Carlsbad Caverns National Park Itinerary
Carlsbad Cavern National Park in New Mexico is a phenomenal underground world. A unique place in the world. Fairy-tale shapes are stimulating your imagination in these dark and wet caves. 119 caves with huge rooms covered in spectacular rock formations: stalactites, stalagmites, columns, curtains, and straws. Thousands of bats. So, we prepared a detailed Carlsbad Caverns National Park Itinerary to help you plan your trip to this hidden gem of New Mexico. You will find in our guide the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns, where to stay when to go, and finally Carlsbad Caverns photography tips.This article may contain affiliate / compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer here.
Why Visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
We start our Carlsbad Caverns National Park Itinerary with some facts about this underground miracle. We hope it will convince you to add this spectacular place to your New Mexico road trip.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park Facts
- There are 119 known caves in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and probably are more of them. The famous cave known as Carlsbad Caverns is only one of the caves.
- The Big Room (natural limestone chamber) in Carlsbad Caverns is the largest accessible cave chamber in North America. It has 8,2 acres; it is almost 4,000 feet (1,220 m) long, 625 feet (191 m) wide, and 255 feet (78 m) high at the highest point. The Big Room is the fifth-largest chamber in North America and the twenty-eighth-largest in the world.
- There are at least 17 species of bats found in the Park. The most common are Brazilian free-tailed bats. They can be seen exiting Carlsbad Cavern each night from May through October.
- The caves are chilly at 56 degrees F with 90% humidity all year.
- The total area of Carlsbad Caverns is 46,766 acres.
- The number of visitors to Carlsbad Cavern in 2019 was around 440700.
- There are also aboveground trails in Carlsbad Caverns National Park where you can explore the desert landscape.
- Carlsbad Cavern was made a national park on May 14, 1930.
Carlsbad Caverns Geologic Facts
- In the caves, the bedrock is limestone created largely by shelled organisms 260-280 million years ago in and near a huge reef.
- The caves in the Carlsbad Caverns area were formed between 6 and 4 million years ago.
- Weak sulfuric acid created by microbes and natural hydrogen sulfide dissolved the caves in Carlsbad Caverns.
- When the area was uplifted, the water table drained away along with the sulfuric acid, leaving behind the caves.
- Water dripping in from the surface brings with it some of the limestones and redeposits it as speleothems including stalactites, stalagmites, columns, curtains, straws, and more.
Where is Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a remote area in the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico. It is not so far from the Texas state line. It’s around 20 miles southwest of the town of Carlsbad and 35 miles from Guadalupe National Park.
The major attraction of the park is the show cave, Carlsbad Cavern. You can hike to the cave on your own via the natural entrance, named Road To Hell Carlsbad Caverns. It descends 79 stories from the mouth of the cave to the Big Room or you can take an elevator from the visitor center.
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Reservations Are Required to Enter Carlsbad Cavern
Before going to this underground park, the most important thing to know is that reservations are required to visit Carlsbad Cavern. There are no reservations available at the park. So plan your trip. You can purchase Reservations online or by calling 877-444-6777. Reservations are only for selecting the entry time. So make sure you will be on time. Upon arrival at the visitor center, you must purchase entrance tickets. Also, make sure to visit the official park website before your trip to check actual alerts.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park Itinerary – How to get to the Park?
The most convenient airports to get to Carlsbad Caverns National Park are:
- El Paso International Airport (ELP) in Texas, 139 miles by car to Carlsbad Caverns.
- Midland International Air & Space Port (MAF) in Texas, 161 miles by car to Carlsbad Caverns
- Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ) in New Mexico, 305 miles by car to Carlsbad Caverns.
Furthermore, US Highway 62/180 provides the sole road access to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The entrance road, named Walnut Canyon Road, is 23 miles southwest of the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico.
- How to get from El Paso to Carlsbad Caverns? The park is about 145 miles east of the city of El Paso, Texas. So, it will take you 2 hours and 15 minutes to drive.
- How to get from Albuquerque to Carlsbad Caverns? Albuquerque is 300 miles from the park, and about 4 hours and 40 minutes of driving via US Hwy 285 N.
Trip Tip: Check the best flight options on skyscanner.com. Furthermore, you can find lots of car rental agencies right at these airports. If you need to rent a car, you can compare conditions, and prices and book your vehicle on Rentalcars. However, our favorite rental is Alamo, we’ve been using it for years, and we can recommend it.
