The Ultimate Guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations

Art takes nature as its model.

—Aristotle

Our adventures march on and become more and more surreal. One day we’re touring the UFO Museum in Roswell and the very next day we are standing inside our home planet, 750 feet underground beneath the Earth’s surface. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park can most adequately be described as living artwork. The stalactites hang from the ceiling like delicate chandeliers, the stalagmites rise from the ground like a forest of trees, and holding it all together is a limestone container—it’s a little like being inside of a geological cantaloupe.

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First discovered by a curious teenager in 1898, Carlsbad Cavern is an incredible underground limestone cave in the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico, just north of the Texas border. The park is located 18 miles south of Carlsbad.

The closest nearby town is Whites City which is just outside the park’s entrance. Other cities in the area include Loving and Artesia. Some travelers may also choose to stay in or visit one of the tiny Texas towns outside the park such as Pine Springs or Orla. And for those interested in extraterrestrial life, the town of Roswell where a UFO supposedly crashed in 1947 is about an hour and a half north of the park.

Carlsbad Caverns Highway is the only road to access the park. The seven-mile access road is right off of U.S. Highway 62/180 in Whites City.

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There’s no overnight RV camping at Carlsbad Caverns National Park so you’ll need to make reservations at one of the private campgrounds in the area. However, the park does have plenty of RV parking available during the daytime in the front visitor center parking lot.

The national park contains over 119 limestone caves surrounded by the vast beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert. Each year, about 400,000 people visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park to see the fossilized caverns or spot the thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats that inhabit the park. Several hiking trails and a picnic area are also available for visitors.

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The main attraction of this national park is the show cave—the Carlsbad Cavern (and the Big Room in particular). Unlike most caves around the nation, one does not need a guided tour to explore the cave—visitors can walk on their own through the natural entrance or take an elevator from the visitor center. 

Visitors can choose between the steep paved trail making its way down into the cave or the elevator directly down to the Big Room Trail. The 1.25-mile long Natural Entrance Trail is extremely steep (it gains or loses) around 750 feet in elevation. This is equivalent to walking up a 75-story building. It takes about an hour to complete. Once down in the caves there is the Big Room Trail leading to the popular Big Room.

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This is also 1.25 miles long but is relatively flat. It takes around 1.5 hours to walk it. If that seems a bit of a hike there is a shortcut that reduces the walking distance to around 0.6 miles and cuts the hiking time to around 45 minutes.

The unmistakable Big Room is the largest single chamber in North America and the undisputed star of this park. The variety and quantity of sculptures of tubes, spires, ribbons, drapes, curtains, stalagmites, stalactites, totem poles, soda straws, and other fantastic sounding organic shapes inside the 8-acre room forms a grand gallery of art. If you look long enough, your visual understanding of it evolves. A visit is like attending an unveiling of a master work by the greatest artist on Earth—Nature.

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Weather at the park can be quite hot during the day, but don’t be deceived. The temperature inside Carlsbad Cavern is a consistent 56 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year giving visitors a chance to cool off—so be sure to bring a jacket along with you.

In the summers, temperatures can rise into the 90s and sometimes into the low 100s before cooling off to temps in the low 60s at night. Fall brings pleasant temperatures in the 70s during the day and lows that drop from the high 50s in September all the way down to the high 30s in November. Winters at the park are fairly mild ranging from highs in the mid-50s to lows typically no colder than the low 30s. One of the best times to visit the park is during the spring when temperatures warm up to the 60s and 70s during the day.

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park has a number of regularly scheduled events throughout the year including the popular bat flight program. Every night at 6:30 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through October, visitors are invited to watch the park’s Brazilian free-tailed bats fly from the cavern at sunset. A park ranger guides the tour which is free and available without reservations although no cell phones, cameras, or other electronic devices are permitted.

During certain times of the year you can also reserve a spot for the guided star walks and moon hikes after the bat flight program. These free hikes are designed for stargazing and are first come, first serve with a maximum of 25 participants.

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Fact Box

Size: 46,766 acres

Date established: May 14, 1930

Location: Southeast New Mexico in the Guadalupe Mountains range

Designation: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Park Elevation: 3,596 feet to 6,368 feet, visitor center is at 4,406 feet 

Park entrance fee: $15 per person

Recreational visits (2021): 349,244

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How the park got its name: Carlsbad Caverns National Park was named after the town it resides near. The name Carlsbad was adopted in America (Carlsbad in San Diego is another to coin the name) during the late 19th century to mirror the elite European spa, Karlsbad in what was then Bohemia (now the Czech Republic.)  

Accessible adventure: Explore the cave system with a ranger on one of the guided adventures and see areas that are otherwise not accessible including King’s Palace, the Left Hand Tunnel, and the Spider Cave. In some you will crawl, some you will carry a lantern, some you will climb down a ladder into the darkness—in all, you’ll have unusual underground fun. Group-led adventures are a great way to learn more than you ever could on a self-guided tour. Ranger guides are a wealth of knowledge and are happy when people show active interest in the parks—worthy of tapping into by asking great questions.

