Slaughter Canyon Cave is located within the boundaries of Carlsbad Cavern National Park. Once a week on Friday morning a small group of adventurous park visitors venture into this dark world to discover the cave’s hidden secrets. The path through Slaughter Canyon Cave is a natural one. No manicured or paved trails here. This is a beaten-down footpath with plenty of tripping hazards and loose slippery terrain. For those who like naturalist type environments, this is a close as you can get to a natural cave in a highly sought after tourist destination like Carlsbad Cavern. And yet, at the same time Slaughter Canyon Cave holds some relics of a bygone era of relatively recent human history when our National Parks weren’t as protected as they are today.
What’s in a Name?
With a name like Slaughter Canyon Cave, Jennifer and I arrived wondering if the history was a ghastly one. I envisioned a cave full of dead creatures that had been left in the cool-dry climate of the cave by the Native American inhabitants. Or, perhaps worse, some kind of cannibal culture that had half-eaten corpses strewn about on the cave floor. (I have a bit of an imagination….) The truth of the name is much more mundane. The canyon in which the cave was found was named after its early western inhabitants which bore the last name of Slaughter.
Slaughter Canyon Cave Stats
- Meeting Place: Carlsbad Canyon Visitor Center
- Rating: Difficult
- Type: Guided Out-and-Back
- Total Distance: 2-miles
- Elevation Gain: 525′
- Time: 5-hours
- Season: Year Round but only on Fridays
- Reservations: Required
The National Park Service only allows 16 people or less each week to enter into Slaughter Canyon Cave. The ranger guided tour is only offered on Friday mornings. Tickets sell out well in advance so reserve your spot online before you arrive.
Slaughter Canyon Cave Trip Report
We arrived at our Friday morning tour as early as the park opened. This was our first day in Carlsbad Caverns National Park and so we had to arrive as the park opened to pick up our tickets which must be collected 30 minutes prior to any ranger guided tour. We hit the ticket counter and the rangers did a great job of getting about six groups ahead of us checked in quickly. We then moved to the meeting area just beyond the ticket area. It was here by the 3D model of the Carlsbad Cave system that we met our caving companions and the two rangers who would guide us safely through the ominous-sounding Slaughter Canyon Cave.
Slaughter Canyon Cave Orientation
After the initial roll call and “where are you from” type of ice breaker our group moved into a side room where we were given the “caves are inherently dangerous places” speech. I appreciate that the park service needs to do this but when nearly an hour had gone by and we were still at the visitor center I am wondering if it could have been a bit shorter.
Caravan to the Trailhead
After verbally pledging to do no harm to the cave and wear our safety gear at all times, we each were fitted with helmets (with lights) and caving gloves. Next, we did a bathroom stop and staged our vehicles to caravan to the Slaughter Canyon Trailhead 45 minutes to the south. We took off and had no issues keeping pace as we drifted through the turns on our way back down the road we had climbed up over an hour earlier.
Once we got to the highway the caravan did a mad dash to 70mph. YOLOM doesn’t really go 70mph with a headwind. It has a lot of drag so we fell behind and felt like a bit of a weak link. Once off the highway, we traversed the gravel road to the trailhead located on the edge of the Guadalupe Mountain Range. The entire way there had signs indicating the way to Slaughter Canyon. So after nearly two-hours of prep work, we finally arrived at the trailhead and I was left wondering why we didn’t all meet here, to begin with.
Climbing to the Cave
The parking lot has some very nice drop toilets and this is the last opportunity to use a proper facility. Your only other options are a bush on the trail or a you-carry-it-out bag in the cave. There are no toilets in slaughter canyon cave. From the parking lot, it is a slog through the desert up the canyon walls to the cave entrance. The ranger said it was about 500’ in half a mile, but in the desert sun, it felt longer.
Slaughter Canyon Cave Gate
There is a bat-friendly cave fence to keep would-be trespassers at bay. After a short rest at the cave entrance, we all dawned our helmets and gloves and finally ventured into Slaughter Canyon Cave.
The Twilight Zone
The immediate entrance to the cave is wide. The trail is narrow and loose. We descended quickly into the cave’s depths on some switchbacks. There are a few columns in the twilight zone near the entrance but other than that not much to speak of. As the trail flattens out and the light begins to fade there are a few more picturesque stalagmites before finding our way through the dark and to an area of destruction.
