Carlsbad Caverns National Park: What You Need to Know

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CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK: BASIC INFORMATION

What is Carlsbad Caverns?

Carlsbad Caverns is a national park in southeastern New Mexico.  It is a gigantic, magical world of unbelievable cave formations hidden deep underground.  

Some of the structures are massive.  Other formations are small and delicate.  It defies logic that this magnificent world exists.  Even more incredible is the fact that it was created by dripping water over thousands of years.

I saw Carlsbad Caverns National Park  for the first time as a teenager.  I was completely blown away.  Thirty-seven years later, the beauty of this place still brings tears to my eyes!

How were the caves formed?

The cavern itself began taking shape millions of years ago.  The cave formations began forming over 500,000 years ago.

Water dripping onto the limestone bedrock absorbed carbon dioxide gas and formed a weak acid.  The water droplets dissolved the limestone and slowly built up calcite.  Over many years, the calcite continued to build up and shape the surreal cave formations that we have today.

This is an oversimplification of the process.  You can find much more detail about cave formations here.

Cave Formations

There are many different types of formations in the caves.  Some of the more popular decorations are stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, draperies and columns.  Each formation is different and beautiful.

Stalactites and stalagmites

Stalactites are mineral formations that grow down from the cave ceiling.  Most have pointy tips and look like icicles made of rock.

Stalagmites are rock formations that grow up from the cave floor.  Most have rounded or flattened tips and may appear as mounds.

Here are a couple tricks to help you remember the difference between the two: 

  • Stalactites have a “t” because they are on top or hang tight from the ceiling.  They have a “c” because they grow from the ceiling.
  • Stalagmites have a “g” because they are on the ground.  They have an “m”because they grow up and might one day reach the top.

Note:  If a stalactite and stalagmite eventually touch, forming one solid structure, it is then considered a column.

Carlsbad Caverns Sign
Entrance sign at Carlsbad Caverns

Fees and passes

The park entrance fee is $15 per person.

Children 15 and under are free.  

Your entrance ticket is good for 3 days, starting at date of purchase. 

You may want to consider an America the Beautiful park pass for $80.  This annual pass is good for 1 year, starting at date of purchase.  It is valid at all our national parks.  At Carlsbad Caverns, this pass grants entry to you and up to three adult guests.

Operating hours and seasons

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is open daily year-round except for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.  

Visitor center hours are 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.  Note that the park is in the Mountain time zone.

CARLSBAD CAVERNS gift shop
Carlsbad Caverns National Park gift shop

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center

You will have to enter the visitor center in order to pay your entrance fee and get official clearance to enter the cavern.  Do yourself a favor and explore the visitor center.

We have been to quite a few national parks and this is one of the best visitor centers we have seen.  They offer an educational film and have many great exhibits.  

There is a gift shop that offers a ton of souvenir options.  There is a restaurant where you can enjoy a bite to eat and a refreshment.  The bookstore has a lot of educational books and resources.  

There were a few park rangers on hand to offer guidance.  They were very helpful, even to visitors asking about places to go other than the park itself.  

CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK: WHAT TO KNOW

There are quite a few things you need to know before you plan your visit.  Let’s explore these now.

Masks are optional

When we visited the park in early March, 2022, masks were required.  This has since changed.  

As of mid-March, 2022, masks inside all park buildings and the cavern are optional.  Be sure to visit the national park website for updates when planning your trip. 

Ranger-guided tours

Due to COVID-19, ranger-guided tours are currently suspended.  No word yet, on when these will return.

Self-guided tours

Self-guided tours are available with a reservation.  The reservation costs $1 per person and must be made in advance online or by phone.  

This essentially reserves your time slot and allows the park to control maximum capacity.  

This fee is in addition to your park entrance fee and is non-refundable.  

Park entrance fee

The entrance fee is paid inside the visitor center upon your arrival at the park.  A park pass will be honored in lieu of the entrance fee.  A ranger will then give you official clearance to enter the cavern based on your reserved time. 

