Julie United States 27 Comments

Located in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico sits an underground fantasy land of limestone chambers, stalactites and stalagmites, and long, twisting tunnels. Carlsbad Caverns is breathtaking in its beauty.

I’m not a big fan of caves and caverns but I found this place to be unexpectedly amazing. It feels massive like Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, but with its astounding number of stalactites, stalagmites, ribbon-like curtains, totem poles and soda straws, it’s truly a sight to behold.   

You can tour the caverns on your own or join a ranger-guided walk for an even more in-depth experience.

Touring the caverns is the main attraction, but there are also miles of hiking trails and a scenic drive that winds its way through the mountains.

In this post, learn how to plan the perfect visit to Carlsbad Caverns.


Interesting Facts about Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns is located in southeastern New Mexico in the Guadalupe Mountains. This mountain range, which spans the border with Texas, is also home to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. You can visit both of these parks in a weekend getaway or as part of a larger road trip.

On May 14, 1930, Carlsbad Caverns officially became a national park.

The temperature is a consistent 56°F year round.

Bats dwell inside of the cave primarily during the summer months. In fact, one of the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns is to watch the bats fly from the cave in the evening.

A disease called White-Nose Syndrome is spreading through the USA, killing bat populations. It does not affect humans, but you will walk across medicated mats to help stop the spread of this disease. The national park service also requests that you do not wear any clothing or shoes to Carlsbad Caverns that you have worn in another cave.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Geology of Carlsbad Caverns

250 millon years ago, the area around Carlsbad Caverns was a coastline. Marine life formed a reef, laying down the limestone building blocks that would later help form this cave.

The water receded and tectonic movements created the Guadalupe Mountains.

Later, hydrogen sulfide, created from the petroleum fields that sit underground, seeped up into the limestone. It mixed with oxygen, forming sulfuric acid, which then dissolved the limestone, leaving behind the enormous caverns.

Over millions of years, groundwater seeping into the caverns created the stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, and soda straws, forming the beautiful decorations and adornments in these giant rooms.

DID YOU KNOW? A cave is a cavity in the ground that is large enough that some portion of it will not receive direct sunlight. A cavern is a specific type of cave. A cavern is formed by soluble rock that can grow speleothems (stalactites, stalagmites, etc.). So, all caverns are caves but not all caves are caverns.

Timed Entry Reservations

Timed entry reservations are now required to enter Carlsbad Caverns National Park. These timed entry reservations are required all year, with the only exceptions being the days the park is closed (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day). Reservations cost $1 which is in addition to the $15 park entrance fee. They are released 30 days in advance. 

Make your reservation on recreation.gov. Learn more on the National Park Service website.

Things to do at Carlsbad Caverns

The main reason to visit Carlsbad Caverns is to explore the underground wonderland, but there are also several “above ground” things to do at Carlsbad Caverns.

Explore the Caverns

You have two options for exploring the caverns. You can either go at your own pace and walk the self-guided trails or you can join a ranger guided tour.

If you are short on time, walking the self-guided underground trails is the best thing to do at Carlsbad Caverns. However, if you are looking to “go deeper” into the caverns, learn more about the history and geology, or add more adventure to your visit, join a ranger guided tour (of which there are many to choose from).

I will discuss these in more detail later in this post (or skip ahead now).


Bat Flight Program

This is one of the best things to do at Carlsbad Caverns, but it’s only possible during a certain time of year.

The bats that you can see at Carlsbad Caverns are migratory, so they are only here several months of the year. The bats arrive in mid to late-April and live in the cave through October.

From late May through October you can watch the Bat Flight program. At the Bat Flight Amphitheater, grab a seat and watch as the bats emerge by the thousands from the natural entrance of the cave.

This is included with your entrance fee into the park and there is no additional charge for this activity. You do not need a reservation but seating is first-come, first-served. This takes place each evening and is weather dependent.

The best time to see the bats is in August and September, when the baby bats join the show.

Dark Sky Program

Due to the remoteness of Carlsbad Caverns, this is a prime spot to view the night sky.

On specific nights, from May through October, you can join a ranger-guided walk. There are Star Walks and Moon Walks and if you really have good timing, you can see a meteor shower.  

Get the exact dates and learn more on the National Park Service website.

Hike one of the Surface Trails

There are several surface hiking trails that you can choose from. We did not do any hiking here, although I did a lot of research prior to our visit.

From my research, the Upper Rattlesnake Canyon to Guadalupe Ridge Loop looked and sounded the most interesting. This hike is 6 miles long and takes roughly 4 hours.