If caving isn’t your thing, the nearby above-ground Rattlesnake Springs Historic District picnic area provides a place to kick back and take in the incredible desert landscape of the Guadalupe Mountains and remnants of the ancient barrier reef that exists there.

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Big adventure: The self-guided Natural Entrance trail descends 750-feet down a paved pathway on a 1¼ mile trail that was blazed before you by early explorers of the Caverns (sans cement of course.) This first section gives you a real sense of what it feels like to be underground.

Continuing onto the second portion of the trail and you will find yourself in the “Big Room,” a flat 1¼ mile walking path that brings you face-to-face with ornately carved drapes, stalactites, stalagmites, spires, and other limestone formations.

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Know before you go: Elevator access from the visitor center to the famed Big Room has been out of commission since November of 2015 and a repair date is still being determined. At the time of writing this, there is only one way to get to this room located 750 feet beneath the Natural Entrance and that is on foot. Big adventure indeed, the climb down is steep and the climb back to the top is strenuous with no alternative route.

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Did you know?

The Carlsbad Caverns Park entrance is located just 25 miles from Guadalupe Mountains National Park across the Texas state line. The Guadalupe Mountain range itself is home to both parks.

Carlsbad Caverns has 30 miles of mapped caves. Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is home to the largest known cave system on Earth with more than 405 miles. 

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Unlike many other caves, tripod photography is welcome at Carlsbad Caverns.

It’s cool underground! Seriously, temperatures in the caves of North America consistently hover around 55 degrees.

The Big Room is the largest cave chamber in North America by volume with the capability to swallow six football fields.

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 The Bottomless Pit is one of the famed stops in the Big Room. It is a drop falling only 140 feet—but at the time of discovery, it was thought to be bottomless. (Note: wise men shall not throw debris into the pit to test its depth. Rangers have to repel down annually to clean out the bottom.) 

Worth Pondering…

The Grand Canyon with a roof over it.

—Will Rogers

Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 caves—formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone leaving behind caverns of all sizes

The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches, underneath the Guadalupe Mountains, lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.

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High ancient sea ledges, deep rocky canyons, flowering cactus, and desert wildlife are the treasures above the ground in the Chihuahuan Desert. Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations.

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Most of the formations—or speleothems—found inside Carlsbad Cavern today were active and growing during the last ice age when instead of a desert above the cave, there were pine forests. Water molded this underworld four to six million years ago. Some 250 million years ago, the region lay underneath the inland arm of an ancient sea. Near the shore grew a limestone reef. By the time the sea withdrew, the reef stood hundreds of feet high, later to be buried under thousands of feet of soil.

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Some 15 to 20 million years ago, the ground uplifted. Naturally occurring sulfuric acid seeped into cracks in the limestone, gradually enlarging them to form a honeycomb of chambers. Millions of years passed before the cave decoration began. Then, drop by drop, limestone-laden moisture created an extraordinary variety of formations—some six stories tall; others tiny and delicate.

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Cave scientists have explored more than 30 miles of passageways of the main cavern of Carlsbad, and investigation continues. Visitors may tour three of these miles on a paved trail. Slaughter Canyon Cave provides the hardy an opportunity to play caver, albeit with a guide. The park has more than a hundred other caves open primarily to specialists.

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One full day allows you time to tour the main cavern and take a nature walk or a drive before watching the bats fly at sunset. For a second day’s activity, reserve space on a tour of Slaughter Canyon Cave, if you’re ready for a more rugged caving experience.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the Visitor Center, select either the Natural Entrance Tour or the Big Room Tour (both are 1.25-mile walks). Try the first unless you have walking, breathing, or heart problems. It starts at the natural entrance and is mostly downhill, except for one stretch where you climb 83 feet; an elevator whisks you back to ground level. The Natural Entrance Tour is more intimate and may be less crowded than the Big Room.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cave climate is cool and averages about 56°F year-round. You may want to bring a light jacket or sweater. Comfortable, rubber-soled shoes with good traction are appropriate.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park was first designated a National Monument in 1923. It became a National Park in 1930. Carlsbad Caverns was also designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Some visitors think the park’s most spectacular sight is the one seen at the cave’s mouth. More than a quarter million Brazilian (Mexican) free-tailed bats summer in a section of the cave, and around sunset they spiral up from the entrance to hunt for insects.

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The nightly exodus led to the discovery of the cave in modern times. Around the turn of the 20th century, miners began to excavate bat guano—a potent fertilizer—for shipment to the citrus groves of southern California. One of the guano miners, James Larkin White, became the first to explore and publicize the caverns beyond Bat Cave.

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The main cavern gets crowded, especially in summer and on major holiday weekends. Either spring or fall, when the desert’s in bloom, is an excellent time to go. You’ll see the bats fly from April or mid-May through October.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park above ground looming south to Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is off US 62/180, 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad and 164 miles east of El Paso, Texas. For the visitor center, turn west at Whites City and drive seven miles.

Worth Pondering…

The beauty, the weirdness, the grandeur … absolved my mind of all thoughts of a world above. I forgot time, place and distance.

—Jim White