My daughter Elizabeth was three years old when she first hiked Carlsbad Caverns with my husband and me through the enormous natural entrance and down the 750-foot elevation along a 1.25-mile twisting and turning steep paved path to the darkness of the so-called Big Room below. We’ve made several more trips since then, snuggling in a sweater and enjoying the consistent 56-degree temperatures while the summers blazed outside.
Located in southeastern New Mexico in the Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns became a National Park in 1930. Organizing a trip to both parks is practical since the Guadalupe Mountains National Park is 56 miles south on Highway 62/180.
The closest town to the caverns is Whites City, 7 miles east of the park entrance and 20 miles south of Carlsbad, my husband’s hometown. The closest hotel to the caverns is Whites City Cavern Inn.
Take Park Road 7 from Highway 62/180 at Whites City to the caverns. The unpaved Walnut Canyon Desert Loop Drive, a side road, is temporarily closed due to recent rain saturation and washouts.
The Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center features must-see exhibits of cavern history and wildlife. Learn how 16-year old cowboy Jim White first discovered the cave entrance. Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company offers a gift shop, cafeteria, and bookstore at the surface, plus snacks and gift service 750 feet below in the Underground Lunchroom.
Pro Tip: There’s a new booking procedure. Make your date and time entrance reservations online before going for $1 per person. You will need to show the printed reservation or the electronic receipt on your cell phone. No reservations are available at the park entrance. Once you arrive, you will pay $15 per adult for the entrance pass, and children 15 years of age or younger are free.
For safety, wear closed-toed shoes with good traction. No flip flops, sandals, or casual shoes with a slippery sole are allowed. Watch your step and use the handrails when necessary.
All visitors who enter the cavern must walk on bio-cleaning mats after exiting to prevent the spread of White-nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that is killing bats in North America. Do not wear shoes, clothing, or gear that you have worn in any other cave to prevent the spread of the disease. You must change clothes between each cave visit and decontaminate footwear per protocol.
Pro Tip: I always have very sore calves the next day or so, after the hike down into the caverns. To prepare ahead, do calf exercises like heel lifts and lunges.
1. See The Beauty Of The Caverns
More than 300 known limestone caves within the park are some of the biggest and longest caves in the world. Geologists realized that sulfuric acid, not carbonic acid, has played a significant role in forming the Guadalupe Mountains caves millions of years ago. Sulfuric acid forms when hydrogen sulfide from oil deposits and microbes combine with oxygen over time, creating endless mazes of narrow and huge passageways. Gypsum formed when the sulfuric acid dissolved the limestone.
The magnificent speleothems, or cave formations, look like a Whale’s Mouth. Other natural formations include The Frozen Waterfall and The Eternal Kiss. Devil’s Spring is a large pool fed by drops of water dripping from the ceiling, forming stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. Iceberg Rock, weighing 200,000 tons, is an obstacle, with the trail winding above, around, and below the rock to enter the Big Room.
2. Explore The Big Room At The Base
You can take the elevator from the visitor center directly down to the beginning of the Big Room Trail or access it after walking down from the natural entrance. The trail is a figure eight, about 1.25 miles, and it takes an hour and a half to walk it. You can take the shorter route where the figure-eight crosses. Parts of the Big Room Trail are wheelchair accessible. See magnificent formations like The Hall of Giants, Crystal Spring Dome, and Bottomless Pit.
3. Add The King’s Palace Tour
The King’s Palace Tour, an additional 1.5-hour ranger-guided tour departing from the underground rest area, leads you through four beautifully decorated chambers. You’ll explore The King’s Palace, The Queen’s Chamber, The Papoose Room, and The Green Lake Room, where you will see numerous cave formations like draperies, columns, soda straws, and helictites. You will see the deepest portion of the cave, 830 feet beneath the surface. At the end of the tour, you will walk up a very steep 8-story hill. See total darkness when the ranger turns off the artificial lights.
Pro Tip: Will Rogers called the cavern “The Grand Canyon with a roof over it.” Don’t miss the rope ladder on display used by explorers in 1924.
4. Take The Elevator To The Surface
Take the elevator back to the surface after exploring the cavern.
