Rattlesnake Canyon

Diana Northup on the Rattlesnake Canyon trail
One of our favorite hikes in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, this hike is notable for great canyon scenery, a variety of cacti and other desert plants, and some history.

Hike data:

Controlling agency: National Park Service; Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Region: Southeast; Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
start: 4517ft; 1377m end: 3959ft; 1207m
min: 3959ft; 1207m max: 4517ft; 1377m
elevation gain/loss: 557ft; 170m.
Length: 5.10mi; 8.20km. Out-and-back distance.
surface: mixed gravel/rock
condition: Well-maintained
ease of following: Easy
obstacles: None
Fee: $0.00. Enjoying the surface features at this cave-oriented park is free.
Season: All year. It is hot in the summer; start early in the morning and bring sufficient water, a hat, and sunscreen.
Dogs: Unknown.
Bikes: No.
Handicapped accessible: No.
General notes: Water, flush toilets, and trash cans are available at the nearby visitor center.

If the preceeding winter had sufficient precipitation, the flowers are likely to be stunning in the spring.

The cactus and other desert plants are protected by law. The National Parks Conservation Association has online information about cactus poaching, which is a serious problem. Poachers are robbing us hikers of the beauty of the cactus.

Trailhead facilities: None other than parking.
Hike attractions: biology, geology, history, scenery, wilderness access, wildflowers, year-round access.

When we hiked it:

Date: 2001-01-20
Time it took us: 4:30.
Usage (people/hour): 0.50. Many people know of this trail. However, only a miniscule fraction of the park visitors ever hike this trail.
Cleanliness: 10.


Waypoint Type Description
RS3Trail pointBottom of Canyon on Rattlesnake Canyon hike
RS4Trail junctionGuadalupe Ridge and Rattlesnake Canyon trail junction
RSTHTrailheadRattlesnake Canyon trailhead


Paper maps:
Map name Cartographer Year Scale Topo map? Online access Notes
Carlsbad Caverns National Park National Geographic Trails Illustrated 2001 1:34500 Y from Amazon (purchase) Includes a map of Carlsbad Cavern on the back.
Lincoln National Forest, Guadalupe Ranger District US Forest Service 2003 1:126720 N from Amazon (purchase)
Wildernesses of New Mexico US Forest Service 1981 1:1000000 N No online copies. Base map with national forests, wilderness areas and highways.

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Getting to the trailhead:

From the Visitor's Center, head out of the parking lot and take the 9 mile scenic loop road. The trailhead is at marker 9 on this loop, just after you begin to descend from the mesa top.

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About the hike:

The trailhead
The trailhead has only a little parking area. However, I have never seen it full. While a visit to the famous cavern nearby is important, this hike is a chance to see the beauty that exists above-ground.
The trailhead is near the mesa top, so the hike begins heading down immediately. This area burned a few years ago, and the plants (such as this Mexican Buckeye) near the trailhead are still recovering. Look at the larger version, as this small version does not show it well.
Mexican buckeye recovering from a fire
yucca and sotol
The plants are one of the high points of this hike. Here, you can see two common desert plants, a yucca and a sotol (the upper plant).
Some of the cacti are small, and to see them you have to have a sharp eye.
A small cactus along the trail
Another famous plant is the Lechuguilla. Translated from Spanish, that would be "little lettuce". However, those spines are un-lettuce-like. I have heard of people flattening their tires by driving over a Lechuguilla plant.

As you hike down, you get nice views of the canyon. This view is especially nice since it includes Diana!

After an hour or two of walking, you arrive at RS3, which is the canyon bottom. You have lost most of the elevation that you will for this hike. Watch for cairns, as sometimes the trail is across rocky areas where otherwise no trail would show up.

Diana Northup on the Rattlesnake Canyon trail
The junction RS4

A few minutes later, you arrive at a junction (RS4). A friend who knows the area well calls this junction, "murder junction", since two people have been either found dead or murdered not far from this sign. One of these murders has received a lot of press: Outdoorplaces.com, ABC News, and the Amarillo Globe News are just a few of the news outlets to cover the strange tale of a man who killed his best friend. He claims that they became lost and dehydrated, and the killing was a mercy killing. They were found not far from this sign.

Even though the sign points left for Rattlesnake Canyon, the trail actually heads straight, behind the sign. Follow the cairns.

The trail now crosses or is in the streambed at times. Other times, it is up on a bench on the side. The cairns are large, and the trail is easy to follow.
A cairn and the trail when it is up on the bench
Remains of an old ranch
The bit of history that you run across is the old foundation for a ranch building. You see bits of life here, such as part of an old sewing machine.
An interesting clastic dike crosses the trail (I am not a geologist, so this could be incorrect).
A vein that crosses the trail
A magenta opuntia (prickly pear) pad
When you hike in the winter, the opuntia (prickly pear) are a nice magenta. When it warms up, the pads will turn green again.
In the spring, after good winter precipitation, these cacti are probably covered with blooms. The ocotillo will bloom anytime in spring or summer after they have had sufficient moisture.
Hedgehog cactus and an ocotillo
horse crippler cactus

You pass another canyon coming in from the right. This is a sign you are reaching the end. When the trail gets close to coming out of the mountains onto the plains, it turns into a two-track and the cairns stop (RS5). This is your sign to turn around. I went much further, just to see if it was worth plowing through the aptly-named cat's claw acacia. It is not.

Here is yet another kind of cactus we saw.

As you return, the canyon looks different than it did as you hiked down.
Looking up the canyon
A small cactus with red spines
Keep your eyes open on the return trip for different cacti.
This banded rock looks like a cave formation; a cave may have been here before the canyon was formed.
Banded rock in the trail

Plants we saw along the trail:

Reader comments about this hike:

On Sat Mar 18 13:23:51 2006 Vardy Vincent from Seguin, TX said:
You have told it like it was & still is. I hiked down to the sign at the canyon bottom on 3-15-05 while my family was touring Carlsbad Caverns. I did it again on 3-15-06 with my son & his wife, and 9 year old grandson. I remembered the bottom, where the sign marking the two trails was, as being clear of foilage and large rocks in 2005. It looked as if it would have been easily traveled in either direction. They must have had some heavy rains over the past year, because the trail leading down, especially on the floor, was very thick with all sorts of vegetation.

We likewise saw a small covey of Bobwhite quail coming back up the trail.

A fellow with a New York license plate started in front of us. Two girls with a North Dakota plate followed us.

I would like to mention the dusty drive to get to the trail head. It is a 9.5 loop up, down, and around some typical scenic southeast New Mexico terrain. It would make for an easy hike, also.

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