Did you know that the main caverns of Carlsbad Caverns National Park are located 750 feet below the Earth’s surface and that some cave tours drop even lower, like the King’s Palace Tour, which drops to 850 feet below ground?
After spending two days exploring Saguaro National Park and two days wandering Big Bend National Park — all under the blazing desert sun — we were excited to switch it up and go deep underground to see some amazing rock formations! While you can take an elevator into the cavern from the Visitor Center, there is a trail that leads into the cavern that provides an unforgettable experience. (And seriously, it’s much better to walk down the trail that try to walk up it later!)
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.
Hiking The Natural Entrance Trail
An optional audio tour is available that covers the Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room Trail, but we skipped it so we could experience the cave on our own with true discovery, wonder, and amazement.
To reach the start of the Natural Entrance Trail we had to head outside the Visitor Center and down a pathway to a Ranger Check Point where we were given a brief overview of the cavern rules and asked to spit out any gum or candy. From there we walked through the bat flight viewing amphitheater, down the steps to the Natural Entrance Cave Opening.
Every year from April through October, hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed exit Carlsbad Caverns at night through the Natural Entrance Cave to search for food. The Carlsbad Caverns amphitheater sits at the mouth of the cavern to provide an amazing viewing experience of the bat flight.
A free evening Bat Flight Program, where a ranger delivers a talk about the bats, is held each night prior to the flight.
The best bat flights normally occur in August through September when baby bats, born in early summer, join the flight along with migrating bats from colonies further north.
When we reached the Natural Entrance cave opening, it honestly didn’t look much bigger than any of the other caves we have visited, but when you step closer and look down, you can see the trail switchbacking into a dark hole until there isn’t any more trail to see.
As we navigated the tight hairpin switchbacks, we descended first into twilight, then into darkness with minimal cave lights to guide the way. As I mentioned, we’ve visited other saves and caverns in the past, but none at this scale. We were amazed at the massive size of caves were were passing through and around each turn, in awe of the unique rock formations sticking out of the ceiling and floor and covering the walls.
We passed named formations like Devil’s Spring, Taffy Hill, and the Whale’s Mouth, before entering an area known as Devil’s Den where the remains of a giant Ice Age sloth called the Shasta ground sloth were discovered and excavated. The sloth was nine feet long and weighed a quarter of a ton.
Next the Natural Entrance Trail continued it’s descent, passing HUGE totem pole stalagmites called the Witch’s Fingers and the 200,000 ton Iceberg Rock that fell from the cavern wall to it’s current location years ago. After walking through a tunnel passage, we passed through an area known as The Bone Yard, up and down some steep hilly sections of the trail into The Great Room.
At The Great Room, the Natural Entrance Trail levels out and stops in the center of a huge, wide open room at a four-way stop:
- One path heads to the Underground Lunchroom, elevators, and restrooms.
- One path leads to the Big Room Trail.
- One path is the Big Room Trail exit (It’s a one-way trail.)
- And of course, you can always turn around and hike back up the Natural Entrance Trail.
With a 750 foot change in elevation in only 1.25 twisting and curving miles, the Natural Entrance Trail is one trail you want to walk down, not up! There are hand railings lining most of the trail and concrete benches are spread out along the trail so you can sit, rest, take breaks, and marvel at the stunning scenery around you.
As we walked down the trail, our knees and toes felt quite a bit of pressure, but compared those huffing and puffing and sweating through the hike up, it’s clear the best option is to walk down the Natural Entrance Trail and ride the elevator back up to the Visitor Center.
The Big Room Trail is self-guided, which means you can do that at any time. If you booked a guided tour however, be sure to find out where it starts! We booked the King’s Palace Tour for 10:00 am and it started in the Underground Lunchroom not the Visitor Center.
Luckily we arrived at Carlsbad Caverns around 8:15 am, so we had plenty of time to walk the Natural Entrance Trail. It took us just under 90 minutes, and that included lots of stopping to take photos of the stalactites, stalagmites, columns, soda straws, flowstone, draperies, and other speleothems.
Know Before You Go
About The Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance Trail:
- The Natural Entrance Trail is a 1.25 mile, winding trail with many switchbacks that descends 750 feet into the cavern — It’s a must-do for everyone who visits the caverns.
- Nervous about the walk back up? Don’t sweat it. There are elevators in the Visitor Center that can take you down into the cavern and back up when you’re ready.
- There are restrooms and a snack bar underground near the elevators and the start of the Big Room Trail and above ground in the Visitor Center.
- The Natural Entrance is not an accessible trail and it is not recommended for visitors with heart or respiratory conditions.
About Carlsbad Caverns National Park:
- 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. The Visitor Center and cavern are closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
- 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.
- View the Carlsbad Caverns Map.
- Carlsbad Caverns has two entries in the National Registrar of Historic Places — the Rattlesnake Springs Historic District above ground and the Cavern Historic District below ground.
- 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.
- 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.