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Carlsbad Caverns National Park: the Complete Guide for 2023

Michael Warford

Montreal, QC, Canada

It’s hard to prepare yourself for just how massive the Carlsbad Caverns actually are. The drive to the cave entrance itself, while scenic, can feel a bit underwhelming. It’s not until you actually step off the elevator that takes you into the caves (or, for the most adventurous, hike down into the Natural Entrance), that the size of the caverns hits you. The towering ceilings, tunnels going every which way, and countless stalactites and stalagmites look like something straight out of Indiana Jones.

For most visitors, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a day-trip destination, but there is plenty to explore here beyond just the main cavern (called, appropriately enough, the Big Room). This New Mexico national park includes desert and mountain terrain, great hiking trails, and an unbelievable bat flight at dawn and dusk when thousands of bats leave and enter the cave all at once.

Where is Carlsbad Caverns National Park?

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in Southern New Mexico, just minutes from the Texas border. While the tiny service town of Whites City marks the entrance to the park, the closest real town is Carlsbad, New Mexico, which is 20 miles away. The closest major city is El Paso, Texas, about 151 miles away.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Facts

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

The caves are the main attraction at Carlsbad Caverns National Park and for good reason. The limestone caverns include the largest cave chamber in North America, named the Big Room. The park actually has more than 119 caves, but only 3 of them are open to public tours. Amazingly, new caves are still being discovered, with the most recent discovery being made on October 31, 2013. That 100-ft chamber was appropriately named Halloween Hall.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Weather

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

If you’re planning on visiting only the caverns, then anytime of the year is good since visitor numbers are controlled and the temperature in the caverns stays around 56°F throughout the year. However, if you want to catch the bat flight, you will need to visit between May and October since the bats migrate south during the winter. Summer is high season, meaning that the park can get quite crowded. May and September tend to offer the best chances of still being able to catch the bat flight without having to fight for space with other visitors.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Hours

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is open every day of the year except Christmas. However, the entrance to the cavern itself is only open from 8:30a.m. to 2:30p.m., with the last ticket sold at 2:15p.m. Because only 40 people are allowed into the caverns at a time, timed tickets are sold during busy periods, whereby you will only be admitted during the time printed on your ticket. The visitor center is open from 8:00a.m. to 5:00p.m.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Entrance Fee

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

The entrance fee is $15 per person 16 years of age and older. Anybody 15 and under can enter for free and the entrance fee is good for three days. If you have an America the Beautiful Annual Pass, which costs $80 for most adults, you can enter for free. Ranger-led tours also cost extra, between $7 and $20 for adults and $3.50 to $10 for children, seniors, and pass holders.

Getting to Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

Getting to Carlsbad Caverns National Park from Carlsbad, New Mexico is extremely easy. Simply take US-62 West, which runs through the middle of Carlsbad. After about 25 minutes, turn right onto NM-7 West (Carlsbad Caverns Highway) when you reach Whites City, which will take you straight to the Visitor Center.

If coming from El Paso, take US-62 East for about 2 hours and then turn left onto NM-7 West (Carlsbad Caverns Highway) in Whites City. Again, you’ll reach the park entrance by following this road.

Hiking in Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

If you’re ready to stretch your legs (but not sure where to start), here’s a list of our favorite cavern trails in Carlsbad Caverns National Park:

Easy, perfect for families:

  1. Big Room Trail (1.25 mi)
  2. Walnut Canyon Overlook (0.1 mi out-and-back)
  3. Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail (0.5 mi loop)
  4. Old Guano Road (3.7 mi out-and-back )
  5. Juniper Ridge Trail (1.9 mi out-and-back)

Moderate, fairly strenuous:

  1. Slaughter Canyon Cave Trail (1 mi out-and-back)
  2. Lower Rattlesnake Canyon (3 mi)
  3. Upper Rattlesnake Canyon to Guadalupe Ridge Loop (6 mi loop)
  4. Ussery Trail (17.2 mi out-and-back)
  5. Big Canyon Trail (3.1 mi out-and-back)

Difficult, experience recommended:

  1. Natural Entrance Trail (1.25 mi loop)
  2. Slaughter Canyon (5.3 mi)
  3. Yucca Canyon (7.7 mi)
  4. Guadalupe Ridge Trail (100 mi point-to-point)
  5. Permian Reef Trail (9.2 mi out-and-back)

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Lodging

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Camping

Planning a night under the stars? Here are some of the best campgrounds near Carlsbad Caverns National Park. *Note: Carlsbad Caverns itself has no campgrounds, although primitive backcountry camping is permitted.

  1. Carlsbad RV and Campground
  2. Whites City RV Park
  3. Carlsbad KOA Holiday
  4. Dog Canyon Campground
  5. Pine Springs Campground
  6. Sunset Reef Campground
  7. Chosa Campground
  8. Brantley Lake State Park
  9. Camp Washington Ranch
  10. Queen Café and Campground

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Hotels

If camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of resorts, hotels, hostels, inns, cabins and B&Bs within a quick drive of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Here are some of our favorites:

  1. White’s City Cavern Inn
  2. Trinity Hotel & Restaurant
  3. Fiddler’s Inn
  4. Holiday Inn Express & Suites Carlsbad
  5. Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Carlsbad
  6. Hampton Inn & Suites Carlsbad
  7. Post Time Inn
  8. Sleep Inn & Suites Carlsbad
  9. TownePlace Suites by Marriott Carlsbad
  10. La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Carlsbad

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Airbnb

Pretty much all Airbnb options are in Carlsbad, NM, where much of the local industry is geared towards visitors heading to the Carlsbad Caverns. Carlsbad may only have just over 29,000 people, but there are many Airbnbs on offer here. Mostly you’ll find homes, campers, and apartments as you would in other small cities. If you book in advance, however, you might get lucky and nab a traditional adobe house for your stay.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Tours

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

A ranger-guided tour is one of the best ways to experience the Carlsbad Caverns and there are multiple such tours offered throughout the park. A lot of the caverns, in fact, are only accessible via tours. Some of the best include the Slaughter Canyon Cave, the Hall of the White Giant, and the King’s Palace. The Lower Cave is especially notable for its cave pearls, while a tour of the Left Hand Tunnel is done entirely by candle-lit lantern.

