Dine in the Underworld: The Story of Carlsbad Caverns Underground Lunchroom
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We can all admit that the National Park Service has learned a lot over its century-plus helping manage and protect some of the most incredible natural wonders in America. Gone are the days of feeding wildlife and other bad habits endorsed by rangers; now are the days of environmental policy that puts protection above tourism – or at least it should.
After visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park for the first time, it quickly jumped onto the list of my favorite national parks. I loved hiking down the Natural Entrance trail and exploring the big room, and I am sold on returning again to explore more of the park and take a ranger-led tour (or two).
As part of visiting, I had the chance to visit the Carlsbad Caverns underground lunchroom, a relic of a bygone era when the National Park Service was more liberal in their approach to tourism and preservation – and evidence of how the two come into conflict, usually at the expense of the park’s natural wonders.
Intrigued by this unique space within Carlsbad Caverns National Park – which, despite still being a chance to eat a meal 750 feet underground, is clearly not the incredible experience it once was –, I decided to dig a little bit deeper into the history of the underground lunchroom. Whether you decide to eat at the modern-day snack bar or opt for lunch topside after touring the Big Room, you’ll at least understand the nuances of this space and can decide for yourself.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Mescalero Apache and Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
A Park is Born: The 1930s
On October 25, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge signed a proclamation creating Carlsbad Cave National Monument; just seven years later, Congress designated Carlsbad Caverns National Park. In that time, Carlsbad Caverns became quite popular: by 1928, almost 50,000 visitors per year were making the six-hour trek in and out of the caverns – plus the two-hour tour of the Big Room.
Visitors were, unsurprisingly, quite hungry during the course of their day in Carlsbad Caverns, and in that same year – 1928 –, a lunchroom opened in a cavern adjacent to the Big Room. Visitation jumped 65% the following year, and another 15% the year following – a 100% increase in two years!
Early “photos” of the Carlsbad Caverns underground lunchroom are not actually photos; they’re stylized illustrations that were used to promote the lunchroom, like the one above. Undoubtedly, this is partly due to camera technology at the time. Even though the lunchroom was brightly lit, cameras would have struggled to capture enough light in the darkness of the caverns.
Even after elevators were installed in 1932 – thus removing the need for a lunch break – visitors continued to take meals in the underground dining area.
The early popularity of Carlsbad Caverns and its underground lunchroom helped propel the park to almost a quarter-million visitors by 1940 and a half-million visitors by the start of the 1950s – a 10x increase in less than 25 years – quite a feat for a park in isolated southeastern New Mexico.
The Underground Lunch Room in the 1950s
The growth of Carlsbad Cavern’s visitation was undoubtedly the result of the post-war boom and the prolific growth of automobile travel for Americans on vacation. Spurred by increased visitor numbers, the Carlsbad Caverns underground lunchroom was remodeled in the 1950s harnessing the efficiency of food production and distribution systems. You can still see some of the counters in the underground lunchroom today, though they’re rarely used.
This increased efficiency helped keep the lunchroom popular – some sources estimate it served as many as a million meals per year, though this is unlikely as visitation never cracked 800,000 people annually.
The 1960s in the Underground Lunch Room
More remodels in the 1960s are still evident in the underground lunchroom today; some of the kiosks are visible in the pictures above, as well as counters that have since been repurposed for informational displays and merchandise in the small gift shop.
Not much changed through the 1960s and 1970s for the underground lunchroom; visitation continued to grow, people continued to enjoy lunch 750 feet underground.
The Underground Lunch Room in the 1980s-2010s
By the 1980s, research began to suggest that the presence of the lunchroom – with its ovens, toasters, fans, and food waste – was actually harming the caverns themselves. Evidence showed that bat behavior was disrupted by the lights of the lunchroom, and the crumbs and trash of meals in the cave encouraged non-cavern animals to enter the cave in search of food.
In the early 1990s, the National Park Service had enough – they issued a report calling for the underground lunchroom’s removal, and the backlash was strong, to say the least. In the end, aggressive lobbying and several acts of Congress guaranteed that the NPS lost the battle: the National Park Service cannot evict the lunchroom, nor spend any money or hire any concessioner who might try to remove it.
The concessioner from 1927 through the early 2000s – Cavern Supply Company – was happy with this outcome, understandably, and the lunchroom remained. In 2008, Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company took over the concession.
Carlsbad Caverns Underground Lunch Room Today
Today, Carlsbad Caverns’ underground lunchroom looks quite different than it once did. In partnership with the National Park Service, Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company has worked to reduce its impact while still offering some services to visitors.
During my March 2023 visit, I noticed just how dark the area is – this is an adjustment to help bats not be drawn to the lights of the lunchroom during their seasonal stay in the caverns. More of the area offers souvenirs than food, though there is still a small snack bar that sells foods that don’t require cooking – gone are the ovens and toasters of decades past. It’s probably not even worth calling it a lunchroom anymore – snack bar is definitely the more accurate term.
Honestly, it isn’t particularly inspiring anymore, though that might well be by design; fewer visitors and less income might well bring the lunchroom to a natural conclusion – maybe even within the first century of the park’s presence.
The Future of the Underground Lunchroom
So what’s next? It’s obvious that the National Park Service has a begrudging acceptance of the lunchroom, and the current concessioner appears to be doing their best to minimize its presence. Most visitors – even those who enter by way of the Natural Entrance – won’t spend more than a few hours underground at one go, and the food offered at Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company’s upstairs cafe is measurably better than what’s offered down below.
Should I eat at the Carlsbad Caverns underground lunchroom?
That’s entirely up to you! It’s offered, and will likely be so for the future; if you see something you like on the menu, it is certainly an experience unlike any other when you consider that you’re eating a meal 750 feet underground!
How can I minimize my impact when visiting the underground lunchroom?
The best way to reduce your footprint and travel responsibly at Carlsbad Caverns is by ensuring that you leave no outside debris in the caverns after your visit. This is why you can’t bring food or drink other than water when exploring the caverns. Additionally, you can choose low-crumble foods to reduce tiny crumbs and make sure you clean up any messes or spills while enjoying your snack at one of the few remaining tables in the lunchroom.
Is there a cool alternative to eating at the underground lunchroom?
Actually, there is! While a meal is great, an even better way to remember your trip to this historic site is by purchasing, writing, and mailing a postcard from Carlsbad Caverns. Postcards dropped in the mailbox of the underground lunchroom will receive a special postmark denoting the unique place the mail started out from. This helps support Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company as a concessioner, leaves no crumbs, and gives you a cool souvenir and memory.
Have any other questions about the Carlsbad Caverns underground lunchroom? Let me know in the comments below!