Carlsbad Caverns National Park Travel Guide

Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers breathtaking desert landscape, backcountry primitive recreation, and some of the most beautiful and largest cave systems in the United States. Below the park’s hiking trails and scenic overlooks sit more than 119 known caves, all formed from the surrounding limestone and all awaiting exploration. Of these caves, only a handful are open to the public – but they are world famous caverns offering spectacular views of the hidden world.

big room formations carlsbad caverns national park new mexico
Formations within the Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains one of the few protected portions of the northern Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem, as well as a portion of the Capitan Reef, one of the best-preserved Permian-age fossil reefs in the world. It is also home to a colony of migrating bats that fly there every year to give birth to their young. 


chihuahuan desert carlsbad caverns national park new mexico
The northern Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico.

Once an ancient coastline, the marine life formed a reef, laying the limestone building blocks that would one day help create the massive Carlsbad Caverns. Today the surface is no longer an ocean, but a vast desert landscape. Limestone that once made up the base of the reef has dissolved away into the magnificent caverns we explore today.

What to Do

Visitor Center

3d map visitor centercarlsbad caverns national park new mexico
The large 3D map of the cave in the visitor center lets you see just how large the cave system is.

The visitor center is unlike most national park visitor centers you might have encountered. At Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the visitor center presents hands-on exhibits about the history of the park, introduction on how the cave was formed, information about the plants and animals found in the area, and has a huge 3D map of Carlsbad Caverns as well. There is also a 16-minute video presentation, named Hidden World, shown there.

Explore Carlsbad Cavern

Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers several tours within the caverns of various lengths and difficulties. Most of these are available only as a ranger guided tour at specific times, but there is one very scenic tour that is self-guided.

Self-Guided Tour

The Big Room

big room carlsbad caverns national park new mexico
The massive chamber of the Big Room is filled with spectacular cave formations.

The Big Room is the main attraction in Carlsbad Caverns National Park – and for good reason. The Big Room chamber is the largest by volume in the United States with a volume of 357,480 square feet or 8.2 acres. The easy paved route meanders for 1.2 miles through a massive chamber where you'll see some of the park's most spectacular formations. Although the pathways are lit, along the way the park has specially lit certain formations to create unique and extraordinary images. Along the paths you will also find signs introducing the history of an area or information of a formation. 


natural entrance carlsbad caverns national park new mexico
The natural entrance to the cave is the best way to enter Carlsbad Caverns.

The Big Room is considered an easy trail and the route is wheelchair accessible. This chamber has two entrances. The first, and easiest, is via the elevator located in the visitor center that will set you down in the rest area/restaurant within the cave. The second is via the natural entrance and adds an additional 1.3 miles to your tour. If able, I suggest using the natural entrance to begin your tour and then exit via the elevator. The natural entrance descends more than 750 feet into the cavern on a steep and narrow paved switchback trail, moving from the light of the day into the yawning depths of the cave.

Requirements: All visitors must reserve a time to visit the cave online at least 48 hours in advance. Once you arrive you must present the reservation confirmation email to purchase your ticket. Entry times are based on a 60-minute window starting at the reservation time that you selected. Masks are required in the visitor center and caves at all times.
Cost: Adults (16yr or older) - $15; Children – Free; Tickets are good for three days.
Duration: 1 – 2 hours

Ranger Guided Tours

COVID-19: All tours are temporarily suspended until further notice.

Whether it's walking among beautiful cave formations, experiencing undeveloped caves, or challenging yourself by climbing and crawling through the caves, taking a ranger-guided cave tour can be an exhilarating experience. Carlsbad Caverns National Park currently offers five ranger guided tours, but sometimes adds or removes tours throughout the year.

Cost: All costs listed below are in addition to the general cave entrance fee.

King’s Palace Tour

This is the most popular and possibly easiest of the Ranger Guided Tours. This 1-mile loop takes you through some of the cave's most scenic chambers. Along the way, rangers discuss the geology of the cave, early explorers' experiences, and will even turn out the lights so you can see how dark the cave really is. The King’s Palace is lit and traversed on paved paths like you find in the Big Room.

Cost: Adult - $8; Children - $4, under 4yr not permitted.
Duration: 1.5 hours
Tour Size: 40 people

Left Hand Tunnel Tour

On this ½-mile tour you will see a variety of formations, ancient Permian fossils, cave pools, and learn about the history of the cave. The Left Hand Tunnel in undeveloped, so the path is of dirt (but it is still a very easy tour. What sets this tour apart from all of the others is that it is lit by a handheld candle lantern, so you will see the cave as the first explores once saw it.

Requirements: You must wear closed-toed shoes, hiking boots, or hiking shoes with good tread.
Cost: Adult - $7; Children - $3.50, under 6yr not permitted.
Duration: 2 hours
Tour Size:
10 people

Lower Cave

This is a more adventurous and rugged tour. The Lower Cave will take you on a 1-mile loop of undeveloped cave. While donning a helmet, gloves, and headlamp, you will make your way deeper into the cave by rope lined paths, ladders, and an optional crawl space.

