New Mexico Caving Guide (with Map): What to Know and Where to Go


Inside Carlsbad Caverns Cave System

If you’re planning a trip to New Mexico anytime soon, then you won’t want to miss seeing some of the most beautiful caves in the world. If you crave some exploration into the past and you want an otherworldly experience, then touring some of the caves in New Mexico should quell that desire. New Mexico houses a bevy of natural caves that offer plenty of gorgeous beauty, unique opportunities in each cave, and several fun tours and hikes that your entire family can enjoy.

So, what caves should you explore when you visit New Mexico? We recommend that you visit the following caves in New Mexico for a fun family vacation:

  • #1 The Land of Fire and Ice: Coordinates: 37°N, 103°W
  • #2 Sandia Man Cave: Coordinates: ‎35°15′17″N 106°24′22″W
  • #3 Bandelier National Monument: Coordinates: 35.7647° N, 106.3228° W
  • #4 Slaughter Canyon Cave: Coordinates: 32.1125° N, 104.5683° W
  • #5 Big Room Cave: Coordinates: ‎32°10′31″N 104°26′38″W
  • #6 Ra Paulette’s Hand-Carved Caves: Latitude/Longitude: 35.6887949 / -105.9230056
  • #7 Big Skylight Cave: Coordinates: 34.9451° N, 108.1008° W
  • #8 King’s Palace: Coordinates 32.17528°N 104.44389°W 

Since there isn’t much information on the Internet today covering the best caves to view in New Mexico, we created this guide to help you out. By reading this guide, you should be able to start planning your next trip to New Mexico, and you’ll also be able to see a view of another world from long ago. The history and geology packed into these cave’s various stories all make them uniquely fascinating in their ways.

If you’re ready to get started caving, be sure to read my Beginners Guide and check out my recommended gear section.

The Best Caves in New Mexico

So, what are the best caves to visit in New Mexico? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered below.

#1 The Land of Fire and Ice

If you are looking for a caving experience that offers you a beautiful, sufficient contrast, then consider visiting the Ice Cave and the Bandura Volcano. Located on the Continental Divide, you’ll see plenty of old overgrown pine trees lining the historic lava trails. That trail takes you into the cave and then to the volcano. Once you are inside the Ice Cave, you’ll see layers and layers of ice that glisten off the arctic algae you’ll find in the cave.

The Ice Cave:  Coordinates 35.9189° N, 106.6539° W

The Ice Cave offers two distinct trail options once you reach the cave area. One of the trails is discovered within an extinct caldera, and the other path is formed from a collapsed lava tube. The temperatures inside of the Ice Cave are always below-freezing and stay around 31 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the cave has so many natural layers of ice, there is plenty of algae growing around it.

If you are taking the trail to the Ice Cave, then prepare to walk about a quarter-mile or so. That’s about a twenty-minute walk from start to finish. We also recommend that you bring some food and snacks for your journey because nothing will be provided for you while you are on your way. Once you arrive, you can take a look at the viewing platform and notice how unusual the temperature is inside the cave.

When you reach the final landing inside of the cave, you’ll see a beautiful view of the ice that’s formed inside of the cave. Plus, if you have children with you, you’ll be able to experience some fun gemstone mining. Inside of the Ice Cave, you’ll be allowed to pan for gemstones and arrowheads around the location. The gemstone mining opportunity offers fun for the entire family.

The Bandera Volcano: Coordinates 34.8000° N, 108.0000° W

Once you’re done viewing the Ice Caves, you can visit the Bandera Volcano to see a natural volcanic eruption.

The Bandera Volcano is an ancient volcano that erupted around 10,000 years ago. The Bandera Volcano is such a hot spot for tourists because it’s one of the only volcanos in this country that is so easy to see. So, if you are a geology fan, taking a gander at the Bandera Volcano should be a fun opportunity.

Taking the trail to access the Bandera Volcano from the Ice Caves will take you another forty minutes or so, and you’ll travel about a half a mile. As you walk, you’ll notice the trail slowly slants upwards, and you’ll follow the path up to the lookout. From the lookout, you’ll be able to get a clear view of the volcano.

Plus, there are some other fun amenities to explore in the Land of Fire and Ice. There is a Trading Post that you can shop for some souvenirs at, and grab a snack if you’re hungry. The Ice Cave and the Bandera Volcano is open from 9 AM until 4 PM MST.

