Home to 119 caves, Carlsbad Caverns National Park harbors an adventure underground for hikers of all abilities. But not all of the parks gems lie underground. Spread across the intersection of the flat, Chihuahuan Desert and peaks of Guadalupe Mountains, the diverse ecosystem above the caves includes hundreds of unique wildlife and plant species.
You can choose to take a self or ranger guided tour of the caves depending on your preferred pace. In addition to the caves, head outside and roam the cactuses, ferns and rocky canyons scattered across the park’s 33k acres.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Chihuahuan Desert, remote from many other major landmarks in New Mexico and Texas. The park sits 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico and 145 miles northeast of El Paso Texas with one entry point from Carlsbad Highway off route 62/180. Don’t rush through the drive as you’ll want to take in the scenery from your window on the last ten mile stretch approaching the park.
Once you arrive, stop at the visitors center to learn about the park’s history, including how the caves formed and what plants and animals can be found in the area. The museum contains approximately one million cultural resource artifacts preserved by the park that you won’t want to miss. If any of your questions are left unanswered before or after you visit the caves, speak with a ranger.
The visitor center has ample parking for both cars and RVs. Be sure to check operating hours for entering the caves by foot or elevator as the parks hours vary depending on the season.
There are no official campsites or lodging options in the park but primitive camping is available in the backcountry which requires a free permit that can be picked up at the visitors center upon arrival. Water and resources are sparse in the backcountry due to its desert climate, so prepare accordingly.
Footwear: Wear close-toed shoes with good traction as the floors can be slippery in the caves.
119 caves lie beneath the ground spanning over 125 miles in length. Formed by a fractured uplifted coral reef over 200 million years ago, there are several rooms, passages and formations to explore throughout the caves. Be sure to bring a flashlight and give yourself plenty of time to explore the Big Room Trail, the largest cavern and most popular in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The trail is 1.25 miles and takes about 1.5 hours to walk. The Natural Entrance Trail, which is 1.25 miles in length yet extremely steep, traces the footsteps of early explorers through multiple rock formations.
Above ground, rugged rocky terrain covers the landscape. The parks unique overlap of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains ecosystems supports some of the highest diversities of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects in the country. Cougars, bats and 300-plus species of birds coexist in the desert landscape that spans across the edge of the Great Plains and Chihuahuan Desert.
If the idea of thousands of bats soaring above your head sounds more exciting than nerve-racking, you won’t want to miss the Bat Flight Program. From late May to October, hundreds of Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge from the caverns at dusk. Join a ranger at 6:00pm in the Bat Flight Amphitheater for a free talk about bats prior to their flight from the cave.
The park has over 40 hiking trails for taking in the landscape including the 3.5 mile long Guano Road which begins at the Bat Flight Amphitheater. Access points to the backcountry also include the Desert Loop Drive, Rattlesnake Springs and Slaughter Canyon roads. Many backcountry trails are difficult to find so hiring a guided tour (that includes secret cave access!) through the visitor center is the best bet.
When to Go
The park can reach temperatures above 100 degrees in the summer. With that in mind, visiting outside of hot summer months will make for the best experience. Whenever you visit, bring a jacket as the year-round temperature of the caves is around 56 degrees. One thing you can usually count on, is gorgeous blue skies as the park boasts 278 days of sun a year.
The park offers a variety of ranger-guided tours. Make reservations 48 hours in advance by phone 877-444-6777 or online at recreation.gov
Pets are not allowed in the cavern, park trails, bat flight or visitor center. However the park has a kennel for a fee of $10/day for day use only. In other locations in the park pets need to be leashed.