One Day at Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Heading to Carlsbad Caverns National Park? We’re sharing the best things to do if you have one day at Carlsbad Caverns!
During our trek back to Texas for the holidays, we finally knocked two spots off of our “must-see” list: White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We had tried to visit these spots a year ago, but due to the government shutdown, we had to skip them, so we were very excited to finally check them out!
After spending a fun day at White Sands and in Las Cruces, we made the relatively quick drive to Carlsbad Caverns for a fun morning of cave adventures. While we were looking forward to visiting the National Park (our 22nd one!), we knew it would be pretty cool, but we weren’t totally sure what to expect. But WOW, we were blown away!
From the second we approached the entrance to the cavern, to the moment we stepped out of it, we had huge smiles on our faces and said “this is awesome” way too many times to count. While Carlsbad Caverns National Park is definitely not one of the most visited National Parks in the US, it gave us a crazy reaction that very few have. We felt like we were in another world!
We’re excited to share all of our tips if you have one day at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which in our opinion, is more than enough to experience how wild this park is. From general park information, to where to stay, to the best things to do, we’ve gotcha covered!
Looking for more ideas of things to do nearby?
5 Things to do at White Sands Park
5 Things to do at Guadalupe Mountains National Park
3 Days in West Texas: Marfa + Big Bend
Watch our road trip series from last year where we visited New Mexico + West Texas!
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About Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park spans 46,766 acres and is home to more than 119 caves, which formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone. Only a handful of these 119 caves are accessible to the public, including two that you can explore on your own.
Similar to White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns National Park has set hours to visit the caverns. The Visitor Center opens at 8 AM year round, with entry into the caverns beginning at 8:30 AM. The park closes at either 5 PM or 7 PM depending on the month of the year and the last tickets are sold at either 3:15 PM (for 5 PM closures) or 4:45 PM (for 7 PM closures). You also must begin your hike (or elevator ride) out of the cavern by a specific time to ensure you are out of the caverns by closing time. You can find the full schedule here!
It costs $15/person to enter the caverns, but free if you have the America the Beautiful Pass, which is $80/year and gets you access to all National Monuments and Parks. It’s totally worth the cost!
The caverns are 56º year round, making it a great escape during the summer heat, or a pleasant temperature during the winter. We highly recommend bringing a light jacket to make sure you don’t get too cold and also wearing good shoes, as the ground can be a bit wet. Some parts of the cavern are wheelchair and stroller accessible, which we will cover more below.
While in the caverns, you are not allowed to have any food, gum (they have a gum bucket!), or drinks, unless it is plain water. They also advised us to whisper, as the cavern is basically an echo chamber. There are a handful of other rules when entering the cavern, which you can read here!
Getting to Carlsbad Caverns National Park
If you plan to fly to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the closest airport is about 140 miles West in El Paso and the drive from El Paso to Carlsbad Caverns takes about 2.5 hours.
If you plan to drive to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, it makes a great stop if you’re driving through New Mexico to/from Arizona or Texas. When we first attempted to visit Carlsbad Caverns we visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Big Bend National Park, and Marfa all within days of each other. So if you’re visiting any of those destinations, we’d highly recommend adding White Sands to your itinerary!
Where to stay at Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns is located about 40 minutes away from the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico, which is the closest town nearby. We’d recommend staying there, as there are stores, restaurants, and other items you may need during your trip. Here are some ideas of specific places you could stay!
PS: If it is your first time staying at an Airbnb, click this link to get $40 off your first stay!
There are no traditional campgrounds at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but you can go backcountry camping. Permits are given out at the park (not in advance) and you can find more information about where you can camp here.
If you’re looking for a more traditional camping experience, we suggest checking out the KOA in Carlsbad, camping at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is about 50 minutes away, or Brantley Lake State Park, a little over an hour away.
Things to do at Carlsbad Caverns National Park
While there isn’t a ton to do at the park, the handful of things there are to do are EPIC! Looking for more ideas of things to do in the area? Make sure to check out our extra activity suggestions below too!
Visit the Big Room
If you only have time for one activity at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, make sure you visit the Big Room! This room is massive! At 8.2 acres, it’s the largest readily accessible cave chamber in North America. There are two ways to get to the Big Room. You can either walk to it or take an elevator.
To walk to the Big Room, you take the Natural Entrance trail, which takes you down 750 feet into the cavern in 1.25 miles. If you are physically capable, this is absolutely worth it! The windy “road” down into the cavern entrance is crazy and the views once inside are out of this world.
The walk down is steep, but the “trail” is paved, although as we mentioned above, it can get a bit slick from water dripping. It’s also kind of dark at times, so you may want to bring a flashlight for extra light.
The elevator to the Big Room leaves from the Visitors Center and is a quick ride down 750 feet into the cavern. If you’re short on time or have a wheelchair/stroller, this is the best bet!
Once in the Big Room, there is a 1.25 mile trail around the room to explore all of its features. This trail is very flat and has some lighting, but is still darker in some areas. There is a shortcut route, which cuts down the trail to 0.6 miles and still gives you a great glimpse at the Big Room.
We walked down into the Big Room on the Natural Entrance trail, but then took the elevator up to save some time and to save our legs from going up 750 ft. 🙂
Take a guided tour into the caverns
One thing we did not have a chance to do, but would love to do next time is to go on a Ranger Guided Tour! The park has guided tours into 5 different caverns: King’s Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Lower Cave, Hall of the White Giant, and Slaughter Canyon Cave. The tour schedules for each of these vary, as well as the rules to enter, such as footwear requirements.
The tours range in length, from 1.5 hours to 5.5 hours and vary in how strenuous they can be. For example, some tours, like Hall of the White Giant, require you to crawl into tight spaces and wear helmets. If you click the hyperlinked named above, you can see all of the details for each tour!
There is an extra cost (in addition to the $15 entrance fee) to do these tours. The cost depends on the tour, with the cheapest being $7/person and the most expensive being $20/person. To reserve your spot on one of the tours, you can buy tickets on Recreation.gov or call 877-444-6777.
Watch bats fly
In late May to October, the park offers a free Bat Flight program, which is a chance to learn about the park’s bats and then watch them exit the cavern at night.
This activity occurs at the Bat Flight Amphitheater and no reservations are required! While the program officially runs from around Memorial Day to October, the bats usually return from their migration in late April and you can watch them fly out on your own at the amphitheater. The best time to see the bats is usually in August and September though, as that is when the baby bats join the flight!
If you’re more of an early bird, you can see the bats enter the cave very early in the morning (around 4-6 AM). We hear this is also really cool!
While it may be tempting to take photos and videos of this experience, it is prohibited, as it can disturb the bats. And if you’re worried about a bat getting you, don’t worry, they avoid humans as much as possible!
Extra Activities Near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
If you have some extra time before or after visiting the park, we highly recommend checking out these spots nearby!
- Eat at Carniceria San Juan De Los Lagos. We ate here during our first trip to the area and oh my gosh it was amazing! It’s a Mexican meat market and store, full of tons of Mexican treats, plus a restaurant that makes amazing platters of meats, tortillas, and toppings.
- Visit White Sands National Monument, which is about a 3.5 hour drive from Carlsbad Caverns National Park and totally worth it!
- Climb to the highest point in Texas at Guadalupe Mountains National Park! The park is about a 30 minute drive and has great views.
- Drive 1 hour to Sitting Bull Falls, which is a waterfall in a canyon!
Ready to explore Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
Pin this One Day at Carlsbad Caverns National Park guide to plan your adventure!