America’s fabulous UNESCO World Heritage Sites are great family-friendly destinations that should be on every American’s bucket list. Here’s how to plan the perfect visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, including the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns and important travel tips.
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Visit America’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites!
This post is part of a series on visiting the USA’s great UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Other World Heritage Sites nearby include Mesa Verde (Colorado), Chaco Culture (New Mexico), and Taos Pueblo (New Mexico).
Is Visiting Carlsbad Caverns worth it?
Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most popular destinations in New Mexico. This breathtaking maze of tunnels is home to more than 100 caves. Millions of bats call this place home, and you can see them take flight each evening throughout the summer.
My husband and I have traveled all over the US in a camper while trying out van life. Even with the large variety of parks we’ve been able to visit, Carlsbad is still one of our favorites. Carlsbad Caverns is a can’t miss destination for families, history buffs, and adventure travelers.
What is Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
While the caverns themselves are millions of years old, the town of Carlsbad dates back to 1888. It has always served as a large habitat for bats. People were interested in this specific area for economic reasons, and there were many mines nearby.
James Larkin White was one of the first people to truly explore the caverns in-depth, and he helped generate national interest in them.
White’s expedition came during a time where many National Parks were being established. And national leaders were working to conserve and preserve unique natural habitats. In 1923, the caverns became an official monument. By 1930, the national park was formally founded.
Carlsbad has been one of the most popular destinations in New Mexico ever since.
The Formation of the Carlsbad Caverns
It took four million years for the modern Carlsbad Caverns to take shape, although they were originally formed from a structure that was significantly older than that. Interestingly enough, the famous Guadalupe Mountains and the Carlsbad Caverns both come from a large fossilized reef from the Permian era, which is now called the Capitan Reef.
The limestone sedimentation of the Capitan Reef eventually became fractured, and water gradually slipped down through the limestone rock material. Most of this was just clean rainwater, but some of it was full of hydrogen sulfide. This led to the production of small but substantial quantities of sulfuric acid, which is an acid that’s strong enough to effectively dissolve materials like limestone.
Some of the more interesting rock textures and patterns at the Carlsbad Caverns park wouldn’t have been created without the presence of such a harsh chemical. The specific formations that have given the Carlsbad Caverns their unique appearance formed because of the patterns of dripping mineral-rich water.
It’s possible to see silt, clay, and many other materials throughout the caverns as a result of the natural processes that produced the caverns. These caverns have remained fairly stable for a long period, even though the local wildlife has certainly changed.
Carlsbad Caverns Tours
Visitors can enjoy self-guided tours as well as ranger lead tours in Carlsbad. There are two trails available for travelers who choose to pursue independent tours. Ranger-led tours have a wider variety of options when it comes to exploring the cave.
Most of the guided tours are more challenging than the self-guided versions. They’ll lead you through tighter crevices and across some more interesting terrain. The guides can also answer questions about the caverns in detail while pointing out various natural details.
Guests who have visited the Carlsbad Caverns on more than one occasion usually decide to try a guided tour. While people can learn about the area and its natural history at the visitor’s center, rangers can often talk about more specific details related to certain trails.
The Best Things to Do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Here are the things you won’t want to miss!
Natural Entrance Tour
Surprisingly, some guardrails line the natural entrance tour through the caverns. This tour extends 750 feet underground. The path is clean and smooth, so it makes for an easy trip that nearly anyone can enjoy.
The natural entrance captures the feel of these caverns, which won’t necessarily seem as deep as they are from a distance. This trail has a more finished and polished look than many others, but there are still plenty of completely natural rock formations to see throughout the trail itself. Guests will be able to see the whole trail in an hour, making it a great option for anyone on a single day trip.
Big Room Trail Tour
Almost everyone who visits the Carlsbad Caverns, especially for the first time, tries the Big Room Trail. It’s one of the most visually striking trails in the entire national park. The cave formations all look different, and the trail has a lot of history behind it. People were exploring that exact area in the 1920s, and it’s still possible to see a vintage rope ladder from 1924.
Anyone who has been to the Grand Canyon will enjoy the Big Room. It has similar rock formations, and many of the most popular Grand Canyon tours might remind people of this one.
Like the Grand Canyon, the Big Room Trail has also managed to break records. There aren’t any individual cave chambers that are larger than this on the entire North American continent when the chamber is measured according to volume.
One of the great things about this trail is that it’s much easier than most others. The terrain is very even, which isn’t the case for lots of other trails in the park. Most visitors can get through the whole thing in an hour and a half, but it won’t feel like it’s anywhere near that long. It’s a relatively easy walk, so Carlsbad Caverns visitors can focus on other things when they’re there.
Guadalupe Ridge Trail
One of the most famous hiking trails in New Mexico is the Guadalupe Ridge Trail. It extends for a full 100 miles. Hiking enthusiasts can approach this trail from a lot of different vantage points since it’s so expansive.
The trail starts in the Guadalupe Mountains park. It’s possible to access several different national parks at once by following this trail.
People who start hiking on the Guadalupe Ridge Trail from the Carlsbad Caverns may get to see the other end of the trail since the trail stops at the eastern limits of the Carlsbad Caverns park.