Requirements: All participants are required to wear hiking boots or hiking shoes with good aggressive tread (no sandals, flip flops, tennis shoes) – no exceptions. You will not be allowed to participate in the tour if you are not wearing proper footwear.
Cost: Adult - $20; Children - $10, under 12yr not permitted.
Duration: 3 hours
Tour Size:12 people

Hall of the White Giant

This ½-mile tour might sound short, but it is the most rigorous of all of the Carlsbad Cavern tours and is a true adventure. The Hall of the White Giant is an undeveloped cave that will have you crawling through narrow, dirty passageways, climbing up slippery rocks, and doing a little free climbing all by the light of a headlamp.

Requirements: All participants are required to wear hiking boots or hiking shoes with good aggressive tread (no sandals, flip flops, tennis shoes) – no exceptions. You will not be allowed to participate in the tour if you are not wearing proper footwear.
Cost: Adult - $20; Children - $10, under 12yr not permitted.
Duration: 4 hour
Tour Size: 8 people

Slaughter Canyon Cave

This 1.25-mile hike is the longest of the ranger guided tours, but it is also not located with in Carlsbad Caverns. This is the most pristine of the caves open to the public.

Requirements: All participants are required to wear hiking boots or hiking shoes with good aggressive tread (no sandals, flip flops, tennis shoes) – no exceptions. You will not be allowed to participate in the tour if you are not wearing proper footwear.
You will also need to caravan in your own vehicle to the trailhead of the cave after meeting at the visitor center; 24 miles away.
All participants are required to wear freshly washed clothing on the tour (even if they were only worn on another tour at Carlsbad Caverns National Park) – no exceptions. Your shoes will also need to be decontaminated, but supplies will be provided by the park. These are efforts to keep fungus that can be deadly to the bats out of the caves.
Cost: Adult - $15; Children - $7.50, under 8yr not permitted.
Duration: 2 hours (not including the drive and hike to the cave)
Tour Size: 16 people

Rattlesnake Spring

rattlesnake spring carlsbad caverns national park new mexico
Picnic area at Rattlesnake Spring is a beautiful place to have a picnic.

Rattlesnake Spring, although part of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, actually lies 15.5 miles southwest of the Carlsbad Caverns visitor center, off of highway U.S. 62/180 on 418. This spring has created an oasis in the desert and is the only natural water for miles around. Here you will find a picnic area in a grove of cottonwood trees (planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps over 80 years ago). Due to lushness of the area, you are likely to see many types of birds, mule deer, and other wildlife.

Desert Drive

walnut canyon desert drive carlsbad caverns national park new mexico.
Walnut Canyon Desert Drive winding its way through the Chihuahuan Desert.

The Walnut Canyon Desert Drive takes through the Chihuahuan Desert on a 9.5-mile gravel road to see some scenic highlights and possibly some wildlife. The drive takes about an hour to complete and is a loop, bringing you back to the main road near the location where you depart. If you stop by the visitor center before making the drive you can pick up a brochure that has information on scenic stops, history of the area, and ancient life.

Although the road is a relatively well-maintained gravel road, it is not recommended for very low clearance vehicles and is closed to RVs, buses, and trailers.


If you’d like to explore the Chihuahuan Desert above ground, Carlsbad Caverns National Park has many trails for you hike. Most of the trails can be done in a day (or much less), but a few are long enough that you will need to acquire a backcountry pass (for free) from the visitor center to camp along the way. These trails range anywhere from the ½-mile Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail to the 12-mile Guadalupe Ridge. There is also the option to combine a series of trails together, forming the Guadalupe Ridge Trail (which the afore mentioned Guadalupe Ridge is a part of), that spans 100 miles from White’s City, through Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and ending at Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas.

Night Sky Programs

Star Walk

The Star Walk is a chance to see the night sky in all of its splendor with as little light pollution as possible. These walks are usually scheduled when there is also a meteor shower happening, increasing the magnificence of the show.

The walk is only ½ mile, but you will usually stay in the area to star gaze for about 2 hours. It can get chilly at night, so it is advisable to bring a jacket and something to lay on (like a blanket).

Cost: Free, but it is first come first served. Make a reservation at the visitor center day of or ask the ranger at the Bat Flight Program.
Time: 8pm (after the Bat Flight Program) on October 2, 8, 9 2021
Tour Size: 25 people

Moon Hike

See the desert when it is the most alive on this 1.5-mile hike down a rugged desert trail by the light of the moon. Closed toed shoes and long pants are required on this hike.

