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Visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

women in cave
Inside the Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, located just outside Carlsbad, New Mexico, just might be one of the most other-worldly places on this planet. It is a mind-boggling, fantastical product of millions of years of geologic forces, climatic change, and water working together to sculpt the landscape. Today, visitors can experience the spectacle of the caverns by journeying deep underground.

Read on for a complete guide to visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park as well as recommendations for exploring nearby Carlsbad, New Mexico.

national park sign in desert
Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

A Brief History

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is situated in the southeastern corner of New Mexico. Approximately 250 to 280 million years ago, the region was covered by an inland sea. Today, it is estimated that more than 300 limestone caves can be found within the structure of the fossilized Captain Reef laid down by that ancient sea. Carlsbad Caverns is one such cave.

Twelve to fourteen thousand years ago, indigenous peoples lived in the Guadalupe Mountains. For generations, indigenous tribes made their homes in the region. Their existence was threatened beginning in the 1500s when the Spanish, and later the Mexicans and Americans, attempted to wrest control of the land. In 1912, New Mexico officially became a state under the control of the United States and, in 1923, Carlsbad Caverns were protected as a National Monument. The park was later designated as a national park in 1930.

large hole in rock
The natural entrance to Carlsbad Caverns.

The Formation of Carlsbad Caverns

There is still significant debate about how exactly Carlsbad Caverns came to be. Most limestone caves are created when surface water flows down through cracks in the rock, enlarging them to eventually create large caverns. Mysteriously, there is no evidence of flowing water or streams in the many caves found throughout the Guadalupe Mountains.

One hypothesis proposes that oxygen combined with hydrogen sulfide and other microbes to create sulfuric acid. This acid would have then eaten away at the limestone, essentially creating the caves from the inside out. After millions of years of surface erosion and the collapse of parts of the caves, the cavern was eventually exposed to the air. As surface water continued to seep through to the cave, water droplets would now evaporate, leaving behind a trace mineral deposit. Over time, these deposits accumulated to create the breathtaking formations found within the cave today, including flowstone, rim stone dams, lily pads, shelves, cave pools, and of course stalagmites and stalactites.

inside dark cave
Unique formations in the caverns are formed over thousands of years by mineral deposits.

Visiting the Caverns

Reservations are required to visit Carlsbad Caverns. When making your reservation online, you will be asked to pay a dollar per person to reserve your access to the cave. When you arrive at the Visitor’s Center, you’ll be asked to pay the full entrance fee of $15 per person; access is free with a National Parks Pass or Federal Recreational Lands Pass.

You can access the caverns by either taking the elevator to the bottom of the cave or by walking down into the cave through the Natural Entrance. The Natural Entrance trail traverses approximately 1.25 miles from the surface to the Big Room, descending the equivalent of 79 stories into the earth.

I highly recommend walking into the cave and taking the elevator up at the end of your visit. By walking into the cave, you get a real sense of the magnitude of the space and the depth of the cavern. You also get to experience the transition of habitats from the surface zone into the “twilight zone” and eventually into the heart of the cavern.

If you choose to walk, plan to wear comfortable, sturdy walking shoes. The trails can be wet in places where water drips or seeps into the cavern. The cave temperature is a constant 56 degrees, so plan to bring a layer or two for warmth. You’ll want to take your time exploring the Big Room and don’t want to worry about getting chilled.

stalactites in cave
The Doll's Theater in Carlsbad Cavern.

Once you arrive at the Big Room, you’ll want to follow the 1.25-mile trail around the edges of the room. The trail takes you around and through jaw-dropping formations of all types. You’ll pass ‘black holes’ that drop off into other, inaccessible sections of the cave, glassy pools of water untouched by any breeze or disturbance, and mineral deposits that tower and reach far above your head. Being in the Big Room is like walking in a dream.

Cameras, including flash photography, are allowed in the caverns so be sure to bring your equipment with you. The cavern is very dimly lit, however, so spectacular photography will require good equipment and patience. Unless you plan to spend hours capturing photos, I recommend simply immersing yourself in the experience and making do with a few mediocre iPhone photos.

In total, we spent about 3 hours in the cavern, including the walk into the cave from the Natural Entrance. I highly recommend taking at least a few hours to explore. Once you’ve finished with the cave, you can take the elevator back to the Visitor’s Center where you’ll find numerous educational exhibits.

If you are traveling with your pet, there are kennels available onsite through the Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company. You can find more information here.

bridge over a river
Walking trails border the Pecos River in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

24 Hours in Carlsbad, New Mexico

If you’re planning to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, you’ll likely stay 20 miles to the northeast in the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico. The town is located on the banks of the Pecos River and is a center for potash mining and petroleum extraction, as well as tourism.

Although the town has a strong focus on industry, visitors will find a handful of activities to fill their time when not visiting the national park. If you find yourself in Carlsbad for a short stay, consider this 24-hour itinerary.

Start your day with coffee and a pastry from Blue House Bakery & Cafe. The staff is helpful, the prices fair, and the rosemary shortbread cookies delicious.

Once you’ve filled your belly, head out for a bit of movement. If you’re traveling with a dog, check out the City of Carlsbad Dog Park. The park is very large and fenced, complete with a variety of agility installations. If you’re not traveling with a pup, hop on the Pecos Riverwalk path that circles Lower Transill Reservoir.

Stop by a grocery store to pick up the ingredients for a picnic lunch. If you haven’t visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park yet, head out of town for an afternoon in the caverns. If you’re looking for something else to do, consider the 1.3-mile self-guided tour at the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens in the hills about town. You’ll learn about the ecology of the area as you navigate various habitats.

In the evening, grab a table at the bustling Guadalupe Mountain Brewing Co. They serve subs, paninis, pizzas, and more to accompany their beers. For vegetarians, the Mushroom, Veggie, or Roasted Garlic pizza is a solid option. You can even add green chiles for a uniquely New Mexican flair. Pair your pizza with their Porter and settle into a seat on the large outdoor patio.

Responsible Travel in Carlsbad, New Mexico

Environmental Responsibility:

Carlsbad, New Mexico, is located in the northern-most region of the Chihuahuan Desert. When exploring, be mindful of your impact on the local ecosystem. Remember to ‘Leave No Trace’ when hiking and to minimize your use of water and other resources during your stay. The region often struggles with drought conditions and water resources can be strained. When visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park, be sure to abide by all regulations to ensure the park can be protected for generations to come.

Social Responsibility:

As a hub for tourism and industry, there are a lot of chain stores in Carlsbad. Roadside, fast-food restaurants abound but if you look a bit deeper, you’ll find local, family-owned businesses. Seek out these locally-owned restaurants in order to ensure that some of your dollars stay within the local community.

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