Carlsbad Caverns National Park is nestled down in the southeast corner of New Mexico, and although it requires some driving, the trip is well worth it. Nothing quite prepares you for the moment you walk down into the Caverns, and you realize just how expansive this cave system is. While it’s not as big as Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky (the largest in the world), it does have the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America.
Walking the caves left us mesmerized.
We’ve had the opportunity to visit many other caves, but Carlsbad is BIG! We loved that it’s easy to get around (provided you use the elevator), and much of the viewing areas are on flat ground. This makes it a great place to visit with small children or others with physical challenges who may not be able to visit other caves.
Other than exploring the caves, the park offers several other activities as well, including bat watching, hiking trails, and a stargazing program. You can easily visit in a day and take it all in, and with Guadalupe Mountains National Park just next door, it’s easy to visit two parks in a weekend.
Carlsbad Caverns had been on our list of places to visit for a long time, and I’m glad we finally made the drive down to visit. Pictures of caves don’t really do them justice, so we hope our guide inspires you to plan a visit to see them in person. Enjoy!
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A Day in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
AftT Tip: Carlsbad Caverns requires a timed entry ticket which you can reserve online at Recreation.gov. Once you have a reserved time, you will purchase tickets at the ticket window when you arrive. Entry times can only be reserved online, so make sure you do that first before arriving.
In the morning, hike some trails while it’s cooler.
If you’re up for it, there are several hiking trails within Carlsbad Caverns National Park that are great for exploring the surrounding Guadalupe Mountains and Chihuahuan Desert landscapes. They range in difficulty from short, paved trails, to more extreme backcountry travel.
AftT Tip: With any hike, may sure you are prepared with water and a small first aid kit. Remember, this is the desert, so be mindful of the weather conditions and take plenty of water and sunscreen.
Hiking trails at Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Walnut Canyon Overlook Trail: Paved and only a 5 minute hike from the parking lot to the overlook.
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail: Mostly paved and takes about an hour round trip.
Lower Rattlesnake Canyon: This trail is moderate difficulty and will take around 6 hours round trip.
Guadalupe Ridge Trail: This trail runs through the park for 21 miles and offers hikers and backpackers a wilderness experience. Backcountry camping is permitted.
Tour the Caves
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is all about the caves, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to explore them. Visitors have a lot of options to choose from – Ranger-led, self-guided, long, short – they’re all great options, so just pick the one that works best for your schedule and abilities.
Reminder: You must reserve a tour time online at Recreation.gov. This is not a ticket! Once you have your reservation, you will report to the ticket office at the park to actually purchase your Carlsbad Caverns tickets.
Ranger-led tours at Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns offers several Ranger-Guided tours. Some are easy-going and hit the highlights, while others are a little more intense and might require a bit of crawling around. Whichever you choose, be sure you’re prepared and follow the instructions on your ticket. Children under four are not allowed on any guided tour.
King’s Palace Tour: Moderate difficulty – 1.5 hours – trails are paved and lit.
Left Hand Tunnel Tour: Moderate difficulty – 2 hours – Candlelight tour with uneven steps and darkness.
Lower Cave Tour: Strenuous – 3 hours – Explore beneath the Big Room. Includes ladders, rope lines, and uneven terrain.
Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour: Strenuous – 5.5 hours – Exploring undeveloped cave by headlamp. Trailhead is not at the Visitor Center.
Spider Cave Tour: Strenuous – 4 hours – Some hiking, but mostly crawling and crouching through small tunnels and passageways.
Hall of the White Giant Tour: Strenuous – 4 hours – The most technical of the tours, requiring lots of crawling and use of a narrow ladder.
Admission Times: Varies
How to get here: Some tours will begin at the Visitor Center, while others may begin at a trailhead down the road.
Self-guided tours at Carlsbad Caverns National Park
During our visit, we choose the self-guided option and entered through the Natural Entrance Trail. This option adds a little over a mile of walking to the tour, but it allows you to see the cave as the first explorers found it. The trail is steep and not accessible to wheelchairs, but it is paved.
AftT Tip: The Natural Entrance Trail is strenuous! Be careful taking this trail with small children or if you have mobility issues. It's a workout.
Alternatively, you can hike the Big Room Trail which offers an elevator down to the Big Room. This handy feature lets you get started exploring the park’s coolest features straight away. This trail is about 1.25 miles and takes 1.5 hours or so to make the loop. You’ll see things like the Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, and Painted Grotto, and of course, the immense 8.2-acre Big Room.
AftT Tip: You may want to pack a jacket - the cave is a constant 56°F all year long.
Admission Times: Reserve on Recreation.gov
Price: $15 – ages 16 and older. Free for children under 16.
How to get here: All self-guided tours leave from the Visitor Center.
New Mexico has some great National Parks. Read more about New Mexico National Parks here.
Watch the Carlsbad Caverns bats take flight in the evening
If you’re visiting from about late May through October, don’t miss spending an evening with Carlsbad’s famous Brazilian free-tailed bats. The nightly Bat Flight Program takes place at the large amphitheater just in front of the Natural Entrance Trail. Join Park Rangers as they give a talk about the bats, and then watch as they emerge from the caves by the thousands, looking for an evening meal.
AftT Tip: Cameras and recording equipment are not allowed during the Bat Flight Program. Bats are sensitive to both light and sound, so leave your phone in your pocket and just enjoy show.
Bat Flight Program at Carlsbad Caverns
Admission Times: Varies depending on sunset times.
Where to meet: The Bat Flight Program meets at the Bat Flight Amphitheater located just in front of the Natural Entrance to the caves.
Read about all of America's National Parks here.
Explore the Museum and Bookstore
As you wrap up your day or while you’re waiting on your entrance time, take a walk around the museum and bookstore. There’s a lot of great information to learn about the caves, and it will give you a little bit of perspective as you take your tour.
Having been to Mammoth Cave National Park as well as Great Basin National Park, it’s interesting to see the differences and similarities in how these caves were formed and some of the history and science behind them.
Where to stay at Carlsbad Caverns National Park
There is no camping or lodging available in the park (unless you plan on camping in the backcountry). For our trip, we stayed at a hotel in nearby Carlsbad, New Mexico, which is about twenty miles away. Carlsbad has plenty of hotels near Carlsbad Caverns to choose from, and for us the Marriott TownePlace Suites Carlsbad was a great option, giving us room to spread out a bit.
If you’re looking for camping near Carlsbad Caverns , there is an RV Park at the entrance to the park, as well as a few campgrounds nearby.
Have you visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
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