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I’d often heard travelers gush over the towering cave formations and majestic beauty of Carlsbad Caverns, but I had to wonder: Is it worth the hype? On a recent summer road trip through the southwest, we visited the caverns and discovered that they live up to the legend. Far from an overblown tourist attraction or a boring hole in the ground, Carlsbad Caverns National Park provides a peaceful, beautiful journey through one of North America’s natural wonders. Here’s what you need to know before you go.
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Even before you arrive at the cavern entrance, the landscape of Carlsbad Caverns National Park is breathtaking. Our family was oohing and aahing over the gorgeous views as our car drove the entrance road through the rocky hills on the way to the visitors center. There are parking areas where you can stop and take pictures just off the central road. Before or after your cavern tour, I recommend spending a few minutes savoring the surrounding landscape and watching for desert wildlife.
Carlsbad Caverns is located in southeastern New Mexico in the Guadalupe Mountains. Even once you descend into the cave’s aptly named Big Room you will be over 3,600 feet above sea level (that’s official from the U.S. Geological Survey – you can even buy a magnet that says it in the gift shop).
Millions of years ago the land in this area was covered by an inland sea. Sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone rock of the fossil reef, forming the system of limestone caves and massive caverns that run through the park today. While other cave tours I’ve experienced feature tiny pathways through narrow rock openings, the paths through Carlsbad Caverns are open and well-lit, making the caverns a great choice for anyone visiting a cave for the first time.
There are two options for entering the caverns: 1) You can walk down the steep, switchback Natural Entrance Trail, or 2) you can go into the visitor center and take an elevator down to the main cavern. I recommend taking the Natural Entrance Trail if you are able; the path felt safe but was just strenuous enough to give our family a bit of adventure. However, the elevators are a good option if you have limited mobility or are short on time.
Planning Your Trip
If you remember only one tip from this article, this is the one: Reserve your time in advance! Timed reservations cost $1 each and are required to enter the cave, and they are not available at the park.
Even after you reserve a timed entrance online, you’ll still need to stop in at the visitor center and pay the cave entrance fee or show a national park pass. The entry ticket includes a self-guided tour and costs $15 for ages 16 and up (entry is free for ages 15 and under). The attendant will ask to see your reservation and ID and then let you purchase your tickets after confirming the date and time.
Next, you can explore the museum exhibits in the visitor center to learn more about what you’ll see on your tour. Or you can head straight for the cave, either by waiting for the elevator near the ticket counter or by following the outdoor trail to the natural entrance, about a five-minute walk from the parking lot.
When you reserve your entrance time slot, you’ll have an hour from the actual time listed to enter the cave. The visitor center opens at 8 a.m., and the first entrance time is 8:30 a.m. We arrived around 8:15 a.m. to get our tickets for our 8:30 reservation. By the time we made it to the natural entrance, there were already a dozen other people in line.
If you are taking the Natural Entrance Trail into the cave, plan on a 1.5-hour hike to get to the central attraction, the Big Room, as well as the elevators and restrooms. As you walk, you’ll descend 750 feet over 1.25 miles. Once you are in the Big Room (whether you hiked in or used the elevators), plan on another hour and a half to walk through the entire chamber, although you can also take a shortcut that will reduce that time by 45 minutes.
The latest you can buy a ticket to go into the cave is 2:15 p.m., with the last entry happening at 2:30. Elevators will return guests to the visitor center until 4:45 p.m., but you’ll need to leave by 3:30 if you plan to hike out the natural entrance instead.
What to Take
Due to the sensitive ecosystem of the cave, food is prohibited while hiking through the caverns. This also includes gum and flavored drinks. Only plain water is allowed inside the cave, with limited exceptions for visitors who need to eat for medical reasons.
The cave stays at a mild 56 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, so consider wearing long pants and layers. Because our family kept a brisk pace as we hiked, I felt comfortable in my sleeveless tank without adding my hoodie, but I was glad to be prepared in case I got cold. We even felt drips from the cave ceiling at times (my teenager calls that the “interactive” part of the experience).
The ground is uneven and slick in places, so take shoes with good traction and avoid open-toed sandals.
I thought about buying flashlights or headlamps for everyone before we arrived at the cave. However, we found the sudden flashes and beams distracting when we saw other families using lights, and ultimately I was happy we skipped the extra purchase and relied on the cave’s lighting system instead. (But if headlamps will keep your kids happy as you explore, by all means, buy the headlamps!)
Visitors who aren’t able to make the steep, 1.25-mile hike through the natural entrance can take elevators from the visitor center straight down to the Big Room. I recommend this option if you are visiting the cave with very young children who may not be comfortable walking the entire way (no strollers are allowed except for children with impaired mobility).
Wheelchairs and walkers are allowed in certain parts of the Big Room Trail, and there are signs and maps available to denote which areas are accessible. However, due to the rugged terrain and moisture on the trail, the park recommends that visitors in wheelchairs use caution and keep assistance nearby.
Things to Do At Carlsbad Caverns
Aside from the self-guided tour, you can purchase tickets for the ranger-led King’s Palace Tour for $8 per adult and $4 per child (no children under 4 are allowed on this specific tour). The King’s Palace tour meets near the cavern’s elevators and will take an additional hour and a half. Take note: this tour features blackouts when the ranger will turn off all the lights in the area. (Keep an eye on the park website for other tours to become available. I’ve heard great things about the famous ranger-guided tour by lantern light.)
