The Ultimate Guide To Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns, an awe-inspiring cave system, is home to stunning cave formations and colonies of bats!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is home to one of the oldest, largest, and very complex cave systems in the world!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad, southern New Mexico. The Guadalupe Mountains, straddling the states of New Mexico and Texas, is home to two National Parks, Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas and Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.
In general underground caverns are formed by the Carbonic acid found in rain and snow water, which dissolves the limestones while seeping down the earth’s surface. However, the Carlsbad Caverns are quite unique as these caves were formed by aggressive dissolution of limestones by sulfuric acid traversing bottom-up from the earth’s water table. The hydrogen sulfide from the region’s oil fields led to the formation of sulfuric acid at the water bed, which led to the formation of the Carlsbad Caverns.
Carlsbad Caverns is well known for its several unique cave formations naturally decorating the caves!
Carlsbad Caverns is one of the oldest cave systems in the world. There are around 120 known caves in the park, and the number keeps growing as cave exploration continues. Carlsbad Caverns is well-known for a large number of stalactites and stalagmites found in the caves. These cave formations exist in different shapes, including chandeliers, drapes, ribbons, and others, naturally decorating the caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Stalactites is a pyramidal structure, like an icicle hanging from the roof of a cave formed of minerals deposited by dripping water. Stalagmites are mounds growing from the floor of a cave formed of minerals deposited by dripping water and often uniting with a stalactite.
There are self-guided and ranger-led tours available at the park that lets you walk and explore the caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. There are a few other caves in the US, but the massive size and the stunning rock formations at Carlsbad Caverns make it stand out and is a must-see in New Mexico.
Here is my ultimate guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, featuring things to do in the park, details about cave hiking trails, and recommendations on hotels and restaurants near Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Getting To Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in Carlsbad, in southern New Mexico.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located 20 miles from the city of Carlsbad and 166 miles from Alamogordo. In New Mexico, public transportation options are limited, so I highly recommend flying into the closest possible airport near Carlsbad Caverns National Park, renting a car, and driving to the park.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, located in southern New Mexico, is quite close to the New Mexico – Texas border, which opens up the option of flying into the nearby airport in El Paso, Texas.
International Airports near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
El Paso International Airport (ELP): Located in El Paso, Texas, 138 miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and about 2 hours 20 minutes drive.
Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ): Located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about 304 miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, around 4 hours 40 minutes drive. You could fly into Albuquerque and then take a connecting flight to Carlsbad regional airport Cavern City Air Terminal (CNM).
Domestic and Regional Airports near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
There’re a few regional and domestic airports near Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but the flights will most likely include multiple layovers, depending on your departure location.
Cavern City Air Terminal (CNM): Located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, 15 miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 15 minutes drive.
Roswell International Air Center (ROW): Located in Roswell, New Mexico, 92 miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 1 hour 30 minutes drive.
Santa Fe Regional Airport (SAF): Located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is 300 miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, about 4 hours 30 minutes drive.
Amtrak offers passenger train service on the Southwest Chief that runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, stopping at few major cities in New Mexico Amtrak stations, including Albuquerque (ABQ), Gallup (GLP), Lamy (LMY), Las Vegas (LVS), and Raton (RAT).
However, there are no direct train or bus services to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. So, hiring a taxi, ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft, or renting a car is the best way to reach Carlsbad Caverns National Park from the airport or a train station.
The best way to get to Carlsbad Caverns National Park or any other attractions in New Mexico is by flying into the closest possible airport and then renting a car and driving to different places within New Mexico.
Driving distance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park from major cities in New Mexico
- Carlsbad to Carlsbad Caverns National Park: 21 miles, 25 minutes drive
- Roswell to Carlsbad Caverns National Park: 96 miles, 1 hour 40 minutes drive
- Alamogordo to Carlsbad Caverns National Park: 166 miles, 3 hours drive
- Santa Rosa to Carlsbad Caverns National Park: 235 miles, 3 hours 40 minutes drive
- Santa Fe to Carlsbad Caverns National Park: 292 miles, about 4 hours 30 minutes drive
- Albuquerque to Carlsbad Caverns National Park: 302 miles, 4 hours 40 minutes drive
The driving time may differ based on the weather and road conditions. You can find other details about New Mexico, including weather, transportation options, and more in my New Mexico Travel Guide.
Things To Do In Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Self-guided and ranger-led tours of the Caverns, a museum, outdoor hiking trails, and backcountry camping are the main attractions in Carlsbad Caverns National Park!
Touring the caves to see awe-inspiring cave formations is the most popular activity in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. There’re also several outdoor hiking trails and a seasonal bat flight program, where you can see several bats fly out of the cave.
Timing: May – Sep.: 8 AM- 7 PM, Oct. – Apr.: 8 AM – 5 PM, Last entrance ticket sold: 2 hours before the park closing time.