Guano Mining in the Cave
During the Great Depression, Slaughter Canyon Cave was leased by the park to a guano mining operation that tore out the earth inside the cave to package the mineral-rich substance. Guano (bat droppings), even today, is one of the best fertilizers around. There are remnants of the mining operation that have been pulled together into an area to both describe the technology of the time and the way that the operation misused the cave. It is a sad tale of the early days of our National Park System. A happy accident of the mining operation is a bat boneyard of sorts. There are millions of bat bones protruding from the excavated earth. These bones are from an ancestral bat species that is now extinct.
We continued our journey up and over a ridge. The trail passes some cave columns and then weaves through some stunningly beautiful stalagmite formations deeper into the untouched part of the cave.
The Chinese Wall
Before long we arrived at the ankle high rimstone dam known as the Chinese Wall. This formation, while short in stature, is stunning. It winds its way across the cave floor in every direction. I didn’t know what the name was when I saw it, but I immediately thought of images of China’s Great Wall winding through the mountains. I guess the early explorers thought of similar images when they coined it the “Chinese Wall.”
Next, it was time to get “on rope” and shimmy up an especially slippery section of the path. In truth, this section could most likely be done without the rope but it does make it easier and safer to get up the small cave hill. The process is slow as only one caver is allowed on the rope at a time. It takes a while to get 14 novices up and over.
He Who Must Not Be Named
Once on top of the hill, there is an eerie unnamed, flowstone-capped stalagmite to be found. According to our guide the formation has no official name but it is often referred to as the Klansman or the Guardian. I’ve even heard it referred to as Skeletor, but I think I would recommend calling it, “he who must not be named.” Regardless of the name, it is a unique cave formation and everyone in the group found it haunting. It was my favorite formation in all of Carlsbad Caverns. I think it looks like the face of a giant arachnid with all those eyes in the flowstone. Creepy, but beautiful.
The Christmas Tree
A short distance up the trail and we arrived at the path’s terminus. Here lies waiting in the darkness the cave’s Christmas Tree. The formation is another larger stalagmite that is capped with a flowstone. It is beautiful and many in our group thought it was the cave’s best formation.
The Natural State of the Cave
Here we all sat down and the rangers had us all turn off our headlamps. We sat quietly in the utterly complete darkness and experienced the cave as it always is except for these few hours every Friday. The sixteen of us had a glimpse of the cave’s dark, nearly silent world. The slow drips of water continuing as the slow process of cave formation creation continued. This and the sound of blood pumping through our brains was the only sound that broke the silence. Jennifer and I were both left with a supreme form of gratitude that we were amongst a small minority that has ever ventured into this hidden world and illuminated the secrets that otherwise are forever kept from the world in this pitch-black darkness.
Leaving Slaughter Canyon Cave
The headlamps came back on and we started the return trip. For the most part, the trail back follows the same path in. There is a short section that loops onto a slightly different course but not vastly different. We ascended the cave’s entrance back to the gate where we rediscovered the sun and heat of the New Mexico desert. The descent back to the parking lot was much quicker than the ascent had been a few hours earlier.
Back at the parking lot we returned our helmets and gloves to the ranger and parted with our fellow travelers knowing that we had shared something that few others would ever know.
The main cave system at Carlsbad Caverns has nearly 500,000 visitors annually pass through its gorgeous caverns but Slaughter Canyon Cave at most will only see 832 annual visitors. While the experience of getting to the cave is a bit frustrating and the history of the way that the cave was misused is astonishing, the privilege of getting to enter this cave is humbling. While the journey into Slaughter Canyon Cave is amazing, it isn’t for everyone but we feel extremely blessed to have been in the minority.
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- You must be at least 8 years old to go on this tour. Anyone between the ages of 8 and 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
- Wear a good pair of shoes or boots with ample tread. If you don’t have adequate footwear the park service will not allow you on this tour.
- Bring water and snacks in a small hiking pack. While they aren’t allowed into the cave you will want these things for the hike in and out of the desert. They are locked inside the entrance gate of the cave so no need to worry about your possessions while on the tour.
- Hiking Sticks. While not allowed in the cave, they come in handy on the descent from the cave.
- Helmets, head lamps, and gloves are provided by the park’s service and must be worn at all times while inside the cave.