Our Thanksgiving road trip started in Tucson with a visit to Saguaro National Park, Old Tucson, Mission San Xavier, and the Pima Air & Space Museum. To make sure we spent Thanksgiving Day in a national park that was actually open, we then drove through New Mexico all the way to Big Bend National Park in Texas where we also visited the Ghost Town of Terlingua and stopped by Prada Marfa and the Marathon Target. This left the last three days of our trip — Wednesday-Friday — for Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which only about 20 minutes apart.
Because we wanted to do a ranger-led cave tour at Carlsbad Caverns in addition to the free, self-guided tour, we had to book our tickets in advance, which meant we already knew that Wednesday was our day in the caverns and Thanksgiving would be spent at Guadalupe Mountains — the only national park on our trip open on Thanksgiving Day.
Our first stop at Carlsbad Caverns was the Visitor Center so we could check-in for our tour, get more information about “how it works,” and find out where the tour begins.
The Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center complex is the main above ground part of the national park with a restaurant, gift shop, and museum exhibits. In fact, from the parking lot, the Visitor Center and the distant Rattlesnake Springs Historic District is all you can see.
At the Visitor Center you can:
- Check out museum quality exhibits and hands-on interactive exhibits about the cavern history, geology, and the animals and plants that live in the desert.
- Watch the 15 minute movie Hidden World about Carlsbad Caverns — it’s shown every 30 minutes.
- Visit the information desk for park tickets, tour times and check in, and park information.
- Stop in the Gift Shop that has a large variety of souvenirs and gifts like t-shirts, hats, mugs, jewelry, toys, and Native American art.
- Shop in the bookstore that has books, games, postcards, photos, passport books, souvenirs, and junior ranger products.
- Grab drinks, snacks, and meals at the restaurant.
We arrived about 90 minutes before our tour time, which was perfect because our tour began in the underground lunchroom, which meant we had just enough time to walk the 1.25 mile Natural Entrance Trail into the caverns.
After our tour, we rode the elevators up 750 feet back to the Visitor Center to eat lunch at the restaurant and pick up some souvenirs in the gift shop. Then rode them again as we headed back down into the caverns to walk the self-guided Big Room Trail.
The Visitor Complex is huge and is well worth your time to explore it above ground in and around your underground adventures.
Know Before You Go
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.
- 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 park Visitor Center and cavern complex 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.