Closed: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s days.
The Carlsbad Caverns National Park visitor center is a good place to start your Carlsbad Caverns venture. This is where you will buy your tour tickets and Carlsbad Caverns souvenirs. The visitor center has a small museum with exhibits related to the park’s history and geology. There’s also a theater that plays a short movie about the discovery of Carlsbad Caverns, a gift shop, a book store, and a restaurant.
Bat Flight Program
People from all over the world come to see colonies of bats flying out of Carlsbad Caverns!
Carlsbad Caverns is home to several thousand bats, the majority being the Brazilian free-tailed bat colonies. The seasonal evening Bat Flight Program, held late May through October, provides a unique opportunity to witness several thousand bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns in search of food. If you’re an early riser, you could also see these bats return to the caverns between 4-6 AM in the morning.
The bats can be observed from the Bat Flight Amphitheater, located 5 minutes from the visitor center. Every evening, late May through October, a ranger talk is held at the Bat Flight Amphitheater, followed by the bat flight.
Photography and usage of any electronic items, including cellphones, cameras, and other hand-held devices, is strictly prohibited during the Bat Flight Program.
There are two ways to explore the caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. You can either do a self-guided tour at your own pace or a ranger-led tour to explore some of Carlsbad Caverns’ remote parts.
Self-Guided Cave Tours
Big Room Trail: The Big Room Trail is the most popular hiking trail in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The Big Room is an enormous cave chamber, the largest in the US by volume, with some stunning cave formations.
If you have limited time or wish to do only one tour, the Big Room Trail is for you!
- Big Room Trail Information: The Big Room Trail is a flat 1.25 miles loop that goes around the chamber and takes about 1 hour 30 minutes. However, if you’re really short on time, there’s also a short route in the Big Room Trail, which is just 0.6 miles and takes about 45 minutes.
- Big Room Trailhead: The Big Room trailhead is located right below the visitor center, starting from the underground lunchroom. The trailhead can be accessed via an elevator from the visitor center or hiking down the Natural Entrance Trail, the other self-guided trail in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
- Big Room Cave Formations: The Big Room is home to many stunning speleotherms, including several uniquely shaped stalactites hanging from the ceiling of the cave and massive stalagmites growing from the cave floor. Several of these cave formations resemble things from our world and have official names, including Sword of Damocles, the Chandelier, Lion’s Tail, Temple of the Sun, and many more. There are several other interesting features and formations in the Big Room, including the Mirror Lake, Bottomless Pit, and shapes like swiss cheese, popcorns, straws.
The Big Room is home to some of the most unique and huge cave formations in the world!
Natural Entrance Trail: The only other self-guided hiking trail beside the Big Room Trail, the Natural Entrance Trail is the second-most popular trail in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. However, the Natural Entrance Trail is very steep and descends about 750 feet into the caverns.
National Park Service doesn’t recommend the Natural Entrance Trail to people with heart or respiratory conditions.
- Natural Entrance Trail Information: The Natural Entrance Trail is a steep descent into the caverns, and is a strenuous 1.25 miles oneway hike. The trail has several switchbacks along the way and ends at the lunchroom, which is also the Big Room Trail’s starting point. From here, you can either continue your hike into the Big Room or take the elevator up to the visitor center instead of hiking all the way back.
- Natural Entrance Trailhead: The Natural Entrance trailhead is located outside the visitor center, down the bat flight viewing amphitheater. The initial wide switchbacks gradually turn into tight hairpin turns that lead to the dark caverns.
- Natural Entrance Trail Cave Formations: The massive size and the cave formations along the Natural Entrance Trail are amazing! On your way down the trail, you will see several unique features and speleotherms, including Devil’s Spring, the Whale’s Mouth, Devil’s Den, Iceberg Rock, Witch’s Fingers, and many others.
The ranger-led tours in Carlsbad Caverns National Park offer a lifetime opportunity to explore some of Carlsbad Caverns’ most remote and astounding areas. However, some of the trails are very challenging and require crawling and squeezing through narrow spaces. There’s limited availability on each ranger-led tour, and it’s a good idea to make your reservations in advance on www.recreation.gov.
King’s Palace Tour: The most popular and family-friendly ranger-guided tour in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, King’s Palace Tour, is a moderate one-mile hike and takes about 1 hour 30 minutes. This well-narrated tour is an excellent opportunity to see and learn about some amazing cave formations, including helictites, soda straws, and the star of the tour, the Queen’s Draperies.
Left Hand Tunnel Tour: This is a moderately strenuous 0.5 miles hike and takes about 2 hours. The Left Hand Tunnel Tour is a lantern-lit tour providing a unique opportunity to experience delicate cave formations, cave pools, and other features, all in a dimly lit environment.
Lower Cave Tour: This is a strenuous one-mile hike, takes about 3 hours, and involves descending down ladders and knotted ropes. However, the views of impressive cave formations, cave pools, and several other unique features in the Lover Cave are very rewarding.
Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour: This is one of the most difficult and the most rewarding hikes in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. You will see some of the world-famous cave formations on this tour, including the world’s tallest column, the 89-foot high Monarch, the Christmas tree, and others. However, the tour is a very strenuous one-mile hike that takes about 5 hours 30 minutes.
Hall of The White Giant Tour: A highly strenuous one-mile hike through narrow passageways, steep cave floors, and involves crawling through tight spaces. The grueling four-hour roundtrip hike is the only way to see the White Giant, a huge spectacular white stalagmite in Carlsbad Caverns.
Reservations are highly recommended, and proper footwear is required for all tours. The headlamps, helmets, and gloves are provided by the park.
Backcountry Hiking, Camping & Scenic Drive
Most people come to Carlsbad Caverns National Park to visit the underground wonderland, but there’s a lot to see and do on the surface too! Carlsbad Caverns National Park, located in the Guadalupe Mountains, is home to a vast backcountry that opens up the doors to several hiking trails and backcountry camping opportunities.
Backcountry Hiking: If you’ve more time and are looking for outdoor fun, you could hike one of the surface trails in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. There are several hiking trails in the nearby area, Guadalupe Ridge, Guano Road, Juniper Ridge, Rattlesnake Canyon, to name a few. You can find more details about the backcountry hiking trails on the NPS website.
Backcountry Camping: Carlsbad Caverns National Park only allows backcountry camping in designated areas and requires a permit. Reservations are not allowed, and the permits can be obtained from the visitor center on a first-come-first-serve basis. You can find more details about backcountry camping in Carlsbad Caverns on Carlsbad Caverns National Park website.
Walnut Canyon Desert Drive: It’s a neat 9.5 miles scenic drive through the desert landscape with a few viewing areas and is also the starting point of a few desert hiking trails.
Rattlesnake Springs: Located about 9 miles from Carlsbad Caverns, Rattlesnake Springs is a historic district and a detached section of Carlsbad Caverns National Park with a spring, large cottonwood trees, and a picnic area.
Lodging & Dining Near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
There is no lodging facility within Carlsbad Caverns National Park except the backcountry campsites, and the park doesn’t allow RV or car camping. However, you could stay at one of the hotels in the nearby city of Carlsbad, located 21 miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
There are no resorts or boutique hotels in Carlsbad, but you will find several decent chain hotels and bed and breakfasts in Carlsbad. If you’re planning to visit White Sands National Park on your trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, you could also stay in the city of Alamogordo, located 166 miles from Carlsbad Caverns.
Hotels in Carlsbad
Carlsbad, a city in southeastern New Mexico, is mostly known for its proximity to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Carlsbad is a friendly and peaceful town with decent lodging and dining options.
Carlsbad has a few big brand chain hotels, including Hyatt House Carlsbad, TownePlace Suites by Marriott Carlsbad, Candlewood Suites Carlsbad South, and Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Carlsbad.
Hotels In Alamogordo
Alamogordo is a small and friendly town and home to a few interesting attractions in New Mexico, including White Sands National Park, New Mexico Museum of Space History, Alameda Park Zoo, and McGinn’s Pistachio Land – World’s Largest Pistachio.
The Alamogordo town has a few big brand chain hotels and bread and breakfasts, including Holiday Inn Express & Suites Alamogordo, Hampton Inn Alamogordo, and Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Alamogordo.
Dining options are limited inside the park, but you will find several restaurants in the city of Carlsbad and Alamogordo. Alamogordo is quite far just to get food, but if you’re planning to visit White Sands National Park after visiting Carlsbad Caverns, Alamogordo is a good place to stay and dine.
Dining Options Within Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Dining options within the park are limited to a restaurant near the visitor center and a snack bar in the underground rest area. The food purchased in either location should not be taken into the caverns.
Dining Options In Carlsbad
There are quite a few restaurants in Carlsbad. My top picks and favorite restaurants in Carlsbad – Yellow Brix Restaurant serving American cuisine, El Jimador Restaurant serving authentic Mexican food, and Miyabi Japanese Restaurant serving Asian food.
Dining Options In Alamogordo
Here’re my top picks for restaurants in Alamogordo – Rizo’s Restaurant and La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant for Mexican food. Our Country Kitchen, and Waffle & Pancake Shoppe for comfort food. Taiwan Kitchen for Asian food, and you don’t want to miss the huge burritos at Eddie’s Burritos.
Other New Mexico Attractions & Related Posts
I hope you enjoyed reading the post, The Ultimate Guide To Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and I hope this will help you plan your trip to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Carlsbad Caverns is one of the best things to do in New Mexico.
Happy feeding your soul!
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