#2 Sandia Man Cave

Another cave that’s not only historical but somewhat comical to visit is the Sandia Man Cave. The cave got its moniker because once this area was discovered, people immediately recognized it as a “man cave” from ancient times. When you visit the Sandia Man Cave, you’ll see a small hole in the wall, but it’s got tradition packed into it. In the Sandia Man Cave, prehistoric Indians used to get together and enjoy the Sandia Mountains.

It does take some treacherous driving to get to the Sandia Man Cave. You’ll have to drive up the Sandia Crest, then turn on an unmarked dirt road when you get to the campsite. The dirt road is windy and long, and you’ll be on it for a while. You’ll find the Sandia Man Cave close to the road, but you’ll need to hike to get there.

Hiking to the Sandia Man Cave isn’t too tricky. You’ll walk about a half a mile and you’ll notice that you are walking upwards after a while. You can take toddlers and the family along with you since the hike isn’t too harsh. Once you get close to the Sandia Man Cave, you’ll get to experience plenty of beautiful views of the Jemez mountains.

There is a winding metal staircase near the entrance to the Sandia Man Cave. Once you get to the Sandia Man Cave, you might be a bit disappointed in the litter and graffiti you’ll find there. However, it’s still worth seeing the spot. Also, we recommend bringing flashlights, snacks, and water, because there aren’t any amenities like that around. You may also get very dirty if you choose to explore the cave area deeply, so be prepared.

Stalactites hang from the cave roof inside Carlsbad Caverns

#3 Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument features plenty of beautiful caves to explore. This area was built to preserve the home of the ancient Puebloans. This national monument features some lovely pueblo structures, built between 1150 and 1600. You can take some beautiful hikes in this area, too, but the real attraction for most here is the caves. Inside the caves, you can see things like rock paintings and other ancient forms of art that will quickly make you feel transported to the past.

The best cave location to visit in Bandelier National Monument is the Painted Cave. If you want to see some fantastic pictographs, then the Painted Cave is the place to be. However, it’s a complicated process to get to the Painted Cave. You’ll need to hike eleven miles to get there, and then another eleven miles to go back home for a total of twenty-two miles.

The Painted Cave Coordinates: 35.7271° N, 106.3294° W

Taking the hike and a trip through the Painted Cave is something that most people should take a little time to plan before attempting. You’ll need to bring food, water, and any other amenities you’d need for this hike since it’s a long one. You can start hiking towards the Painted Cave from the Bandelier Visitor Center. Or, you can use the Dome Trailhead and head forward from there.

If you take the hike from the Visitor Center, you’ll have to cross the Alamo canyon area two times, which might be too much for some. Most people don’t start the hike from the Visitor Center if they are taking a day hike. If you start from the Visitor Center, it’s much better to take an overnight walk, or even do the hike over a couple of days.

Carlsbad Caverns

Another option is to use the Dome Trailhead. However, it is longer than the eleven miles you’ll have to trek from the Visitor Center. If you start at the Dome Trailhead, you’ll have fourteen and a half miles to go to reach your destination. However, you can do the hike from the Dome Trailhead during the day, although it will be an intense workout. From January through April, the Dome Trailhead cannot be used because of winter road issues.

When you plan on taking your hike, you should ask the people at the visitor center about the climate and the trails before leaving. Staying updated on all of the current conditions can help keep everybody safe while you are hiking.

#4 Slaughter Canyon Cave

If you’re looking for something a bit more challenging, then you might want to consider hitting some of the Carlsbad Caverns Caves. Our first choice is the Slaughter Canyon Cave, which will be great for those of you that want something a bit more challenging than the other options we’ve described above. While the name sounds off-putting, the sites you’ll see in this cave are certainly worth the time and effort it will take to get there.

To explore this cave, you’ll have to take a guided tour, and you’ll need to be in decent shape as well. Keep in mind that the tours only take place on Fridays, so there aren’t a lot of open spots if you are going to do this on a whim. Instead, you’ll need to be smart and plan if you want to visit Slaughter Canyon Cave. There are sixteen spots reserved for every tour, so make your reservations early.

Once you hit the path, you’ll notice that it’s quite slippery. The tour recommends that you wear over ankle boots because of the trail’s conditions, but that’s not always enforced. Regardless, wear some serious hiking shoes, and realize that you’ll be taking a challenging, rocky, half-mile trail to get to the cave’s entrance. If you are an avid hiker, you shouldn’t have any problem with this hike. However, if you aren’t in shape or have any issues with stairs, then this hike might not be for you.

