Natural Entrance Trail

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 Moderate
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 1.25 miles roundtrip
Time 1 hour
Terrain Hilly
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly Yes
Dog Friendly No
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

While the Big Room Loop certainly has more formations and is subjectively more beautiful, the Natural Entrance Trail can provide you the rare experience of standing alone in a dimly-lit cave in dead silence (if that idea scares you, bring a buddy!). Rather than diving straight into the eccentric beauty of the Big Room by taking the elevators, this route allows you to ease into the cave experience, giving your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness and teasing you with increasingly pretty cave formations. This is also one of the only hikes you'll ever do that is entirely downhill without requiring you to climb back up -- you can just take the elevator to the surface!

Your cave adventure will begin by purchasing tickets at the visitor center and following the signs outside to the Natural Entrance. A ranger will check your ticket and give you the standard precautionary cave talk before letting you proceed. You'll descend the steps of the amphitheater used for viewing the evening bat flight and pass through a metal gate where you'll see the dark opening pictured below. Thus your descent on a never-ending set of switchbacks will begin.

The switchbacking path leading to the dark cave entrance

The switchbacking path leading to the dark cave entrance

Such a large natural cave entrance is actually pretty unique; natural entrances are often too small for humans at like Lehman Caves and Wind Cave. Once inside, it's a truly special experience to look back outside at that blinding light, especially when the room is so large and the entrance is masked in haze like pictured below.
Looking back towards the world outside of the cave

Looking back towards the world outside of the cave

Almost as soon as you enter the darkness, artificial lights will illuminate the most interesting parts of the cave. Though you won't be very deep in the cave, stalactites like those pictured below will already make an appearance.
The first stalactites you'll see after entering the cave

The first stalactites you'll see after entering the cave

On the floor of this giant cave foyer, you can see algae growing on rocks, the last sign of life you'll see for a long time. You'll also start to notice a pungent smell, which I presumed was from bat droppings (aka guano). From April through September, thousands of bats call this cave home, and you might be able to see them hanging in the area called the Bat Cave coming up.
Algae growing on rocks in one of the few places with natural light

Algae growing on rocks in one of the few places with natural light

After passing the algae-covered rocks, the path enters a more intimate, dark passage. You'll emerge into another room with another long series of switchbacks, as pictured below. At this point, all natural light is gone, but the lighting system allows you to see deep down. You'll pass a few seating areas, perfect places to take a break and observe the increasing beauty around you.
The path continues to snake downhill deeper into the cave

The path continues to snake downhill deeper into the cave

The further down you go, the better the cave formations become! As you'll eventually find out when you finally enter the Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns are chock full of massive cave formations adorning what seems like every surface. The picture below shows one scene on this trail that foreshadows what's to come. Stalactites and cave draperies drip from the ceiling, covered in pimply cave popcorn. Columns and stalagmites rise from the floor, all a testament to the artistic powers of dripping water.
Cave popcorn adorns stalactites and cave draperies on this artful ceiling

Cave popcorn adorns stalactites and cave draperies on this artful ceiling

Near the end of the trail, you'll pass an old wooden staircase, a historic remnant of past exploration and visitation. Previously, all visitors had no choice but to climb in and out of the cave on a steep and rocky trail (I really enjoy picturing old-timey men in three-piece suits and women in Victorian dresses carrying candles and ogling at this geology beyond their wildest imaginations). Soon after the stairs, you'll pass the Boneyard, a white formation with holes like swiss cheese. This is one unique formation you won't see in the Big Room, just another reason to do this hike!
The unique swiss-cheese formations of the Boneyard

The unique swiss-cheese formations of the Boneyard

The trail ends in the Big Room, where you can choose to take the mile and a quarter long loop (do it.) or simply head back up via the elevators. If you feel like you have something to prove, you can certainly turn back and ascend the 800 feet to the surface too!

The Natural Entrance Trail is the best way to enter Carlsbad Caverns. You'll experience the transition from the light of outside to the darkness of the underground while seeing a taste of the amazing cave formations to come. Enjoy the cave without the crowds for a moment before entering the echoing Big Room. 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.

The trail is steep and descends 800 feet, but since it's all downhill it should be doable for most. If you're also planning on doing the Big Room Loop, the two might be more hiking than smaller children can handle.

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.

Although it's not as popular as the Big Room, this trail can still become crowded. Arriving earlier is always better 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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