Exploring Sitting Bull Falls, New Mexico: The ULTIMATE Guide

Ultimate Guide to Sitting Bull Falls blog cover image; text overlaying an image of the waterfall

Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area is a desert oasis located about an hour away from Carlsbad, New Mexico. After driving 42 miles through what appears to be barren desert, visitors will arrive to discover a plethora of covered picnic areas, BBQs, and multiple small waterfalls!

In addition, photographers and cave enthusiasts who have the foresight to acquire a permit can explore the photogenic Sitting Bull Caves nearby.

If you are looking for the best thing to do on a visit to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, grab your swimsuit and spend a day swimming and relaxing at Sitting Bull Falls State Park.

Tips for Visiting Sitting Bull Falls

  • Be sure to bring cash as there is a $5 parking fee per vehicle.
  • Sitting Bull Falls park opens at 8:30am and closes at 5pm. However, no new visitors will be permitted from 4pm onward.
  • Reach out ahead of time if you want to visit the caves as permits are required. You will need to contact the Guadalupe Ranger Station in Carlsbad.
  • Bring sunscreen and a swimsuit if you want to enjoy the swimming hole at the base of the falls.
  • Bring beverages in cans and plastic as glass is not allowed.
  • Arrive early on weekends as parking can be limited and Sitting Bull Falls is a favorite destination for locals.

About Sitting Bull Falls

Sitting Bull Falls waterfall is a desert gem!
Sitting Bull Falls waterfall is a desert gem!

Sitting Bull Falls is a desert oasis with two small cascades and a swimming hole located in a canyon in the Lincoln National Forest. Because the falls are spring-fed, they are classified as perennial waterfalls (meaning there is water year-round.)

Most visitors are locals, or people who are in the area primarily to explore Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

The region is maintained by the National Forest Service which collects $5 per vehicle parking fees to help maintain the area. The picnic areas are always kept pristine and there are usually rangers present to assist with overflow parking and to answer questions.

While the waterfalls are not particularly large at 150 feet tall, they are bigger than one might expect to find in such a dry and barren landscape.

There are also some beautiful caves to explore nearby, but permits are required. Additionally, they can be difficult to get at the moment as the bat populations in the region have been obliterated by “white nose disease” and all precautions are being taken at this point. If you would like to try for a permit and get more information, contact the Carlsbad Ranger Station.

Sitting Bull Falls Hike

  • Distance: .25 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Gain: None

The hike to Sitting Bull Falls is an easy quarter-mile with no elevation change and is wheelchair-accessible.

There is a trail to the top of the waterfall for visitors who wish to make the climb. The hiking distance to the top of the falls is only 0.5-miles, but requires a steep climb in the desert heat. The view is not as pretty, but it’s a good option for those who would like to do a bit more walking.

Sitting Bull Falls Hours of Operation

The park opens each day at 8:30am and entry is permitted until 4pm, at which point the entry gate will be closed to new visitors.

The park closes to all visitors at 5pm.

An automated arm bar prevents vehicle access before opening and after closing.

How to Get to Sitting Bull Falls

The spring-fed Sitting Bull Falls waterfall is visible year-round.
This spring-fed waterfall is visible year-round.

To get to Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area from the city of Carlsbad, you will take Hwy 285 through town, then turn onto Road 137.

An alternate route to avoid driving through the city of Carlsbad is to take Road 524 on the outskirts of town until it connects to Hwy 285, at which point you will once again be looking for Road 137.

If you are coming in from the east and do not want to go through Carlsbad at all, you can shortcut the route by taking the George Shoupe Relief Route which will connect you to Hwy 285 on the north end of town.

All roads mentioned above are paved and well maintained, though there may be some dirt patches where construction is ongoing. There are other roads that will take you to the falls, but some of these are not paved and unmaintained.

Other Things to do Near Carlsbad

While you’re in the area, it is well worth taking the time to discover a couple other local destinations.