Where To Stay in Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
In this part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park Itinerary, we advise you where to stay. It is not easy to find accommodation in the Carlsbad Caverns, as it is a remote area, so plan your stay. There is no lodging of any sort as hotels or camping inside the park. The best idea for lodging is in Carlsbad town, which is a 30-minute drive away from the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. It offers a wide variety of all services, including many lodging choices. Furthermore, it is the most convenient base for visiting the park. Below you will find our selection of accommodation near the national park, including the best hotels and camping sites with the highest reviews. So, check prices and availability on booking.com
Hotels near Carlsbad Caverns
($$$) Sleep Inn & Suites is a 2.5-star city-center Carlsbad hotel with an indoor pool. It offers modern furnishing, free Internet, and free parking. Check prices & book it.
($$) Rodeway Inn motel features an outdoor pool. Free Wi-Fi access is available. Free parking for all-size vehicles, including trucks, is provided to guests. Book it here.
($) Super 8 by Wyndham Carlsbad is a 2-star hotel great for families. It offers free continental breakfast, free WiFi, and free parking. It is a very clean & comfortable hotel with a good price. So, you can book it here.
($) Days Inn by Wyndham Carlsbad features family rooms. It also provides guests with a grill. The hotel has an indoor pool, a 24-hour front desk, and free WiFi throughout the property. So, book it online.
Carlsbad Cavern Camping
As you know, we love RVs, so in Carlsbad Caverns National Park Itinerary we also suggest the best places to stay. There is no overnight lodging or campgrounds in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Primitive camping is allowed in the backcountry only and requires a free permit, which is issued at the park’s visitor center when you arrive. There is no possibility to reserve it in advance. Check Backcountry Camping Permit Terms and Conditions on the park’s website.
Overnight RV parking is not permitted in the park.
However, the park is surrounded by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. They allow permit-free RV/tent camping. So, contact the Carlsbad BLM office to check your options for free camping.
The closest campground with amenities is available 7 miles (11 km) from the visitor center in White’s City, New Mexico. There is a White’s City Carlsbad Caverns RV Park, which is open year-round and offers full hookups, water, restrooms, showers, and laundry.
Bud’s Place RV Park & Cabins is only 27 miles from Carlsbad Caverns. Convenient to restaurants, and shopping, Guadalupe Mts. Furthermore, it offers Big Rig-friendly sites, 10 bathrooms, fiber optic WiFi, Catch, Release Pond, and more.
Weather in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
What is the best time to visit Carlsbad Caverns? We have great news for you. In the caves, underground, the weather in Carlsbad Caverns is the same all year round. So, there is a constant 56°F with high humidity. So, take a sweatshirt or jacket to stay comfortable underground. If you would like to admire mysterious creatures – thousands of bats- you should visit Carlsbad between May through October. The best time of year to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park is winter, spring, or fall. Summers tend to be sweltering hot, with temperatures around 80-100 degrees. Furthermore, in the summer, afternoon rains downpours across the desert. Check weather alerts on the park’s website before your trip.
Best Things To Do In Carlsbad Caverns National Park
In this part of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park Itinerary, we suggest to you how to spend the best time in this fantastic national park. If you want to see the most famous caves, reserve a minimum of 3-4 hours for Carlsbad Caverns. If you have more time it is worth considering other trips, which I am describing below. Depending on your interests and possibilities, you will find something for yourself. Remember to purchase your reservation before your trip!
Start at Visitor Center
Visitor Center helps you organize your time. You can check daily tours or pick up early bookings for guided tours. Take the underground map to find out as much as possible about this place. The Visitors Center houses a museum, gift shop and cafe, National Parks bookstore, and the Ranger information counter. You can sign up for the Junior Ranger Program.
Take Self-Guided Tour
It is the best option to admire this beauty. You have two options on the self-guided tour; take the elevator down to the “Big Room” or take a hike down via the Natural Entrance. Take shoes with excellent traction. No food or drink other than water is allowed in the cave, so a good water bottle is a must. Only bring plain water with you because the cave is home to a delicate ecosystem. Taking a Self-Guided Tour is a minimum to do in our Carlsbad Caverns National Park Itinerary. Remember that you must have a reservation to get to Carlsbad Cavern.