However, even if people want to stay in the Carlsbad Caverns park during their entire Guadalupe Ridge Trail hike, they’ll still be able to walk for almost 21 miles. There should be plenty of terrain changes and elevation shifts throughout the hike.
Certain parts of the trail will be more challenging than other sections. Experienced desert hikers usually speak highly of the Guadalupe Ridge Trail, regardless of where they start. Travelers can’t bike on this trail, but it’s a great choice for experienced backpackers.
Stargazing and Amateur Astronomy
At this National Park, even the night sky is memorable. There is almost no light pollution in this southwest location, which can have a dramatic effect on the sky’s appearance.
Amateur astronomers visit the Carlsbad Caverns park all the time. They have excellent professional telescopes there. Park rangers can tell guests about some of the more interesting astronomical phenomena that are visible from the area, and then guests can look through the telescopes to see everything for themselves.
It’s also possible to see great meteor showers from the Carlsbad Caverns park. These viewings are all scheduled in advance, and there’s often only one per year. It’s still enough for day trip travelers, but they might have to schedule their trips for months in advance.
Rangers can also lead visitors on moon and star hikes, where people will get the chance to see the moon and stars from scenic vantage points. Most of the hikes are fairly short. They’ll last for around half a mile or two miles. The focus is on the night sky. People who want a more leisurely hike after taking more challenging hikes throughout the day won’t have to worry about these.
When the bats fly back to the Carlsbad Caverns just as the sun rises, they tend to travel in huge groups. Travelers will get to see thousands of them flying back to the same place all at once. It’s one of the most memorable natural events at the caverns.
There are two different popular bat watching programs at the Carlsbad Caverns. Visitors can watch the bats fly out from the caverns in the evenings or fly back into the caverns, and it’s an unforgettable spectacle either way. The flight patterns of these Brazilian free-tailed bats make things even more interesting since the bats will look as if they’re diving back into the caverns. Some of the fastest bats will fly at 25 miles an hour.
The National Park has an entire outdoor amphitheater, giving people the chance to observe the bats comfortably. The bats should also still arrive on schedule if it’s raining outside unless it’s a particularly windy day or the rain is very substantial. In a desert climate like this, weather patterns like that are rare.
It’s recommended for people to go to the Carlsbad Caverns in the late summer months if they’re particularly interested in bat watching. The migrating northern bats will be there, and so will the young bats that were born a few months earlier. These are insectivorous bats, and will almost always stay away from humans.
Scheduling a Carlsbad Caverns Trip
Visitors who want to spend a lot of time hiking on the Guadalupe Ridge Trail and many of the other famous trails may find it difficult to see absolutely everything else during a day trip. Serious hikers tend to favor those trails, and they won’t typically be interested in a day trip.
Visitors who want to at least see the famous Guadalupe Ridge Trail can still hike across it for an hour or so, allowing them to make it back to the rest of the park in around an hour. Seeing some of the trails might be enough for many guests, especially if they’re interested in some of the other famous activities.
People who are interested in bat watching, stargazing, seeing the visitor’s center, and going on tours should be able to fit all of that into a single day.
Two of those activities are specifically nighttime activities, which can make things easier to schedule. The bat watching programs are almost always scheduled before the stargazing programs since the bats are typically around in the early evening. It’s possible to fit both of these activities into one evening, leaving people with the rest of the day to hike.
The two different self-guided tours are typically shorter than many of the group tours. Visitors can easily go on both of these tours during a day trip, and they’ll need less than three hours to complete this tour combination. Since the Big Room Trail is so popular, starting with this trail is probably a good idea.
People who try one of these trails and not the other could fit in some outdoor hiking. Even then, they’ll still have enough time to see the visitor center.
While people usually go to the visitor’s center first when they spend time at any national park, it might be interesting to mix things up at the Carlsbad Caverns park. Given how hot it gets at the park, going to the visitor center at noon or the early afternoon makes sense.
There’s also a cafeteria and a gift shop there, giving people the chance to eat lunch and get snacks if they didn’t bring their own. Guests can watch the park’s film, which is about 16 minutes long and can give them more of a perspective on what they’ll see or what they have seen.
It’s really important to keep in mind that this national park doesn’t have any campgrounds. There also aren’t any overnight lodging facilities. Some stargazers camp outside afterward, but that won’t be an option here. People who are traveling in RV’s also can’t park there overnight.
Visitors will need a ride back to their hotel rooms or wherever they’re staying, and the people who have stargazing activities planned might have to schedule that carefully.
Kate has been traveling in a camper van conversion throughout the US and Canada for over two years. She uses her blog ParkedInParadise.com to teach other travelers about van life and RV living.
5 Things to Pack for Your Trip to Carlsbad Caverns
The Lonely Planet Southwest USA guidebook. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you get here, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use a local sim card while here to help navigate public transportation and when you’re on the road. (For people without American cell phone plans).
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS, and general travel genie.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for traveling because it has many anti-theft features designed to deter pickpockets. It also transitions to a night bag more easily and won’t embarrass you if you go to dinner directly after sightseeing all day.
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for New Mexico make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging enjoying time in the beautiful (but occasionally slippery) caves.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for three years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.