A First-Time Visitor’s Guide to Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns

The United States National Parks program is home to many of the country's most enjoyable outdoor parks and activities, full of natural wonders and incredible sightseeing opportunities. Carlsbad Caverns is no different. Located in New Mexico, this park is known for limestone caves, rock formations, and hiking trails. There's a lot to see, so our handy guide is the perfect place to start for first-time visitors.

What Are the Carlsbad Caverns?

Carlsbad Caverns
Image Credit: Jhaiisiin, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

According to US National Parks, the Carlsbad Cavern is one of 300 limestone caves in a fossil reef created by an inland sea that existed 250 to 280 million years ago. Somewhere between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago, Native Americans lived in the nearby Guadalupe Mountains. Cooking rings and other artifacts have been found within park boundaries. The Caverns park spans 47,766 acres and was created by legislation in October of 1923, signed by President Calvin Coolidge. Famous Americans like Amelia Earhart have visited the caverns, which see about 500,000 visitors each year. Since 1924, the park and its 120 known caves have welcomed 44 million tourists.

Most Popular Carlsbad Caverns Activities

Carlsbad Caverns
Image Credit: CarlsbadCavernsNPS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are plenty of family- and adventure-friendly activities in the Carlsbad Caverns. The park has two distinct districts in the National Register of Historic Places: the Cavern Historic District and the Rattlesnake Springs Historic District. The Big Room Trail is the most popular cave trail, which features the largest cave room by volume in North America. The 1.25-mile-long trail is relatively flat and should take about 1.5 hours to walk. Visitors are treated to spectacular views of rock formations and even the original rope ladder used by explorers in 1924. Parts of the Big Room Trail are wheelchair accessible, and there is a shortcut for those looking for a quicker visit.

The Natural Entrance Trail is less accessible and a much more challenging hike, and isn't recommended for travelers with respiratory or heart conditions. However, you'll see the same formations early explorers did as you descend the equivalent of a 75-story building, including the Devil's Spring, Whale's Mouth, and Iceberg Rock. This hike takes about an hour to complete.

In addition to hiking trails, Carlsbad Caverns features a museum, visitor's center, bookstore, gift shop, and restaurant. The park is home to around one million cultural artifacts being preserved and protected. Exhibits are hands-on and help visitors understand the surrounding environment, plant and animal life, and how the cavern was created. A free film shows every 30 minutes at the visitor's center, and both the gift shop and bookstore offer t-shirts, hats, mugs, Native American art, and junior ranger products. 

Other popular activities include the Bat Flight Program and Night Sky Programs. The first is held daily at the Bat Flight Amphitheater, located at the Natural Entrance to Carlsbad Cavern, although the start time changes seasonally based on sunset. The program is free, and a ranger explains the nightly bat flight as the animals fly over your head! The Night Sky Program is also free, allowing visitors to see the cosmos through a high-powered telescope. The event is suitable for kids of all ages, but anyone under 16 must have an adult chaperone.

Tips and Tricks for First-Time Visitors at Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns
Image Credit: National Park Service Digital Image Archives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

First-time cavern visitors need to know a few things upfront for a smooth trip — especially if traveling with a family or kids! Admission to the park costs $15 for anyone over 16. Anyone under 15 or with a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass gets in for free. Once inside, you can explore the caverns and trails at your own pace. There's no time limit! While many ranger-guided tours are currently closed until further notice, the King's Palace Tour is open. Audio guides are also available to rent at the visitor's center.

The park system recommends wearing sturdy shoes for your trip. Some caverns are wet from water drips, and trails can be steep. Other trails may require actual hiking boots, and flip-flops or sandals are never recommended because they offer little to no traction. Handrails are available in some locations. The caverns are lit, so additional lighting isn't required, but headlamps and flashlights are allowed if desired. The park service recommends bringing a light jacket, as cavern temperatures are cool all year round.

All visitors must walk on special anti-fungal bio-cleaning mats before leaving to protect local bat populations. The bats are prone to White Nose Syndrome, a type of fungus. In addition, food and drink aside from plain water aren't allowed on the trails or in the caverns. Limited food options are available daily at the visitor center restaurant. Although multiple businesses, programs, and activities are available in the park, it's best to check the website before heading over in case of any important closures. After all, NPS doesn't control the environment!

Where To Stay Near Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns
Image Credit: NPS Photo/Peter Jones.

In the park itself, only backcountry camping is available. Although backcountry campers need to get a permit at the visitor's center, they're free. Commercial campgrounds can be found in Carlsbad and White's City. There are also hotels nearby for those who want to avoid camping altogether.

In Carlsbad, visitors can stay at the National Parks Inn for around $90 per night. The Hyatt House Carlsbad costs about $170 per night, and the La Quinta Inn costs around $130 per night. Fiddler's Inn, a more boutique-style hotel, is around $150 per night. At around a 30-minute drive away, these hotels are relatively affordable and convenient options.

Can I Bring Pets to Carlsbad Caverns?

Dog in Car scaled e1702678061534
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Like most national parks, pets are prohibited inside caverns or on the trails. Although the parks allow trained service animals, this does not include emotional support animals. For a fee, kennels are available at the visitor's center to accommodate pets. Pets aren't allowed to be unattended in the parking lot or vehicles. While this might change your travel plans, it's for the safety of trained service animals and park wildlife.

Providing natural beauty and sightseeing for thousands of years, the Carlsbad Caverns is an excellent adventure for families, solo travelers, and visitors of all kinds. Ecotourism is a massive industry in the US, and with so many wonders, it's not hard to see why. There are national parks open all year for curious visitors, and the New Mexico cave system is a favorite for many. With sturdy shoes and a little knowledge, first-time visitors will create memories they cherish for years.

Author: Lonnie Lee Hood


Lonnie Lee Hood is a Tennessee-based, queer Appalachian journalist who has primarily covered issues affecting everyday rural residents. With bylines in the New York Times, Washington Post, Teen Vogue, Smithsonian, Tennessee Lookout, Daily Yonder, Huffington Post, MTV, IGN and more, they've covered everything from natural disasters, policy, economy and corruption to games, digital culture, AI and crypto. Lonnie is also working on their debut nonfiction project with the West Virginia University Press, called "Redneck Revolution."

At Wealth of Geeks, Lonnie is currently a travel team writer.