Home » National Parks » Carlsbad Caverns National Park » Bats, Beauty & Beyond: A Complete Guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Whether you’re a seasoned spelunker or a first-time visitor, there’s something for everyone to discover in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. As a part of our Texas/New Mexico Road trip, we embarked on an epic journey filled with bats, beauty, and beyond. Carlsbad Caverns is not just about bats and beauty. This guide dives deep into the mysterious underworld of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Pack your sense of wonder and get ready to explore the many things to do at Carlsbad Caverns.

"Carlsbad Caverns is a unique and unforgettable destination, a place where visitors can explore a world that is hidden from view and discover the secrets that lie beneath our feet." - George W. Bush

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Carlsbad Caverns Entrance Sign with people standing in front
Carlsbad Caverns Entrance Sign

Journeying to Carlsbad Caverns: Getting There

As part of our Texas-New Mexico road trip, we visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Located in southeastern New Mexico, it is approximately 20-miles southwest of the city of Carlsbad.

  1. The park is easily accessible by car via US-62/180, which runs through the park. From the east, take US-62/180 from Hobbs or Roswell. From the west, take US-62/180 from El Paso or the city of Carlsbad.
  2. The closest commercial airport to the park is the Cavern City Air Terminal in Carlsbad, which is served by United Airlines with flights to and from Houston. The El Paso International Airport is another option, located approximately 150 miles southwest of the park.
Mirror Lake Feature in Carlsbad Caverns NP
Mirror Lake Feature in Carlsbad Caverns NP

Jim White’s Legendary Tale of Adventure into Carlsbad Caverns

So how were these caverns discovered? It so happens that in 1839 a young cowboy named Jim White was rounding up cattle for the ranch. He thought he saw smoke rising from an opening in the ground. On further investigation, that swirl was a huge cloud of bats rising from an opening in the ground. Curious, he grabbed a rope and lantern to explore further. That unassuming opening would lead Jim to the find the wonders of what would become known as Carlsbad Caverns. Inside he found the immense stalactites, stalagmites and other features. This was beyond his wildest dreams.

Draperies of the King's Palace Carlsbad Caverns NP
Draperies of the King’s Palace Carlsbad Caverns NP

He began guiding visitors through the big room, creating a small tourist attraction. He continued expanding his own exploration of the cave. Jim’s continued efforts to preserve the caverns were fulfilled in 1923. When finally Carlsbad Caverns was recognized as a national park. This ensured that his discovery of this subterranean wonderland would be protected for future generations to come.

Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center
Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center

Begin Your journey at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center

The Carlsbad Visitor Center is open year-round, open every day except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The visitor center hours in summer (mid-May through mid-September) are 8:00 am to 7:00 pm. In winter (mid-September through mid-May) are 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. A stop by the visitor center, you can learn more about the park’s conservation efforts and how you can help protect this precious natural resource for future generations. Knowledgeable rangers are all too happy to answer questions about park’s guided cave tours, trails, and conditions.

Banners hang from the ceiling in the Visitor Center Exhibit Hall
Visitor Center Exhibit Hall

The many exhibits clarified the park’s origin and how the cave formation came to be. They have a good Junior Ranger Program for kids aged 5-12. I watched a few kids completing their booklet activities earning their badges. If you are looking for park passport stamps, visit the bookstore. Bring your own labels/paper as there was none on our visit.

Lions Tale Stalactitie Big Room Carlsbad Caverns NP
Lions Tale stalactite Big Room Carlsbad Caverns NP

Timed Entry Reservations Carlsbad Caverns National Park

If you’re planning a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, it’s essential to make a timed entry reservation in advance at recreation.gov or call 877-444-6777. The passes are available 30-days in advance and sell out quickly.

Cave Bacon King's Palace Tour Carlsbad Caverns

What Tours are Available at the Caverns?

The most flexible option for exploring Carlsbad Caverns is a self-guided tour. Visitors can choose to walk the Natural Entrance Trail, a scenic 1.5-mile descent down into the cave. If you are not up to the walk, take the elevator near the visitor’s center, getting direct access to the Big Room. The tour is self paced at your leisure.