The cavern opens at 8:30 am.  The last cavern entrance tickets sold are at 2:15 pm with last entrance into the cavern at 2:30 pm.  The last time to begin the hike out is 3:30 pm with completion by 4:30 pm.

Be sure to monitor the website for current information.

Self-guided tour options

You have two options for the self-guided tour:  

  • Hike the Natural Entrance Trail down into the cavern.
  • Take an elevator to the cavern.

With either option, your grand reward will be to walk the Big Room Trail and view beautiful, surreal cave formations.  They are real, and they are spectacular!

Natural Entrance Trail

The Natural Entrance Trail is very steep with many switchbacks.  It is considered strenuous.  Your feet and legs will feel the strain as you wind your way down.

Making the 1.25 mile trek into the cavern is a wonderful experience.  The cavern is 750 feet underground.  It gives you such an appreciation for the world you are entering.  There are a few nice formations to view along the way.

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of a steep downward hike, do not fret.  You will find most of the beautiful cave formations in the Big Room.

The Big Room lives up to its name.  It seems to go on forever!

 

The Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns NP
The Big Room

Big Room Trail

The Big Room Trail is also 1.25 miles, but is rated easy.  It is level with handrails along the entire path.  There is a shortcut that will reduce the walk to 0.6 miles.

Natural Entrance Trail & Big Room Trail together

We walked both the Natural Entrance Trail and Big Room Trail.  In total, this took about 3 hours.  It was such a rewarding journey!

The Natural Entrance Trail offered some formations, but gave more perspective onthe depth of the cavern.  We also saw and heard cave swallows near the upper portion of the path.

The Big Room Trail offers formation after formation.  We were completely mesmerized by the size and beauty of the cavern.  It is surreal to see such massive formations next to delicate and ornate formations that appear as if they would shatter if touched by a feather.  

All the formations are unique and breathtaking.  It is hard to fathom that all these works of art were created by dripping water.

Cellular access

There is no public wifi.  

Cellular access is limited within the park.  

There is no signal in the cavern.

While in the cavern, it is recommended that you set your phone on airplane mode to conserve your battery.

Weather above ground

Carlsbad Caverns is in the Chihuahuan Desert.  Outside the cavern, temperatures can exceed 100 degrees in summer.  

Temperatures are typically mild March through May, but it is often windy.  

August through September brings frequent rain.  

Winter occasionally brings snow and icy conditions.  

The park typically has 278 sunny days a year!

Temperature inside the cavern

I find it fascinating that the temperature inside the cavern is always 56 degrees Fahrenheit.  No matter what happens above ground, you know exactly what to expect in the cave.  You just have to dress accordingly.

The air has a damp, cool feel to it.  Bring a light jacket, long-sleeved shirt or sweater.  This will help you stay comfortable so you can fully enjoy the experience.

Designated eating area in the cavern

Snack bar near the Big Room
Designated eating area in the cavern

Food

There is to be no food in the cavern.  Gum, candy and mints are also not allowed.  

We do not want to attract unwanted wildlife into the cavern.  This is a very delicate ecosystem.  This could upset the balance of the environment, damage the cavern and pose risks to park visitors.

Food options are available from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm in the visitor center.  There is also a snack bar in a designated area of the Big Room.

As of early March, 2022, the cavern snack bar is only open on weekends (Friday through Sunday) due to staffing shortages.  They hope to open daily in the near future.  

Note, food should only be eaten in the designated dining area of the cavern.

Julie and I really liked the cavern dining area.  There are quite a few tables to eat and rest.  The section is dimly lit, giving it a nice ambience.  I am not sure I would call it romantic, but the dim lighting makes you feel comfortable and relaxed.

Water

Plain water is allowed in the cavern.  Rangers ask that you not bring any flavored water or drinks into the cave.

Again, this is a very delicate ecosystem.  Any changes to the environment can potentially damage the formations.  We also do not want to entice unwanted animals into the cave.

Restrooms

Restroom facilities are located above ground outside the visitor center and in the cavern near the snack bar.  

