You should know right from the start that visiting the incredible cave system at Carlsbad Caverns National Park will desensitize you to all future cave explorations going forward! This is truly one of the greatest natural marvels on the planet.
Hike deep underground and explore a world of stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, draperies, cave popcorn, and more. I could not help but remark at how the landscape within looked like a coral reef on land.
In this comprehensive guide to Carlsbad Caverns NP, we will explain everything you need to know for planning your visit. This includes all pertinent information about making your reservations for the park (mandatory!), guided options, where to stay nearby, and other things to do on your visit.
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Quick Facts About Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- Location: New Mexico, USA
- Established: May 14, 1930
- Size: 46,770 acres (189.3 km²)
- Annual Visitors: 183,835 (2020) (down from 440,691 in 2019)
- Visitor Centers: Visitor Centers: Carlsbad Caverns Vistor Center (open year-round)
- Entrance Fee: $15 per individual; $80 Interagency Annual Pass
Map of Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Below are the only two Carlsbad Cavern maps you will need for your visit. The first is the official park map that shows all the trails and points of interest that technically fall within park boundaries. If you like hiking for the sake of it, there are a few trails you can walk. Personally, I believe the real magic of the park is all within the caverns.
The second map shows the trails that exist within the caverns.
Official Carlsbad Caverns National Park Map
Below is the official Carlsbad Caverns park map. You can find a downloadable version of this map on the NPS website.
Carlsbad Caverns Trail Map
The map below was photographed from The Big Room and shows the trails you can take WITHIN the caverns. Assuming you are physically able, I recommend entering through the natural route, hiking down to the big room (the dotted line portion), and walking the entire Big Room circuit down to Top of the Cross and back around through Rock of Ages.
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Best Things to Do In Carlsbad Caverns NP
If you are going to visit, these are the things you must make time for on your visit to the Carlsbad Caverns.
Self Guided Tour
Walk 1.25 miles into the depths of the caverns on a self-guided tour! Begin by walking the winding steps from daylight to “the twilight zone”, then continue on a journey into another world.
Once you have arrived at The Big Room below, take the time to walk the 1.25 mile circuit to explore more of the most incredible cave formations you will ever see anywhere in the world.
Assuming you can get a reservation, be sure to book one of the ranger-guided tours to explore parts of the caves others will never see and learn about what you are seeing from someone who knows the caves deeply.
The King’s Palace Tour is the most popular, and for very good reason. On this 90-minute expedition, visitors will four highly-decorated “chambers” and descend to the deepest accessible portion of the cave.
If your visit to the park is between late-May and early-September, you will definitely want to spend sunset at Carlsbad Caverns watching the bat flight. As darkness begins to fall, hordes of bats exit the cave in search of a tasty winged breakfast.
The peak months to witness this are June-August. During the months of May and September, the crowd will be thinner as the bats will be migrating to or from Mexico, accordingly.
Best Things to Do Near Carlsbad Caverns NP
As the caverns themselves will probably only require a day at most, you may be looking for other things to do nearby. Below are some attractions worth including in your Carlsbad itinerary.
Sitting Bull Falls
Located about an hour from Carlsbad is a hidden gem favorited by locals. After driving into the seemingly barren desert, you will arrive at an oasis in the hills where spring-fed waterfalls flow year-round.
Learn everything you need to know for visiting Sitting Bull Falls in our comprehensive guide!
This is a popular place for the locals to take their family on a hot day for a cool swim, as well as for picnics and BBQs.
Living Desert State Park
I don’t typically visit zoos, but as the entry was only $5 and it seemed to be ethically run, I decided to give this one a visit and enjoyed it very much.
Having spent a month in the desert, it was nice to finally have some information about the variety of animals and cacti and desert life I had been seeing.
Some people could easily spend an entire day here, while others will be in and out within a couple hours. This largely depends on your interest in the desert beyond the animals that call it home.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
If you’ve already embarked on a road trip to see the Carlsbad Caverns, you should definitely check another national park off the bucket list with a visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park located just 40 minutes west.
Hikers will enjoy a plethora of desert hikes through the striking mountain range, while motorists will simply have some beautiful scenery to enjoy from the roadside.
You can learn all about visiting the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in our comprehensive guide.
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What You’ll See in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The otherworldly landscapes you will find within the caverns began forming 265 million years ago! If it looks like some kind of above-ground reef, that is because it kind of is! Although today it is a desert landscape, 250 million years ago the area was an inland sea teeming with marine life! Over time, the sea dried up and the reef was eventually buried, before being uplifted and eroded to create the Guadalupe Mountains.
The caverns themselves formed much more recently (in geological terms!), between four and six million years ago. A combination of rainwater, seawater, pressure, gases, and time culminated to create the impressive variety of geological cave formations that you will discover during your visit.