Natural Entrance Trail
The Natural Entrance Trail is a fabulous experience. It is a short but steep 1.25 miles down the track. The entrance is called Road To Hell. If you have the time and ability to hike, take this trail. You can reach the Big Room and the central area of the caves. The hike descends 750 feet in elevation. There is a flat cement path, but some areas are steep and slippery. So take your time and take shoes with good traction.
Plan at least an hour or two to hike down this trail one way. But if you want to do Big Room also plan a minimum of 3 hours to enjoy all this underground beauty. Then you can take the elevators to get out of the cave.
The Natural Entrance Trail begins behind the Visitor Center. You have to walk into the museum behind the ticket desk. Then you will walk down the path to the ranger waiting at the beginning of the trail.
Big Room Trail
The most popular route in Carlsbad Cavern is the Big Room. Due to it being the most crowded trail. The best option is to make both trails the Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room Trail. But if you are pressed for time and can only do one, take the Big Room Trail. The Big Room is such a humongous, and majestic underground miracle with magical rocks formation that you will be speechless. You can enter the Big Room through the Natural Entrance Trail or through the elevators. If you are short on time and go to the cave via the elevators, the trail will be short, flat & easy. The Big Room is well-named because it covers 357,480 square feet – 8.2 acres.
The most spectacular formations are the Twin Domes and 62-foot (19-meter) high Giant Dome, Chandelier, Rock of Ages, Doll’s Theater, Lion’s Tail, and Temple of the Sun.
The trail is approximately 1.25 miles long (with a possible shortcut to reduce the distance to 0.6 miles). The cave offers spectacular views, cave formations of all shapes and sizes, and a rope ladder used by explorers in 1924. It takes around 45-60 minutes to complete the full trial. Tickets are required for the Big Room, so you’ll need to stop in at the Visitor Center Ticket Desk when you arrive.
See Road To Hell Carlsbad Caverns
If for some reason, for a lack of time or health reasons, you cannot visit the caves by going through the Natural Entrance Trail, it is worth seeing the entrance itself. They are called Road To Hell Carlsbad Caverns. It is a spectacular & steep road into the darkness. Road To Hell meanders like a serpentine to the pit of Hell. You only see black, and your body is enveloped in coldness and moisture from the deepness of caves. It is an extraordinary experience.
Send a Postcard from Caverns
There is The Carlsbad Caverns lunchroom 750 feet underground, right inside the caves. Furthermore, tourists can write a postcard and mail it from inside the cave and have it stamped with “Mailed from 750 feet below ground”.
Bat Flight Program in Carlsbad Caverns
From Memorial Day weekend in May until October, you can see the free Bat Flight Program in Carlsbad Caverns. There are 17 bat species in the park. The large colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats is the best known. So, in the evenings, a ranger talks about the bats before their flight. No reservations are required for this program. It is located at the Bat Flight Amphitheater approximately 30 minutes before sunset. The best bat flights commonly occur from August to September because there are both babies from the year as well as migrating bats from further north.
Furthermore, in the summer, between 200,000 and 500,000 bats leave the cave each evening. It’s a wonderful spectacle of nature. During migration, the bat population can reach over one million bats. So, every summer sunset, millions of bats swarm and swirl out of the caves to go eat millions of insects in the Pecos River valley.
The bats typically leave at 28 minutes past sunset, known as civil twilight. Furthermore, the bats typically return to the cave entrance between 4 and 6 a.m. Finally, photography of any kind is not allowed at the Bat Flight. There are no electronics allowed during the program to protect the bats.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park Itinerary – Take Ranger-Guided Tour
If you have more time to stay in the Carlsbad Cavern National Park than one day, it is worth considering guided tours. The Park offers some adventure tours with a park ranger.
You can see several other, less famous, caves and learn more details about the geology of this place. However, you have to book it in advance on Recreation.gov. Furthermore, tickets are extremely limited. So, make your reservations here. The best tours are:
Hall of the White Giant — it is a challenging, strenuous, 4 hours tour. So, you’ll be sweaty and dirty. Furthermore, you will crawl through narrow spaces on your hands and knees and free-climb through the formations, climbing slippery vertical rock. Tour groups are small, so tickets are minimal. Finally, it is the most challenging and strenuous cave trip.
King’s Palace Tour is a 1.5-hour ranger-guided tour through four highly decorated chambers that will take you into the deepest portion of the cavern open to the public, 830 feet (253 m) beneath the desert surface. Furthermore, it is the shortest and easiest of the ranger-led tours, but it is beautiful.
Lower Cave Tour is a 3 hours strenuous hike for ages 12 and over.
During this tour, you will venture deep into the cave, descending on ladders and ropes. So, it is a real adventure. Furthermore, the park ranger will take you to the rare cave pearls that were made famous by National Geographic.
Desert Landscape Activity
On the surface of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, there is a harsh desert landscape. There are more than 50 miles of aboveground trails. So, if you like this kind of landscape and you have extra days it is worth considering hiking or driving in this remote area. All trails in Carlsbad Caverns you will find on the NPS website.
Take a Walnut Canyon Desert Drive
It is a scenic 9-mile drive that takes you through the desert to a few viewpoints. The road is dirt and not recommended for low-clearance vehicles or RVs. Furthermore, you can spot rattlesnakes in this area so be careful, or it is possible to see bighorn sheep.
Have a Picnic at Rattlesnake Springs
It is an oasis in the middle of the desert, with large cottonwood trees and lots of birds galore. Birders love this area so that you can spot wild turkeys and vermilion flycatchers.
But, if you love wildlife and bird watching and you plan your New Mexico holiday, add to your road trip itinerary Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. It is a wildlife pearl of New Mexico where you can admire Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. So, check our photos & tips from Bosque Del Apache here.
Take a short Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail is a short and easy path. It starts at the Visitors Center and winds around a half-mile loop.
Carlsbad Caverns Photography Tips
The last part of our Carlsbad Caverns National Park Itinerary is a photographic guide. As you know, we love photography, and we share our photography tips from every place we have visited. We hope it will help you avoid our mistakes and prepare for the trip correctly. So, in addition to beautiful memories, bring great photos with you.
Fast Lens Is a Must
Take fast and wide lenses. The faster lens, the better. During this trip, Agnes used the great, wide, and fast lens Nikkor 14-24 mm f/2.8, which is a phenomenal lens. It is perfect for architecture and landscapes also. And when she wanted to get closer to the fantastic shapes of rock formations, she used the fabulous Nikkor 50 mm f/1.4, which is also great. Besides, it is her favorite lens for portrait photography and reportage.
Chris used the perfect Canon 16-35 mm f/4, which, although a bit darker, coped in caves perfectly with Sirui tripod.
Take a Tripod
Tripods are permitted on the Big Room and Natural Entrance trails, but not on ranger-guided tours. A tripod is a must. We have both used Sirui tripods for years. And we love it. Agnes uses the lighter one, and Chris uses a heave one. So, check out more options for these great Sirui tripods here.
However, it is not easy to take good pictures in Carlsbad Caverns, because the path is very narrow. Due to this, you have to watch out for people not stumble in the dark on your tripod. You should notice people first, and you should let them pass. So, you have to focus not only on photos but also on the safety of other visitors. In the darkness, they have no chance to notice your tripod legs. So you must be extremely careful. Sometimes it is annoying, but safety is the most important thing.
So, if you want to avoid crowds and focus on photos, visit the Park after the high season. Even during winter, as we did, or late fall. You won’t see bats, but you’ll have much better conditions for photographing these unusual & unique rock formations.
Wear Warm Clothes
Pack yourself an optimal way, and don’t take too much photo equipment with you, except for the camera and one or two fast lenses. The caves are cramped, so with a large backpack, you will not be allowed inside if there are a lot of people. Take a warm sweatshirt or jacket and beanie, because it will be cool and the photo will take you a few hours. Remember about good shoes because they can be slippery and you don’t want to drop equipment on the rock.
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We assure you that a trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park will always remain in your memory. The place is magical and breathtaking.
