There is no doubt that Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a great place to visit, and a “bucket list” destination for many who seek great beauty. Above ground there is the jaw-dropping bat flight in the summer evenings and hiking, and below ground there is an endless expanse of caves that will blow your mind. If you are driving cross-country, or perhaps live in the area, then you will not be disappointed by spending a day or two exploring this park!
Finding the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park can be a bit daunting. There are several options to consider for tours, things you can do on your own, activities that require reservations and events that just require you to be at the right place at the right time.
We hope our guide on What to See and Do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park helps at least get you started as you plan your visit!
Ahead of your trip, be sure to download your copy of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park itinerary. This guide will help you plan out your vacation, let you know details on what to see and do, multi-day itineraries for all types of travelers, where to stay and what to do in the area. We also include useful maps, which are great to have when you don’t have cell reception in the park!
CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK HISTORY
Carlsbad Caverns is a limestone cave that was developed by an inland sea, millions of years ago. The area has been long inhabited by Native American tribes, starting about 14,000 years ago. While this part of modern-day New Mexico had been explored by the Spanish in the 1500’s, the first documented entry into the caverns by a westerner was in 1898, when a 16-year-old local named Jim White found the cave. His name is remembered forever as part of the family that founded nearby White’s City.
The cave was first heavily documented by photographers between 1915 and 1918, but it was the photos that were published in the New York Times in 1923 that sparked a lot of interest and attention.
The site was declared Carlsbad Cave National Monument in 1923 and then turned into Carlsbad Caverns National Park in 1930.
Work to make access easier to the park began shortly thereafter, with trails and staircases being added. But it wasn’t until 1931 that the first elevator shaft was put in. It’s incredible to think that back then they were able to dig down 750 feet for this shaft, which is still in use today!
Exploration of the cave continues, and today over 100 miles of caves have been explored. You can read more about the history of Carlsbad Caverns here. One really interesting note is that there are more than 119 caves in the park!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park map, courtesy of the National Park Service
CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK RESERVATIONS
Entering into the park is allowed without reservations, but in order to go into the cave you need to have reservations. This is even for a self-guided tour. Reservations are available online, and you need to obtain them between 48 hours and 30 days ahead of your visit.
You do not need reservations or a pass to hike in the park.
CAVERN ENTRANCE AREA
Cavern Entrance area map, courtesy of the National Park Service
The area around the Cavern Entrance is the most popular part of the park, by far. It contains the northeastern half of the park and is the first part of the park you’ll get to if coming from nearby Carlsbad, NM.
While visiting the Cavern Entrance area of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, our recommendations include:
- Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center. The Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center is at the main entry point into the cave area. Like most of the NPS sites, this visitor center is outstanding. There is a 3D model of the cave, exhibits of how the caves were formed and information about the local flora and fauna. There is also a short park film that plays every 30 minutes. It is a great place to get information from the rangers, or just to pass the time as you are waiting for your tour time to start.
- Walnut Canyon Desert Drive. This 9.5-mile loop leaves right from the Visitor Center. The drive is especially pretty early in the morning or in evening during the “golden hour.” The scenery and variety of color is really impressive. The road is not paved, and you should plan on it taking about an hour, with stops. You can pick up a guide for this drive at the Visitor Center.
- Bat Viewing. Carlsbad Caverns is home to about 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats between May and October before they migrate south for the winter. When they are present, you can gather in the amphitheater as sunset approaches. Rangers give an introductory talk, before the bats emerge from the cave. It’s free and doesn’t require reservations, but it can be a bit crowded on a nice summer day, so arrive a bit early. The best time of year to see the bats is in August and September. You can also wee the bats return if you want to get up early (they return between 4 am and 6 am).
Cave Tours. Getting down into the cave really is the main attraction at the park. You can take a guided tour or take a self-guided tour and go at your own pace. Be advised that the temperature in the cave is always a cool 56 degrees F, so bring a jacket! Reservations are required for all tours. You may only bring water into the cave, but there is a small (but really neat!) restaurant in the Big Room. Here are the options you have:
- Big Room Cave Tour (self-guided): This is by far the most popular tour in the park. Even if you are going on a guided tour, you should take this tour as well. The “Big Room” has a 255-foot ceiling and contains over 14 acres of open space! You can get into the Big Room by either taking an elevator (which takes about a minute) or by walking down the Natural Entrance. The Natural Entrance is a bit steep, and is a 1.25-mile one-way trail. The entrance itself is especially impressive, and along the way there are a few exhibits that are worth checking out. We took the “easy” route, which was to take the Natural Entrance down and then take the elevator up. After you get down into the Big Room, there is a 1.25-mile flat trail that takes you around the major formations. To access the Natural Entrance, head to the Visitor Center and then walk east a short distance. You should allow 60-90 minutes, or about 2.5 hours if you go in the Natural Entrance.
- King’s Palace Tour (ranger guided): Staring at the Rest Area, this tour goes through four stunning “chambers.” It travels to the deepest part of the cave that is open to the public. You need to be prepared to walk up and down several inclines. The King’s Palace Tour will take about 1.5 hours.
