop, a cafe, flush toilets, and drinking water.

External Links

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