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While you might not have dreams about limestone rock formations or spelunking with bats, there are plenty of reasons to take a trip to Carlsbad Caverns. Even if you aren’t a fan of caves or going underground, there is no denying the magic of the caverns, with their breathtaking stalactites, totem poles, stalagmites, and more. If you are driving through New Mexico, don’t pass up the chance to do a tour or two at Carlsbad Caverns.
Need more reasons to go? Here is everything you need to know about visiting Carlsbad Caverns, including what to do and when to go.
What are the Carlsbad Caverns?
The Carlsbad Caverns are located in New Mexico, within the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Being that these caverns are the largest network of caves in the entire North America, Carlsbad Caverns are a popular destination for visitors to New Mexico.
There are more than 300 found caves between the Guadalupe Mountains and Chihuahuan Desert in southeastern NM. Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains 113 of the caves, which were formed by trapped sulfuric acid eating away at the limestone.
The Carlsbad Caverns were discovered in 1898 by Jim White, who saw a black cloud rising from what is now known as the Natural Entrance. White crafted a ladder and began the first descent into the cave to find the source of the smoke. Shortly after, exploration began in full. In 1923, the US government named the Carlsbad Caverns a National Monument.
Today, you can walk the same pathways that Jim White did when first discovering the Carlsbad Caverns.
When to Visit Carlsbad Caverns
If you are planning a trip to Carlsbad Caverns, you probably want to know about the weather. Even though the caverns are underground, you also need to consider the desert above. Most visitors seek out the Carlsbad Caverns in the spring, fall, and winter. In the summer, outside temperatures can soar above 100 degrees F. As summer transitions to fall, it’s not uncommon for torrential downpours to fall in the desert, making for treacherous travel.
That said, the caverns are much cooler than the desert, so if you can brave the heat for the drive, it’s worthwhile. Plus, most ranger programs happen during the summer.
If you go in the winter, you won’t get to see the bats take flight. The bats migrate towards Mexico during the coldest months.
What to Know About Visiting Carlsbad Caverns
When visiting the park, there are a few things you should know about in advance. Most of these are precautionary measures to keep you safe and healthy.
Clothing and Footwear
Since the caverns are about 56 degrees F throughout the year, you are going to want to bring plenty of layers for your exploration. It’s important to dress warmly and comfortably. Also, don’t forget about footwear. Most of the pathways through Carlsbad Caverns are paved, but the humidity can cause slick spots. Bring a pair of shoes with great traction to keep you from falling.
White Nose Syndrome
You are going to be required to walk over bio-cleaning mats when exiting Carlsbad Caverns. Also, don’t touch anything unless you know it’s safe. This is to protect other animal life from something called White Nose Syndrome, a dangerous fungal disease. The disease has been spreading through the population of bats in the caverns. It spreads over their body wherever there isn’t fur, slowly killing them.
Scientists are studying the disease to find a way to treat them, but until then, you will need to step on the bio-cleaning mats to wipe off any spores that could spread the disease elsewhere. If you opt to go on more than one tour, you may be asked to change clothing and footwear.
Ticketing at Carlsbad Caverns
Visiting Carlsbad Caverns requires a ticket. You will need this ticket to do a ranger-guided tour. This ticket is not included in the price of the entrance fee, so be sure to either pre-purchase your tour tickets online or go to the visitor center upon arrival.
Keep in mind that tours usually end mid-afternoon. You will need to reserve your entrance time with the US National Park Service. If you don’t have a reservation, you won’t be able to enter the caverns.
What to do When Visiting Carlsbad Caverns
There is more to do at the national park than see the underground rock formations and bats. Carlsbad Caverns is a gorgeous place to explore on foot. Here are some of the best things to do while visiting Carlsbad Caverns:
1. Go on a Hike Above Ground
Most people gravitate to the subterranean wonderland that the park is known for, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to do above ground. Surface hiking trails are scattered all over the park, so you have many to choose from.
Here are some of the best hiking trails in Carlsbad Caverns National Park:
North Slaughter Canyon Trail
One of the longer trails through Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the North Slaughter Canyon Trail, clocking in at 11.1 miles long. The hike leads you through the less trafficked reaches of the Carlsbad Canyon National Park and is best known for the fields of wildflowers that bloom close to the path. Most of the path is at an upper elevation, gifting you with miraculous views; don’t get discouraged by the beginning, which is along river rock.
Upper Rattlesnake Canyon Trail
This is a loop trail that is 5.9 miles long. Visit the Upper Rattlesnake Canyon Loop between April and October to see the best flora and occasional fauna. You will be in solitude most of the hike, so you have plenty of time to navigate cairns and river beds. Keep in mind that this trail is not always well maintained (though well marked), so bring pants, water, and sun protection.
Juniper Ridge Trail
Interested in seeing some of the plant life up close and personal? The Juniper Ridge Trail cuts through the rocky landscape, leading up to the border of the park. It’s about 2.2 miles round trip and is easy enough for children to complete without a struggle. Once you reach a canyon overlook, you can turn back the way you came or traipse through the wilderness for a bit.
You will find the trailhead at Desert Loop Road, about a mile beyond Marker 15.
2. Do a Self-Guided Tour
Do you want to see the majesty of the caverns at your own pace? You’re going to enjoy the self-guided tours. There are two: the Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room Trail. Since the first naturally moves into the second trail, it’s recommended that you do both.
Natural Entrance Trail
In about 1.25 miles (2 km) all the way downhill, you can venture deeper and deeper into the Carlsbad Caverns. The trail is a winding asphalt that leads you through the mouth of the caverns (the same entrance Jim White came through), and along drip stones, stalactites, and stalagmites. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to finish, ending at the start of the Big Room trail.
Big Room Trail
By volume, the Big Room is the biggest cave chamber in the whole US—and it’s full of wonder. Cast your gaze up towards the ceiling and take in the astounding formations of rock. Every section of the Big Room is breathtaking. Follow the trail, which is dotted with informational signage, to see massive stalactites, columns, and much more.
The trail is mostly flat and wheelchair accessible. At 1.25 miles (2 km) long, you can finish it within an hour.
3. Go on a Ranger-Led Tour
Aside from the two self-guided tours, there are an additional five ranger-led tours for you to choose from (at an additional cost). Most of these tours are easy, but some are longer hikes that require you to summon a bit of courage and grit. Depending on how much of an adventure you want, these ranger-guided tours could be the highlight of your trip to Carlsbad Caverns.
NOTE: As of December 2021, ranger guided tours are temporarily suspended but will be returning with limited availability. Be sure to check the official national park website for more information, or call the visitor center.
Here are the best ranger guided tours:
King’s Palace Tour
For $8, you can go on a 1.5 hour long tour into one of the coolest collections of rock formations in the entire cavern, known as the King’s Palace. The colors of the rocks are accented by the illuminated. You also get to see some gorgeous stalagmites, stalactites, and natural pillars along the path.
Left Hand Tunnel Tour
At 2 hours long, this candle-lit tour is magical and designed for smaller groups to explore the caverns as the first explorers did. You get more historical information about the caverns, all while seeing the natural beauty of the caves.
Lower Cave Tour
Looking for an adrenaline rush? For 3 hours at $20, you can strap on a helmet and a pair of gloves and descend by ladders into the depths of Carlsbad Caverns. Another 60 feet below the main pathways, there are even more miraculous rock formations.
Hall of the White Giant Tour
Hopefully, you’re claustrophobic for this one. In 4 hours, you will be led through narrow passageways, along slippery rocks, down ladders, and scale rocky walls on your own, all in pursuit of stunning views. This one is definitely for the adventurous—and for those who don’t mind getting a little muddy along the way.
This is a highly popular tour and will sell out quickly. Plan your trip to Carlsbad Caverns well in advance so you can book space for this tour.
Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour
Running about 5.5 hours long, this is the longest ranger guided tour available. For those afraid of the dark, this one might not be for you. The ranger leads you into Slaughter Canyon cave with nothing but flashlights and headlamps. The ground is slippery and uneven, too. But it’s a marvelous adventure and memorable. You’ll be telling everyone once you’re finished how amazing the whole point-to-point tour has been.
