Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park: What You Need to Know

Seeing Carlsbad Caverns National Park as a teenager rocked my world (pun intended), igniting a lifelong passion for national parks. I finally had the opportunity to revisit thirty-seven years later, this time with my wife.

Julie was skeptical, fearing I had overhyped the park. I was relieved to discover the magical caverns enchanted her every bit as much.

How did I feel about Carlsbad Caverns after all those years? The beauty of this place still brings tears to my eyes! I felt like an awestruck kid again, mesmerized by the cavern’s size and beauty.

Is it bucket list worthy? One thousand times, yes! There is a reason the national park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I will share our experience and cover everything you need to know to plan your caving adventure.

History of the Caves

To fully appreciate Carlsbad Caverns, it helps to know more about its creation.

What is Carlsbad Caverns?

It is a gigantic, magical world of unbelievable underground cave formations in southeast New Mexico. 

Some of the structures are massive, while others are tiny, almost delicate. It defies logic that this magnificent world exists. Even more incredible, dripping water created these masterpieces over thousands of years.


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How Were the Caves Formed?

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

Here is a simplistic explanation of the process. 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 we have today.

Cave Formations

There are many different types of formations in the caves. Some popular decorations include stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, draperies, and columns.

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 of 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.

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

Carlsbad Caverns sign
Entrance sign at Carlsbad Caverns. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Essential Park Information

Let’s cover critical information to know before your visit.

Fees and Passes

The park entrance fee is $15 per person. Children 15 and under are free. Your entrance ticket is valid for three days, starting from the date of purchase.

Consider an America the Beautiful park pass for $80. This annual pass is good for one year, starting at the date of purchase, and 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 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.

Shirts, hats, and souvenirs inside the Carlsbad Caverns gift shop
Carlsbad Caverns National Park gift shop. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center

You must enter the visitor center to pay your entrance fee and get official clearance to enter the cavern. Do yourself a favor and explore the visitor center. It is one of the best we have seen, offering an educational film and many excellent exhibits.

You will discover many souvenirs, books, and educational resources about the park. A surface-level restaurant allows you to savor a bite before exploring the cavern.

During our visit, a few park rangers were on hand to offer guidance. They were accommodating, even to visitors (not us) asking about places other than the park itself.


YouTube video

You need to know a few things 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. Currently, masks inside all park buildings and the cavern are optional. Be sure to visit the park website for updates when planning your trip.

Park Entrance Fee

Upon arrival at the visitor center, you must pay an entrance fee or present a valid park pass to explore the cavern. A ranger will give you official clearance to enter the cavern based on your reserved time.

The cavern opens at 8:30 am. Please note that the park stops selling entrance tickets at 2:15 pm since the day’s final cavern entrance is at 2:30.

Ranger-guided Tours

Due to COVID-19, the park suspended ranger-guided tours for quite some time. These were not an option when we visited. Carlsbad Caverns has resumed the Kings Palace Tour and the Lower Cave Tour. Additional experiences may be available in the future.

Guided tours allow visitors to explore cavern sections beyond a self-guided tour. Please note reservations are required.

Self-guided Tours

Self-guided tours are available with a reservation, which costs $1 per person. Rangers suggest you make the reservation in advance online or by phone.

It reserves your time slot and allows the park to control maximum capacity. The fee is in addition to your park entrance fee and is non-refundable.

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!

Your last opportunity to catch an elevator to the surface is 4:45 pm. The final call to hike out is at 3:30, so you can reach the surface by 4:30.

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 down.

Making the 1.25-mile trek into the cavern is a fantastic 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.

What exactly is the Big Room? I describe it as a treasure trove of cave formations. Yes, the cavern lives up to its name. It seems to go on forever!

The Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns NP
The Big Room. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Big Room Trail

Although the Big Room Trail is also 1.25 miles, it is rated easy. The level path contains handrails the entire way. If you prefer shorter walks, there is a shortcut that will reduce the distance to 0.6 miles.

I believe you will find the variety of stunning formations well worth the hike. It is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever experienced in a national park. I still get chills of excitement thinking about it.

Natural Entrance Trail and Big Room Trail Together

We walked both the Natural Entrance Trail and the 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 on the cavern’s depth. We also saw and heard cave swallows near the upper portion of the path.

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

Regardless of the size, each formation is unique and breathtaking. It is hard to fathom that dripping water created all these works of art.

Cellular Access

There is no public wifi. Most guests find cellular access limited within the park. There is no signal in the cavern.

