Exploring Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way


Exploring Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a must see! It’s located in SE New Mexico. Being placed where the Chihuahuan Desert, Rocky Mountain, and Great Plains intersect creates a diverse plant life, primarily shrubland. But, the star of the show lies underground. The chambers of Carlsbad Cavern are massive, as are the mineral formations.


Carlsbad Caverns National Park sign | Find your park | OK Which Way

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Park Info

Location: SE New Mexico. A little over a two hour drive to El Paso. About 5 hours to Albuquerque and 7 to Tucson.
Established: Designated a National Park in 1930
Lodging/Camping: No lodging or campgrounds available. Backcountry camping allowed with permit.
Food: One restaurant is located at the visitor center. There is also a snack bar within the cavern near the bathrooms and elevator.
Entrance Fee: There is no fee to enter the park. There is, however, a cost to enter the cavern. Currently, the cost is $15 per person for an entrance pass. If you have any of the America the Beautiful passes, there is no additional charge for your group. Click here to see current fee pricing.
Reservation Requirements: Prior to getting your entrance pass, you need to reserve an entry time at recreation.gov. When I reserved mine in 2024, the cost was $1 per person.
Dogs & Cats: There is a kennel on site to board your pet for a fee. Vaccines are required, so be prepared to show the appropriate paperwork.
Park Maps: Link to park map


Fun Facts About Carlsbad Caverns National Park

• The Visitor Center sits at an elevation of 4400′
• There are at least 120 caves within the park
• As opposed to be formed by carbonic acid like most limestone caves, caves in this area were formed by sulfuric acid
• The Big Room, at 8.2 acres, is the largest cave chamber in North America
• Lechuguilla Cave is one of the ten longest caves in the world
• 17 species of bats live in the park with an estimated 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats
• In 1903, guano began being mined and sold as natural fertilizer. It was mined for 54 years.

This was my first time to New Mexico and I’ll admit I assumed it would be warm and sunny. Maybe we came on an off day – it was in early April. But, the weather was most unpleasant. It was cold, wet, and so very windy. Being from NW Oregon, I’m used to cold and wet. I just wasn’t prepared for it on this trip. The wind was so strong that we opted not to do any above ground hiking. Thankfully, the main attraction was well underground and protected from the wind.



As usual, our first stop was the visitor center. This is where you will get your entrance passes to the cavern. It’s also where I stamped my Passport To Your National Parks book. There’s a good sized gift shop, as well as a separate book store.

Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center | OK Which Way



The most popular activity at this National Park is understandably the self guided tour of the cavern.

There are two ways to enter the cave. One is through the natural entrance – essentially a big hole in the ground. The other is to skip the mile+ walk and take the elevator down to the Big Room. I do recommend taking the natural entrance, if you’re able. But, the Big Room is the most impressive and you are able to see it with whichever method you choose to access the cave.

Walking in the Cavern:
• Although it is dark, the trails are lit well enough that a flashlight or headlamp is not necessary
• The trails are very well maintained
• Weird, but true – flash photography is allowed. I didn’t notice many people using a flash, though.
• Sound travels very well in the cave, so whisper
• Except for plain water, no food or drinks are allowed on the cave trails
• Allow yourself about 2.5 hours to tour the caverns if you start from the natural entrance 


Carlsbad Cavern is made out of limestone, which is very susceptible to erosion.


Natural Entrance Trail

The Natural Entrance is just a short walk from the Visitor Center. When we arrived, a few large groups of cave swallows were circling and exiting the cavern. It wasn’t quite as cool as seeing bats, but it was a great start to our adventure.

Over the course of 1.25 miles, the path descends 750 feet passing a crazy number of geological formations.


Trail to the Natural Entrance at Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way
Trail to the Natural Entrance


Looking up at the Carlsbad Cavern entrance | OK Which Way
Descending into the cavern


Devil's Spring at Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way
Devil’s Spring area


Green Lake Room at Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way
Green Lake Room


Cave formations in Carlsbad Cavern | OK Which Way
Creepy and cool cave formations


Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way


Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way



Big Room Trail

The Big Room is the largest cave chamber in North America! It really is massive with its highest point being 255′ high. The trail is a 1.25 mile loop.

We had just walked over a mile along the Natural Entrance Trail seeing so many spectacular formations including stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, and popcorn. I assumed we were going to see more of the same when entering the Big Room. Nope. It got even more impressive.


Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way


Lion's Tail within Carlsbad Cavern | OK Which Way
Lion’s Tail


Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way


Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way


Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way


Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way


Totem Pole at Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way
Totem Pole


Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way
One of the coolest stalagmites


Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way


Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way




Near the elevator and small snack area, are restrooms – 750′ underground.

Restrooms within Carlsbad Cavern | OK Which Way




The park offers a few ranger led cave tours. They fill up fast, so reserve your spot early.



There are several trails in the park including a few that begin near the visitor center. The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail is a quick and easy half mile loop that is a good one if you are short on time. Be sure to check which trails are closed before heading out. Many areas are still not open after the 2022 flood.


GUADALUPE RIDGE TRAIL – The Guadalupe Ridge Trail is a designated National Recreation Trail for experienced hikers and backpackers. It is 100 rugged miles through the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains. The trail extends from Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas at an elevation of 8751′, to the eastern boundary of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
* Things to note: A Wilderness Use Permit is required for overnight stays and water is scarce the length of the trail.
* Also note that at the time of creating this post, a section of the trail is still closed from the floods in 2022.



The Walnut Canyon Desert Drive begins near the visitor center. It is a 9.5 mile one way route along an unpaved road. We would have really liked to have driven this road, but it was closed due to extensive damage created by flooding in 2022.

Walnut Canyon Desert Drive at Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way



If/when we return to Carlsbad Cavern, I hope to make the timing work to experience some of these night time activities. There is no cost to attend.

BAT FLIGHT PROGRAM – Every year, in April, thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats migrate back to Carlsbad Cavern and every night they exit the cavern. From Memorial Day through October, there is a ranger talk located at the amphitheater near the natural entrance to the cavern just prior to the bats leaving for the night.
*No cameras are allowed during the program

STAR PARTY – Star parties are held a few times throughout the year with a telescope on hand to explore the night sky. 

NIGHT HIKES – Some evenings, a short ranger led night hike is available. I really enjoyed the one we did at Saguaro National Park, so I’m assuming this one would be great as well. Being from the Pacific NW with not a lot of desert knowledge, I really appreciated the ranger pointing things out as we walked. Also, it felt safer wondering around in twilight/darkness with someone who knew the area.



UNESCO World Heritage Site

A World Heritage Site is a designated area with “outstanding universal value” administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The goal is to preserve and protect these cultural, historical, or natural areas throughout the world. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is under this protection.


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Optional Items to Bring


Texas & New Mexico National Park Road Trip

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is one of 4 national parks located in southern New Mexico and west Texas:

  • White Sands National Park
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Guadalupe Mountains National Park
  • Big Bend National Park

Have more time to spend on the road? You could also visit these national monuments in New Mexico and Texas

  • Aztec Ruins National Monument
  • Capulin Volcano National Monument
  • Fort Union National Monument
  • Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
  • Petroglyph National Monument
  • El Malpais National Monument
  • Bandelier National Monument
  • El Morro National Monument
  • Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
  • Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
  • Waco Mammoth National Monument


Cave formations at Carlsbad Caverns National Park | OK Which Way



Evidence shows that millions of years ago the desert we see today was an inland sea with a 400 mile long reef composed primarily of sponges and algae. Years of pressure, compression, and accumulation of decomposed sponges and algae created limestone. Eventually the sea evaporated and the reef/limestone was buried.


Millions of years later, tectonic forces lifted the reef upward creating the Guadalupe Mountains.


Most cave systems are formed when rainwater seeps down through cracks, dissolving the limestone, and slowly enlarging the passages.

The caves in the Guadalupe Mountains, however, were formed differently. Being located near the Permian Basin, which contains large oil fields, created hydrogen sulfide rich water. When this underground water mixed with rainwater, while the mountains were forming, it created sulfuric acid. The acid dissolved the limestone at the water table. The longer the water table stayed at the same level the larger the chamber became.


As rainwater dripped into the chambers, a little calcite was absorbed. Billions of layered calcite crystals create the variety of cave formations.

Lechuguilla Cave


Until 1984, Lechuguilla Cave was relatively unknown and untouched by humans. Since then, the cave has become known as one of the most impressive and pristine in the world.

Cave explorers have surveyed over 145 miles of passageways, making it one of the ten longest caves in the world. At a depth of at least 1604′, Lechuguilla is the second deepest limestone cave in the US.

Although I haven’t seen them personally, it is said the geological formations in this cave are absolutely fantastic with a multitude of rare finds.

The cave is not open to the public.

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Exploring Carlsbad Caverns National Park for the day in New Mexico | OK Which Way

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