Our family spent Thanksgiving Day and the day before in the Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas/New Mexico border. Rising to heights of 8,749 feet, the Guadalupe Mountains stand in stunning contrast to the flat Chihuahuan Desert that surrounds them and provides ample hiking opportunities through the mountains above ground at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and below ground in spectacular caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
With 30 miles of mapped caves and 119 known caves, Carlsbad Caverns National Park covers 46,766 acres and contains one of the oldest and most well-known cave systems in the world.
When you arrive at Carlsbad Caverns, the Chihuahuan Desert stretches in all directions, providing views of ancient sea ledges, deep rocky canyons, flowering cactus, and desert wildlife. While the desert views are beautiful, the true treasure of this national park is hidden beneath the surface where you’ll find an enormous cavern system with millions of speleothem formations in a variety of colors and shapes and ceilings up to 250 feet high.
The caverns were formed 250 million years ago when sulfuric acid slowly dissolved ancient limestone beds and left behind magnificent gypsum formations, tunnels, caves, and caverns of all sizes. In the caverns you can see stalactites, soda straws, ribbons, curtains, and draperies on the ceilings, flowstones, columns, stalagmites, shelves, cave pools, and rimstone dams on the floors, and cave popcorn, helictites, fossils, and crystals on the walls.
Today the primary attraction of the park is the show cave, Carlsbad Cavern. It includes the Natural Entrance Trail, the Underground Lunchroom, and the Big Room Trail that are open to the public with paid park admission, as well as guided tours into protected cave rooms like the King’s Palace Tour.
What most people don’t realize is that there are other caves in other areas with completely different entrances that are part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park:
- Slaughter Canyon Cave — with the Monarch, one of the world’s tallest columns at 89 feet, the Christmas Tree, a sparkling crystal-decorated column, and the Chinese Wall, a delicate ankle-high rimstone dam — is only open to visitors on guided tours.
- Spider Cave, which visits the Mace Room, Medusa Room, and Cactus Spring, and includes a stunning variety of cave formations is also only open during ranger-led tours, and those tours are the strenuous, crawl in the mud, caving adventures.
- Lechuguilla Cave, which is only open for permitted scientific expeditions, contains underwater formations unlike those found anywhere else in the world. With more than 120 miles of cave passages mapped and a depth of 1,600 feet documented, it is the fifth longest known cave in the world and the third longest and second deepest cave in the United States.
Here are the six best things to do at Carlsbad Caverns National Park for families and kids:
01. Visitor Center, Restaurant, And Museum
The Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center complex is the main “above ground” part of the national park with an order-at-the-counter restaurant, a huge gift shop called the Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company, and educational museum exhibits about the park and the caverns. This is also where you can catch the elevators into the caverns.
02. Natural Entrance Trail
The Natural Entrance Trail at Carlsbad Caverns is a steep 1.25 mile trail with several curving switchbacks that descends 750 feet into the caverns. Walking this trail is equivalent to walking up or down a 75 story building and about 60-90 minutes to complete on average.
On the Natural Entrance Trail, you have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of early explorers as you see incredible rock formations and stand in huge underground rooms with ceilings that tower above you. While there aren’t a lot of named formations along the hike into the cavern, the trail provides an incredible introduction to the cavern and makes a jaw-dropping first impression.
03. Underground Lunchroom
Located in the Big Room, at the head of the Left Hand Tunnel in Carlsbad Caverns, is an Underground Lunchroom 750 feet below the surface that contains a cafeteria built in 1928, a picnic area, modern restrooms, a souvenir stand, drinking fountain, informational displays, and elevator access.
04. Kings Palace Tour
The King’s Palace Tour follows a 1.0 mile, 1.5 hour ranger-guided loop trail through four highly decorated cave chambers into the deepest portion of the cavern open to the public, 830 feet beneath the desert surface. Although not as difficult as the Natural Entrance route, the King’s Palace Tour does have an additional 80 foot descent, and at the end, a walk up a very steep hill. On the tour, you’ll see a variety of cave formations including stalagmites, stalactites, flowstone, helictites, cave bacon, draperies, columns, cave popcorn, and soda straws. You’ll also experience a cave blackout to see what it was like for early explorers who only had a candle for light.
05. The Big Room Trail
The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a large limestone chamber that is almost 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet tall at its highest point. It is the fifth largest chamber in North America and the twenty-eighth largest in the world.
With a floor space of 357,469 square feet, the Big Room is the largest cave chamber in North America by volume, with the capability to swallow six football fields. Big Room Trail is a relatively flat, 1.25 mile trail that takes about 1.5 hours on average to complete. But if you are seeking a shorter experience, the Big Room Trail has a shortcut that makes the walk only about 0.6 miles and 45 minutes.