There are no restrooms on the Natural Entrance Trail or the Big Room Trail.

Cave decorations along the Big Room Trail

Big Room Trail cave decorations
Cave decorations along the Big Room Trail

Do not touch cave formations

You can look, but don’t touch!  This is one of the two most important rules in the cavern.  No food.  Do not touch.

A single touch can leave residue on a formation and stop its future growth.  Do you sense a disturbance in the force?

What type of shoes to wear

If you listen carefully, you will hear water slowly dripping in the cavern.  This is a good thing.  

This process creates the beautiful formations.  However, dripping water will splash onto the trail.  The ground will be wet and slippery in spots.

Wear closed-toe shoes with good traction.  Flip flops, sandals or your old sneakers with worn-out soles are not a good idea.  As we tell our kids, “Make good choices!”

Handrails

The park does a fantastic job of providing handrails the entire way.  This includes the Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room Trail.  Safety first!

Lighting in the cavern

Can you see in the cavern?  Do you need a flashlight?

Flashlights are allowed in the cavern.  It is a bit dark in spots.  The park does a good job of providing dim lights throughout the cavern and along the trail.  

The formations are lit up so you can easily see them.  We felt perfectly comfortable without flashlights.  We noticed a few people with them.  

Our advice is to bring flashlights just in case.  You can then decide if you want to use them.  The bottom line is that flashlights are not necessary.

Whenever we hike, we keep two flashlights in our backpack.  The COAST flashlight is our favorite.  It is compact and very durable.  For a small flashlight, it emits a wonderfully bright beam.  It is the best we have found.

cave formation on the Big Room Trail
Formation reflecting in pool of water

Photography

Yes, photography is permitted in the cavern.  You can even use a flash.  Just be respectful of other visitors as you try to capture the perfect shot.

Talking in the cavern

In the cavern, voices carry.  Rangers ask that you whisper or use your quiet voice.

Baby strollers

Note that baby strollers are prohibited in the cavern.  Take this into account when planning your visit.

Audio guides

You can rent an audio guide for $5 a day.  

As you walk through the cavern, you will hear educational information at each stopalong the way.  Since there are currently no ranger-guided tours, this is a great way to learn more about the caves.

Bat flight program

Our only regret about visiting in early March is that we missed the bat flight program

In the evenings from late May through October, you can watch bats emerge from the cave entrance.  By all accounts, this is an amazing experience!  Looks like we will be going back…

Cave swallows and bats

We saw cave swallows at the top of the Natural Entrance Trail.  At first, we thought they were bats.  Both share the caves during the summer months.  They are indeed very different.

  • Bats
    • Mammals
    • Inhabit caves from late April through October
    • Prefer deep, dark areas of cave
    • Active at night
  • Swallows
    • Birds
    • Inhabit caves from early February through late October
    • Prefer dimly lit entrance
    • Active during day
Old Guano Trail at Carlsbad
Old Guano Trail

Desert Hiking Trails

The cavern is the main attraction at the park.  Above ground, there are several desert hiking trails to explore.

We hiked the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail and the Old Guano Trail.  The trails take you through rugged, primitive backcountry settings.  There are mountains to view and a variety of desert plants.

One of my favorite things to do is hike in our national parks.  I love Carlsbad Caverns, but the desert hikes are not as good as those offered at other parks.  

If you enjoy hiking, it is well worth your time to make the 45 minute drive to Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  The vistas and hikes are both more rewarding.

PLAN YOUR VISIT TO CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK

Where to start

  • Monitor the Carlsbad Caverns National Park website for information, current updates and closures.
  • Watch our video for more travel tips.
  • Use the map below to view the area.
  • Choose your self-guided tour option.
  • Reserve your spot(s) for a self-guided tour.
  • Bring bottles of plain water.
  • Pack the following items for a safe and comfortable experience:
    • Long pants
    • Long-sleeved shirt, sweater or light jacket
    • Closed-toe shoes with good traction
  • Bring your camera to capture beautiful memories.

