Rattlesnake Canyon (Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM)
Nearest City/Town: White’s City, NM
Length: 6 miles (Out and Back)
Time: 2 hours
For our first day in Carlsbad, we loaded up our bellies with a nice breakfast at Pecos River Cafe, then loaded up our CamelBaks and Knox’s doggy water bottle and headed off for a day of hiking. Our destination: Rattlesnake Canyon at Carlsbad Caverns.
The trailhead for Rattlesnake Canyon is the highest point of the hike. You start by hiking down into a creek bed, crossing over the creek (which is most likely dry since it’s the Chihuahua Desert), and back up a slight incline to a high path on the edge of the canyon. Maybe a half-mile in, the trail goes vertically down a set of rock stairs until you eventually reach the canyon floor again. From there, you’re down in the canyon the rest of the hike.
Staying on the trail isn’t too hard. It’s a pretty well-defined trail, defined enough that even Knox knew which way to go as he ran ahead. There are also rock cairns (pictures 6 and 8 on page 2 of the gallery below) of various sizes along that trail marking where you should go.
Save some energy because you’ll have to go back up those two vertical areas when you come back out. Even though they have steps built in, it’ll get your heart rate up. Overall, you’re looking at a 5 to 6-mile out-and-back hike (depending on how far out you go) that’ll take 2 hours, give or take, depending on your speed and how many pictures you take.
Prepare For Heat
When we hiked, it was about 55 at the rim and probably 70 in the canyon, so expect a 10-15 degree rise in temperature. And don’t forget, the sun is very intense in the desert, so it’s going to feel warm. This is probably a rough hike in the middle of summer. Take plenty of water.
We aren’t sure how heavily used the trail is. We were there on a Monday in late February and the parking lot was only half full. What I mean by that is that our truck took 1 of the 2 available spots at the trailhead. Other than a few birds and the plants, we didn’t see another living creature on our hike. We were lucky enough to see five mountain goats on our exit from Reef Top Circle, though.
Prepare For Spiky Things
There are an inordinate number of prickly things on this hike. Obviously there are paddle cacti. There are also flower bushes with seriously sharp thorns [it took Edie 5 days to get out one of these sharp thorns that got imbedded in her index finger!]. And there is some type of grassy shrub with spines running down the side that will catch your clothes or your skin should you venture too close. We turned back about 2.5 miles out when the trail became overgrown with these various unfriendly plants.
Guadalupe Ridge Spur Trail
About midway out, you’ll come across a sign that points you to Lower Rattlesnake Canyon if you continue straight and Guadalupe Ridge if you head to the right. We didn’t hike Guadalupe, but we did look it up when we got back to the hotel.
Guadalupe Ridge is a 12-mile (each way) out-and-back hike with over 2000 feet of elevation gain. It’s supposed to offer some incredible views of Slaughter and Rattlesnake Canyons.
Let’s talk about how to get to Rattlesnake Canyon (There are several other hikes off of this road too). It’s not real difficult once you know where to go. Take US-180/US-62 until you get to White’s City, then turn onto NM-7 to take you into the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. You’ll follow the road for about 7 miles through some very scenic valleys until you see Reef Top Circle, a 9-mile scenic loop, on the right. Turn on that and drive until you see the roadside marker that says “9”. There’s a small 2-spot parking lot there with a sign that says “Rattlesnake Canyon”. Load up your gear and hike down into the valley.
If you have to use the restroom, go past Reef Top Circle to the Visitor’s Center. Note that the road is gravel and bumpy. Your Accord or Civic will probably have enough clearance, but be careful if you’re in anything with less clearance than a truck.
Here are some pictures from our hike of Rattlesnake Canyon. It’s a good day hike with great scenery. Along the way, there’s even what appears to be a foundation for a small cabin with some rusted out metal gear in it. There’s a picture of Knox sitting on the concrete block wall on Page 2 (picture #4).