06. Bat Flight Programs
From April through October, between 200,000 and 500,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats pour out of Carlsbad Cavern each evening and people come from all over the world to watch the bat flights. But if you want the best bat flight experience, visit the park in August and September when baby bats, born in early summer, join the flight along with migrating bats from colonies further north. During this time the number of bats you’ll see can swell to one million!
A large stone amphitheater, located five minutes from the Visitor Center at the mouth of Carlsbad Cavern, provide the best viewing of the bat flight. Here, from late May through October, rangers lead a free Bat Flight Program each night before the flight.
History Of Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns was established in 1923 as a national monument and from 1923 to 1927, the first trails, stairs and electric lights were installed. In 1928 an underground restaurant, information center, and gift shop were built inside the cavern.
In 1930, Carlsbad Caverns was designated a national park. But still, the only way to experience the breathtaking formations inside Carlsbad Cavern was to walk down a long, winding trail with many hairpin switchbacks to a depth of 750 feet below the surface and then walk back up again. The walk was tiring and difficult for some, so in 1932, the national park opened a large Visitor Center with two elevators to take visitors in and out of the caverns.
In 1959, construction of the current visitor center was completed and the old stone buildings near the cave entrance were removed. Then in 1963, the bat flight amphitheater at the natural entrance was constructed and placed into operation.
In 1995, Carlsbad Caverns was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site. Approximately two-thirds of the park land is designated wilderness space to protect the natural habitat surrounding the cave system.
Know Before You Go
- The entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located on US Highway 62/180, approximately 18 miles southwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico and 25 miles from Guadalupe Mountains National Park across the Texas state line.
- The Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center, restaurant, and gift shop, are located at 727 Carlsbad Caverns Highway, Carlsbad, New Mexico 88220 in Eddy County.
- From September through May, Visitor Center hours are 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. You may hike into the cavern from 8:30 am to 2:30 pm and the last time to hike out of the cavern is 3:30 pm so you’re out of the cavern completely by 4:30 pm. Elevator service into the cavern runs from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm and the last elevator out of the cavern is at 4:30 pm.
- From the end of May (Memorial Day) through August (Labor Day), Visitor Center hours are 8:00 am to 7:00 pm. You may hike into the cavern from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm and the last time to hike out of the cavern is 5:00 pm so you’re out of the cavern completely by 6:00 pm. Elevator service into the cavern runs from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm and the last elevator out of the cavern is at 6:30 pm.
- The Visitor Center and all caverns are closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
- The Guadalupe Mountain range is home to both Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
- All visitors who enter Carlsbad Cavern are required to purchase an entrance ticket, which is good for three days. Admission fees are $12/adult ages 16+ and free for children ages 15 and under. The park also offers free admission days on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the first day of National Park Week, National Public Lands Day, and Veterans Day.
- The 1.25 mile Natural Entrance Trail and the 1.5 mile Big Room Trail are self-guided, which means you can explore at your own pace.
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers numerous ranger-guided cave tours into areas along the Big Room and Natural Entrance trails that are not open for exploring on your own. Tours require an additional fee on top of park admission, availability is limited, and reservations are highly recommended. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted on any ranger-guided tours. Other age limits apply depending on the tour.
- View the Carlsbad Caverns Map.
- During Visitor Center hours, the Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company restaurant sells grab-and-go sandwiches, salads, yogurt, and snacks, as well as hot sandwiches, tacos, burritos, and fresh salads. A variety of bottled, fountain, and hot drinks are also available. The Underground Lunchroom also has a light snack bar.
- Picnic tables are located at the east end of the Visitor Center parking lot and at the Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area, about 15 miles from the Visitor Center.
- Tripod photography is welcome at Carlsbad Caverns, but not on guided tours.
- Carlsbad Caverns has two entries in the National Register of Historic Places — the Rattlesnake Springs Historic District above ground and the Cavern Historic District below ground. It was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
- Almost half-a-million bats across 17 species live inside Carlsbad Caverns.
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers no overnight lodging or campgrounds. Consider camping at Guadalupe Mountains National Park campground only 40 minutes away in Texas.
- Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes and consider bringing a light jacket or sweater as the year-round temperature in the cave is 56ºF. You can bring a flashlight or headlamp, you don’t need to because the cavern is lit. Plain water is also allowed.
- Dogs that are trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities are permitted in the Bat Flight Amphitheater and the Big Room, and on the Natural Entrance trail and the King’s Palace tour.