New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a true underground wonderland unlike any other. This park is home to a vast network of hundreds of intricate cave systems.
These caves and caverns house a variety of natural geologic wonders such as stalactites, stalagmites, large tunnel systems, and limestone cave chambers.
Above the caves in the sprawling Chihuahuan Desert lies a beautiful landscape full of deep, rugged canyons, ancient sea ledges, magnificent flowering cactuses, and abundant native desert wildlife.
Some of the top things to do in the park include exploring the caverns through guided and self-guided tours, stargazing, surface hikes above ground, as well as the park’s infamous Bat Flight Program.
In addition to discussing some of the top things to do inside Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we’ll also discuss general topics about the park, including the most common questions as follows:
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park Facts
- Where is Carlsbad Caverns National Park Located?
- Is Carlsbad Caverns Caverns National Park worth visiting?
- How to get to Carlsbad Caverns (from Carlsbad, NM)
- What is the best time of year to visit Carlsbad Caverns?
- Top things to do at Carlsbad Caverns
- Best Cave Tours at Carlsbad Caverns
- Frequently Asked Questions
- List of the Top Things to do inside Carlsbad Caverns
- How many days should I spend in Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
- Can you go into Carlsbad Caverns without a reservation?
- Is Camping in Carlsbad Caverns National Park allowed?
- Best Campgrounds and Camping Near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- Is RV camping allowed in Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
- Are pets allowed in Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
- Final Thoughts
Carlsbad Caverns National Park Facts
- On May 14, 1930, Carlsbad Caverns officially became a national park.
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park is comprised of some 46,766 acres, which also includes 33,000 acres of designated wilderness.
- The park is situated in Southeastern New Mexico in the Guadalupe Mountains and Permian Basin.
- Interestingly, the Guadalupe Mountain Range also runs through part of the Texas border, where Guadalupe Mountains National Park is conveniently located within a 45-minute drive. As such, visiting both Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks during a weekend trip would definitely be doable.
- The park’s elevation ranges from 3,596 feet to 6,368 feet above sea level. The park’s visitor center is situated at about 4,406 feet in elevation.
- There are currently 120 known caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. As the exploration of the various cave systems of the park continues, this number may increase.
- The caverns at the park stay a consistent and chilly 56°F (13°C) all year round.
- The park receives about 500,000 visitors annually. Since 1924 Carlsbad Caverns has seen over 44,000,000 visitors.
- Regarding wildlife, the park contains 67 mammal species, 357 species, 54 reptile/ amphibian species, and 17 bat species. There are also over 750 plant species found within the park’s boundaries.
- The park’s longest cave, Lechuguilla Cave, is over 140 miles long!
Where is Carlsbad Caverns National Park Located?
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is situated in the southeastern section of New Mexico near the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains. The city of Carlsbad, New Mexico, is only about 40 minutes northeast of the park.
Is Carlsbad Caverns Caverns National Park worth visiting?
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is, without a doubt, worth visiting. Of course, the park is most famous for its stunning and vast collection of cave systems.
The caverns and caves in the park contain a series of geological wonders you won’t find anywhere else.
These caverns have an intricate collection of tremendous stalagmites, stalactites, draperies, soda straws, and ribbon-shaped curtains. You can explore these tours on your own through a self-guided tour, or you can choose to take a ranger-guided cave tour.
In addition to the magnificent caves and caverns, the park contains an assortment of surface hikes.
Furthermore, you’ll enjoy guided ranger tours showcasing how the native bats enter and exit the caves in masses. There are also ranger tours known as “Night Sky Programs,” where park rangers present a night sky talk and point out interesting astronomical features seen under the dark skies of the Chihuahuan Desert.
How to get to Carlsbad Caverns (from Carlsbad, NM)
Getting to Carlsbad Caverns National Park from the city of Carlsbad, New Mexico, is relatively quick and easy. It’s only about a 35-minute drive from the city to the park.
- Take US-180 W/US-62 W and continue straight.
- Turn right onto NM-7 W.
- Follow NM-7 W until you reach the visitor center.
What is the best time of year to visit Carlsbad Caverns?
The best time of year to visit depends on what you’re there to see and what kind of weather you prefer. Generally speaking, the best times to visit are April-May and September-October.