The cave formations are collectively known as speleothems. This word literally means “cave deposits”, derived from the Greek words spelaion meaning “cave” and thema meaning “deposit”.
As water flows down into the cave through the ground, it picks up carbon dioxide from the air and soil creating a mild carbonic acid. This acidity allows the water to dissolve some of the limestone it passes on its way down. Once the water reaches the cave it is laden with calcite from the limestone, which it then deposits in the cave to create various formations, or speleothems.
While stalactites and stalagmites are the speleothems people are most familiar with, there are many other types that you will see within Carlsbad Caverns. These include columns, soda straws, draperies, helictites and popcorn.
While I am by no means an expert on these, in fact FAR from it, I have tried to break down some of the different speleothems you will see based on my understanding of each. Some quick fun facts; you can’t tell the age of a cave formation by its size as they grow at different rates based on environmental factors and the ones you’ll see are up to 10,000 years old! So the biggest formation isn’t necessarily the oldest, but they’re all VERY old.
As well as taking thousands of years form, the speleothems are very delicate. Not only can they break easily, but the natural oils in our skin can also damage them. Therefore, please DO NOT TOUCH any of the cave formations.
As mineral rich water drops from the ceiling, a small deposit is left behind. Over time, drip by drip, these deposits eventually form stalactites. Most stalactites have pointed tips and resemble icicles.
The water that drips onto the cave floor may also retain minerals that are deposited onto the ground. These will eventually form stalagmites. In contrast to stalactites, stalagmites typically have rounded or flattened tips.
Pro tip: It’s easy to remember which is which! Stalactites have a “C” for ceiling and stalagmites have a “G” for ground!
As stalactites and stalagmites continue to grow, they can eventually meet forming columns.
Soda straws are perhaps the most delicate of the cave formations, being only one drop wide and hollow. As the water drips from the ceiling, a ring of calcite is formed on the outside of the drop. This continues to create a hollow “straw” equal in diameter to the water drops. These hollow cylindrical tubes can become stalactites when the hole is blocked or water begins flowing down the outside surface of the tube.
As the name suggests, draperies are sheet-like structures. They develop as water flows slowly down a sloped ceiling, creating thin trails. As these trails hang a little lower than the rest of the ceiling, the water will continue to use this route causing a build-up of deposits which over time develop into sheets.
These are also sometimes referred to as “curtains” rather than draperies.
Named for their helix-like appearance, helictites are curved formations that no one is quite sure how have come to be! Their formations are curved, defying gravity! There are some great examples of these in the Queen’s Chamber.
Cave popcorn, also known as coralloids, look like small knobbly growths, or popcorn! They can be seen on the walls and other formations. The formation of these is a bit more complicated and can occur in one of two ways: precipitation or evaporation.
I am definitely not a geologist but have tried to provide the best explanation I can to help you understand some of the cave formations you can see. If you’re interested in learning more, you can find more detailed information on cave geology here.
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Planning Your Visit to Carlsbad Caverns NP
Now you know what to see and do at Carlsbad Caverns, it seems important to provide some practical information to help you plan your time there and ensure you have the best possible experience.
When to Visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park
As the majority of the park is underground, anytime is a good time to visit Carlsbad Caverns. Of course, avoiding peak season (summer months especially) will make it easier to get a reservation and find accommodation nearby.
How Many Days to Spend in Carlsbad Caverns NP
Most visitors will only need 3-4 hours for a self-guided tour through the caverns. Photographers and geology enthusiasts may want more time, but I would guess 5-6 hours would be more than enough time for 99% of visitors.
Of course, if you are there in the right seasons you will also want to time your visit to coincide with the evening bat flight.
All things considered, one day in Carlsbad Caverns should be budgeted and another half day is worth considering if you are thinking of visiting either the Living Desert State Park or Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area.
How to Get to Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The only way into the park is to drive and arrive via the Carlsbad Cavern Highway (Hwy 7).
Getting Around Carlsbad Caverns National Park
You must drive to the park, and from there will need to explore by foot. There is some wheelchair accessibility, but it is extremely limited.
All journeys will begin at the visitor center where you will provide your reservation details and buy your ticket(s). Those holding Interagency Yearly Parks Passes will provide that, otherwise it is $15 per ticket. Whether you plan on buying your ticket on arrival or are a pass holder, at present, you will still need to reserve a time slot to enter the park online in advance. Click here to visit recreation.gov and reserve your time slot.
All trails are paved and well-lit, and temperatures are moderate. If you run cold, you may want to bring a light jacket. Likewise, if you have trouble seeing you may want to bring a headlamp.
From the visitor center, you can chose to explore the caverns via the Natural Entrance Route, or skip this section and take an elevator to go straight to the Big Room Route. I highly recommend the Natural Entrance Route for anyone who is physically able. They call the area that still receives some natural light “the Twilight Zone” and it is a very unique view!
