Most of the time if someone asks what my favorite part of a trip was, it’s hard to give an exact answer. But my trip to New Mexico last month is an exception: Carlsbad Caverns National Park blew me away, and though I loved the whole trip, this park was by far my favorite place we visited!
When I was writing my post about the whole trip, I had to severely edit what I wrote about Carlsbad (and even so it’s one of the longest parts of that post). I knew I wanted to do a longer post about at least one of the National Parks we visited on the trip, and once I sat down to write, choosing Carlsbad was a no-brainer. I cannot recommend Carlsbad enough, so here’s my guide on how to visit the park and what I loved about it!
The story of Carlsbad Caverns begins with the ancient Capitan Reef and the Permian Sea that covered once this part of the United States. Capitan Reef, unlike modern reefs, was made primarily of sponges and algae, which solidified into limestone as subsequent generations grew on top of and pressed down on older layers of reef. Later tectonic movement formed the Guadalupe Mountains, and slowly hollowed out the caverns that you visit today – it’s a complicated process, but essentially as the mountains rose, the subterranean spongework (a mixture of rainwater and seawater) drained, and a lot of chemistry happened to hollow out the cavern chambers. Stalactites and stalagmites formed even later due to dripping water that very slowly formed calcite structures. Though once a wet environment, the modern desert climate and the airflow entering from the Natural Entrance prevent a lot of growth inside the caverns (though some still happens). To read more about the geological processes in Carlsbad, I suggest visiting this part of the National Parks website, which explains it all in much greater depth.
Though the Native American tribes in the region (mainly Mescalero Apache and Zuni Pueblo) did not venture into the dark zone of Carlsbad, they were very much aware of the existence of the cave, and both cooking sites and pictographs have been found in the park boundaries near the Natural Entrance. It was in the late 1800s that further exploration of the caves began. Cowboy Jim White is credited with this, though he was not the first to notice and wonder about the large numbers of bats exiting the caverns. White, however, was among the first to explore the cave and to give names to some of its features, which modern visitors will pass while walking down the Natural Entrance Trail. At the time, few people believed White’s claims about the magnificent underground features, so in the 1800s the caverns were primarily used for guano mining, which early settlers used and sold as fertilizer. It was not until 1915 when photographer Ray V. Davis accompanied White in his explorations that the caverns became a sensation. White himself gave some of the first tours of the caverns, which were named for the nearby town of Carlsbad.
In 1923, the US Department of the Interior sent Inspector Robert Holley to see if the caverns really were all that, and within the year, Carlsbad Caverns became a National Monument with Jim White as its first chief ranger. Also in the 1920s, Charlie White (not related to Jim White) founded the town of Whites City just outside the park, and the town continues to fulfill White’s vision of catering to tourists who visit the caves – though many still stay in the town of Carlsbad. The area became Carlsbad Caverns National Park in 1930 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Currently there are 117 known caves within the park, but there is still much more to be discovered in this underground wonderland!
When To Go
Because the main attraction here is underground, you can really visit Carlsbad at any time of year and still see all the highlights at their best. The only seasonal thing you’ll miss if you visit between November-early May is the bat flight, which occurs from late May-October. That said, Carlsbad also gets very busy in the summer, so an off-season visit is still worth it as you’ll be able to beat the crowds and still see the amazing caverns.
While I would definitely like to return just to see the bat flight in the summer, I still thoroughly enjoyed visiting in March without the bats. If you do go in the summer, you can see the cloud of bats leaving the Natural Entrance around sunset, and if you get up early, you can watch them return usually between 4-6 am. This is a free program (so it’s good to arrive early for the evening flight during the peak of summer), but it may be cancelled due to weather. Also, electronics are not permitted in the area during the Bat Flight Program as they can disturb the bats, and photography is only allowed with a special permit – so your best bet is to just watch the show and buy a picture taken by a professional if you really want one.
As for what time to visit the caves, you can visit throughout the day, though it’s a good idea to arrive early, especially during peak season. Currently, due to COVID, you have to reserve a time to enter the caverns, so it’s important to arrive early if you want to be sure you reserve a time before tickets sell out. As the park is in the desert, if you’re planning to do any of the above ground trails, you’ll want to start early, though scenic drives can, of course, be done at any time of day.