If you’re there to see the famous bat migrations and flights, you’ll want to visit anywhere from mid to late April through October. After October, the bats head south to Mexico for the winter.
While you will see bats during the summer, this time of year is scorching and arid in the desert. Average temperatures during the summer range from 90 °F to the low 100s °F. This makes for poor hiking conditions during this time of year.
However, if you’re there to do mainly cave tours, the outside heat isn’t much of an issue since the caves are a consistent 56 °F year-round. As with many national parks, summer tends to be the busiest time of year, so expect crowds during this time. This is especially true on weekends and holidays.
January and February are the off-season in the park, with a stark decrease in visitors. So if you’re seeking to avoid the crowds, this is the time to go. You’ll still be able to do cave tours then, but you will miss out on seeing the bat flights.
Average highs during January and February range from low to high 50s °F. Such cooler weather is excellent for enjoying some of the surface hikes at the park.
Top things to do at Carlsbad Caverns
Obviously, the park’s star attraction is the extraordinary collection of caves and caverns you can explore. However, there are also a number of things to do above the caves on the park’s surface as well.
Exploring The Caverns
You have two options when exploring the park’s remarkable array of caverns. You could choose to take your own self-guided tour, or you could do a ranger-guided tour.
Self-guided tours are the way to go if you and your group are crunched for time. This way, you can tour the cave at your own pace and come and go as you like.
Ranger-guided tours are great if you want a more in-depth understanding of the caves’ history and geology.
Bat Flight Program
This is one of the most exciting and popular activities inside Carlsbad Caverns. Every year from April through October, thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge from the caves in considerable numbers to feed during the evening.
A park ranger provides visitors with a talk about the bats before they take flight. The free program takes place at the Bat Flight Amphitheatre near the Natural Entrance to Carlsbad Cavern.
If you are at the park before late May, visitors are more than welcome to watch the bats exit the caves from the Amphitheatre. Park rangers, however, won’t be there before late May to give commentary about the bats.
The best time of year to see the bat flights would be during August and September. This is when baby bats, born earlier in the summer, unite in the flight joining with migrating bats from northern bat colonies.
Night Sky Program
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a prime spot to view the beauty of the Milkyway Galaxy in all its glory. This is thanks to the park’s remote location in an isolated desert setting with little light pollution.
A park ranger will talk about the starry skies above during the program. They’ll use a laser pointer to bring out the astronomical features above. You may even see an incredible meteor shower on specific nights during the year.
These Night Sky Programs are only offered during certain times of the year. You can check out the specific dates for these programs on the park’s website.
Go hiking on the Surface Trails
There are multiple surface trails at Carlsbad Caverns to explore. These trails range from easy, paved hikes to strenuous ones with extreme elevation gains over a short period.
Below is a list of surface hikes in the park:
- Walnut Canyon Overlook
- Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail
- Slaughter Canyon Cave Trail
- Old Guano Trail
- Juniper Ridge
- Lower Rattlesnake Canyon
- Upper Rattlesnake Canyon to Guadalupe Ridge Loop
- Slaughter Canyon
- Yucca Canyon
- Guadalupe Ridge
- Guadalupe Ridge Trail
If you’re only visiting the park for a day trip, it would be better to skip the surface hikes. Touring the caves and caverns below the ground is more worthwhile than the surface hikes if you’re only visiting briefly.
Walnut Canyon Desert Drive
The Walnut Canyon Desert Drive is a 9.5-mile (15 km) one-way, unpaved route. This road is not maintained for low-clearance vehicles and is not open to buses, trailers, and RVs.
Reviews and feelings about this drive are mixed. Some people say the drive is fun and scenic. Others say it’s a rather dull ride through an unspectacular desert landscape.
Again, if you’re only visiting the park briefly, it’s best to skip this drive. But if you have more time to explore the park, it won’t hurt to check out part of this drive to see what you think about it.
The NPS describes Rattlesnake Springs as “a lush oasis in the desert.” The area is a riparian ecosystem comprising a natural spring and a large grove of cottonwood trees planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
A lovely shaded picnic area also has restrooms, grills, and trash cans.
The spring itself isn’t necessarily the most spectacular sight in the world. Still, it is an unexpected one in the middle of the desert, nonetheless.