Where to stay

Carlsbad, New Mexico is a great place to stay.  There are plenty of hotels at good rates.  The city has lots of restaurants and things to do.  It is a short drive to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

We stayed at Hampton Inn & Suites Carlsbad.  The room was clean.  A hot breakfast was provided.  The staff members were so friendly and helpful.  They answered our questions about the area and offered suggestions.

There are many hotels further into the heart of town.  Just expect more traffic congestion if you stay downtown.  

Hampton Inn & Suites Carlsbad is on the edge of town.  By staying there, we avoidedthe heavier traffic.  This allowed us to get a quick start and spend more time at the caves. 

Hampton Inn & Suites Carlsbad is just off U.S. Highway 62/180 which takes you directly to two national parks: Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains.  Because of this, it is known as the National Parks Highway.

We did not need to use a map or a GPS.  We literally pulled out of the hotel parking lot and drove until we saw signs for the parks.  It was so convenient.

The drive from the hotel to Carlsbad Caverns is only about 25 minutes.  Traffic is minimal.  It is an easy, relaxing drive.

Where to eat

Carlsbad has quite a few restaurants.  Here are our choices for best places to eat. 

Blue House Bakery & Cafe – Looking for good coffee, pastries and breakfast sandwiches?  Blue House Bakery & Cafe has you covered.  This colorful place has the look and feel of an old house.  The service is fast and friendly.  

PJ and B’s Rio Cafe – This place is not big.  It is not easy to find.  But, it is worth your effort to track down this wonderful brunch cafe.  They have more specialty burritos than letters in the alphabet.  Their menu has many other tasty breakfast and lunch options.  The staff is very friendly, even with tourists who cannot make up their minds. 

Pecos River Cafe is a small cafe that offers a hearty breakfast and a savory lunch.  They have good food and quick service.  Lunch items include burritos, burgers and sandwiches.

KaleidoScoops offers hand-dipped ice cream, sandwiches and waffle fries.  They have quite a variety of ice cream flavors.  The locals seem to be loco for the waffle fries.  We were already stuffed from the ice cream and did not have any room left in our bellies.  Next time we will try the waffle fries to see what all the fuss is about.

The Trinity Hotel & Restaurant – Looking for more of a fine dining experience?  Trinity repeatedly came up when we asked around about best restaurants in the area.  They have great steaks and a wide selection of wines.

Yellow Brix Restaurant offers everything from tacos to pasta to meatloaf.  It is a cozy bistro style venue with many tasty lunch and dinner options.  This is another place that locals repeatedly recommended.

 Danny’s Place – Craving barbecue?  Danny’s Place is a casual and friendly barbecue pit house.  This place is popular.  It tends to get crowded.  The food is good and the staff works hard to maintain quality service.

Make the loop

Locals asked if we were making the loop.  Yes, we are!

There are three national parks in close proximity.  You can complete the circle too.  You will be glad you did.  Each park is unique and offers something very different.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, located in Salt Flat, Texas, is about 45 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns.  There are beautiful mountains with many great hikes.

White Sands National Parklocated in Alamogordo, New Mexico, is about 4 hours from Carlsbad Caverns.  It is a massive field of rolling sand dunes where you can play, hike and go sand sledding.

Check out our other national park guides:

About the author

We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.

4 thoughts on “Carlsbad Caverns National Park: What You Need to Know”

  1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park looks like an amazing place to go exploring. Never knew New Mexico had so many great national parks! Thanks for showing us around in your video! Adding this one to the travel bucket list too!

    Reply
    • Thanks Alex. Yes, and the parks are very different. I loved Carlsbad Caverns as a kid and I still love it to this day. It is such an amazing place. I hope you get the chance to go to the New Mexico national parks. We look forward to seeing your adventures.

      Reply
  2. Let me go on record thanking Jim White Sr. for his work in discovering, exploring, and bringing attention to this massive cavern. (Note: no connection to White’s City.)

    Reply

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