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We entered the mouth of the cave and plunged ourselves into the darkness. After a solid hour of walking, we finally reached the bottom. That’s when I realized this isn’t just another cave. It’s a whole other world. And while words can’t describe how amazing this place is, I can give you some helpful tips so you can get the most out of your trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
- What are the Carlsbad Caverns?
- Things to Do at the Caverns
- Logistical Information
- Where to Stay
- Our Impressions
- Tips for Your Trip to Carlsbad Caverns
What are the Carlsbad Caverns?
Carlsbad Caverns is located in southeastern New Mexico in the midst of the Chihuahuan Desert. This national park covers 73 square miles and is located approximately 20 miles outside the city of Carlsbad.
While the park includes the area both above and below ground, the highlight is the caverns 750 feet beneath the desert floor.
There are more than 100 caves here, but the most popular one is the Big Room. It is approximately 4000 feet long and 625 feet wide.
The caverns were first discovered by explorers in 1898. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge created the Carlsbad Caverns National Monument. And in 1930, it became a national park.
Today, almost a half million people visit Carlsbad Caverns annually.
The caverns are “the Grand Canyon with a roof on it.”-Will Rogers
Things to Do at the Caverns
While exploring the caverns is clearly the star of the show, there are other things to do at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Self Guided Tours
- The Big Room–Explore the 1.25 mile trail throughout the Big Room at your own pace. It will take you approximately 1 to 1 1/2 hours to complete. You can reach the Big Room either by taking the Natural Entrance Trail or by elevator from the Visitor’s Center. This trail is relatively flat and easy for most to navigate.
- The Natural Entrance Trail–The other self-guided tour is the 1.25 mile Natural Entrance Trail. It will take you about an hour to go through the original cave opening and down to the Big Room. This trail is steep and strenuous.
PLEASE NOTE: Due to COVID-19 restrictions that are currently in place, everyone entering the caves must take the Natural Entrance Trail in and use the elevator to exit.
Ranger Guided Tours
If you would like to explore other parts of the caves, there are several ranger-led tours available. They are all more challenging than the self guided tours and require an additional fee.
- King’s Palace Tour–This moderately difficult tour leads you through 4 chambers of the caverns on a paved walkway. It lasts 90 minutes. Children under 4 are not permitted.
- Hall of the White Giant Tour–This 4 hour tour is the most difficult of them all. It requires you to climb up slippery vertical rock and belly-crawl through tight spaces. Children under 12 are not permitted.
- Left Hand Tunnel Tour–Explore the caves like the original explorers did-by lantern light. This 2-hour tour is moderately difficult. The pathway is dirt and uneven. Children must be 6 or over to participate.
- Lower Cave Tour–To explore the lower cave, you must descend using ropes and steep ladders. This tour lasts 3 hours and can be muddy and slippery. This is a difficult trek. Children must be at least 12 years old to take this tour.
- Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour–The 5 1/2 hour Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour takes you through narrow, uneven, and dark areas on this difficult hike. It begins with a steep 1/2 mile hike on the surface before entering the cave. Children must be at least 8 years old for this one.
PLEASE NOTE: Due to COVID 19 restrictions, most of the ranger led tours are currently unavailable.
Above Ground Activities
Start your visit to Carlsbad Caverns at the Visitor’s Center. Here, you can buy admission tickets, get information, visit the gift shop, grab a snack, and check out the exhibits and film about the caverns.
There are 11 different surface hiking trails within Carlsbad Caverns National Park that you can explore. They range in length from 180 yards to 21 miles.
Walnut Canyon Desert Drive
This 9 mile drive along a gravel, one-lane road will give you a great overview of the desert landscape that makes up the above ground portion of the park.
Bat Flight Program
Have a seat in the park’s amphitheater behind the Visitor’s Center just before sunset to listen to a ranger talk about the bats that make their home in the caverns during the summer months. Then watch in amazement as the bats leave the caves and take flight for their nightly hunting.
On select nights during the summer and fall, rangers lead nighttime hikes through the desert to observe the stars, moon, and meteor showers.