If you like our Carlsbad Caverns National Park Itinerary and are planning the New Mexico road trip, check our related articles, please. We share our experience & tips to help you prepare for your incredible adventure:
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the caves in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park loos so amazing. The limestones of the caves reminds me of the ones we have here in Palawan. I have never tried hiking a cave trail before, putting it on my bucket list now. I also love the photography tips you gave. Hope to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park one day
119 caves with thousands of Bats made me sit up and take notice of this post. Carlsbad Caverns facts triggered my anticipation as to what lay ahead in the post. Seventy-nine stories from the mouth of
the cave to the Big Room is this all the way downhill ?? The Big Room
does look humongous, and the fact bought out that between 200,000 and 500,000
bats leave the cave each evening. This is a sight which I feel would be amazing
to see indeed. adventure tours within the park I think with the park ranger would offer some great
Oh wow this cave most definitely looks intriguing and would love to spend time here. I have not personally been to many cave excursions and certainly not the ones this massive. Even the entrance of this one is worth seeing. The Road to Hell Carlsband Cavenrs is a great postcard picture to send and keep as a memory. Also the bat encounters on my small cave exploration was a bit intimidating so I just can’t imagine it here, might be a bit terrifying. But nonetheless I wouldn’t want to pass out on exploring this in the future!
I cannot even imagine what it must be like to experience that many bats emerging from the caves and flying off into the night. That’s must be quite a spectacle, and I would imagine quite noisy as well. Some amazing cave photos, interesting to see these unique formations captured so well, and some lovely lighting too.
I did not have the slightest idea that a park like this exists. Carlsbad Caverns National Park seems to be a marvel which must be visited sometime or the other. Mexico has always fascinated me but this park is truly magical. The desert landscapes are breathtaking. I too think this place requires a guided tour as you suggest to understand it well.
Carlsbad Caverns is in New Mexico, it’s in the USA between Arizona and Texas 😁
Wow loved this detailed guide on Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Mexico is on my plan to visit. I will surely add this park on my list, would love to see something that was formed 4 million years ago.
It’s actually in NEW Mexico, we are right in between Arizona And Texas just below Colorado 😁
I only visited two caves in the Philippines, and although both of them also have good rock formations and limestones, they are not spectacular compared to the caves of Carlsbad Caverns. I think I wouldn’t stop snapping for souvenir photos, and definitely will be bringing a good camera. My boyfriend will love this place too, he likes caves and exploration.
Every cave gives goosebump!! Thos interiors are amazing!! Nice informative post.
I am so amazed at the pictures of the caves, they look incredibly beautiful. And I totally understand about the darkness inside. Thanks for letting people aware about the importance of checking out the route the dark instead of just taking photos. I would love to visit this place.
The sheer size and scale of this place are just unbelievable! This post has really captured my attention and desire to visit and see it for myself. The Carlsbad Cavern National Park in New Mexico definitely deserves more promotion for the amazing experience and education it offers. I really enjoyed learning more via this post and am so impressed with the images you managed to take while there. Great photography tips as well for a very special place.
The caves look incredible! 17 species of bats and the Big room trail make me think it is quite adventurous to visit this place. Equally amazing is the Road To Hell experience! I am sure sending a postcard with a stamp of “Mailed from 750 feet below ground” would be quite a unique thing to do. Very interesting!
The caves look magical and interesting!! Would definitely add it to my bucket list. Also your pictures are amazing! Thanks for sharing.
Wow, these caves look beautiful. It is like a walk in another world or rather in the prehistoric era. Your suggestions are handy and make a lot of sense especially where photography is concerned. I have bookmarked your article for future use.
Wow these caves are fascinating. I see you’ve mentioned a wide lense. When you mention a fast lense would this be the shutter speed on the body or something else?
Wow the formations of the rock amazes me everytime! Also, that road to hell sure looks spooky
119 caves in one National Park!! That is one too many but at the same a very interesting phenomenon and one to be added to my bucket list. Love your photos and your photography tips especially the fast lens, one which I often forget.
The Carlsbad Caverns have been on my bucket list for so long. They are so beautiful, as can be seen in your photos. There is a similar cave system near my hometown, although not nearly as expansive. I would love to explore the caverns, and The Natural Entrance Trail sounds like the perfect way to get down to there.
Carlsbad cavern sounds like the perfect adventure. Besides the cave formations, stalactites and stalagmites, it does seem to house some cool trails. Great summary, definitely makes me want to visit.
Amazing! I know nothing about traveling all over the country, what a wonderful looking place to explore.
It is too bad we missed Carlsbad Cavern National Park when we visited New Mexico. We loved to explore the caves and the underground world. I would love to explore all 119 caves. But would hope to never get close to any species of bat! We will make sure to plan enough time to enjoy all the beauty.