The many cave features in Carlsbad Caverns
Queen’s chamber on the King’s Palace tour

The King’s Palace Tour is a ranger-guided tour that takes you on a journey through some of the most ornate chambers of Carlsbad Caverns. Highlights of the tour include the King’s Palace, Queen’s Chamber, Green Lake Room, and the Papoose Room. We chose to do both the Natural entrance and the King’s Palace Tour (check website for tour times).

Note: that once the park reaches the cavern’s capacity number, no additional entry is allowed. On the day we went, only one elevator was working, and it was a 45-minute wait to exit the Big Room.

Switchbacks descend into the natural entrance of Carlsbad Caverns.
Switchbacks descend into the natural entrance of Carlsbad Caverns.

Get Started at the Natural Entrance Trail

But there’s so much more to explore beyond the bats! The beauty of Carlsbad Caverns extends far beyond its famous residents. Soon we found ourselves descending into the depths of the earth along the Natural Entrance Trail. Venturing ever deeper, I was awestruck by the otherworldly beauty of stalactites and stalagmites. It was like experiencing “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth.” Over millions of years, calcium carbonate cave decorations have accumulated drip by drip. Passing by strange formations called Devil’s Den or Devil’s Spring made me think of Hades in the underworld. After 1.5-miles we arrived at the entrance to the Big Room trail.

Tips for Enhancing Your Experience: dress in comfortable shoes and warm clothing, as the cave temperature is a constant 56°F. Bring a camera, but note that flash photography is not allowed. Turn off your phone and allow yourself to truly experience the cave’s unique atmosphere.

The Boneyard Natural Entrance Carlsbad Caverns
The Boneyard Natural Entrance Carlsbad Caverns

Begin Your Self-Guided Big Room Cave Tour

The Big Room self-guided tour takes you on a 1.25-mile walking loop. The Big Room is one of the largest underground chambers in the world covering a whopping seven football fields. Previous to this trip, we have visited Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park, but nothing prepared us for the breathtaking features of the Big Room. It extends over an area of 357,480 square feet, or 8.2 acres. We were blown away.

Hall of Giants Big Room Stalagmite Carlsbad Caverns NP
Hall of Giants Big Room Stalagmite Carlsbad Caverns NP

Looking up, all I can see is an abundance of cauliflower-shaped deposits of white calcite crystals blanketing the ceiling. Now I understand why they call it a “popcorn” ceiling. Other interesting speleothems are translucent draperies, soft flowstone, reflective cave pools and fragile looking soda straws. Speleothems are structures formed by the deposition of minerals dissolved in water within caves.

Ranger-led Tour of the King's Palace Carlsbad Caverns
Ranger-led Tour of the King’s Palace Carlsbad Caverns

What Famous Features (Speleothems) are in the Big Room?

  • Giant Dome: This immense formation hangs from the ceiling of the Big Room and is almost 60 feet in diameter. It’s like a giant, upside-down bowl, and you can even walk underneath it to appreciate its scale.
  • Fairyland: A magical section of the Big Room characterized by formations resembling curtains, veils, and frozen waves, adding to the enchanting atmosphere of the area.
  • Bottomless Pit: This mysterious pit appears as a seemingly endless vertical chasm plunge indefinitely into darkness. However, it’s actually around 370 feet deep. Tales of mythical creatures, lost civilizations, and supernatural phenomena are associated with this feature. Each year, maintenance personnel retrieve trash deposited by visitors.
  • Rock of Ages: This enormous stalagmite rises over 350 feet from the floor of the Big Room. It’s considered one of the tallest formations in North America and takes millions of years to grow just one inch.

Much of the credit for their colorful names goes to a teenage explorer Jim White. White’s playful names have stuck over the years, becoming an integral part of the Big Room’s weird character.

Caveman and Chandelier in the Big Room Carlsbad Caverns
Caveman and Chandelier in the Big Room Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Ranger Guided Kings Palace Tour

Adding on the ranger-led King’s Palace tour will allow you access to areas that the public does not see. These areas are now protected because of vandalism when they were first open to all. It was fascinating to see what early exploration of the caverns must have been like through the ranger-led 1.5-hour King’s palace tour. Imagining being one of the first to explore this cavern. The ghostly flame illuminating the trail by lantern light was otherworldly. As our ranger guide led us deeper into the palace, through hidden passageways and dripping alcoves, he explained the history of the caverns.