The only light you’ll see inside the cave will be from your miner’s helmet. Inside this cave, you’ll witness an 89-foot column that looks like a pine tree and a gorgeous rimstone dam. There are also plenty of other stone columns, some of them standing taller than fifty feet.

#5 Big Room Cave

The Big Room in Carlsbad

Another great cave to visit that’s located in the Carlsbad Caverns is the Big Room Cave. The Big Room Cave offers a self-guided tour, so as long as the Carlsbad Caverns are open, you can take the tour. Most people say it takes them an hour or two to finish the Big Room Cave. Of course, that all depends on how long you want to stay inside the cave looking at the sites.

The trail up to the Big Room Cave is marked well and gives you plenty of information about the various formations and sites you’ll see on your way to the Big Room Cave. The trail’s pathway is flat, although you will still encounter a few hills. However, you won’t need to worry about feeling too exhausted on this hike, and just about anybody can take this cave walk, including children.

You’ll also notice rangers posted along the trail. They are happy to answer your questions about the different formations you are witnessing on the path. Some of them are even happy to chat with you about geology if you ask enough questions. The trail walk is about a mile and a half walk, so it isn’t too tricky.

Once you get to the inside of the cave, you’ll see right away why this cave is named the “Big Room.” The interior of the cave is extensive, and the cave is up to two hundred feet tall in some areas. Of course, you might feel a bit tiny walking through this cave, but it’s still a remarkable experience. We recommend taking the trail and not using the elevator.

If you take the elevator, you’ll miss out on all of the beautiful formations you’ll see on the trail. Also, you won’t be able to ask any of the park rangers questions, which defeats part of the purpose of a trip like this: education. We guarantee that the sites on the trail are well worth viewing, as well as the interior of the Big Room.

#6 Ra Paulette’s Hand-Carved Caves

If you’re in the mood for something unique while traveling through New Mexico, then consider stopping by to see Ra Paulette’s Hand-Carved Caves. You’ll find these unique caves in Embudo, about an hour away from Santa Fe. Here, a 67-year-old artist named Ra Paulette has spent his time making fourteen different humanmade caves, creating a world of art and fantasy with his hands.

The caves Ra Paulette carves are made from soft sandstone. When you get to the caves in Embudo, you’ll notice that some of these caves are easy to get to, and others are not. Also, some of these caves were carved on private property and aren’t available to the public. Interestingly enough, one of Ra Paulette’s caves sold for over a million dollars.

Each cave that Ra Paulette has decorated features a different design that has a deep meaning for the artist. Paulette has become so famous from carving his caves, an Oscar-nominated documentary in 2014 came out about him called Cavedigger. When you first see Paulette’s caves, you’ll notice his minute attention to detail and extreme focus, as well as a significant amount of time he spends carving out these caves.

The great thing about Ra Paulette’s caves is that no two are ever alike. However, all of the caves are very intricately designed with minute details that will surprise you with their elaborate detail. Paulette’s carvings are designed to help you feel the spiritual side of these caves, and his art certainly doesn’t disappoint.

#7 Big Skylight Cave

If you find yourself near the El Malpais National Monument, then you’re near an area that has plenty of caves to visit. However, the cave we’d recommend here that’s the best would be Big Skylight Cave. The hike to Big Skylight Cave is 2.2 miles, so it does require you to be in some shape, but it also isn’t too severe. You’ll see several lava caves as you hike through the Big Tubes Area. However, you will need to get a free permit to explore this area and enter the caves, which you can get in Grants.

Once you reach the Big Tubes Area of the El Malpais National Monument, in the parking lot, you’ll see cairns pointing you in the direction toward Big Skylight Cave. You’ll also see a gorgeous natural bridge that is formed out of a volcanic rock. You’ll see Giant Ice Cave, Four Windows Cave, and Caterpillar Collapse. If you want to make the hike more complicated, then you’ll need to enter the caves.

Big Tubes Area

When you travel toward the Big Tubes Area, you’ll be hitting several trails. So, double-check on your tires before you make this trek, and also make sure that you’ve packed a spare. You’ll be driving through a very remote area to reach this cave. Because of that, don’t make the adventure in heavy rain, and remember to bring along plenty of food, water, and supplies. We also recommend that you bring:

On your hike, you don’t need to worry about too much elevation since the trail never gets very steep. However, depending on what shape you are in, it will still take you anywhere from two to four hours to complete the hike and see the cave. You’ll need to follow the rock cairns as they go east. You’ll see plenty of pine trees, and then the cairns split and head two different ways right before Big Skylight Cave. That’s the start of your loop.