From the Natural Entrance, the hike to The Big Room Route is 1.25 miles.
Once you have arrived at the Big Room, whether by way of the Natural Entrance or by elevator, you are free to enjoy a 1.25 mile self-guided walk around the perimeter of the cave’s largest room. This is without question the most impressive part of the cave that is available on a self-guided tour.
When they are operating, visitors can also book a number of different ranger-guided tours. You’ll find the tours have varying degrees of physical requirements, some will even have you crawling through the caves… so make sure you check this before booking!
One of the most popular ranger-guided tours is the King’s Palace Tour. This tour takes 1.5 hours to complete and goes through four “chambers”, including the stunning Green Lake chamber. The tour descends to the deepest portion of the cavern that is accessible to the public.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing (May 2021), ranger-led tours are temporarily unavailable but you can find more information on the NPS website.
Where to Stay near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
There is no developed camping of any kind (vehicle or tent) anywhere within the Carlsbad National park boundaries! It is possible to backcountry camp within the park, however, there are a number of restrictions and you will need to obtain a free permit at the visitor centre. Check the NPS website for more information.
White’s City is a charming little town just 7 miles outside the park. It is the closest place to find all options for accommodation including a small inn, RV park, and tent camping.
The town is small so reservations are encouraged, especially in peak season. You will also find a cafe, general store, and gas station.
Located about 25 miles from the national park is the city of Carlsbad. I was personally surprised by how large the city was.
Carlsbad’s size and economy is due in large part to the oil deposits that were discovered there.
You can expect to find absolutely anything you need in Carlsbad, including large grocery stores, restaurants, and pretty much every chain you’d expect.
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Packing List for Carlsbad Caverns National Park
While your individual packing list will vary depending on the type of vacation you intend to have, there are a few essentials that you will want to consider taking with you to Carlsbad Caverns.
America the Beautiful Annual Pass
The annual national park pass costs $80 and provides access to all 63 national parks in the US. Additionally, it grants admission to over 2000 federal recreation sites! Discounted passes are offered to some groups, including seniors, military personnel, and 4th graders. Check the NPS website for up-to-date information and to purchase your pass.
You are undoubtedly going to want to capture photos of Carlsbad Caverns, so don’t forget your camera! We use the Sony a7riii and have loved it ever since the first photo we took with it. However, for beginners, you may wish to consider an entry-level DSLR. This will allow you to start learning manual settings and decide whether photography is something you enjoy enough to invest in.
If you have one, you will want to take a tripod with you to help capture photos of the caves. As they are dark, you will need a tripod to stabilize your camera during slower shutter speeds. When traveling, we use the Manfrotto Be Free as it’s lightweight and easy to carry on longer hikes. However, the Amazon basic tripod is a good starter tripod and cheaper alternative.
It’s worth noting, however, that tripods are not permitted on ranger-led tours.
Closed-toe, hiking shoes with good traction are recommended for the caves. Some trails are steep and can be wet from natural water drips.
Although the weather may vary outside of the caves, Carlsbad Cavern maintains a constant 56°F (13°C) year round and is humid.
With this in mind, you’ll want to pack layers of clothing. I love my Columbia jacket as it’s comprised of two layers. This allows me to just wear the outer waterproof/windproof shell, inner insulated layer or combination of both, depending on the conditions.
Reusable Water Bottle
We don’t travel anywhere without a reusable water bottle. Bring your own bottle to prevent wasting single-use plastic bottles! Water is available at trailheads and visitor centers.
It is worth noting food and any drinks other than plain water are not permitted within the caves.
It’s likely you’ll be using your phone to navigate, take photos, and more! Bring a power pack with you to keep your phone charged on the go.
You’ll want a backpack that’s comfortable and sturdy to carry around during the day. I use the GoGroove camera backpack as it also provides easy side access to my camera while out and about.
Mini First Aid Kit
When out hiking, we always have a mini first aid kit in our bag just in case. You never know when it may come in handy (particularly as Sophie’s clumsy)!
Useful Tips for Visiting Carlsbad Caverns NP
- Bring a flashlight: This is not necessarily something you’ll need, but it is good to have one in case you are having trouble navigating in the dim lighting.
- Plan ahead: Make sure you have a ticket reserved prior to your arrival or you may find yourself out of luck for seeing the caverns!
- Wear proper walking shoes: There are a ton of steps and uneven terrain in descending to the base of the Carlsbad Caverns. Be sure you are wearing appropriate footwear!
- Leave no trace: Please be respectful of the park. This is an incredibly delicate ecosystem so it is more especially important that you leave no trace. Keep to the trails and dispose of any waste, including food waste, properly.