In my opinion, spending more time below ground in the caverns or hiking a trail in nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park would be a better way to spend your time. If you have hiked any of these trails and disagree, let us know in the comment section below.

Carlsbad Hiking Trail

Walnut Canyon Desert Drive

This one-way, 9.5 mile gravel road is a “scenic” drive through the mountains of Carlsbad Caverns. 

I heard nice things about this drive but it did not live up to the hype. In all honesty, it’s a rather boring drive through monotonous desert scenery. Unless you have plans to hike one of the trails that start on this loop, save your time and skip this drive.

Carlsbad Caverns Scenic Drive

Rattlesnake Springs

Rattlesnake Springs is an oasis located in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. There is a nice picnic area but the oasis is overrated. Here is what it looks like.

Rattlesnake Springs

Best Tours of Carlsbad Caverns

Self-Guided Tours

There are two self-guided tours and both are well worth your time.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Reservations are required to enter Carlsbad Caverns, even the self-guided tours. Learn more on the National Park Service website.

Natural Entrance Trail

Distance:  1.25 miles (2 km)
Difficulty:  Moderate
Length of Time: 45 minutes to one hour

Entering Carlsbad Caverns through the Natural Entrance is one of the best experiences in the park. A well-maintained asphalt trail winds its way down into the mouth of Carlsbad Caverns. Gradually, your eyes will adjust to dim lighting, as you travel farther into the cavern. The cavern gradually reveals itself and its collection of unique rocky formations and dripstones.  

This trail ends at the Big Room Trail.

Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance

Natural Entrance Carlsbad Caverns

Best of Carlsbad Caverns

PRO TRAVEL TIP:  This walk is completely downhill if you start at the entrance and work your way into the cave (recommended!). If you choose to go the other way, exiting the cave through the Natural Entrance, expect a tiring, steep, uphill walk the entire way.

Big Room Trail

Distance:  1.25 miles (2 km)
Difficulty: Easy, mostly wheelchair accessible
Length of Time:  45 minutes to one hour

The Big Room is the largest cave chamber in the United States by volume. This massive room is filled with stalactites and stalagmites, cave formations, and breathtaking views.

Will Rogers called this cavern “The Grand Canyon with a roof over it.”

Big Room

Carlsbad Caverns Big Room

PRO TRAVEL TIP:  The Natural Entrance trail ends in the Big Room, so you can easily combine both of these walks. Expect it to take 1.5 hours to walk both trails, a little bit longer if you stop frequently for photos or to read the information signs.

US National Parks List

Ranger Guided Tours

Currently, there are five ranger guided tours that you can choose from. These range from short, easy walks to much longer “hikes” that have you crawling through narrow tunnels and doing a bit of rock scrambling. All of these tours have an additional fee.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Only the King’s Palace Tour is currently being offered (as of February 2024). Get updates on the National Park Service website.

King’s Palace Tour

Duration:  1.5 hours
Distance: 1 mile (1.6 km)
Tour Size: 40
Cost: $8

This is one of the most popular ranger-guided tours. On this 1.5-hour tour, descend deeper into Carlsbad Caverns to see one of the best collections of cave formations in the park.

This is the tour that we did and Tim and I both really enjoyed it. We have been to numerous caves around the world but on this tour you see an astonishing array of stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave formations. If you are looking for an easy but beautiful tour of Carlsbad Caverns, this is a great choice.

Carlsbad Caverns Kings Palace

Carlsbad Caverns Guided Tour

Carlsbad Stalactites

Left Hand Tunnel Tour

Duration:  2 hours
Tour Size: 10
Cost: $7

Tour Carlsbad Caverns by candle-lit lantern, just like the first visitors who toured the caverns in the past. This is a small group tour and a nice alternative to the larger tours on this list.

Lower Cave

Duration:  3 hours
Tour Size: 12
Cost: $20

This is a more adventurous tour. Put on a helmet and gloves and descend deeper into Carlsbad Caverns. Climb down 60 feet of ladders and see more amazing cave formations.

Hall of the White Giant

Duration:  4 hours
Tour Size: 8
Cost: $20

Crawl through tight passageways, climb down ladders and over slippery surfaces, and even do some free climbing. If you are looking for an adventure and don’t mind getting a little dirty, this might be the tour for you.

This was our first pick, but when we went to make our reservations, this tour was sold out (almost one week in advance in March) so we did the King’s Palace Tour instead.