5. See The Mexican Free-Tail Bat Flight At Dusk
At dusk, half a million Mexican Free-Tail Bats swarm from the entrance of Carlsbad Caverns for their nightly feeding. Check with the park ranger for current bat flight program times. Flying from Memorial Day Weekend through October, view the program from the Amphitheater at the natural entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns. The program is free, and you do not need reservations. Amphitheater seating is first-come, first-serve. Electronic devices are prohibited unless you have a particular use permit obtained at least 2 weeks in advance.
6. Take The Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour
Reservations are required for the 5-and-a-half-hour moderately strenuous Slaughter Canyon caving adventure tour into an underground wilderness without electricity, modern conveniences, or paved walkways. Hiking boots with an aggressive tread are required since the cave trails are slippery, uneven, and narrow. Flashlights and headlamps are the only lightings available. Highlights of the tour may include the Chinese Wall, the crystal-decorated Christmas tree, the 89-foot-high Monarch, and The Mushroom.
Pay close attention to requirements to prevent the White-nose Syndrome. The strenuous half-mile hike to the cave entrance takes 30-45 minutes, so pack plenty of water, snacks, a hat, and sunscreen. Tickets are $15 for adults, $7.50 for children, eight to 15. The maximum group size is 16.
7. Hiking Trails At Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Bring the 10 hiking essentials listed here and study the safety and protection of the desert environment best practices as you review the hiking trails at the national park. You will need a free permit for overnight camping in the backcountry, obtained at the visitor center during business hours. Three treks are listed here.
Old Guano Trail begins at the natural entrance to Carlsbad Caverns and follows the historic road used to haul bat guano from the caverns in the early 1900s. You’ll see mining ruins and abandoned tools as the 3.7-mile trail descends the steep slope and ends at the Whites City campground.
With an 800-foot change in elevation over the 3.5-mile path, Juniper Ridge Trail starts about a mile past interpretive marker #9 on the scenic Desert Loop Road.
The 3-mile Rattlesnake Canyon Trail begins .25 miles past marker #4 on the Desert Loop Road. One-way travel time is 3 miles with an elevation change of 600 feet.
John Muir reminds us: “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
Pro Tip: There is no overnight RV camping at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, so you will need to access the privately owned RV Campgrounds in the area. Rent RVs or camping trailers here.
8. Explore Brokeoff Mountains Wilderness Study Area
Brokeoff Mountains Wilderness Study Area, located 30 miles west of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, features 80,000 acres of remote, rugged landscape owned by the Bureau of Land Management. The region protects the nesting home of several raptor species and the winter home for Rocky Mountain elk. The area intersects the Chihuahuan Desert, semi-desert grasslands, and conifer woodlands.
9. Visit Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area
A rare oasis in the hot desert, the Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area features waterfalls and calm pools of water for swimming with pavilions, picnic tables, water, and restrooms available. Access to many hiking trails leads from the site. Check the site for flood damage progress.
10. Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park
Located on the hill overlooking Carlsbad, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park features more than 40 species of animals and hundreds of plants native to the Chihuahuan Desert. You’ll find picnic areas, group facilities, and picturesque hiking trails.
11. Stay Near The Caverns
In Carlsbad, The Trinity Hotel boasts nine luxurious hotel suites, a fine dining establishment, with wine tasting featuring its own Seven Rivers varieties made locally in the Pecos Valley. Explore the history of the original structure built in 1892 as the First National Bank. Savor breakfast, lunch, or dinner like classic Huevos Rancheros and lawman’s green-chili bacon cheeseburger. For dinner, indulge in a ribeye or filet mignon with a baked potato and fresh sauteed vegetables. You can start with a Caesar salad and wise guy shrimp.
Pro Tip: You can’t go wrong with a bottle of Spirit of Seven Rivers Malbec.
12. Pull Into Carlsbad RV Park
Carlsbad RV Park features over 200 RV sites, tent sites, and rustic cabins in a gated community close to Carlsbad Caverns. Enjoy the pool, restrooms, showers, and laundry. Gates close at 8 pm.
Pro Tip: Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers free admission four times a year: Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, the first day of National Park Week in April, National Public Lands Day in September, and Veteran’s Day in November. Check the exact dates on the National Park Service Website.
Carlsbad Caverns is one of the main attractions in New Mexico to explore, but there is so much more: