Tucked away in the southeast corner of New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is home to the largest, easily accessible cave chamber in North America. It is also one of the few caves within the National Park Service that you can tour on your own. No need to stress, though, the Carlsbad Caverns Self-Guided Tour is easy to follow and very informative.
We have now done tours in many different caves, including Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, Timpanogos Cave in Utah and Wind Cave in South Dakota. It’s interesting to us just how different various caves can be. For instance, Mammoth Cave is, generally, not nearly as “decorative” as many other caves. Indeed, the unusual cave formation known as boxwork is only rarely found outside Wind Cave.
Carlsbad Caverns is known for both its large chambers, like the aptly named “Big Room,” and its decorative mineral features. It is also home to a large colony of Brazilian Free-tail bats, which are a highlight to a summer visit to the park.
Still, the park is great any time of year! So, let’s take a look at just what you can expect on a self-guided tour of Carlsbad Caverns and around the rest of the park.
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Carlsbad Caverns National Park Basic Information
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located just south of Carlsbad, NM in the Chihuahuan Desert of the Guadalupe Mountains. It is actually a fairly remote park, aside from the town of Carlsbad, which is about 20 miles north. Just outside the park entrance, the tiny enclave of White’s City offers an inn, RV park, gas station and restaurant. It’s not more than two corners of a single intersection, though.
The highlight of the national park is certainly the main cave (Carlsbad Cavern), along with the bat program in the summer. But, the park actually is home to at least 120 caves. Unfortunately, most of these are off-limits to the public.
Additionally, there are a few above-ground hiking trails and a scenic drive. The park also offers a few night-sky programs in the summer. At the visitor center, you will find a few exhibits, along with a small NPS bookstore and a large concessionaire gift shop and cafe. There is even a small snack bar down in the cave, though it has limited days/hours of operation.
Visitors can access Carlsbad Cavern via a 1.25-mile steep hike down the Natural Entrance or a relatively quick zoom down the elevator. Keep reading for more information on these options.
Be sure to check the Carlsbad Caverns National Park website for current hours of operation. The park enforces strict times for entering and exiting the cave on a self-guided tour. Finally, it is worth noting that the entire park is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days.
Carlsbad Caverns Tours
Currently, Carlsbad Cavern can be seen on two different tours: the Self-Guided Tour and the ranger-led King’s Palace Tour. Reservations for both must be made ahead of time on the recreation.gov website or app. Pre-COVID-19, the park offered a few other tours of the main cave and other caves. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, these have not resumed.
King’s Palace tours last 1.5 hours and are currently limited to 12 people. As you might guess, these reservations are extremely difficult to secure. Tickets are released 30 days prior at 8 a.m. Mountain Time and typically sell out very quickly. If you are interested in this tour, I suggest trying to secure tickets immediately when they are released.
Thankfully, tickets for the Carlsbad Caverns Self-Guided Tour are relatively easy to get, especially during non-peak times. Still, you need to secure tickets before arriving at the park. Tickets are available up to 30 days in advance and until 5 a.m. MT the day of the tour, provided space is available. Your ticket allows you to enter the cave within a one-hour window. Once inside the cave, you can stay until the posted exit time.
Note: You must pay the park entrance fee upon arrival to Carlsbad Caverns National Park ($15 per person ages 16 or older, valid for three days) in addition to the ticket fees that are collected with your reservation. National Park pass holders must purchase a tour ticket, as only the park entrance fee is covered by your pass.
Carlsbad Caverns Self-Guided Tour
Our visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park was part of a longer road trip in the winter. Since we know that winter weather can always detail a road trip, we opted to keep our itinerary flexible and not make reservations too far in advance. That meant the King’s Palace Tour was not an option for us.
Honestly, though, for our first visit to Carlsbad Caverns, we were happy to do the Self-Guided Tour. And, now that we’ve done it, I would certainly recommend it to any first-time visitor. It is possible to do both the Self-Guided Tour and the King’s Palace Tour on the same day, though. This would not be a bad option if you have the time.
The Carlsbad Caverns Self-Guided Tour allows you to explore the Big Room along a 1.25-mile paved route. This trail is well-lit and relatively level. Much of the trail is even wheelchair accessible. That said, the park recommends that visitors in a wheelchair should only enter the Big Room with assistance.
Before entering the cave, consider renting a handheld audio guide at the NPS bookstore. While there are a few exhibit signs along the underground trail, the audio tour provides in-depth descriptions of the cave features, history and geology. If you haven’t been in a lot of caves or have a particular interest in the geology or history of Carlsbad Cavern, I would encourage you to rent the audio guide. It’s a nominal rental fee ($5 when we visited) and was very informative and easy to use.
Natural Entrance vs. Elevator
When you are ready for your Self-Guided Tour, you’ll need to be prepared to tell the ranger if you are planning to enter the cave via the elevator or the natural entrance. Since the natural entrance takes you through 1.25 miles of the cave that you would not see otherwise, we suggest taking this route. That said, it is steep and moderately strenuous, descending more than 750 feet underground.
Hiking down (or up) the natural entrance also doubles the length of your cave tour, as it is separate from the Big Room. If you have mobility issues, limited stamina or even limited time, then you might want to skip the natural entrance and just take the elevator up and down.
Otherwise, our suggestion is that you enter the cave via the natural entrance and exit via the elevator. While I suppose it is technically possible to exit via the natural entrance, it would be quite strenuous. And, while we enjoyed the cave along that route, I don’t think you would gain anything by hiking it both down and up.
The park’s brochure shows the path of the Natural Entrance and Big Room routes. Be sure to look at that and talk to a ranger if you aren’t sure which way to enter the cave.
The Natural Entrance Route
If you are able to make the trek down the natural entrance, you’ll enter the cave by the amphitheater that is used in the summer for the nightly Bat Flight Program. From there, you’ll descend about 200 feet along a series of switchbacks until you reach the entrance to the Bat Cave.
As you might guess from the name, this is where the bats roost inside the cave. Even if visiting in the summer, when the bats are present, you will not be able to actually see them from the trail.
From there, the trail flattens out a bit as it continues to descend through the Main Corridor. Still, there are a few steep areas and another set of switchbacks near the area known as Devil’s Den. As you make your way through the cave, you’ll see a variety of features including stalactites, stalagmites and columns. You’ll even pass by a few pools of water.
It took us just under 1.5 hours to make our way down the Natural Entrance Trail to the elevators. That included quite a bit of stopping or slowing down to take pictures and listen to the audio guide.
Rest Area and Lunchroom
The Natural Entrance Trail meets up with the Big Room Trail right by the elevators, bathrooms and snack bar. At this point, you’re 755 feet below the surface.
This is a great opportunity to take a potty break, eat a snack and maybe even take a few minutes to rest your legs. While you’re done with the most strenuous part, you’re still only about halfway through your Self-Guided Tour at this point.
It is also worth noting that this is the only area where you are permitted to eat or drink anything other than water. Even the smallest crumbs can make a big impact on the cave’s ecosystem, so it is important that all visitors follow this policy.
Exploring the Big Room
The 8.2-acre Big Room is the largest single cave chamber in North America. It truly is a must-see for anyone visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It is easily accessible via the elevator and much of the route around its perimeter is wheelchair accessible, making it easy for just about anyone to see.
A 1.25-mile paved trail takes you around the perimeter of the Big Room. There is a shortcut about halfway through the loop that will cut the trail in about half.
The highly decorated Big Room really is impressive, both in its size and the cave features. You’ll see a large group of stalactites known as the Chandelier and Crystal Spring Dome, an active formation that grows as water flows down a stalagmite into a cave pool. You’ll also be wowed by a variety of both large and small features from Doll’s Theatre where you’ll find extremely fragile soda straw formations to the towering domes at the Hall of Giants.
In a few places, you’ll even see tools left behind by some of the early cave explorers. In particular, be on the lookout for a very rickety ladder on a cave wall and ropes tied to the cave ceiling. While being inside caves doesn’t really both me too much, these tools remind me that is true only for well-developed caves!
Even after all the caves we’ve toured, every turn of the trail through the Big Room revealed a new cave feature that left us in awe. Seriously, Carlsbad Cavern is one impressive cave every step of the way.
We spent about 1 hour and 15 minutes touring the Big Room. Again, that included several stops for pictures and audio guide information.
What to Wear Inside the Cave
As with most caves, the temperature inside Carlsbad Caverns stays a constant 56 degrees. Thus, we recommend wearing pants and long sleeves. You’ll also want to make sure you have shoes that will be comfortable for a 1.25-2.5 mile walk, likely sneakers or hiking shoes. There are a few areas that might be slippery, so I’d definitely go with closed-toes shoes.
If you plan to hike down the natural entrance, you’ll definitely want shoes with good traction (we both wore hiking shoes). If you are taking the elevator and just exploring the Big Room, the path is more level, so regular sneakers are fine.
How to Avoid Spreading White-Nose Syndrome
It is also best to not wear clothes that have been inside another cave, in an effort to reduce the spread of the fungus that causes White-nose syndrome, which affects hibernating bats. You may even have to wipe down your shoes, phone or camera gear before entering the cave or when exiting.
White-nose syndrome (WNS) gets its name from the white fuzzy fungus that can grow on a bat’s nose. Unfortunately, it can cause bats to be more active than usual during hibernation and burn up the fat that they need to survive the winter. Biologists first found sick and dying bats in 2007. Since then, WNS has killed millions of bats in North America and is considered one of the worst wildlife diseases in modern history.
People can unknowingly spread the fungus that causes WNS, as the spores can live on your clothing and other items even after washing. Thus, you will find that most cave operators (like the National Park Service) request that visitors not wear or carry anything into a cave that has been in another cave.
Interestingly, the ranger we talked to at Carlsbad Caverns National Park said they aren’t too worried about WNS since their bats are migratory rather than hibernating. Still, since there is much that is not known about the spread of WNS, it’s best to wear new clothing that has not been in another cave if at all possible.
Other Things to Do at Carlsbad Caverns
While the cave tours are certainly the highlight of any visit to Carlsbad Caverns, there are a few things to do above ground.
Bat Flight Program
Aside from cave tours, one of the most popular things to do at Carlsbad Caverns is the nightly Bat Flight Program, which is held from Memorial Day weekend through October. Each night, thousands of bats rush from the cave’s natural entrance to feed. At the Bat Flight Program, park rangers present a talk about bats before they emerge.
Check times for the Bat Flight Program on the park’s website or at the visitor center. The program is generally held about 30 minutes before sunset.
Unfortunately, the bats spend their winters in Mexico, so we were not able to see this spectacular event during our January visit. But, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Carlsbad Caverns, so we definitely plan to return sometime in the future when we can see the bats!
It’s also worth noting that the bats typically return to the park in mid to late April. You can watch the bat flight on your own at the amphitheater even if the ranger program hasn’t started yet for the summer. Also, if you are visiting in the fall, it’s worth noting that there is no way to know exactly when the bats will leave and move south.
Overall, if you think this will be your one and only visit to Carlsbad Caverns, I’d suggest going when you can be reasonably certain the bats will be there. If you know you will likely have the opportunity to return, though, you can still enjoy a visit to this park even if you miss that special sight.
Hiking Trails and Scenic Drive
If you are waiting around after your cave tour and before the Bat Flight Program, there are a number of above-ground hiking trails at Carlsbad Cavern National Park. Sadly, flooding in 2022 caused trail erosion and damage to the scenic Walnut Canyon Desert Drive. Currently, most backcountry hiking trails and the scenic drive remain closed.
As you make your way in or out of the park, we suggest the short, Walnut Canyon Overlook Trail. The trailhead for this 5-minute walk is located right along the main park road as you make your way to the visitor center and cave entrance. It’s worth a quick stop to look out over the vast Chihuahuan Desert!
There also is a 1/2-mile Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail right by the visitor center. Along this mostly-paved trail, you’ll find information on the flora of the surrounding desert.
We certainly hope that the backcountry trails and the scenic drive are open when we return to Carlsbad Caverns!
Where to Stay and Eat When Visiting Carlsbad Caverns
There is no lodging or even a developed campground within the park. Right by the park entrance, you’ll find a small inn and RV park at White’s City. If you want to camp, that isn’t a bad option but it really isn’t a town.
If you’re looking for a hotel and easy access to restaurants, shopping or other conveniences, I’d suggest staying in Carlsbad. Since we didn’t have the camper with us on this trip, we spent 3 nights at the Home2Suites in Carlsbad, which we used as our base for visiting both Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is located just across the state line in Texas.
Read more about exploring Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Grant’s upcoming article.
The Home2Suites was perfectly comfortable and we enjoyed having the small kitchenette with a refrigerator. It is also located on the south side of town, making it very convenient for getting to the parks.
Read TripAdvisor Reviews | Book the Hotel
Another perk of the Home2Suites is that you can walk to Guadalupe Mountain Brewing Company, which is just on the other side of the parking lot. We did this for dinner one night and were not disappointed at all! The beer is quite tasty and they serve a nice variety of pizzas, subs, paninis and a few salads and appetizers.
If you’re looking for something other than a brewery, we suggest YellowBrix, which is located in the center of town. I thoroughly enjoyed the BRIX Meatloaf, which included a hefty serving of meatloaf along with two sides. Grant opted for the BRIX Mexican Burger, which was a traditional burger but wrapped in a tortilla. They also have a nice beer and wine menu, offering a little something for everyone.
Final Thoughts on Carlsbad Caverns National Park
After you’ve visited as many caves as we have, it’s easy to think that you’re going to “just another cave.” While we were excited to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we wondered if it would live up to the hype for us.
I am pleased to say that it did! Even after countless other cave tours, it is easy to see why people like Carlsbad Caverns. And, that was without getting to see the bats or any of the backcountry hiking trails. This was easily one of our favorite caves!
While we always love a good ranger-led tour, doing the Carlsbad Caverns Self-Guided Tour really was nice. It allowed us to explore the cave at our own pace, spending as much or as little time at a given formation as we wanted. Honestly, the fast pace of our tour at Mammoth Cave was one of our biggest complaints. It was refreshing to not have to worry about that this time.
We took our time, took the pictures we wanted and rested when we wanted! Seeing both the Natural Entrance and the Big Room was really special, even if it did make for a somewhat lengthy walk. All told, we spent a little over 2.5 hours hiking in and around Carlsbad Caverns and we love every bit of it!
Touring on our own was easy. The route was well-marked. And, there were enough informational signs to know what we were looking at. Having the audio guide provided even more history and information. We certainly did not feel that we missed out on anything by not having a ranger-guided tour. Mostly, we just loved touring on our own and not worrying about a large group.
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