I am a huge fan of caves, National Parks, and wildlife encounters, so Carlsbad Caverns was an obvious destination for me to go to when I visited New Mexico with my teen sons as my last state in my 50 before 50 quest. One day is a good amount of time to take advantage of what this US National Park has to offer.
We visited during bat season, so were able to see their flight out of the cave at night which was part of what made this cave visit so special. The cave is also huge and has many trails that you can explore on your own. In fact, it has the largest single-room cavern in the US by volume, and it is humungous.
Plan Your Visit to Carlsbad Caverns
Getting to Carlsbad Caverns
The caverns are basically in the middle of the Guadalupe Mountains. There is a tiny town at the park’s entrance, White’s City. It is about 20 miles outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico. Your GPS will bring you to the edge of the park, and it will take you about 20 minutes to drive the winding mountain roads up to the Visitor’s Center.
Carlsbad Caverns is about 2 hours from El Paso, Texas, 3.5 hours from Las Cruces or White Sands National Park, and 4.5 hours from Albuquerque.
How to Get Tickets into the Carlsbad Caverns
There are two basic tickets you can buy to visit the cave. You can do a self-lead tour of the Big Room or a ranger-led tour of King’s Cavern. You can also buy both. At the moment, you will need a reservation time no matter which tour you decide to do. You make your reservation online, but buy your tickets in the Visitor’s Center.
Descending into Carlsbad Caverns
The Big Room, the largest single cave chamber in the US, is the star of the cavern. It sits 80 floors below ground.
There are also two ways down to the Big Room.
Hike into and Out of the Cavern
If you are physically able I suggest that you at least hike down into the cavern. I say if you are physically able because although it is a descent, it’s a deep, dark, long path. Although the rangers warned of this fact, I still saw a woman about halfway down who needed a medical evacuation.
Other than loving a hike, the reason I recommend this route is that you are able to see much more of the cave, including the immense mouth with its swarming, chattering swallows diving before you enter the cave.
There is also a lovely outdoor auditorium looking at the cave’s mouth.
The walk from the visitor’s center to the outdoor auditorium is only about 10 minutes, and you could do just this portion to see the cave mouth even if you don’t hike into the cave. The trail access is in the museum in the Visitor Center.
The hike down into the cave is 1.25 miles long and takes at least an hour. Although there is no water along the way, there are benches for resting to appreciate the beauty around you and emergency phones if you get into trouble.
The transition zone between the entrance and the lower caverns is very dark, so animals don’t get confused and enter into the deep cave.
The cave is also much cooler than the outside, so I recommend taking a water bottle, light jacket, and flashlight.
When you have finished your 80-story descent, you will be in the Big Room. The path around this huge open cave is full of every cave lover’s expectations, such as pools, stalagmites, sheets, stalactites, and popcorn. The path is flat, but also over a mile long. There is a shorter path if you are willing to miss some of the sights.
You can easily spend half a day exploring the cavern, so I would recommend buying an early entry time.
Take the Elevator into Carlsbad Cavern.
If you aren’t up to the hike, elevator tickets are included in your entry fee.
The elevator is in the Visitor’s Center.
We hiked in and took the elevator out.
There are a few options for lunch:
- Bring a picnic.
- Have lunch in the Visitor’s Center.
- Have lunch in the Underground Lunchroom in the cave.
- Head out to White’s City at the entrance to the park.
The cave closes at 4:30, probably to not disturb the bats, and the bat exhibit doesn’t start until sundown, so you will have at least a few hours to kill. You will not encounter any bats during a normal cave visit, as they roost in different areas of the cave.
Take a Hike.
See the Bats at Carlsbad Caverns
The bat program is really cool and goes on my Best Adventures Yet list– and it’s free!
Arrive at the bat amphitheater at dusk. consult the park’s website for exact times. Sitting high will give you the best view.
The park ranger then gives a half-hour talk about the cave’s bats while the sun starts to set. I learned a lot about these flying mammals during this talk. The cave, presently in bat season, has around 400,000 bats.
When they decide to leave the cave, a great spiral of bats will ascend out of the cave’s mouth and fly in groups into the air, where they will spend the night feeding on insects.
This will happen continuously for 2 minutes to two hours. The night we were there they left a little late. We watched for about 30 minutes. When we left they were still exiting the cave, but the darkness was making it hard to see them.
It was absolutely incredible to see thousands upon thousands of bats swarming. They are gentle creatures who have no interest in humans, and it was fascinating to see them flying closely overhead. No electronic devices are allowed so as to not disturb the sensitive, echo-location using, bats.
The cave has three bat species ranging in size from tiny to almost a foot wide, so very different.
This experience also lets you see the sunset over the cave entrance.
Best Time of Year to Visit Carlsbad Caverns
Seeing the bat flights was my priority, so I chose when to visit based on these creatures. Depending on the species, they either hibernate or migrate in the winter. Since these bats have their babies in late spring, the largest numbers are present in August, so that’s when we came. The negative about August is the heat in New Mexico.
Seeing the bats is not a guarantee. If the weather is bad or there are winds they may not come out at all, so if seeing them is a priority, perhaps plan a few days in the area. You can explore the Guadalupe Mountains on your other day.
Where to Stay to Visit Carlsbad Caverns
The closest city to the caverns is Carlsbad, New Mexico. Search for a hotel in Carlsbad.
How Long Does it Take to Tour Carlsbad Caverns?
As you can see there are many ways to experience Carlsbad Caverns. It will take a minimum of three hours to see the caves, but you could easily spend a whole day exploring them.
After visiting caves all over the world, Carlsbad Caverns is especially magical. I highly recommend visiting it.