Best Things to Do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Explore the Big Room

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

If you do one thing at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, it has to be this. The aptly named Big Room is the largest cave chamber in North America and there is a well-maintained trail where you’ll get to enjoy spectacular views of the towering stalactites and stalagmites. This experience is so spectacular that it even made our list of the best things to do in New Mexico.

Give Your Legs a Workout at the Natural Entrance Trail

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

You can enter the Carlsbad Caverns via elevator, but if you want something a touch more rugged, hike into the caves via the Natural Entrance Trail. Although only 1.25 miles long, this trail has a very steep elevation change of 750-feet, about the same as climbing up or down a 75-story building.

Learn About the Park at the Visitor Center

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

The Visitor Center is more than just where you buy your tickets for the caverns, it’s also a mini museum where you can learn more about the geology of this natural wonder. It’s also where you’ll want to go to learn about what ranger-led programs are being offered that day and about the conditions of hiking trails.

Experience the Guadalupe Ridge Trail

Guadalupe Ridge Trail, New Mexico, US.

At 100 miles in length, the Guadalupe Ridge Trail is only for the most experienced hikers. This trail runs from Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s eastern boundary in Whites City and passes through incredible desert and mountain landscapes before ending at the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highest mountain in Texas.

View the Perseids Starting at the Amphitheater

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

In August every year, the park puts on a ranger-led Perseid Meteor Shower hike beginning at the Amphitheater just after the bat flight ends. With pitch-black skies, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is one of the best places to view the Perseids as they streak across the sky.

See the Desert Wildlife Along Walnut Canyon Desert Drive

Walnut Canyon Desert Drive, New Mexico, US. Credit: NPS / Michael Larson

Walnut Canyon Desert Drive is a 9-mile gravel road loop that traverses the desert landscape. It tends to be relatively free of crowds, even during the busy summer season, and boasts excellent opportunities to catch glimpses of the local wildlife, including mule deer, coyotes, pronghorns, and javelina.

Tour the Left Hand Tunnel by Candlelight

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US. Credit: NPS / Eymard Bangcoro

While a lot of the Carlsbad Caverns have been equipped with artificial lighting to help visitors find their way around, the Left Hand Tunnel is an exception. The ranger-led tour of this cave is done entirely by candle-lit lanterns, allowing you to feel a bit like the first explorers of the caves.

Discover the History of the Old Guano Road

Old Guano Road, New Mexico, US. Credit: NPS / Andy Rankin

Over a hundred years ago, the Carlsbad Caverns supported a thriving guano mining industry, with the guano hauled over the Old Guano Road. The road is now a hiking trail, but there are still some ruins alongside it, which provide a great opportunity to uncover the early history of the park.

Watch the Bats Take Flight

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

The bat flight, when the cave’s bats leave and enter the cavern all at once, is one of the biggest draws of the Carlsbad Caverns and is not to be missed. Head to the Bat Flight Amphitheater, which is set up at the entrance to the caves. The bat flight occurs at dusk, when the bats leave the caverns, and at dawn, when they return.

Relax in an Oasis at Rattlesnake Springs

Rattlesnake Springs, New Mexico, US.

An isolated unit of the park, Rattlesnake Springs is an historic homestead and fruit orchard established by William Henry Harrison in 1880. The irrigation system developed by Harrison turned the homestead into an oasis in the desert. With many Pueblo Revival structures still standing, Rattlesnake Springs is a scenic National Historic Site that is worth a visit.

Climb the Highest Peak in Texas at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, New Mexico, US.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is almost next door to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Home to scenic canyons and Texas’ highest peak, the less-visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers a more rugged experience of the Guadalupe Mountains.

Squeeze into Some Tight Spaces in the Hall of the White Giant

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

The Hall of the White Giant is a 4-hour ranger-led tour of a part of the Carlsbad Caverns that most visitors never get to see. While the Hall of the White Giant itself is large, getting to it requires squeezing through some very tight spaces and up steep slopes. Definitely not for those who have a fear of small, dark places!

Go Deep into the King’s Palace

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US.

The ranger-led tour of the King’s Palace takes you into the deepest part of the cave system open to the public, at 830 feet beneath the surface. The King’s Palace contains more stalactites and stalagmites than any other part of the Carlsbad Caverns, making it arguably the most visually impressive part of the complex.

Get Off the Beaten Path at Slaughter Canyon Cave

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, US. Credit: NPS

Slaughter Canyon Cave is located far from the main caverns and therefore tends to attract far fewer visitors. The trail to the caves is an attraction in itself, with great views of the mountains. To enter the cave, which has some of the most unusual geologic formations in the park, you will need to reserve a tour with a ranger.

Take a Dip at the Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area

Sitting Bull Falls, New Mexico, US.

Located in the adjacent Lincoln National Forest, Sitting Bull Falls is a beautiful oasis in the middle of the Guadalupe Mountains. The scenic falls feed into a lagoon, which is a popular spot for swimming and having a picnic.