In reality, people visit Rattlesnake Springs mainly for bird watching. Various bird species can be viewed at Rattlesnake Springs year-round.
Best Cave Tours at Carlsbad Caverns
There are two self-guided tours available for visitors to take at Carlsbad Caverns. Both of these tours are quite impressive and are 100% worth doing.
Big Room Trail
Distance: 1.25 miles (2km)
Length of Time: 1.5 hours
This is the park’s most popular route and for good reasons. The Big Room is North America’s most enormous single cave chamber by volume.
This impressive trail provides visitors with tremendous views, various shapes and sizes of cave formations, stalactites and stalagmites, and a historic rope ladder used by explorers in 1924.
Actor and comedian Will Rogers called the cavern “The Grand Canyon with a roof over it.”
The trail is primarily flat, and parts of the trail are wheelchair accessible. Check out the park’s Accessibility Guide for more information regarding wheelchair accessibility.
If you’re looking for a shorter trail experience, the Big Room has a shortcut that cuts the walking distance to about 0.6 miles (1 km). The hiking time on the shortened trail is about 45 minutes.
Natural Entrance Trail
Distance: 1.25 miles (2km)
Length of Time: One hour
The Natural Entrance Trail is one of Carlsbad Caverns’ most remarkable and memorable experiences. A maintained switchback asphalt trail goes down into the opening of Carlsbad Caverns.
Your eyes adjust to the darkness the further you go down the cavern. You’ll be rewarded with incredible sights of geologic formations such as the Devil’s Spring, the Whale’s Mouth, and Iceberg Rock.
It should be noted that the walk down into the cave from the entrance is incredibly steep. You gain or lose about 750 feet (229 m) depending on if you decide to hike up or down. This is comparable to walking up or down a 75-story building.
The trail ends at the Big Room Trail. It’s recommended that you start walking downhill into the cave entrance when you begin the trail. Starting from the other end and exiting through the Natural Entrance isn’t recommended as you’ll have to endure a steep, exhausting uphill climb.
Ranger Guided Tours
Currently, there are five guided ranger tours for visitors to engage in. These tours range in difficulty from short, undemanding strolls to much more lengthy and challenging trips. These involve activities such as crawling through narrow tunnels and climbing over rocks. Extra fees come with all of these ranger-guided tours.
As of April 2023, only the King’s Palace Tour is being offered for now. You can get updates on these cave tours and when they’re offered on the National Parks Service’s website.
Note that these tours are offered during varying days and times throughout the week. The schedule and availability for these tours changes often based on the season.
King’s Palace Tour
Duration: 1.5 hours
Distance: 1 mile (1.6 km)
Maximum Tour Group Size: 12
Age Limit: Children under 4 years old are not permitted on the King’s Palace Tour. Anyone under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
The King’s Palace Tour is a popular, 1.5-hour ranger-guided tour. It will take you through four highly decorated chambers down into the deepest segment of the cavern open to the public.
The deepest part of this tour takes you 830 feet (253 m) beneath the surface of the desert!
This tour is not as difficult as the Natural Entrance Trail. However, it does require some descending, plus walking up a very steep hill at the end.
On this tour, you’ll see magnificent geologic cave formations, including helictites, stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, columns, and soda straws.
Rangers on this tour often do blackouts during the trip. This is when all lights are briefly turned off to expose the true natural darkness of the cavern.
Hall of the White Giant
Duration: 4 hours
Maximum Tour Group Size: 8
Age Limit: Minimum age is 12 years old. Anyone under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
The Hall of the White Giant Tour is one for thrill seekers and adventures alike. This rather intense tour requires crawling through tight passageways and climbing over slippery flowstone.
Ladder climbing, free climbing, and all kinds of slippery surfaces are all part of this expedition. Ultimately, you are bound to get dirty during this tour.
This tour is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights and tight spaces.
This lengthy trip requires you to prioritize group safety and communication.
Left Hand Tunnel Tour
Duration: 2 hours
Maximum Tour Group Size: 10
Age Limit: Minimum age is 6 years old. Anyone under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
This is a moderately difficult trip through an undeveloped cave section on unpaved trails. Candle-lit lanterns also illuminate this trail.
The tour includes a dirt trail that crosses uneven surfaces and steep and slippery slopes. The trail also winds around cavern pools and other fragile geologic formations.