Don’t forget the above-ground hikes! Fill up your water bottles, slather on some sunscreen, and explore the Guadalupe Mountains or the Chihuahuan Desert. Consider hiking in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid direct sunlight. And plan your route carefully: The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail and Slaughter Canyon Cave Trail are both half a mile long. While the nature trail is easy and accessible, the canyon cave trail is rugged and difficult. And the Guadalupe Ridge Trail is 100 miles long!
In the visitor center, there’s a free 16-minute movie as well as exhibits about the plants and animals in the caverns. If you are traveling with young kids, I recommend looking at the scale model of the cave paths before starting your cavern tour. The model is helpful for showing kids where you will be going and noting landmarks along the way (and trust me, it’s also good for nervous parents who don’t like caves!).
Check ahead of time for any night sky programs scheduled during your visit, especially during meteor showers. And visitors ages 8 and up can even experience a ranger-led night hike through the desert. While you’re in the area, consider a quick, 30-minute detour to Guadalupe Mountains National Park just across the Texas border.
Carlsbad Caverns Bat Talk
The Bat Talk Program was one of my favorite parts of our visit, and I recommend it to anyone traveling to Carlsbad Caverns. The program is free and does not require reservations.
From Memorial Day weekend through October, visitors to Carlsbad Caverns gather just before dusk in the Bat Flight Amphitheater. Park rangers will start the session by answering questions from the crowd. Kids usually get priority when the rangers ask for questions, which leads to awesome ones like “What is the most dangerous thing in the park?” (Answer: probably the sharp plants.) Once most of the crowd has gathered, a ranger will begin sharing about the bat species that make their homes in the cave, including the Brazilian Free-Tailed Bat.
When dusk hits, rangers ask the spectators for absolute silence. And then, right on time, the bats emerge from the cave. They swirl and spin up into the air, dozens and dozens hurtling out of the cave entrance. As one round of bats drifts off into the sky for their nightly hunt, the next group emerges from the cave in another flurry of activity. If you are very, very lucky, you might even see ringtails, owls, or hawks nearby scoping out the bats for an evening meal.
Planning a family trip to gorgeous Carlsbad Caverns? Here’s what you need to know before you go.
Due to the bats’ sensitive hearing and sight, no electronic devices are allowed during the bat flight, not even old-school cameras. Sitting there quietly with hundreds of people and no cell phones or cameras was an amazing experience for me. However, the silence proved difficult for the younger members of the audience, and several families with small children snuck out once the wiggles were too much to hold in.
At least 20-30 minutes passed as we waited for all the bats to emerge. I thought the end of the program would be marked by an announcement from a park ranger, but everyone just began to wander away as the bat flight slowed to a few stragglers. The rangers waited at the back of the amphitheater to answer questions and sign junior ranger booklets as visitors left for the evening.
When You Go
Where to Stay
Many visitors to Carlsbad Caverns stay in Carlsbad, New Mexico, about a 30-minute drive from the park. The town of Carlsbad has several well-known hotel chains, including Hampton Inn, Fairfield Inn, and Home2 Suites.
If you’re up for a unique retro motel experience, you can stay at the adorable White’s City Cavern Inn, which is located right outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (Their mini water park looked pretty appealing when we visited the area in July.)
The adventurers out there might want to consider backcountry camping in the park. At times, camping is prohibited due to wildfire risk, so be sure to check before you go. Need a few extra amenities? Choose a nearby campground in White’s City or the town of Carlsbad (our fearless editor, Rina, had a blast camping nearby with her kids!).
Where to Eat
There’s a cafeteria-style restaurant in the visitor center, and it offers Southwestern-style dishes such as tortas and tacos along with kid-friendly favorites like peanut butter and jelly.
Inside the caverns, there’s a small snack bar located near the Big Room next to the elevator. I wouldn’t count on lunch after your hike, however. While I’ve seen other travelers mention multiple grab-and-go sandwich options, the snack bar was mostly closed when we visited and had only a few granola bars (Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays seem to be the main days it operates). And keep in mind, food is not allowed in the rest of the cave, so everything must be consumed before you leave the snack bar area.
There are picnic tables near the visitor center for families who wish to bring their own food into the park. For more food options, drive into the city of Carlsbad, which has a selection of local and chain restaurants.
Getting To Carlsbad Caverns From LA
The closest major airports to Carlsbad Caverns National Park are each a couple of hours away:
El Paso International Airport is 138 miles away and offers direct flights from L.A. on American and Southwest.
Midland International Air & Space Port is 164 miles away. While it doesn’t offer any direct flights from L.A., connections are available on American, Southwest, and United.
If you’re planning to see more of New Mexico, consider flying into Albuquerque’s airport (300 miles away, direct flights on major airlines including American, Delta, and Southwest) and taking a road trip through the state.
Roswell’s airport is only 95 miles away and offers connecting flights from Dallas and Phoenix on American Airlines. And who can resist checking out their quirky, alien-themed downtown?
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You’ll need to drive a bit to get to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but it is worth the effort to see this natural wonder.
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