New Mexico is known as the “Land of Enchantment.” It’s no surprise since the state is full of breathtaking natural views and a rich cultural history that spans centuries. But the beauty isn’t only on the surface. Underground and inside cliffs are some of the most captivating natural features. Grab your gear and explore 13 of the most amazing caves in New Mexico. You won’t believe how these rock formations look!
1. Slaughter Canyon Cave
With a name like Slaughter Canyon, one might expect to come across something terrifying. However, the truth is far from chilling. In fact, it’s named after homesteader and cattle rancher Charlie Slaughter, who lived in the canyon in the late 1800s. The rugged terrain of Slaughter Canyon makes traveling safely through a challenge, even for experienced cave dwellers. The trail is only an unpaved, beaten-down path that winds through outcroppings and slippery slopes.
Slaughter Canyon Cave is only about two miles long but can take up to five hours to complete because of the difficulty. It’s also one of the most popular and unique caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. One of the reasons it’s so popular is the world’s tallest columns, the Monarch, and other massive formations, including the crystal-covered Christmas Tree and the Mushroom inside.
2. Spider Cave
If you love heights, getting dirty, and exploring tight spaces, the ranger-guided Spider Cave Tour at Carlsbad Caverns National Park is for you. There are many beautiful formations within Spider Cave, but you have to belly crawl and stoop for most of the journey to see them. You must also hike half a mile through the desert. The good news is, the name of this popular Carlsbad Cavern is also misleading. Spider Cave earned its name from the daddy long legs living inside when it was discovered. However, you won’t find many of them now.
3. Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano
Come to the Continental Divide to see the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano or “The Land of Fire and Ice.” The site is privately owned, but for a small fee, you can venture through the ponderosa pine trees and juniper into the core of a volcano. Bandera Volcano is an erupted cinder volcano over 10,000 years old. The rim is 1,400 feet wide, and it’s 800 feet deep. The Bandera trail takes 40 minutes to complete and winds around the southern breach, so you can look directly inside to see molten lava.
One of the most amazing caves in New Mexico is part of this impressive volcano. The ice cave takes up a section of Bandera’s collapsed lava tube. The trail is only a quarter mile long and takes only 20 minutes to complete, but wear a jacket. The temperature is 31 degrees Fahrenheit year-round because of the natural layers of ice insulating the tube. New ice forms as water seeps through the crevices and freezes.
4. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
The cliff dwellings were built thousands of years ago by nomadic groups above Cliff Dweller Creek for shelter. In the late 1200s, the Mogollon people called these caves home; however, only for a short time. By 1300, they left the cave dwellings abandoned. The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument lies at the edge of the Gila Wilderness, the first designated wilderness area in the United States. The naturally eroded alcoves contain over 40 rooms, with the original wooden beams still intact. The one-mile trail to the dwellings is at a 6000-foot altitude, the equivalent of an 18-story building, and requires climbing on uneven stones.
5. Painted Cave
Painted Cave is a historical site in Bandelier National Monument and a cave-dwelling dating back 1,000 years. The colorful pictographs that adorn the walls make this one of the most amazing caves in New Mexico. Above all, visitors can take a guided tour to learn more about the significance of the shapes and symbols left behind.
There are two access points for Painted Cave: the Bandelier Visitor Center and the Dome Trailhead. The Bandelier Visitor Center is over 22 miles long and requires you to cross the Alamo Canyon twice, depending on the trail you follow. As a result, it’s recommended hikers complete the trek over one or two nights. On the other hand, the path from the Dome Trailhead is a 14.5-mile strenuous hike. It’s also not accessible from January to mid-April because of seasonal road closures.
In 2011, Las Conchas Fire permanently changed the Bandelier and Capulin canyons, including Painted Cave. While most trails were repaired, only a small canyon region has been restored.
6. Sandia Man Cave
Sandia Man Cave is in the Sandia Mountains built into the cliff of Las Huertas Canyon. The trail is marked with a sign along the the New Mexico State Highway 165. The hike is almost half a mile from the designated parking lot and leads you to a concrete staircase. After climbing the staircase, you arrive at a ledge that brings you to another staircase. From here, you walk directly into the mouth of this amazing cave in New Mexico. Sandia Man Cave was originally discovered by an anthropology student from the University of Mexico in 1936. Then for the next five years, the University of New Mexico excavated Sandia, finding stone arrows, pieces of woven yucca moccasins, and the skeletal remains of animals from the Ice Age, including the mastodon.
7. Geronimo’s Cave
Located on one of the four hiking trails in the Robledo Mountains Wilderness is Geronimo’s Cave. The Robledo Mountains Wilderness is in South-Central New Mexico in the Chihuahuan Desert of La Cruces. The diverse landscape is home to canyons, limestone cliffs, and caves. You will also find various cacti species, juniper, mesquite, and grasslands throughout the area.