- Lower Cave Tour (ranger guided): The Lower Cave Tour heads to the undeveloped areas of the cave. The trail is moderately strenuous, and you’ll have to negotiate steep rocks and ladders. They provide helmets and gloves, and you’ll want to bring good footwear. The Lower Cave Tour begins at the Visitor Center theater, and takes about 3 hours.
- Left Hand Tunnel Tour (ranger guided): The Left Hand Tunnel Tour is a moderately challenging trail that heads along a dirt path with a few steep and slippery slopes. The neat thing about it is that visitors get to carry candlelit lanterns! You have to have closed-toed shoes on this tour. The Left Hand Cave Tour leaves from the Visitor Center Theater and takes about 2 hours.
- Hall of the White Giant Tour (ranger guided): The Hall of the White Giant Tour takes visitors on ladders and crawling through very tight spaces. You get to see amazing landmarks, like the White Giant. Be ready to get dirty and be in closed spaces for a period of time. Not for the claustrophobic! The Hall of the White Giant tour leaves from the Visitor Center Theater and takes about 4 hours.
SLAUGHTER CANYON CAVE AREA
Slaughter Canyon Cave Area map, courtesy of the National Park Service
About 23 miles to the southwest of the main visitor center, the Slaughter Canyon Cave Area is much less visited than the main area of the park. While there isn’t nearly as much to do here, it does offer a bit of a more intimate experience with the park, and you’ll likely find a lot more solitude here particularly if you head out on a hike. While there isn’t as big of a menu of things to do, there are a few great options:
- Visit Rattlesnake Springs. This is the only water spot for miles, and is a common gathering place for wildlife. It’s also great for picnicking and a bit of exploring.
- Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour (ranger guided). The Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour goes into the depts of a dark cave. It is strenuous, and you’ll need to be prepared mentally for the journey. The hike to the cave is about 0.5-miles. The cave tour includes seeing amazing sights, like the Monarch (which towers 89 feet tall) and several other landmarks. Expect to spend about 5.5 to 6 hours on this tour, including the hike to and from your vehicle. The tour meets at the visitor center.
There is only one hike here in this part of the park:
- The North Slaughter Canyon Trail is a challenging 11.1-mile (round trip) hike that climbs a bit over 2200 feet. This is not very busy. The incline starts off shallow as you travel near spiny plants. Once you get out of the dry stream, the incline picks up significantly for three miles, and it includes switchbacks. There are great views along the trail, and you’ll likely be alone. The trailhead for the Slaughter Canyon Trail starts from the Slaughter Canyon parking area.
HOW TO GET CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK AND OTHER TRAVEL INFORMATION
If you are looking for directions to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, here are a few links that may be of interest:
- The nearest major airport is in El Paso, TX. It’s about 150 miles (or about 2.5 hours of driving) to the park. Here are directions from El Paso, TX to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
- Another option is to fly into Albuquerque, NM. From here it’s about 5 hours to Carlsbad Caverns.
WHERE TO STAY WHEN VISITING CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK
Carlsbad Caverns National Park Lodging: There is no lodging inside of the park. A good option is to book a hotel in Carlsbad, NM, where there are quite a few options.
Camping in Carlsbad Caverns National Park: There isn’t any camping inside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park! However, there are a few campgrounds nearby that are worth checking out. The closest city with camping is White’s City, just to the south of the park. Guadalupe Mountains National Park camping is also an option, which is just to the west of Carlsbad Caverns.
BEST TIME TO VISIT CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is open year-round. The weather in Carlsbad Caverns is constant below the surface, but above the surface it is hot in the summer and mild in the winter. If you plan to hike, then March and April as well as October and November are perfect months.
If you do head here in the summer, be on the lookout for lightening storms and prepare to be exposed to the sun in the heat of the day, as there isn’t much in the way of shade on the trails.
WHAT TO BRING TO CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK
- Since the temperature is cool in the caves (the high 50’s), you need to be sure you bring a jacket to keep warm. It’s refreshing in the summertime, but it can be cool if you are not ready for it!
- To prevent White-nose Syndrome on the bats (caused by fungus), you are required to walk on the cleaning mats on the way in. You are also required to wear clean clothes on any of the ranger guided tours, and shoes with good grip.
ARE PETS ALLOWED IN CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK?
Pets are allowed in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but only on a limited capacity. They are not allowed on unpaved trails, in the cave or in the visitor center. There is a kennel on-site (which is reasonably priced) and you can leave your pets during the day.
RELATED INFORMATION ON CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK AND THE SURROUNDING AREA FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Be sure do download our Carlsbad Caverns National Park itinerary ahead of your trip.
- If you are heading to Carlsbad Caverns, then be sure to check out our information on Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It’s close by and much less crowded. It’s very much worth the visit!
- Once you return from your trip, let us work with you to create a custom, vintage travel poster. We promise you’ll be thrilled!