Visiting underground caverns may not come to mind when considering traveling to the Desert Southwest. But New Mexico has so many splendid caves that the thought will eventually take over your trip planning.
We have gathered pertinent information on unique caves in the Land of Enchantment to make this cavernous task a little easier. Look at what gems you can discover on a cave tour.
How Many Caves Can You Visit in New Mexico?
New Mexico has more than 2,100 caves within its borders, but not all are open for public visitation. In fact, Carlsbad Caverns National Park has 119 caves, but only three allow tours. So, besides Carlsbad, we suggest you visit the caves listed below and possibly add them to your list of “Must-See Caves in New Mexico.”
Explore Geronimo’s Cave and La Cueva Rock Shelter in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in Las Cruces, then head to the cave-dwelling at Bandelier National Monument in Los Alamos. Or visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings north of Silver City. This will give you a well-rounded example of several types of caves in this amazing state.
What Is the Largest Cave in New Mexico and the World?
The largest cave in New Mexico is Lechuguilla Cave, located within the Carlsbad Caverns system. At 138 miles long, it ranks No. 9 on the list of largest caves in the world when measured by volume.
The Son Doong Cave in central Vietnam takes the No. 1 spot. This massive cave is thought to be over 3 million years old, but people only discovered it in 1990. The cavern is 650 feet tall, 500 feet wide, and 3 miles long.
Traveler’s Tip: Go for a swim in one of these Unique Waterfalls in New Mexico You Have To Visit.
How Cold Are Caves in New Mexico?
Most completely underground caves have an average temperature of around 50 degrees. However, Ice Cave near Bandera Volcano has interior temps of 31 degrees in certain portions.
Open-air caverns usually have temperatures closer to the ambient temps outside. And those like Gila Cliff Dwellings are exposed on the side of canyons and can heat up if directly in the path of the afternoon sun.
Check Out These ‘Out of This World’ Caves in New Mexico
Out of 2,156 caves, it was hard for us to select only eight offerings for you to visit. But these suggestions should get you off on a good start. Why not begin your spelunking tour in these New Mexico caves.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Location: 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad, N.M.
About: A system of 119 caves lie under the Chihuahua Desert in southern New Mexico. You can explore Carlsbad Caverns on a self-guided tour by hiking into the cave or taking an elevator. You can also join ranger-led star parties and bat flights in the evenings.
What to Do: Many visitors are enthusiastic about the sunset bat flight viewings at the cave entrance. You can also find numerous desert hiking trails above ground.
Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area
Location: Southeast of Capitan, N.M.
About: This 31-mile-long cave is the second longest in the Land of Enchantment and is known for its rare velvet formations and several gypsum formations. It is currently under a caving moratorium to protect resident bats from White Nose Syndrome.
What to Do: The conservation area offers miles of hiking trails open to biking and horseback riding. It also has campsites available for $20 per night. Look around Fort Stanton, an army fort built in 1855, and visit the museum.
El Malpais National Monument
Location: South of Grants, N.M.
About: This large national monument on the Bandera Lava Flow has three lava tube caves to explore. You must obtain a free caving permit to hike in, but the reward is worth it. Experience the lava bridges and collapsed tubes. However, you may have difficulty getting to them in bad weather conditions.
What to Do: Hiking through the caves is easy — hiking to them over 2 miles of razor-sharp lava rocks is the challenge. You can also see stone arches and desert hikes within the national monument.
Bandera Volcano Ice Cave
Location: Grants, N.M.
About: This lava tube has a consistent temperature between 31 and 50 degrees year-round. It is also known as Zuni Cave, as local tribes used it to store food. The region is called “fire and ice,” as the ice cave sits within the vicinity of a dormant volcano.
What to Do: Hike down into the ice cave, or enjoy a hike through pine forests above ground to the Bandera Volcano. You can camp at the ice cave or find numerous opportunities for desert hiking in the nearby El Malpais National Monument.
Jornada Bat Caves
Location: 16 miles east of Truth or Consequences, N.M.
About: You can find the largest lava tube caves on the continent on the Armendaris Ranch, owned by Ted Turner. These caves house hundreds of thousands of bats, which leave the caves in swarms each night. You can book an overnight tour to camp at the cavern’s edge and watch the bats’ mass exodus.
What to Do: Because the caves are on private property, your tour only allows for camping and hiking in the caves. For other activities, check out Elon Musk’s Spaceport America just south of this location.
Slaughter Canyon Cave
Location: Within the Carlsbad Caverns property outside of Carlsbad, N.M.
About: Tour a ‘wild’ cave, unlike Carlsbad. Slaughter Canyon Cave has no electricity, paved walking trails, or steps. Ranger-led tours provide hard hats with lights to enter this large cavern, where huge formations like the Monarch and Christmas Tree stand sentry.
What to Do: Tours leave on foot from the Visitor Center at Carlsbad. After experiencing this cave, enjoy desert hikes above Carlsbad or venture into the big cave itself on a self-guided tour. Night tours offer an opportunity to see bats leave and to view the desert night sky.
Sandia Man Cave
Location: South of Placitas, N.M., on Highway 165.
About: This cave on the side of a Las Huertas Canyon northeast of Albuquerque is an archaeological site discovered in the 1930s. Scientists believe humans used it over 10,000 years ago. You can access the cave by a strenuous half-mile hike to a large metal spiral staircase.
What to Do: Besides hiking to the cave, you can visit many historical sites. Just south, you’ll find the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Additionally, the Sandia Peak Tramway on the front of the Sandia Mountains offers a great view of the Rio Grande Valley and Albuquerque.
Ra Paulette’s Hand-Carved Caves
Location: Ojo Caliente, N.M.
About: These hand-carved caves are the creation of Ra Paulette, an artist who chiseled away at the native sandstone in this area of northern New Mexico. They qualify as underground artwork, which you can only access by a private tour through Origin New Mexico for $87 per person. Photography in the caves is not allowed.
What to Do: Nearby, you’ll find the healing waters of Ojo Caliente Hot Springs. Soak for a while, then travel 20 miles to see the home of Georgia O’Keeffe in Abiquiu, N.M.
Can You Go Spelunking in New Mexico Caves?
You can go spelunking or caving in several caves in New Mexico, including Ice Cave, Carlsbad Caverns, Fort Stanton Cave, and the El Malpais National Monument. You can also explore Burnet Cave, Conkling Cavern, Lechuguilla Cave, and Shelter Cave to hike, crawl or swim through these underground caverns.
Traveler’s Tip: Get some much needed R&R time in these Best Natural and Man-Made Hot Springs in New Mexico.
Discover History and Geology in These Caves in New Mexico
Discover the history, uncover rock formations, and have an up-close and personal experience with bats on a grand tour of caves in New Mexico. From lava tubes to ice caves, you’ll marvel at stalactites and become mesmerized by the intricate carvings of artwork on the walls of these caverns. New Mexico has many hidden gems, and you can uncover several as you explore these grottos.
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