Slaughter Canyon Cave

Duration:  5.5 hours
Tour Size: 16
Cost: $15

This is the longest tour on the list. Done as a point-to-point walk, you will walk through underground caverns without electricity. Flashlights and headlamps will light your way. You will walk on slippery, uneven ground and with the dim lighting, this is one of the best adventures in Carlsbad Caverns.

All of these tours are offered on various days and times during the week. The schedule changes frequently based on the season. Click here to get the updated schedule on the national park service website.

Which Tour is Right for You?

If you like the idea of a quick tour where you get to see and amazing collection of cave formations, I recommend the King’s Palace Tour.

If you like the idea of a quieter tour, explore the caverns by lantern on the Left Hand Tunnel Tour.

The Hall of the White Giant, with its narrow passageways and rock climbing, sounds like a cool adventure.

Booking Your Tours

If you will be visiting Carlsbad Caverns during peak season (Spring Break, the summer months, and holiday weekends) book your tickets in advance. Some tours only offer a small number of spots so they can sell out ahead of time.

We visited Carlsbad Caverns in early March and most of the tours were sold out in advance.

You can book your tickets online in advance. I suggest you start on the National Park Service website. Or, you can go directly to recreation.gov to look at the available tours.

How to Get to Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns is located in southeast New Mexico. The closest town is Carlsbad, New Mexico. From Carlsbad, it takes about 40 minutes to drive here.

Carlsbad Caverns on a map

Practical Information

Park Hours

Unlike many national parks, which are open 24 hours a day, Carlsbad Caverns has set hours of operation. The visitor center is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm. You are permitted to hike into the cave starting at 8:30 am.

The park is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Fees and Passes

Adults (16 years and older): $15 per person
Children (15 years and under):  free

If you have an America the Beautiful Pass (a pass that gets you admission into more than 2,000 recreational sites in the USA, including all of the national parks), your entrance fee is covered. However, if you join a ranger guided program, you will have to pay the additional fee.

Don’t forget to purchase your timed entry reservation in advance.

Get updates on road conditions and trail closures, as you plan your trip and just before your visit, on the National Park Service website.

Kings Palace Tour Carlsbad Caverns

Where to Stay

I recommend staying in Carlsbad, since it is the closest town.

TownePlace by Marriott Carlsbad. This is where we stayed. It is centrally located in Carlsbad, so it’s just a quick drive to get dinner or go to the grocery store. Breakfast is included and this is one of the highest rated hotels in Carlsbad.

Post Time Inn. This brand new hotel just opened in February 2020. Your stay includes breakfast, premium movie channels, and free laundry. This is a hotel that I would consider on a return visit to Carlsbad.

Hampton Inn and Suites. This hotel is located on the southern end of Carlsbad, so you will have a slightly shorter drive to the park. This hotel gets good reviews.

Where to Eat in Carlsbad

Here are two restaurant recommendations, great spots to get dinner at the end of the day.

The Trinity Hotel Restaurant. This hotel serves excellent pasta dishes. We were lucky enough to get a table on the second level where we could overlook the restaurant and bar.

Yellow Brix Restaurant. This restaurant offers indoor and outdoor seating. They serve salads, steak, burgers, sandwiches and pasta. I had the Green Chili Fettuccini and it was delicious.

If you have any questions about visiting Carlsbad Caverns, let us know in the comment section below!

Where Are You Going Next?

If this is part of a bigger road trip through New Mexico and Texas, here is more information to help you plan your trip:

WHITE SANDS NATIONAL PARK: In our guide to White Sands National Park, we cover the best things to do and how to plan your visit.

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK: Check out our Big Bend National Park Travel Guide for important travel information, sample itineraries, and how to plan your visit. Don’t miss our article Best Things to Do in Big Bend for great things to do in the park.

GUADALUPE MOUNTAINS: Read our article Best Things to Do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park for a full list of things to do, plus important information and helpful tips to plan your visit here.

HIKES IN GUADALUPE MOUNTAINS: Learn how to hike to the “Top of Texas” our guide to Guadalupe Peak. The Devil’s Hall Trail is a fun hike to unique looking canyon. We also have detailed guide on how to hike the McKittrick Canyon Trail to Pratt Cabin, the Grotto, and the Notch and the Permian Reef Trail is one of the most underrated hikes in the park.

VISIT THE US NATIONAL PARKS: Looking for your next big adventure? Read our post Best National Parks, where we narrow down the long list into 15 must-see parks. You can also learn more about the national parks (and get the full list) in our Guide to the US National Parks. Finally, if you are traveling as a family, here are the best national parks to visit with kids.

