Carlsbad Caverns is a national park in southeastern New Mexico, and considered the quintessential show cave in the United States. There is certainly plenty of hype about the beauty and majesty of the cave, but any kind of buildup about a tourist attraction always makes me nervous. I worry that the truth won’t be able to meet the buzz created by other travelers, but in the case of Carlsbad Caverns, the hype didn’t even begin to do justice to the reality. There needs to be more buzz about the sheer magnitude and magnificence of the Caverns. If I had really anticipated the significance of the site, I not only would have planned more time in the cave, but I would have planned our time differently. What do I know now that I wish I had known then?
Tips for Visiting Carlsbad Caverns
- Carlsbad Caverns is big. Seriously big. I know that seems like everyone would know that a cave is going to take up some space, but I was completely unprepared for the sheer size and time needed to see this cave. Unless you want to really rush, plan at least a half-day to see the entire cave, but a full day can definitely be spent here.
- Strollers are not allowed inside the Caverns, so bring along a baby carrier if you are worried about little legs getting tired.
- Food, drinks, and anything with flavor are not allowed in the Caverns. Plain water is allowed, but juice, baby formula, or any snacks are completely verboten to protect the cave from wandering wildlife. Plan your entrance and exit to the cave accordingly.
- Self guided tours are available at any time during visiting hours. Ranger guided tours are available on a schedule, but have some age restrictions. Children must be at least 4 years old to go on the King's Palace tour; 6 years old to go on Left Hand Tunnel; 8 years old to go on Slaughter Canyon Cave tour and 12 years old to go on the Lower Cave, Hall of the White Giant and Spider Cave tours.
- The descent into the cave is paved with railings, but quite steep. Wear hiking shoes with non slip soles. Flip-flops or other open backed shoes are not recommended.
- There are two entrances to the cave, a natural entrance and an elevator assisted entrance. The Elevator entrance is recommended for parents with young children or anyone with health restrictions that would make it difficult to descend into the cave via the natural entrance.
- There are no restrooms in the cave. The restrooms are located at the top of the Natural Entrance and next to the elevators. If you are in the cave and have a bathroom emergency, it is easiest to continue to the Big Room and high tail it to the elevators. This is also the best exit if you need to take a break for a snack.
- Your ticket to the Caverns is good for re-admittance to the cave all day, so feel free to use the elevator to go back to the Visitors Center for a break. In fact, the dual entrances are the key to visiting the cave with kids if you want to spend more than a couple of hours.
Planning a day at Carlsbad Caverns
To do the cave justice, a minimum of 2 ½ to 3 hours is needed unless you want to keep a pretty fast pace on the trails. Four hours is a good amount of time to see all of the parts of the cave. However, if you want to add any of the other activities in the park, or see the bats balloon out of the cave at dusk, a full day is in order. On the flip side, if you have little kids who just won’t tolerate hours in the cave, or you are on a tight schedule, you can see parts of the cave in 1 ½ hours and still come away with a good grasp of the magnificence that is Carlsbad Caverns.
A Half Day Itinerary
Begin the day when you are fresh with the Natural Entrance Route Tour. This begins at the surface level and allows you to duck into the gaping mouth of the massive cave, all while enjoying the cave swallows swooping and diving overhead. The tour winds past the Boneyard where intricate calcified formations and a 200,000 ton boulder are the highlights of the trek. The trail is about 1 ¼ miles, and steeply descends into the cave for about an easy hour walk. At that point, the trail joins the Big Room Route where you have the option to use the restroom or take the elevators back to the Visitor Center for a snack or continue on another 1 ¼ mile walk. The trail here is level and loops around some of the more fantastic formations in the caverns. 1 ½ hours is a good estimate for this loop and it returns to the elevators where a quick ride takes you back to the surface just in time for lunch.
A Full Day Itinerary
Start the day much like the half-day itinerary, but register for a guided tour of the King’s Palace for the afternoon. With the afternoon set, a more leisurely pace can be enjoyed for the Natural Entrance Route and the Big Room Route, and you can still expect to finish in time for lunch. A King’s Palace tour will take you into the deepest point allowed by visitors in the cave and adds about 1 ½ hours to your day. At that point, you could choose to enjoy the desert trails around the Visitors Center or head into town for dinner before the finale courtesy of the millions of bats that call the Caverns home. Each evening around from April/May to October, millions of Mexican Free-tailed bats exit the cave to feast on a smorgasbord of insects, offering visitors a spectacular display to end the day.