How Long to Stay
In planning a trip through New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns deserves a full day.
On my visit to Carlsbad, we spent about two hours in the actual caverns – it took 50 minutes to walk down the Natural Entrance, and we spent a full hour exploring the Big Room. Though you can do this more quickly if you don’t stop very much or if you skip the Natural Entrance, I would fully suggest allowing 2 hours for being in the caves. Carlsbad is indescribable and impossible to imagine without actually visiting, so it’s worth spending some time exploring the caves.
Carlsbad’s above ground beauty is also worth seeing, though it’s less well-known than the caves themselves. There are over 50 miles of trails in the park of varying lengths that visitors can explore. While we didn’t do any of the trails, we did do the 9 mile scenic drive. It was a really great way to see some more of the park and explore the above ground landscape with the knowledge that there were caves all below us. Overall, I would suggest an additional 1-2 hours in the park outside of the caves in order to do the scenic drive or a trail.
If you visit in the summer, you’ll want to plan for another 1-2 hours to see the bat flight at sunset. Though we couldn’t see the bats, we did drive up to the Visitor Center one evening and stayed for about an hour to see the sunset over the desert, which is a great view any time of year, weather permitting. In between activities at Carlsbad Caverns, you can take some time to explore the museum and gift shop at the Visitor Center and can get food either in Whites City or Carlsbad. Though Whites City is convenient if you’re short on time, you’ll find more options and better prices in Carlsbad.
What to Bring
The inside of the caves stays about 56 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, so it’s a good idea to bring a light jacket or sweater. While I did notice the temperature drop on first entering the Natural Entrance and was grateful for my sweatshirt, by the time we reached the bottom of that trail, I was sweaty and hot. So although it’s a good idea to have a second layer, you might be not need it the whole time.
Being in the desert, water is essential. You will, of course, want to have some while walking through the caverns and hiking, but it’s also a good idea to have some extra in your car. A camera is also a good idea to take pictures, but it can be difficult to get good shots underground. Also, if you’re hiking be sure to have the ten essentials recommended by the National Park Service.
While in the area, be aware of how much gas is in your car. From Whites City, you’ll drive 7 miles each way to and from the Visitor Center, and the scenic drive is 9 miles if you add that. While this drive probably won’t be an issue, Whites City has a lonely gas station in the desert. Carlsbad is 20 miles northeast, which is the largest town in this area. Going southwest towards Guadalupe Mountains, Whites City is the last place to get gas along the highway until you reach El Paso about 150 miles away.
Visiting the National Park
This is the main attraction at Carlsbad, for obvious reasons, and you can’t go to the park without entering the caverns! You do need a ticket to enter the caverns, which is $15 per adult, but children under 15 can enter for free. A National Parks Pass will admit four adults for free, but you do still have to go to in Visitor Center and show your pass to bed admitted, especially right now with COVID restrictions on the number of people allowed in at one time.
You can enter the main cavern (the one actually named “Carlsbad Cavern”) by taking an elevator or by walking down the trail from the Natural Entrance. While the elevator may be easier, in my opinion, if you are physically capable of walking into the cavern, you have to do it. A Carlsbad trip wouldn’t be complete without that bit of hiking. It’s not a difficult trail since it’s just one mile walking down into the cavern, but it is steep and slick. On our visit, we took 50 minutes to walk down, though we (like most people) did pause at several points to take pictures. Though you are allowed to walk out, it’s a very steep walk, and if you go down, you’ll understand why most people take the elevator out. Walking down the Natural Entrance introduces you to the cavern system in a way that’s just not possible if you take the elevator.
As you walk further down the trail, the sunlight starts to disappear until you reach “the Dark Zone” where no sunlight reaches. The trail is dimly lit to prevent animals from venturing farther in than they naturally would, so though headlamps and flashlights are not necessary, some people do use them to light the path a bit better. Though we started the trail in a group of people, you’re able to walk at your own pace, and, because most people stop in the same places for frequent pictures, by the time you leave the sunlight, the large group has split into a dozen smaller ones. Also, because a normal speaking voice can carry for a quarter mile in the caverns, you’re supposed to speak no louder than a whisper. So, because we couldn’t hear anything but ourselves and some dripping water and because we only occasionally saw other people, it really felt like we had the cave to ourselves on the walk down, which was an incredible experience by itself.