Inside Carlsbad Caverns Cave System

You’ll want to go right when you reach the cairns split, and you’ll see Big Skylight Cave. Then, your path will curve around and take you to Four Windows Cave. Take another right, and you’ll be lead to Caterpillar Collapse. Then, the trail goes around and takes you back to the start of the loop. If you want to explore areas of Big Skylight Cave, it’s not too difficult to get around.

#8 King’s Palace

King’s Palace is another beautiful cave that’s located in the Carlsbad Caverns. If you are a fan of stalactites and stalagmites, then this is the cave to see. You’ll find a bevy of them here, plus a fun self-guided tour that you can complete with your family. While there are several self-guided tours here, like at the National Entrance and the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns, the Kings Palace tour is another one of those self-guided tours you won’t want to miss.

Many visitors to Carlsbad Caverns feel that the King’s Palace self-guided tour is one of the best self-guided tours offered in the entire area, so it’s worth seeing. Compared to many of the other beautiful caves you can explore at the Carlsbad Caverns, the King’s Palace cave is intricately ornate by design. While it’s not as large as the Big Room cave, you won’t want to miss the beautiful stalactites and stalagmites that make this cave so unique.

If you do decide to hire a tour guide, or you run into park rangers along your route (which you probably will), don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s certainly worth hearing information about the history and geology of the nearby area, which is what your trip should be all about.

Like many of the other tours at the Carlsbad Caverns, if you want to hire a tour guide to see the King’s Palace, you’ll need to book your reservations early, as you plan your trip. You can purchase your tickets for this tour at the Visitor’s Center, and you walk to the Natural Entrance and meet with your tour group at the bottom of the elevators.

Natural Entrance Trail

To start your tour, hike the Natural Entrance trail. It’s a reasonably easy hike since the trail is covered with asphalt, and you also have a handrail to hold. So, if you are walking with children or senior citizens, you won’t have any issues. The trail also heads downhill so it isn’t too challenging. It will take you about an hour to hike that trail.

If you paid for a tour guide, then you’ll be sitting now and then as your tour guide talks about the cave’s history and takes you around. The stories about King’s Palace are quite impressive, so this is by no means a dull tour. Once the ranger finishes the tour, which will take another forty-five minutes to an hour, you are allowed to stay in the cave and look around.

Cave Safety Tips

Before you head out exploring the caves in New Mexico, we want to review some caving safety tips with you quickly. Whether this is your first time caving or not, you’ll still need to know how you should dress, and what you’ll need to bring on your trip.

Entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns

#1 Bring a Friend

Whenever you wander into caves, you should avoid going alone. We recommend that you always bring a friend with you. If that’s impossible, you should at least tell somebody where you will be and keep in touch with them, just in case.

#2 Dress Correctly

Make sure you dress well so that you don’t wind up with scratches or injuries. Wear long sleeves, pants, and shoes that can protect your feet. Boots and gloves are also a good idea. You should also take along a miner’s helmet, so you have a light and head protection. Some caves will only allow you to use miner’s helmets for your lighting, so purchase one for yourself and other members of your family that are coming on the trip. Be sure to check out my recommended gear section.

#3 Bring Food and Water

Also, many of these cave excursions take several hours, so you’ll want to bring some food and water with you. You should pack dehydrated snacks, like jerkey, and non-perishable food products, like granola bars, to ensure some healthy treats. Don’t pack a lot of fatty foods like chips and candy bars. You will need a healthy amount of energy for walking through these caves.

#4 Bring Light

You should also take along a couple of useful flashlights and extra batteries to ensure you’ll have plenty of light. Many people forget to bring along extra batteries, and that can be disastrous because there is really no place to stop to get anything you need once you are out in the caves.

Cavers-gear-image

When you’re ready to get started caving, be sure to read my Beginners Guide and check out my recommended gear section.

Rob

I’m Rob, the owner of StartCaving. I enjoy exploring and writing about caves. I live in Ohio and like going out to Ash Cave at Hocking Hills with my family. I plan to hit up more caves across the states in the coming years but until then I will continue to write about them.

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