PLEASE NOTE: Due to COVID-19 restrictions, night programs and bat flight programs are currently canceled.
Check with the National Park Service’s website for more details on the activities available during your visit.
The park is open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Generally, the park is open 8:00 am-1:45 pm each day. There are special operating hours on some holidays.
The entrance fee for the park is $15 per person for everyone age 16 and over. Children age 15 and under are free. There are special fees for ranger-led tours and some other activities.
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the pandemic, the National Park Service is only allowing a limited number of people into the caves daily. Tickets are sold on a first come, first serve basis with no option to buy in advance. Most days, tickets are sold out by 10:00 am.
You will find plenty of parking, including for RV’s at the Visitor’s Center. From the highway, follow the signs towards the park and continue on the road until you reach the Visitor’s Center.
Wifi & Cell Service
There is no wifi and only limited cell service available within the park.
Where to Stay
If your trip to Carlsbad Caverns will involve staying overnight, you have a couple options on where to stay.
Only backcountry camping is allowed inside of the park. You will need a permit to camp and there are restrictions on where you can put your campsite. No RV camping is permitted inside the park.
If you prefer to camp in an RV or camper, there is a small campsite area in the small town of Whites City, which is where you turn off the highway to head to the park.
If a hotel is more your speed, then I recommend booking a hotel in Carlsbad. There is one small hotel in Whites City, but that is it. If you go to Carlsbad, you will have a wide variety of hotels to choose from, as well as lots of options for restaurants.
We stayed in a hotel in Carlsbad. It was an easy 30 minute drive out to the caverns.
We decided to go to Carlsbad Caverns because we had heard so many great things about it. Honestly though, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know if the caves would keep us entertained long enough to make the trip worth it.
I am happy to say that I was wrong. We were all really impressed by the caves. The sheer size of them is impressive. You can’t really grasp just how large they are until you see them for yourself.
Thanks to the the pandemic restrictions, all of the ranger-led tours were canceled at the time of our trip. We did both of the self-guided tours, however, and drove the Walnut Canyon Drive.
We spent a good 3 hours exploring the caverns. This was a perfect half day trek for us. If you also take advantage of some of the surface hikes or ranger tours, you can easily turn this into a full day or even a two day trip.
Tips for Your Trip to Carlsbad Caverns
- Wear closed-toe shoes.–The walkways throughout the caverns are wet, uneven, and slick. So, it’s important to wear closed-toe shoes with good grip so you don’t fall.
- Wear appropriate clothing.–Remember that the temperature in the caves is a constant 56 degrees. So, even if it is super hot on the surface, you will need fall clothing down below.
- There are limited food options.–The only food options once you leave Carlsbad are the cafe in the Visitor’s Center, a small snack bar in the Big Room, and a convenience store down the road in Whites City. So, if you want more options for meals, either bring your own or eat in Carlsbad.
- Go to the bathroom.–There are bathrooms in the Visitor’s Center and Big Room. However, if you are taking the Natural Entrance Trail, it will be an hour or more in between those two options. So, go before you begin your descent.
- Give yourself enough time.–Remember that if you do both the Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room, you will need a good 2-3 hours to complete them. So, plan accordingly. Additionally, if you go during the COVID restrictions, plan to get there no later than 8:00 am to ensure you get a ticket for the day.
- There is limited light in the caves.–Because it is fairly dark in the caverns, photography is challenging. You are allowed to use a flash, but even with that, it can be hard to get a good shot. I find that this is one situation where my cell phone was better at photos than my DSLR.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is fascinating place for families to explore. In this one park, you can marvel at both the desert landscape above ground and the unique rock formations that fill the caverns below.
These caves are simply beyond comprehension. You must take a family trip to see them! The above information and tips will help you get the most out of your trip to Carlsbad Caverns.
For more family friendly things to do in New Mexico, read about the Gila Cliff Dwellings, the Catwalk, City of Rocks, and White Sands National Park. And check out things to do and where to eat in Silver City.
Also see our post on visiting the Grand Canyon with kids.
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