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Fun Facts About Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- Approximately 250 million years ago, Carlsbad Caverns was part of an inland sea reef known as Capitan Reef. Many marine fossils have been discovered in the rock.
- Unlike most limestone caves, the caverns were created by sulfuric acid rather than water erosion.
- There are more than 100 caves within Carlsbad Caverns.
- Carlsbad Caverns was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
- As many as 300,000 Mexican free-tail bats come and go from the caverns each night at certain times of the year.
- The temperature within the caves remains a steady 56°F (13°C) year-round.
- There is no flowing water within the caves.
- Pictographs in the area show that people have lived on the land for approximately 14,000 years.
- In the 1880s, the caves were visited by people collecting guano (bat poop!) to use as a fertilizer, rather than just admiring their beauty!
- In 1931 the first elevator was installed in Carlsbad Caverns. Prior to this, visitors to the caves were lowered down in a big bucket!
- At 1604 ft (489m), Lechuguilla Cave is the second deepest cave in the continental US. It is also the eighth-longest explored cave in the world at 150.4 miles (242km).
- The Big Room is the largest cave chamber in Norther America with a floor area of 8.2 acres.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a collection of answers to the most commonly asked questions when visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
How long does it take to walk through the Carlsbad Caverns?
While it can certainly be done in less time, most people require about 1 hour to walk from the Natural Entrance to the Big Room, and about another hour to walk the Big Room circuit. At this point, you can take an elevator back to the top, or walk back up the hill.
The Natural Entrance Trail is only 1.25 miles (2km) to The Big Room, but it is very steep and dark. You will descend 750 feet in total, which is about the same as walking down the stairs in a 75-story building. Allow yourself time to appreciate the things you are seeing and always keep safety first.
How much does Carlsbad Caverns cost?
A general admission ticket is required for anyone entering Carlsbad Caverns. If you have the annual interagency pass, which I highly recommend, simply show this at the visitor center to get your ticket. If you do not have a parks pass, tickets for adults 16 years and older are $15, while children 15 and younger are free.
What is the best time to go to Carlsbad Caverns?
There are two best times to visit the Carlsbad Caverns: the summer, when the bat flight is at its peak, and winter, when the park is less crowed and temperatures outside the cave are tolerable!
How many days do you need at Carlsbad Caverns?
In my opinion, a half-day is more than enough to tour Carlsbad Caverns. Even serious geology enthusiasts and photographers will likely finish in 6-8 hours at the maximum. Of course, you may want to stay for sunset during the right season to watch the bat flight as well!
How deep is the bottomless pit in Carlsbad Caverns?
The “Bottomless Pit” in Carlsbad Caverns is actually 140 feet.
Which Carlsbad Caverns tours are the best?
There are many ranger-guided Carlsbad Cavern tours that offer the chance to visit other areas of the caves and gain a deeper understanding about them. The most popular tour is the King’s Palace which takes you into the deepest portion of the cavern open to the public, 830 feet (253m) beneath the desert surface.
Reservations can be made and more information about Carlsbad Cavern ranger-guided tours can be found on the NPS website.
Do you need reservations for Carlsbad Caverns?
You always need a ticket to enter the Carlsbad Caverns, and at present (May 2021) reservations are required. Typically, whether or not you need reservations is dependent on the day. Because daily tickets are limited, I highly recommend making reservations ahead of time, particularly for guided cave tours.
If reservations are sold out for the day you hope to arrive, you can still try to pick up a cancellation ticket at the visitor center. I was able to get one despite being sold out on a busy Saturday, so it’s worth a shot!
What animals live in the Carlsbad Caverns?
Carlsbad Caverns has a huge diversity of habitats and subsequently an incredible array of wildlife. These animals include 67 mammal species, 357 bird species, 5 fish species, and 55 amphibian and reptile species. The park provides an important year-round habitat for many animals including cougars, coyotes, foxes, wolves and badgers. As well as migratory species including huge colonies of free-tailed bats and many bird species.
Related Guides to Carlsbad Caverns National Park
If you enjoyed the photos and writing in this guide, you may also find some of the following resources helpful:
- Ultimate Guide to Sitting Bull Falls
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park: The Ultimate Guide
- Complete Guide to White Sands National Park
- Big Bend National Park: Everything You Need to Know
- Night Sky Photography tips and tutorials
- 101+ Dream Destinations for your Travel Bucket List
- Travel Lessons from 10 Years on the Road
Final thoughts on Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is one of those places where the experience is always better than the photos. It is a truly one-of-a-kind experience to walk amongst such an outstanding display of geologic miracles millions of years in the making!
We hope you have found this guide useful in planning your visit. If there is anything you feel we’ve missed or incorrectly stated, please help us improve by leaving a constructive comment below. Of course, flattery is also welcome as well!