Goyathlay, famously known as Geronimo, was an Apache leader who resisted the U.S. government. He and his followers protested as the government redefined the boundaries of Apache land, forcing them to live on reservations all over the country. Geromino’s Cave earned its name because it provided shelter for Geronimo, who hid inside while U.S. soldiers pursued him. The 2.5-mile out-and-back trail takes almost an hour and a half to complete and is moderately challenging. It’s perfect for hikers who enjoy some solitude.
8. Lechuguilla Cave
Once believed to be a small and insignificant historical site, excavating Lechuguilla Cave became one of the most exciting explorations. This amazing cave in New Mexico has over 145 miles of passages that go at least 1,604 feet into the earth. In 2019, Lechuguilla was declared one of the four longest caves in the United States and one of the 10 longest caves in the world! The sheer size isn’t the only feature that draws research cavers from around the world into its depths. Incredible arrays of rare speleothems, some only seen in Lechuguilla, include gigantic gypsum chandeliers and cave pearls. Lechuguilla Cave is larger, deeper, and has a more diverse collection of speleothems than its “cave sister,” Carlsbad. However, none of its discovered rooms compare in size.
9. Four Windows Cave
In the remote area of El Malpais National Monument is an area known as Big Tubes. All of the caves in Big Tubes are underdeveloped wilderness caves, which means they lack established steps, trails, and lights. The site features many lava bridges, collapsed tubes, and lava tube caves. One such cave on the two-mile trail is the Four Windows Cave. It has four openings in its ceiling, or skylights, that shine light onto the floor. Moreover, moss covers the ground by the entrance, and icicles hang from the walls.
Depending on the season, you can find a stalagmite garden with dozens of formations wall to wall in one of the most amazing caves in New Mexico. Other hidden treasures in Big Tubes are the Big Skylight Cave, Giant Ice Cave, Caterpillar Collapse, and the Seven Bridges.
10. El Salto del Agua
Meet a cave of literary significance. El Salto del Agua, the jumping water, inspired the 1924 short story by D.H. Lawrence, “The Woman Who Rode Away,” and the Cave in Willa Carther’s 1927 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Keep in mind the time of year affects how much water comes from the waterfall. At times, it can be as little as a trickle. Moreover, the El Salto del Agua waterfall and Cave in Arroyo Seco are private property, but you can get in for a small fee to the El Salto association. They are easy to reach from the parking lot and less than a mile away. There is another trail about four miles long through a forested canyon. However, there are no caves on that trail.
11. Ra Paulette’s Hand-Carved Caves
In Embudo, approximately an hour north of Santa Fe is a collection of manmade sandstone hands. The most amazing caves in New Mexico were sculpted by Ra Paulette. He is an 83-year-old American cave sculptor based in New Mexico. Two decades of artistic endeavors won him an Oscar nomination after being featured in the short film “Cave Digger.” The caves sit on private property but are occasionally open for private tours. Each of the 14 caves is unique, with enchanting details that look like they came out of a fantasy movie.
12. Jornada Bat Caves
Part of Ted Turner’s 358,000-acre Armendaris Ranch in southern New Mexico contains one of the nation’s largest bat populations. A protected population of Mexican free-tailed bats calls the caves home, with a colony of over 100,000. However, several other species of bat also live in the caves, including the Allen’s big-eared bat and the spotted bat. Migratory bats also stop during the summer. In addition to housing many bats, the Jornada Caves are the second-largest lava tubes in North America. Jornada Bat Caves is on private property, so it’s not accessible to the public without prior reservation.
13. Fox Cave
Have you ever been to a roadside attraction built into the face of a cave? Well, Fox Cave is just that. The 1950s-era spot is a vintage shop, museum, and cave all in one. You can find it on East Highway 70 between Roswell and Alamogordo. It was known as Ice Cave until 1954 when George and Mildred Fuchs built the shop. The store was popular for many years but eventually lost its charm. It remained abandoned for years until gemologist Arnold Duke purchased it in 2010. He renovated the roadside attraction and added his flair to the new collection. Now, you can find gems and antiques from the Old West. The old Ice Cave, formed from the nearby Rio Ruidoso, is believed to have sheltered Geronimo and Billy the Kid.
Summary of 13 Amazing Caves in New Mexico
|1||Slaughter Canyon Cave||Carlsbad Canyon National Park|
|2||Spider Cave||Carlsbad Canyon National Park|
|3||Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano||Grants|
|4||Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument||Jim Bradford Trail, Mimbres|
|5||Painted Cave||Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos|
|6||Sandia Man Cave||Placitas|
|7||Geronimo’s Cave||Radium Springs|
|8||Lechuguilla Cave||Carlsbad Caverns National Park|
|9||Four Windows Cave||El Malpais National Monument|
|10||El Salto del Agua||Arroyo Seco|
|11||Ra Paulette’s Hand-Carved Caves||Ojo Caliente|
|12||Jornada Bat Caves||a few miles from Truth or Consequences on Armendaris Ranch|
|13||Fox Cave||between Roswell and Alamogordo|
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Doug Meek/Shutterstock.com
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