Lanterns are provided to you on this tour. It is not recommended for anyone with trouble seeing dimly lit areas.
Closed-toed shoes, hiking boots, or hiking shoes with good tread are required.
Lower Cave Tour
Duration: 3 hours
Maximum Tour Group Size: 12
Age Limit: Ages 12 and over. Anyone under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
This tour has an incredible collection of cave formations that will undoubtedly leave you in awe.
One of this fabulous tour’s highlights is “The Rookery,” home to a massive collection of cave pearls. This is one of the few places such cave pearls can be seen in Carlsbad Caverns.
This tour also includes a descent of sixty feet as you steadily climb down on ladders and knotted rope at the entrance of the tour.
Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour
Duration: 5.5 hours
Maximum Tour Group Size: 16
Age Limit: Minimum age is 8 years old. Anyone under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
This is a moderately difficult tour that is full of adventure. This tour takes you into an underground wonderland without electricity, paved walkways, or modern amenities.
The trails down here are slippery, narrow, and uneven. The only light sources in this perpetual darkness are headlamps and flashlights from rangers and tour members.
Some fantastic geologic cave formations can be found here. Such formations include sights such as the 89-foot high Monarch, one of the world’s tallest columns; the Christmas Tree, a glistening, crystal-adorned column; and the Chinese Wall, a fragile, ankle-high rimstone dam.
Frequently Asked Questions
List of the Top Things to do inside Carlsbad Caverns
- Explore the Caverns through self-guided and ranger-guided tours
- Experience the Bat Flight Program
- Experience the Night Sky Program
- Hike the surface trails
- Take the Walnut Canyon Scenic Drive
- Visit Rattlesnake Springs
How many days should I spend in Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
For most visitors, one day in Carlsbad Caverns is enough time to see some of the park’s most popular main attractions.
With good organization, you could easily do some cave tours and see the Bat Flight Program in one day. That is, as long as it’s the right time of year to see the bats.
If you wish to add extra things to your itinerary, like surface hikes and scenic drives, you may want to stay at Carlsbad Caverns for two days.
Can you go into Carlsbad Caverns without a reservation?
While you don’t need reservations to enter the park itself, you do need reservations for all self-guided and ranger-guided cave tours.
Self-guided cave tours require timed entry tickets that are bought in advance. So planning ahead is crucially important. These tickets can be purchased online at www.recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777.
The timed entry tickets cost $1 each and are NOT sold at the park. Additionally, you still have to pay an entrance fee to access the caves. You must pay the cave entrance fee inside the park’s visitor center before you enter the cave.
It should be noted that timed entry tickets are required even for visitors who have an access pass or other national parks pass. The timed cave entry ticket and cave entrance fee are required in addition to, not instead of, the usual entrance fee.
Every person, including children, must have a ticket to enter the caves. Confirmation emails for Self-Guided Tours must be presented upon arrival. Cell phone coverage may not be available, so it’s essential to have a screenshot of your timed reservation or print it out beforehand.
Children under 15 do not need to pay an entrance fee at the visitor center to enter the cave but must still hold a timed reservation ticket/slot. You must secure timed reservations for all adults AND children in your party well in advance.
Reservations are available 30 days in advance and up to 5 AM MT on the tour day. No reservations can be made for same-day after 5:00 AM MT.
You must pick up your tour tickets at the visitor center at least 30 minutes before the tour. A cavern entrance ticket must also be purchased.
Is Camping in Carlsbad Caverns National Park allowed?
Unfortunately, no overnight lodging or established campgrounds inside Carlsbad Caverns National Park exists. Primitive camping is allowed, but only in the backcountry.
Primitive camping does, however, require a free permit which is given at the park’s visitor center when you arrive (not reservable in advance).
Best Campgrounds and Camping Near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
While there are no campgrounds inside Carlsbad Caverns National Park, there are plenty of camping opportunities in the nearby city of Carlsbad, NM, and other surrounding areas.
This campground is located only 40 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It is one of the closest campgrounds to the park. It’s also in a very scenic area near Brantley Lake and Brantley Lake State Park.
This campground is directly off US Highway 285 near the Guadalupe Backcountry Byway. It’s also a nice and quiet retreat close enough to Carlsbad for amenities but far away enough to where you don’t have to deal with the bustle of the city.
