Carlsbad Caverns National Park has almost 120 different cave chambers. The main chamber Carlsbad Cavern, and Slaughter Canyon Cave and Spider Cave are open to the general public, and while you can tour the Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room Trail in Carlsbad Cavern on your own, the rest of the caves open to the public require tickets for a ranger-led tour.
We wanted to see as much of the cave system as we could during our visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, so we purchased tickets for the King’s Palace Tour, the most popular guided-tour in the park about three months in advance.
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.
Our King’s Palace Experience
We met up with the tour group for the King’s Palace Tour — about 30 people — off to one side of the Underground Lunchroom. Here our ranger provided more information about the tour, instructions to keep our group on track, and shared a little of his own story with us.
To begin the tour, we walked back the way we came on the Natural Entrance Trail for a while until reaching the entrance to the cave chambers that are part of the King’s Palace Tour. The ranger checked all of our tickets one by one and then we began our walk through four breathtaking caves.
During our tour, we learned about the geology of the cave, heard stories about the early explorers’ experiences, and saw spectacular rock formations in four unbelievably ornate cave rooms, including:
The King’s Palace
The King’s Palace is the first of four chambers in a cavern wing known as the scenic rooms. It is named for a stunning large castle-like formation in the center of the 100 foot tall room. When we entered the King’s Palace, our whole tour group was invited to sit on concrete benches while our tour guide shared history about Carlsbad Caverns and the discovery of this area of the cave. This gave me plenty of time to snap photos of the formations and to ask the second ranger to take a family photo.
The Papoose Room
The Papoose Room is located between the King’s Palace and Queen’s Chamber. It is a smaller cave room that looks sort of like a mini version of the King’s Palace. Large stalagmites rise up from the floor, hundreds of stalactites cover the ceiling, and a unique formation that looks like a Witch’s Broomstick can be found in the corner.
The Queen’s Chamber
The Queen’s Chamber is considered the most beautiful of the four scenic caves. In this cave chamber, you can see delicate onyx formations that resemble the texture of lace and filigree. The rock curtains, fit for a Queen, include a 40-foot tall drapery column called the Queen’s Drapery.
After looping around the perimeter the the Queen’s Chamber, we once again traveled through the King’s Palace, this time on the opposite side of the room. On our way to the next room, the Green Lake Room, we passed a cute rock formation called the Bashful Elephant.
The Green Lake Room:
The Green Lake Room is the uppermost of the four scenic rooms. The cave room is named after a deep, malachite (copper carbonate) colored pool in the corner of the room that looks like a small green lake.
In the 1940s, the military considered Carlsbad Cavern as an emergency fallout shelter. During tests, Green Lake was used to look for ripples caused by an atomic bomb test many miles away and because none appeared, it is believed that Green Lake Room could be a viable shelter in case of a nuclear attack.
A Total Black Out
During our tour, the ranger was carrying a small lantern but didn’t use it until we walked into a large sweeping curve in the trail lined with a long bench. Once we all sat down, all lights in the cave were turned off and we were in total and complete darkness. We couldn’t even see a hand lifted in front of our face.
While we sat in total darkness, the ranger told us about how the first explorers entered the cave with nothing more than a single candle. He then turned on the small lantern and we saw the rock formations in the room just as the first people who entered the cave did.
The total darkness was pretty cool, but nothing compared to the extraordinary speleothem formations we saw throughout tour.
Because there were about 30 people on our tour, we made sure we all stayed at the back of the group. This gives me more time to take photos and helps keep other peoples’ conversations out of our ears as voices carry up to one quarter mile in the caves.
Additional Guided Cavern Tours
In addition to the King’s Palace Tour, Carlsbad Caverns offer several other guided tours, including:
- Left Hand Tunnel:
This is a moderately difficult, historic, candle-lit lantern tour through an undeveloped section of the cave on unpaved trails. The dirt trail is uneven and you will be required to navigate steep slippery slopes, cavern pools, and fragile formations.
- Slaughter Canyon Cave:
This is a 5.5 hour tour that includes a strenuous, 30-45 minute, half-mile hike to reach the cave entrance. The cave tour is a moderately strenuous adventure tour into an underground wilderness without electricity, paved walkways, or modern conveniences. The cave trails are narrow, uneven, and very slippery, and the only light is from provided flashlights and headlamps.
- Lower Cave:
In 1924, National Geographic expedition members wrote about the wonders of Lower Cave. This 3.0 hour tour includes a descent of sixty feet down ladders and a knotted rope to hang onto as you slowly walk backward down a slope at the tour entrance.
- Hall Of The Giant:
This is a 4.0 hour tour where you’ll be getting dirty, crawling through tight passageways, climbing slippery flowstone, climbing ladders, and free climbing. This cave tour is not recommended for anyone afraid of tight spaces or heights.
- Spider Cave:
This is a 4.0 hour tour into a three-dimensional maze cave where you’ll hike 0.5 miles down beautiful Garden Grove Canyon to get to the cave, then do lots of underground crawling and climbing. This cave tour is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights or enclosed spaces.
Know Before You Go
About The King’s Palace Tour:
- The King’s Palace Tour is a 1.0 mile ranger-guided tour through four highly decorated chambers.
- In addition to the national park admission fee, the King’s Palace Tour tickets costs $8.00 for adults and $4.00 for children, seniors, and Access Pass holders. Children under age 4 are not permitted.
- The tour takes roughly 1.5 hours and reservations should be made in advance as there is sometimes only 1-3 tour times available in a day. Guided tours sell out quickly from April through October.
- The tour begins in the underground lunchroom with an introduction from the ranger. In the underground lunchroom, you’ll find restrooms, a snack bar, t-shirts, and elevators.
- All tour tickets must be picked up at the visitor center at least 30 minutes prior to the tour.
- Arrive extra early so you can walk the incredible 1.25 mile Natural Entrance Trail into the cavern before your tour.
- No tripods are allowed on the ranger-led tour.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.