Cost: Free, but it is first come first served. Make a reservation at the visitor center day of or ask the ranger at the Bat Flight Program.
Time: After the Bat Flight Program when there is a full/nearly full moon.
Tour Size: 25 people

Telescope Program

COVID-19: Star Parties Program is temporarily suspended until further notice.

telescope program carlsbad caverns national park new mexico
A park ranger aiming a telescope into the night sky.
Photo Courtesy: NPS

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a great place to explore the night sky. The Telescope Program allows visitors and campers to can catch sight of galactic objects through the use of powerful telescopes. Park rangers help point out some of the objects that may not be easily spotted in outer space.

Cost: Free
Time/Location: After the Bat Flight Program in the east parking lot.

Bat Flight Program

Each evening during the summer, Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge from Carlsbad Caverns in search of food. Migrating to the area for the warm weather, abundance of food, and to give birth to their young, their numbers can fluctuate from season to season. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands, their colony can grow upwards to a million during their migration in the spring and fall.

No reservations are required for the program, but seating is first come first served. The program takes place at the Bat Flight Amphitheater, located at the Natural Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. It is best to arrive a little earlier than sunset, as a park ranger will give a talk about the bats. The best time of the year to see the flight is from August – September, when baby bats also join in flight.

Notice: No electronic devices are allowed out, at the program or surrounding area, during the flight. This includes cameras, cell phones, or any other devices.

Cost: Free
Time: Every evening from Memorial Day weekend through October. The start time for the program changes as the summer progresses, so it is best to call the visitor center beforehand to get the right time.

What to Eat

There are very limited options for food at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. In the visitor center, past the gift shop, the Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company (CCTC) restaurant has limited food options and bottled, fountain, and hot drinks. There is also an underground rest area, located at the base of the elevators run by CCTC. It has restrooms, drinking fountains, and a limited snack bar. Besides in this rest area, there is no food or drink, besides basic water, allowed in the cave.

If you brought your own food, there are picnic tables located outside the visitor center near the CCTC restaurant and at the southside of the eastern parking lot overlooking the desert view. Additional picnic tables are available at Rattlesnake Springs, 15 miles from the visitor center.

Outside of the national park you can find food at the Cactus CafĂ© in White’s City, 7 miles outside the park. Further afoot, the next closest food can be found in the town of Carlsbad, 20 miles northeast of the White’s City.

Where to Stay

There is no campground or hotels within the park. The nearest accommodations are White’s City Cavern Inn, in White’s City, a tourist complex with a motel, RV park, tent camping area, and a restaurant. There are many more choices for hotels in the city of Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Free Primitive Camping

primitive camping carlsbad caverns national park new mexico
Primitive camping is allowed within the red circle (more or less).

If you are into primitive camping (and you should be), then there are a few options for you in and around Carlsbad Caverns National Park. There is backcountry camping in specified areas within the park with a permit. The permit can be obtained at the Visitor Center for free the day of arrival (no early ‘reservation’). This camping area is located off the western end of the Desert Scenic Loop Road. Camping is only allowed west of the Rattlesnake Canyon trailhead and south of the Guadalupe Ridge Trail till you get to the park boundary (approximately two miles), after which camping is allowed both north and south of the Guadalupe Ridge Trail. All backcountry camping rules apply. 


primitive campsite carlsbad caverns national park new mexico
My primitive campsite at Parks Ranch Campground outside of Carlsbad Caverns.

If you don’t want to hike in to your campsite there are two primitive camping options off of U.S. 62/180, just southwest of White’s City, that you can drive your car to where you want to set up camp. The closest is Parks Ranch Campground, located 1.5 miles down a gravel road from the highway. There are a few metal fire rings, as well as a few make shift stone rings. Along the road there are also a few other pull outs where you can camp as well. Chosa Campground is the second camping area, essentially a gravel parking lot with dispersed camping and makeshift stone fire rings. It is located just 0.3 miles of the highway. Both can be found on Google Maps.

How to Get There

The only way to get to Carlsbad Caverns National Park is by car, but you can get to nearby cities by either bus or plane and rent a car there if you need to. 


road carlsbad caverns national park new mexico
The road leading to Carlsbad Caverns from Marfa, Texas.

The main part of the park, with the visitor center and entrance to Carlsbad Caverns, is located up a 7-mile-long windy road through Walnut Canyon, beginning in White’s City. Getting to White’s City is 20 miles southwest from the city of Carlsbad, NM down U.S. 62/180, 145 miles northeast from El Paso, TX up U.S. 62/180, or a swooping 172 miles northwest/east from Marfa, TX. There is a gas station in White’s City, but outside of there the next gas is in the before mentioned towns (the exception being Marfa, which has gas about half way in Van Horn, TX.

There is ample parking for cars outside of the Visitor Center, as well as RV parking spots in the western lot (first lot that you pass when entering).


Greyhound and TNM&O bus lines both service Carlsbad, New Mexico. From there you would need to rent a car, taxi, or Uber to the national park.


Major airlines serve Roswell and Albuquerque, New Mexico and El Paso, Lubbock and Midland, Texas. There is also a small regional airport in Carlsbad, New Mexico. All of these airports have car rental company services.

What was your favorite part about your visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park?

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