Carlsbad RV Park and Campground
This campground is situated directly in the city of Carlsbad and is only about 30 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Since this campground is in the center of town, you’ll have no problems finding gas, dining, groceries, and other supplies.
The sites at this campground are level and well taken care of. There is also a picnic area, an on-site grocery store, and a gift shop here.
Pine Springs Campground
This campground is located about 35 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns across state lines in Texas. While camping here is remote and basic, it is situated in a scenic area inside Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
The beauty of this rural area is unmatched. It’s perfect for those seeking an authentic taste of the stunning American Southwest landscape. Lots of outdoor recreational activities can be found here. Camper/RV sites are also located at this campground.
Artesia RV Park
Artesia RV Park is located about an hour north of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the town of Artesia. This RV park has excellent reviews and many amenities compared to other local RV parks.
This location has helpful and friendly owners/staff and is well-maintained. It also has great wifi connection and clean restrooms. Plenty of gas stations, restaurants, and even a Wal-Mart are in town.
Harry McAdams Campground
This campground is located about an hour and a half from Carlsbad Caverns near the city of Hobbs, NM. This campground is a true hidden gem. It is relatively small and is in a beautiful, serene, and quiet area. It has lots of green grass and trees that shade the campsites. The sites here are well-paved and very roomy.
This campground also has recreational areas and activities such as picnic spots, playgrounds for kids, disc golf, plus an on-site fishing pond. It also has full hookups for RVs and clean restrooms.
Sunset Reef Campground
This campground is located only about 10 minutes from the park. This free campground comprises 11 developed campsites, five RV spaces, and six tent sites. Each site conveniently has a covered picnic table, grill, and vault toilet.
You can dry camp in the area for a maximum of five nights for free. This campground is owned and operated by the Bureau of Land Management.
The Chosa Campground is a maintained dry camping area operated by the Bureau of Land Management. This campground is only 20 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns. It isn’t really anything fancy at all. It’s simply a large, square gravel parking lot. This does make it easy for leveling, though.
There are no electric, water, or sewer hookups available. Trash cans are available on-site. This campground is, however, free to stay at for up to 14 days.
White’s City RV Park
This RV park is literally just outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It sits at the intersection of National Parks Highway and Carlsbad Cavern Highway. You can actually walk to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park entrance from here.
So really, this is as close as you could possibly stay to the park. This RV park, however, is relatively small and has limited amenities. While tiny, the town of Whites City has restaurants and stores for supplies.
Is RV camping allowed in Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
Overnight RV camping is not permitted anywhere inside the park. However, there are many local RV parks in the surrounding area to park your RV overnight.
Are pets allowed in Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
Pets are not allowed inside the cavern, on unpaved park trails on the surface, off-road, during the Bat Flight Program, or in the visitor center. Pets must be on a leash no longer than six feet when outside of your vehicle. You are not allowed to leave your pet unattended in vehicles.
The park concessioner, Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company, runs a kennel service where you can leave your pet in a temperature-controlled setting while you tour the cavern. The kennel is for day use only—no overnight stays. You can find more information regarding the rules and requirements for this kennel service here.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is an icon of America’s Southwest and undeniably worth visiting.
The park’s wide selection of astonishing cave tours makes for an unforgettable experience.
Self-guided tours here are fantastic. They allow visitors to see some of the park’s most remarkable cave formations at their own pace.
Ranger-guided tours are just as marvelous and vary from leisurely trips to more thrilling, challenging hikes. These tours, both ranger-guided and self-guided, do require reservations, so plan accordingly.
The park’s famous Bat Flight Program is a sensational sight where thousands of bats emerge all at once from their caves to find food in the evening.
Carlsbad Caverns is also an ideal spot to view the stars of the Milkyway, uninhibited by any light pollution. Join a ranger for one of the park’s Dark Sky Programs to get an in-depth understanding of the stars and constellations above you.
There are no established campsites or RV sites in the park for overnight stays. Even so, many campgrounds and RV parks exist in the surrounding towns and cities.
Carlsbad Caverns isn’t your ordinary cave, so avoid overlooking this jewel of a national park. Don’t wait any longer! Now is the time to visit this superb location. Plan your southwestern trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park today!
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