Living Desert State Park

A mountain lion pauses for a photo in the Living Desert State Park near Carlsbad.
A mountain lion pauses for a photo in the Living Desert State Park.

For just $5, you can explore see all variety of desert life and learn about how creatures and plants survive in this harsh climate.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Be sure to read up on Carlsbad Caverns National Park in our comprehensive guide!
Be sure to read up on Carlsbad Caverns National Park in our comprehensive guide!

If you are in Carlsbad, I’m sure this one is already on your radar. However, you may want to check out our comprehensive guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park to help you prepare for your journey.

Sitting Bull Falls FAQs

Escape the heat at the desert oasis of Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area.
Escape the heat at the desert oasis of Sitting Bull Falls.

What time is Sitting Bull Falls open?

Sitting Bull Falls park is Day-use only. The entry gate opens at 8:30am and will be closed to new visitors at 4pm.  The exit gate closes at 5pm.

How long is the hike to Sitting Bull Falls?

The hike to the waterfall is only 1/4 of a mile. A .5 mile trail to the top of the falls is also available.

What is the entry fee for Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area?

There is a $5 per vehicle parking fee, but not entry fee beyond that.

Can you swim at Sitting Bull Falls?

Yes you can! In fact, this is a favorite swimhole for Carlsbad locals.

How do you get to the Sitting Bull Caves?

You first need to contact the Guadalupe Ranger Station in Carlsbad to inquire about a permit. They will give you directions on how to find and access the caves.

How tall is Sitting Bull Falls?

The main waterfall is 150 feet high.

Are there bathrooms available?

Yes there are, as well as covered picnic areas and some trash cans.

How far is the drive to Sitting Bull Falls (from Carlsbad)?

The drive is about 1 hour and 43 miles from the city of Carlsbad.

Can you bring dogs to Sitting Bull Falls?

Yes! Dogs are welcome at the waterfalls, though they are required to remain on a leash.

Related Guides

If you enjoyed the photos and writing in this guide, you may also find some of the following resources helpful:

Final Thoughts on Visiting Sitting Bull Falls

The second waterfall at Sitting Bulls Falls Recreation Area.
The second waterfall at Sitting Bulls Falls Recreation Area.

While this little gem was not the most amazing waterfall I’ve ever visited, there was something special about its existence in a place you’d least expect. As I only needed a day to explore the Carlsbad Caverns when I had planned a whole weekend, I was excited to discover this oasis nearby.

If you have not already, be sure to check out our other regional guides and, as always, please provide any corrections or feedback in the comments below!

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7 thoughts on “Exploring Sitting Bull Falls, New Mexico: The ULTIMATE Guide”

  1. My father was a helicopter pilot that flew for forest service in the mid 70 s this was my summer playground as a kid you did not mention the pools at the top of the falls nor the huge rattle snake population I explored /found caves that where not on any maps one was a 150 vertical descend that required no ropes it opened up into a huge cavern with a lake in the lake we found brine shrimp and fish their eyes were bulging and black they where blind we would catch them with our hands fond memories

    Reply
    • Hi Tim! This is all very good information and some of the most adventurous will certainly find it useful, but it goes beyond the scope of the falls themselves. This guide was designed for visiting the waterfalls only – most other exploration requires permits and a visit to the forest service office.

      Reply
      • We are headed to the falls, coming from Midland, Texas with the grandparents. (The accessibility will be perfect for our older family members.) It’ll be difficult to get there early. Any suggestions for a backup plan if the park is at capacity when we arrive? Would love an email reply. Thx!

        Reply
  2. Sept. 2021. A few things left out. Narrow 2 lane road with sharp turns. Park closes at 4 p.m. Tire pokers were up before 4 p.m at entry to falls. Also seems to be automatic gate arm before entry. Took road on southside of Carlsbad to falls (sign). Seemed to be country road, cows crossing road, some gravel, no sign at T showing which way to falls. Took 137 back which is best way to falls. Know better now will try again in future. From Indiana. Go early so you have plenty of time to enjoy.

    Reply

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