While in the cavern, I recommend setting 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. Accordingly, Carlsbad Caverns makes planning easy. There is no guesswork with the conditions. You know what to expect.

Be sure to use that knowledge to dress appropriately. The air has a damp, cool feel to it. Bring a light jacket, long-sleeved shirt, or sweater. Don’t try to be a tough guy. Stay comfortable so you can fully enjoy the experience.

Snack bar near the Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns
Designated eating area in the cavern. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Food

Guests may not bring food, gum, candy, or mints in the cavern. Why is this?

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a highly delicate ecosystem. The slightest environmental contaminant or change could damage the cavern and pose risks to visitors. We also want to avoid attracting unwanted wildlife into the cavern.

The visitor center above ground offers food from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm. You will find a snack bar in a designated area of the Big Room. It is only open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Please note that you should only eat in the designated dining area of the cavern.

Julie and I enjoyed the cavern dining area. There are quite a few tables to eat and rest. The section is dimly lit, giving it a nice ambiance. I would not call it romantic, but the dim lighting yields a relaxed, comfortable setting.

Water

Plain, unflavored water is allowed in the cavern. I suggest you bring water, especially if you hike the Natural Entrance Trail.

Restrooms

Thankfully, the park provides restroom facilities 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.

Big Room Trail cave decorations
Cave decorations along the Big Room Trail. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Do Not Touch Cave Formations

You can look, but don’t touch! It is one of the two most important rules in the cavern. Rule number one is no food, and rule two is 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. While the process creates beautiful formations, dripping water can splash onto the trail, making it slippery in spots.

I suggest you wear closed-toe shoes with good traction. Donning flip-flops, sandals, or your favorite old sneakers with worn-out soles is 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. You will find them along the Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room Trail.

Lighting in the Cavern

Do you need a flashlight in the cavern? The park provides dim lights throughout the cavern and along the trail. Formations receive light, so you can easily see them. Although we found it dark in spots, we did not feel a need for flashlights.

Our advice is to bring flashlights just in case. You can always use them if it makes you more comfortable.

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 a pool of water. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Photography

Yes, you may take photographs 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

Visitors may not use baby strollers in the cavern. Take this into account when planning your visit.

Audio Guides

You can rent an audio guide for $5 a day. Walking through the cavern, you will hear educational information at each stop. It 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 a fantastic 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. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

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 pale compared to other parks.

The 45-minute drive to Guadalupe Mountains National Park is worth your time if you enjoy hiking. The vistas and hikes are both more rewarding.

Plan Your Visit

Now, it’s time to plan your adventure.

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 reasonable 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 avoided the heavier traffic. It 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. Accordingly, it is called the National Parks Highway.

We did not need to use a map or a GPS. We 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 the best places to eat. 

Blue House Bakery & Cafe

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

PJ and B’s Rio Cafe

Although small and challenging to find, PJ and B’s Rio Cafe is an excellent 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 amiable, even with tourists who cannot decide. 

Pecos River Cafe

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

KaleidoScoops

A popular place among locals and tourists, KaleidoScoops offers hand-dipped ice cream, sandwiches, and waffle fries. They have quite a variety of ice cream flavors. 

The locals are loco for the waffle fries. We were stuffed with ice cream and had no room in our bellies. Next time, we will try the waffle fries to see what all the fuss is about.

The Trinity Hotel & Restaurant

Are you looking for a fine dining experience? The Trinity Hotel & Restaurant repeatedly came up when we asked about the area’s best restaurants. They have great steaks and a wide selection of wines.

Yellow Brix Restaurant

The Yellow Brix Restaurant offers everything from tacos to pasta to meatloaf. Locals recommend the cozy bistro-style venue for families who want various tasty lunch and dinner options. 

Danny’s Place

Are you craving barbecue? Danny’s Place is a casual and friendly barbecue pit house. Although the popular eatery regularly gets crowded, the staff works hard to maintain quality service, and the food is delicious.

Make the Loop

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

There are two other national parks nearby. We are so glad that we completed the circle. 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 Park,  located in Alamogordo, New Mexico, is about 4 hours from Carlsbad Caverns. It is a massive field of rolling dunes where you can play, hike, and go sand sledding.

To this day, visiting the three parks on the loop is one of my fondest travel memories. While all three parks are a lot of fun, Carlsbad Caverns is the first national park that expanded my heart and mind. It will always be special to me. I hope you experience that joy during your Carlsbad Caverns adventure.

Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey

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Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey

Scott And Julie McConkey

After 30 years, Scott and Julie McConkey left the corporate world for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year became a second act, and they are now full-time travel bloggers!
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