There is also an above ground hiking trail near Slaughter Canyon cave that you can do before or after your tour.
4. Take a Scenic Drive
Want to see the mountains surrounding the Carlsbad Caverns without leaving the car? You can! The Walnut Canyon Desert Drive is a one-way, 9.5 mile long drive along a gravel road that winds and wends through the mountains and desert. The scenery can be a little monotonous, so it’s recommended that you break up the drive with some hiking.
Also, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. The park has 67 mammal species—some rather rare—to look for, including spotted skunks and black bears. Many native animals have been reintroduced into the area, such as pronghorn and javelina. Rocky Mountain Elk also wander through the land.
Who knows? You might get to spot kangaroo mice and Chihuahuan Desert pocket mice, too.
5. Set up Camp for a Day
While there are no designated campgrounds within the park, you will find plenty of camping around Carlsbad Caverns. If you are bringing an RV, check out Carlsbad RV Park or Whites City RV Campground. Both of these places are great for a 2-3 night stay.
Want to try camping under the stars? You will find primitive campsites that cost $0 to use at a place called Sunset Reef Campground. There are only 11 campsites available, and they fill up quickly. It’s first come, first serve as well. If you can’t find anything at Sunset Reef Campground, try Dillahunty Road, which also has primitive camping spaces.
Lastly, you can get a permit from the Carlsbad Caverns visitor center to do backcountry camping along the hiking trails in the park. The permit doesn’t cost anything, either.
Camping is a great way to see the region and do some exploring after the caverns shut down for the day.
6. Bat Flight Program
Saving the best thing to do while visiting Carlsbad Caverns for last: the Bat Flight Program. Because you can only partake in this program once a year due to the migratory pattern of the bats, expect there to be crowds.
The Bat Flight Program is available between May and October. You are led to the Bat Flight Amphitheater, where you can grab a seat and watch thousands of Brazilian bats flock to the entrance of the cave. The best time to see the bats take flight is between August and September, after the baby bats have been born and start flying with their parents.
Take a Trip to Carlsbad Caverns
The Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico are a mind-blowing experience that everyone should have at least once. Not only is the setting truly majestic, but it’s unique. Since there is a lot to see, it is recommended that you take a ranger-led tour, since it will give you a better understanding of the caverns and bats. Now that you know about visiting Carlsbad Caverns, it’s time to start planning for your arrival!
1. Can you visit Carlsbad Caverns right now?
Yes, you can visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park right now. You will need to wear a mask whenever you are underground or in enclosed spaces. Furthermore, you need a reservation to access the caverns. The park is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve and day. All amenities are also closed on these days.
The last ticket to the cavern is sold at 2:15 pm. The elevators stop running at 4:45 pm, but you can no longer board them to access the cavern after 2:30 pm. Please keep this in mind when planning your visit.
2. How long does it take to tour Carlsbad Caverns?
If you are looking to get the most out of your trip to Carlsbad Caverns, then you are going to need about 2-3 days. Most people spend two days below and above ground, exploring both the caverns and the hiking trails. You can spend one day during the underground tours of the caverns and seeing the bats then make the next day for exploring nature.
Keep in mind that tours last a while. For context, if you go by the natural entrance and visit the Big Room, that trip alone takes up to 4 hours. Take the Kings and Queens Chamber tour, and you just added on another hour.
3. Is it worth visiting Carlsbad Caverns?
Yes, absolutely! Carlsbad Caverns are a natural wonder and the longest network of caves in the whole North American continent. Not only are the caverns beautiful, but all tours are highly educational and entertaining. You can also experience bats in their natural habitat and learn more about these fascinating creatures.
Most of Carlsbad Caverns is easy enough for children and older adults to easily tour the space.
4. Can you get into Carlsbad Caverns without a reservation?
No. As of December 2021, reservations are required for entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. You can call 877-444-6777 or order online. You cannot get your reservation at the park. Furthermore, you need to pre-purchase tickets to tours and wear a mask at all times.