Walking down the Natural Entrance is an essential part of visiting Carlsbad Caverns because it gives you a real sense of how far underground you’re going. I found myself thinking quite a bit about early explorers of the cave, both Native Americans, and white settlers who mined the bat guano. For them, there was no paved trail with lights. They just entered a dark cave that seemed to go on forever, which is both a terrifying and exciting prospect. Even today the cave system at Carlsbad has not been completely explored. The Big Room, which is the main attraction of the caves covers 8.2 acres and North America’s largest accessible cave chamber. This is where you’ll see most of the magnificent features like my favorites, the Rock of Ages and Fairyland. As I’ve already said, you can’t visit Carlsbad without going into the caves, and it’s really impossible to describe how amazing this whole area is.
Though you can explore the Big Room on your own, to visit other caves, you’ll need to go on a Ranger-Guided Tour. These include visits to the Lower Cave, the Hall of the White Giant, Slaughter Canyon Cave, and the Left Hand Tunnel. Entrance to some caves like Lechuguilla (famous for the drug-resistant bacteria found there, 2012 article, 2016 article) is further restricted, and only researchers and professional explorers can go in. Due to COVID, all ranger tours are currently, so doing one or more of these is on my bucket-list for a future visit. Also, as mentioned, you need a timed ticket to enter the main cavern right now, and, because a cave is technically an indoor space, you are required to wear a face mask while inside.
The Visitor Center is, of course, a necessary stop in visiting the park since this is where you’ll buy tickets to enter the cave (free with National Parks Pass) as well as tickets for any other ranger-guided tours (you still have to pay for these). There is a small museum in the Visitor Center as well that you’ll pass through before walking the short trail to the Natural Entrance. The highlight of the museum – for me anyway – was the scale model that showed the layout of the caves and how far down things were. Also in the Visitor Center is the gift shop and bookstore (two separate things), where you can buy all your Carlsbad souvenirs and get your Parks Passport stamped. The amphitheater to see bats in the evening is also located near the Visitor Center, and at any time of year, you can get nice views of the landscape from the Visitor Center parking lot.
As mentioned, there are several trails in the park in addition to the caves. One of these, the Slaughter Canyon trail, is free to walk, but the main appeal of it is the cave at the end for which you’ll need to arrange a tour at the visitor center. Other trails, however, just give you a view of the scenery and, if you’re lucky, the wildlife. After the trail through the caverns and the Slaughter Canyon trail and cave, the top-rated trail in the park is the Yucca Canyon Trail, which is a 3.8 mile out-and-back trail.
As we planned to hike at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, we opted for the scenic drive over Carlsbad’s trails. This is a 9-mile, gravel, one-way road down the mountain. Because of the conditions of the road (gravel, narrow, steep drop-offs on the side at times), large vehicles like RVs or anything with a trailer are not allowed on the road. The sign is most noticeable while driving up the road to the Visitor Center as this drive just diverges from that main road and links back up with it at the bottom. The scenic drive has several pull-outs where you can read signs about the park or stop to take pictures. Or, you can just drive and see the beauty of the desert around you.
Expanding Your Trip
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is an amazing place to visit and explore, but New Mexico has more to offer too!
First, as a note on where to stay/eat while visiting the park, Whites City is the nearest town. It’s a great place to stay if you want to arrive early in the morning, but food options in town are limited and expensive. For that reason, the town of Carlsbad may be a better place to buy food or get take-out. There are also more options for places to stay in Carlsbad, but you will have to drive about a half hour to get into the National Park.
If you’re looking for an easy stop to add to a trip, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is probably the best option. Only half an hour from Whites City, there’s lots of hiking here, including the highest point in Texas (Carlsbad is very close to the Texas border). Hiking is definitely the main attraction at Guadalupe Mountains, but there is a (very) small museum in the Visitor Center as well as a short trail, The Pinery, with signs about the history of the area.
In the other direction, Roswell, New Mexico is about two hours from Carlsbad Caverns. Though a very touristy town, it’s a fun place to visit for an afternoon, and you can get some amazing food at Martin’s Capitol Café.
To learn more about Carlsbad and planning a trip to the park, check out the National Parks Website here.