Read all of our articles about the United States in our United States Travel Guide.

Visit More National Parks in the USA:


Carlsbad Caverns National Park Guide


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Comments 27

  1. Avatar for Anusha Gopalakrishnan
    Anusha Gopalakrishnan

    Hi Julie, How were you able to secure tickets to the Kings Palace tour? I logged in exactly a few minutes before 8am MST for tickets for a month from now (they release 30 days in advance). But the moment it became available at 8am and you click “reserve”, they are immediately unavailable. I was totally appalled, because I was just waiting for 10mins for it to open and it looks like they don’t make it available. Just thought id ask you, as you went in March. Any ideas how these tickets dissapears immediately? Thanks a lot

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      That’s crazy! We did this in 2020 (literally a few days before things shut down for COVID…that same day of our visit, we made the call to return home early, so maybe it was easier then??) and booked our tickets just a few days in advance. Carlsbad Caverns can be busy in March we recently learned because there is a Texas school break so I wonder if your visit is coinciding with that timing. Even so, I’m surprised how quickly they are selling out. I wonder if there is a way to contact the park rangers to see if they are being bought up immediately or if there is another reason they are unavailable. Good luck! Cheers, Julie

      1. Avatar for Anusha Gopalakrishnan
        1. Avatar for Julie Post
    2. Avatar for Zachary Samuels
      Zachary Samuels

      We are planning to visit in mid-april in a few weeks. I just went online to try and book a tour and everything is sold out 🙁 I called the phone number and they said the same thing / what you see on the website is the availability they see. Did you find anything out about “same day tickets”?

      I was able to book a drive in reservation for 8:30am.. so if there is no tour we will walk/hike natural entrance trail and big room trail. Is that one “giant” loop to combine those two? Is that the most “adventurous” underground activity you can do without being on a official tour?

      Thank you for your help as always! …your website has helped me plan many amazing family adventures!
      -Zach from Massachusetts

      1. Avatar for Julie Post

        I’m amazed that the tours are selling out so far in advance. Both the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails are self guided and a fantastic way to see the caverns without taking a tour. You will still get to see a lot of cool rock formations inside of the caverns and aren’t missing a whole lot by not being able to take a guided tour. Cheers, Julie

  2. Avatar for Anusha Gopalakrishnan
    Anusha Gopalakrishnan

    Hi Julie,
    The reservation part for the Carlsbad Caverns sounds a little confusing. On their website, it is mentioned that if we make a reservation for 8:30am, then we have up to an hour and cannot enter after 9:30am. What happens if we step out in between and then come back once again ?Do we have to make reservations for the second time entry of that day? I am asking coz, my husband has to work for a bit in the morning, and my kids and me were going to go without him. do the Junior Park Ranger for the kids and then will go back to the hotel and pick him up. But I was worried, that we may not be allowed due to the one hour restriction of the entry. Do you have any ideas on this.

    Thanks a lot, as always!

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      That’s a very good question. I believe that there are parks with timed entry reservations that allow you to leave and come back on the same reservation, but that does not mean that the same thing will happen at Carlsbad Caverns. You could book a second time slot, if the system allows you to do it, or see if there is a way contact a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns to see what their policy is. Cheers, Julie

  3. Avatar for Luciano
    1. Avatar for Julie Post
  4. Avatar for Keith Driscoll
    Keith Driscoll

    I’m always looking for ideas for my road trips. I travel over from the UK to the US a few times a year, and aim to visit at least one national park per visit. After reading your article, I plan on going with the ranger tour for my visit to Carlsbad Caverns. It is not something I would usually do in other parks, but I wouldn’t have any idea what I was looking at while in the caverns, and having an expert to annoy with my constant questions will be fun.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
  5. Avatar for Joe

    Hi !!
    I was thinking of doing 1d in Caverns and 1d in White sands.
    For the Caverns, do you think 1d from 8a to 5p is sufficient since most of the ranger led tours are still not operational.
    I was planning on doing natural entrance + big room.
    QQ – Can the ranger led ones be done w/o them? or are they strictly closed w/o a ranger?