Veiled Statue King's Palace tour-Carlsbad Caverns Np
Veiled Statue King’s Palace tour

Our first room was the magnificent King’s palace. A delicate grotto full of white draperies. We could almost imagine Jim White himself standing here, marveling at the same breathtaking scene. Descending 830 feet, we got the opportunity to explore the Queen’s Chambers and Papoose Room. In the Papoose room, our guide turned off all the lights. Just listening to the water drip in total darkness is the most surreal part of the tour. It’s. Carlsbad Caverns National Park does not disappoint!

Stactites hang from the Bif Room Ceiling
Stalactites hang from the Big Room Ceiling

A Look Inside the Queen’s Draperies

Each room we visited was remarkable from the Queen’s Draperies, a giant 63-foot-high column to the Papoose Room’s translucent cave bacon. Thin sheets of mineral deposits that hang like ribbons from the cave ceiling form cave bacon.

Whales Mouth Kings Palace Tour Carlsbad Caverns NP
Whales Mouth Kings Palace Tour Carlsbad Caverns NP

My favorite part of the King’s Palace tour was Green lake. The clear waters of this emerald gem had a malachite hue, reflecting the surrounding formations like a mirror. It was mesmerizing. The last stop was the Papoose room. Dominated by “Onyx Draperies” one of these translucent features resembled a swaddled infant. Here, our guide doused the lights, engulfing us in total darkness. I could not see a thing, not my hand in front of my face. Absolutely nothing. It was surreal. Coupled with the silence of the underground world; it was quite eerie.Ending our tour, we took the elevator back to the surface.

Crystal Springs Dome-Silent Bell Carlsbad Caverns
Crystal Springs Dome, Silent Bell, Carlsbad Caverns

Who Doesn’t like Insanely Cute Batty Creatures?

First things first, let’s talk about bats. Carlsbad Caverns is often called the “ with a roof.” Why? Well, I think it is because people really love to see bats. These winged wonders are the true stars of the show at Carlsbad Caverns. Every evening, thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats (tadarida brasiliensis) emerge from the caverns in search of insects, putting on a spectacular display that’s not to be missed. It’s important to time your visit right to catch the bat flight program for an unforgettable experience.

Ampitheater for the Bat Flight Program Carlsbad Caverns NP
Ampitheater for the Bat Flight Program Carlsbad Caverns NP

Bats seem to illicit a fear response in many people. But they are an essential part of the ecosystem here. Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it. ” I’m thinking that much of the roof in the bat cave must be covered with thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats (tadarida brasiliensis). For many who come to Carlsbad Caverns, these are the genuine stars. They put on a spectacular display in the evenings. Emerging in a swirling cloud.

Note: if you go in the winter, these bats are a migratory species and they travel to warmer areas in Mexico and Central America, returning when the weather is warmer.

Mexican free-tailed bat on the cave wall (Tadaria-braziliensis)
Brazilian free-tailed bats on the cave wall (Tadaria-braziliensis) Credit: USFWS Ann-Froschauer-CC BY 2.0 DEED

Bat Flight Program Amphitheater at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

In summer, the rangers host a nightly bat flight program providing information on the bats and their role in the ecosystem. It is one of the most bizarre yet most sought after activities at Carlsbad Caverns. No reservations are required. It is first-come, first-served. It takes place each evening from late May through early October. Presented at the amphitheater near the natural entrance. It is quite the ritual to watch as the bats emerge from the caverns at dusk.

Bats in Flight-People love to go Batty at Carlsbad Caverns NP
Brazilian Free-Tailed Bats in Flight emerging from Carlsbad Caverns NP Credit NPS

Note: Bring a blanket or lawn chair for comfortable viewing as the temperatures in the desert drop dramatically at night.

It’s important to note that while the bat flight program is a famous attraction, visitors should respect the bats’ habitat, refraining from disturbing them. NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPY. Additionally, visitors should follow park regulations and stay on designated trails and walkways to help protect the fragile cave ecosystem.

View from the trail to the Natural Entrance of the Visitor Center at Carlsbad Caverns

What Hiking Trails are the best in Carlsbad Caverns National Park?

Looking to get away from the crowds, we walked the short  0.5-mile paved Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail. Near the visitor’s center, it’s sometimes called the Old Guano Mining Road. It is a great option for those seeking a peaceful and informative walk. This short hike gave us a renewed appreciation for the desert’s stark beauty.

