We’ve visited 18 US national parks so far, and one thing is consistent across all of the parks we have visited: The desire to keep the parks as natural as possible, which includes removing old buildings returning improved lands to natural lands. But at Carlsbad Caverns, things are a little different.
While the rules have changed over the years to protect the caverns, there are some improvements that were made long ago that aren’t rustic or natural…
Located in the Big Room at the head of the Left Hand Tunnel in Carlsbad Caverns is an Underground Lunchroom that contains a cafeteria built in 1928, restrooms, a souvenir stand, and elevator access.
Visiting The Underground Lunchroom
After hiking down the Natural Entrance Trail into The Great Room and The Big Room Trail junction, we were itching to walk the Big Room Trail, but because we had a guided tour starting in about 20 minutes, we followed the trail to the Underground Lunchroom.
The Underground Lunchroom is located in a large cavern room that has been improved to operate like a mini Visitor Center. Here we found:
- The elevators that travel 754 feet between the main Visitor Center above ground and the Underground Lunchroom all day.
- A snack bar and picnic area with lots of tables.
- A souvenir stand selling Carlsbad Caverns t-shirts, hats, flashlights, and headlamps.
- A drinking fountain and full modern restroom facilities (with rock formations sticking out of the walls) hidden at the end of a natural stone tunnel.
- Museum-style exhibit panels providing more information about Carlsbad Caverns.
The Carlsbad Caverns Elevators
The Carlsbad Caverns elevator ride takes only one minute at a speed of nine miles per hour. The depth of the elevator shaft is 1.5 times the height of the Washington Monument.
Excavation of the shaft, which accommodates elevators one and two began in January 1931. Blasting and drilling were done simultaneously from the cavern and the surface using twelve tons of dynamite. Over six months later, the shaft was connected with near-perfect alignment.
At the time the first two elevators were installed in 1932, they held the distinction of being the world’s longest single-lift elevators. In 1955, another shaft was excavated and elevators three and four were installed. In 1977, all four elevators were replaced with newer models.
The Underground Lunchroom History
The Underground Lunchroom was built in 1928, two years before Carlsbad Caverns became a national park, because tourists who were exhausted by the six hour walk required to get in and out of the Big Room, needed sustenance. Later, in the 1950s, information counters and souvenir stands were added.
Information at the park claims the restaurant served around a million tourists each year at its height and even sold cigars along with hot cooked meals. Unfortunately, the restaurant altered the ecosystem in the cave and not only lured non-native animals like raccoons into the cave, but changed the way new speleothems are forming. The Lunchroom is also located on the bat flyway, and when the Lunchroom lights are on, the native bats will not fly in or out of the cave.
Today the Underground Lunchroom only serves a small selection of pre-made sandwiches, salads, yogurt parfaits, coffee, bottled drinks, and hot chocolate that you can enjoy at a self-lit picnic table. There is also only one souvenir stand left.
Since 1993, the National Park Service has been trying to remove the privately-owned concession from the caverns to return the cave to a natural state and preserve it for future generations.
Unfortunately, objections from local businesses and a senior Republican congressman from New Mexico are more interested in making money than protecting this natural wonder. For the last nine years, Congress has made it a violation of federal law to spend any money to do anything that permits or requires the removal of the underground lunchroom.
I’ll be honest, we were excited to eat at the Underground Lunchroom just for the novelty of eating lunch 750 feet underground. But once we reach the snack bar, we all were underwhelmed by the choices, which didn’t even look very yummy. We ended up skipping it and rode the elevators up to the above ground restaurant in the Visitor Center.
Know Before You Go
About the caverns underground lunchroom:
- Carlsbad Caverns has a quick-serve restaurant, gift shop, and Visitor Center with museum exhibits and clean restrooms above ground, and unlike other caves and caverns, they also have a snack bar and lunchroom, souvenir stand, and restrooms at the bottom of the main cavern area 750 feet underground!
- To reach the underground lunchroom, you can walk the Natural Entrance Trail, a 1.25 mile, winding trail with many switchbacks that descends into the cavern, or ride the elevator that can take you down into the cavern and back up when you’re ready.
- No food and drinks other than plain water are allowed anywhere in the caverns other than the Underground Lunchroom.
- There is a mailbox in the cavern! Yes, at Carlsbad Caverns National Park you can write and send postcards from underground, and there is even a stamp available that says mailed from 750 feet below ground!
About Carlsbad Caverns National Park:
- The entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located on US Highway 62/180, approximately 18 miles southwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico and 25 miles from Guadalupe Mountains National Park across the Texas state line.
- All visitors who enter Carlsbad Cavern are required to purchase an entrance ticket, which is good for three days. Admission fees are $12/adult ages 16+ and free for children ages 15 and under. The park also offers free admission days on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the first day of National Park Week, National Public Lands Day, and Veterans Day.
- View the Carlsbad Caverns Map.
- The Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center, restaurant, and gift shop, are located at 727 Carlsbad Caverns Highway, Carlsbad, New Mexico 88220 in Eddy County. The Visitor Center and cavern are closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
- Carlsbad Caverns has two entries in the National Registrar of Historic Places — the Rattlesnake Springs Historic District above ground and the Cavern Historic District below ground.
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers numerous ranger-guided cave tours into areas along the Big Room and Natural Entrance trails that are not open for exploring on your own. Tours require an additional fee on top of park admission, availability is limited, and reservations are highly recommended. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted on any ranger-guided tours. Other age limits apply depending on the tour.
- Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes and consider bringing a light jacket or sweater as the year-round temperature in the cave is 56ºF. You can bring a flashlight or headlamp, you don’t need to because the cavern is lit. Plain water is also allowed.
- Dogs that are trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities are permitted in the Bat Flight Amphitheater and the Big Room, and on the Natural Entrance trail and the King’s Palace tour.