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Yes, 8 am to 5 pm is more than enough time to do the Natural Entrance and Big Room tours. The ranger guided tours must be done with a ranger, as far as I know. I don’t think you miss much by not doing the ranger guided tours…we loved the Natural Entrance and Big Room tours.
      We literally just flew home yesterday from El Paso, spending the last week in Guadalupe Mountains and White Sands. We will have information about these national parks on our website soon. You could spend the morning at Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the afternoon at Carlsbad Caverns. We met up will fellow travelers while we were in Carlsbad, and they hiked Devils Hall in Guadalupe Mtns in the morning and visited Carlsbad Caverns in the afternoon and it worked great.
      White Sands in one day is plenty of time. That gives you time to do a short hike or two and go sledding. It’s a beautiful park! Keep checking back for new info!
      Cheers, Julie

      1. Avatar for Joe

        Thanks !! This is awesome.
        I was thinking of Guandalope but here’s how my tentative plan is
        1) My flight gets me in late on a tuesday at 630p – so i will be near carlsbad around 9p ish
        2) Now on day 2, I was thinking of doing caverns for 1/2 day and then drive west to white sands to catch sunset
        3) Day 3, do the alkali trail at white sands and catch the evening flight around 7p back home.
        But this means I’ve no place to fit Guandalope.

        Your thoughts?

        1. Avatar for Joe

          Or am thinking, maybe I can squeeze in Guadalupe on Day 2 from say 6a-8a (maybe a short hike or two), then 3-4hrs at Caverns doing Natural entrance and Big Room and then drive 3hrs ish west to White sands to catch the sunset (In April the sunset should be around 745pm and park closes around 9pm).
          Day 3 – I can do a bigger hike at White sands and catch my 7pm evening flight back home (since el paso should be only about 1.5hrs or less from White sands area)

          1. Avatar for Julie Post

            Yes, you could hike Devils Hall first thing in the morning and then spend midday in Carlsbad Caverns. That works great. With 2 hours for hiking, Devils Hall is the hike I recommend. You will have to hike fast to finish it in 2 hours (it’s 4 miles long, so at a 2 mph pace, that’s 2 hours…but there is a lot of rock scrambling that makes it slower, but it is lots of fun). Like White Sands, I will be publishing a post on things to do in Guadalupe Mountains that will have more info of things to pick from, but with your timing, Devils Hall seems like the best option to me (the summit hikes take a lot longer). Cheers, Julie

        2. Avatar for Julie Post

          Overall your plan looks great. If you take the southern route from Carlsbad Caverns to White Sands (through El Paso), it’s only a slightly longer drive (about 15 minutes) and you will literally drive through the edge of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. So, you can at least see El Capitan from the road (the viewpoint is called “El Capitan Lookout”). The better hikes, in my opinion, are at least 4 miles long, so it will be challenging to add on a hike, too, with the long drive to White Sands. But if you were to do a hike in Guadalupe that isn’t on the longer side, I recommend Devils Hall. This hike is just under 4 miles long and takes you to a slot canyon. I have a photo of Devils Hall in this post. As for White Sands, the Alkali Trail is great and it only takes a few hours. We also really liked the Backcountry Campsite Trail. I have plans to publish our Things to Do in White Sands post later this week, so check back, because we hiked every trail in this park and have them ranked. But you will have plenty of time to explore this park and still be able to get to your flight on time. If you are staying in Alamogordo for White Sands, we recommend DH Lescombes Winery for dinner (make a reservation). Cheers, Julie

          1. Avatar for Joe

            Ty so much, I’ve done about 6-7 National parks purely based on your input and all have turned out great 🙂

          2. Avatar for Julie Post
          3. Avatar for Joe

            Oh BTW – how was your experience at the Immigration check point? Is that only on east going lane on highway 70? Never really seen one in any of the other states i’ve been to, so was curious.

          4. Avatar for Julie Post

            They just asked us if we were American citizens and they waved us through. There was a short line and it moved very fast.

          5. Avatar for Joe
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  6. Avatar for Sean Robinson
  7. Avatar for Laurel

    Thanks so much for this informative guide! I’m planning a trip to Carlsbad Caverns and noticed you recommend a trip to Guadalupe Mountains Nat’t Park over the trails in Carlsbad; do you have any suggestions for trails in Guadalupe Mountains Nat’t Park?

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      We flew home early (we did this March of 2020 and flew home early because of COVID) so we never got to hike in Guadalupe, although we drove through it twice. However, from my research, the trails look much better in Guadalupe than Carlsbad Caverns. Ironically, we were just looking to travel back to Guadalupe and New Mexico in the next few weeks (March 2021), but with the mandatory 2 week quarantine right now in New Mexico our plans are still going to have to wait. Cheers, Julie

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