Carlsbad Caverns National park Slaughter Canyon Trail
Slaughter Canyon-Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Let’s not forget about the “beyond” part of our adventure. Carlsbad Caverns National Park has a plethora of hiking trails from easy strolls to challenging hikes. Many of these lead you through the rugged wilderness of the Guadalupe Mountains.

Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area NPS-Michael Laron
Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area NPS-Michael Laron

Here are some of the prominent hiking trails in the park:

  1. Upper Rattlesnake Canyon to Guadalupe Ridge Trail: A 12-mile round-trip hike follows the ridge line of the Guadalupe Mountains. There’s a well-marked trail that winds through the desert, though it can be rocky at times. Keep an eye out for hardy desert plants such as prickly pear cacti, sagebrush, and juniper trees clinging to the rocky slopes.
  2. North Slaught Canyon Trail: a fairly rugged 5.3-mile out-and-back. The first 2.5 miles wander through a fairly level wash marked by cairns. You’ll have to contend with uneven terrain, rocky surfaces, and potentially steep ascents and descents (1,850 feet).
  3. Walnut Canyon Overlook: This is a short 0.4-mile trail to views of the Permian Basin. Lined with yucca plants at the overlook, you will see the vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert as it stretches out before you.
  4. Sitting Bull Falls, named after the famous Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, it is a beautiful a 0.7-mile out-and-back trail. The trail leads visitors to the base of the 150 ft waterfall in the Lincoln National Forest. It is about 30 miles southwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico. The terrain is uneven and occasionally steep, with sections of loose gravel and rocky obstacles to navigate.

All hiking trails in the park are well-marked and maintained. Be advise all visitors to bring plenty of water, wear sturdy shoes,, trekking poles. Always be prepared for changes in the weather.

Lake Brantley State Park Sunset views
Lake Brantley State Park Sunset

Where to Stay Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is in a remote area of southeastern New Mexico, but there are still several lodging options available for visitors. Here are some of the best places to stay near Carlsbad Caverns:

  1. Carlsbad Caverns Inn: just outside the park entrance, this inn offers comfortable rooms and suites, an outdoor pool, and a complimentary breakfast.
  2. Rodeway Inn Whites City: This budget-friendly option is about 7-miles from the park entrance and offers simple rooms, an outdoor pool, and a restaurant.
  3. Holiday Inn Express & Suites Carlsbad: This modern hotel is in the city of Carlsbad, about 30 miles from the park, and offers comfortable rooms, a complimentary breakfast, and an indoor pool.
  4. Fairfield Inn & Suites Carlsbad: Another option in Carlsbad. This hotel offers spacious rooms and suites, a fitness center, and a complimentary breakfast.
  5. RV and camping sites: There are several RV parks and camping sites near Carlsbad Caverns, including the Carlsbad KOA, Carlsbad RV Park and the Queen’s RV Park, which offer a range of amenities for visitors traveling in their own vehicles.
  6. Lake Brantley State Park: This is where we stayed for two days on our trip. A mere 30-minutes away, it feels isolated. You can reserve RV sites with electric and water hookups and some with sewer. The restroom facilities with showers were clean and well-maintained.

Note: It’s important to note that lodging options can fill up quickly, especially during peak season, so it’s best to book in advance to ensure availability.

Fairyland Features Carlsbad Caverns NP
Fairyland Features Carlsbad Caverns NP

Final Thoughts on Bats, Beauty & Beyond: A Complete Guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Jim White’s legacy lives on in the hearts of those who continue to marvel at these subterranean caverns. The Jim White Room, named in his honor, pays tribute to the cowboy who ventured into the darkness and brought forth the light of Carlsbad Caverns. For us, Carlsbad Caverns National Park was a literally a cool natural wonder. Its incredible underground caves features were mind blowing! The odd formations with weird names the imagination. The awe-inspiring experience has left a lasting impression on both of us.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park isn’t just about geological wonders. It’s also home to fascinating bats. Nightly flights of Brazilian Free-tail bats are a sight to behold. The spectacle of bats emerging in mass in search of insects for dinner from the cave at dusk is pretty cool.

Have you been to see these natural wonders? If so, what are your thoughts on the Carlsbad Caverns subterranean world? Share your thoughts in the comments below.