Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns is a world class destination to visit in New Mexico. Even after reading about the caves, we had no idea just how massive and incredible the caverns really were until we made the visit and saw first hand.
Southeast of Albuquerque near Carlsbad, New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns is a world class destination to visit in New Mexico. It has been on the top of our must see list for years. We knew we wanted to wait until the kids were a little older so that they could enjoy the caverns and be able to endure the walking. We timed our trip well as our kids were the perfect ages (8-15) to enjoy this New Mexico gem. We also had talked about the trip with our friends but honestly had never read any positive reviews of motels that were very expensive, so were a little wary to make the trip down. When the time opened up during Spring Break from school and when we learned about some new motel options in Carlsbad, we set off for a road trip down to southern New Mexico.
Since motels rates are really steep in Carlsbad due to the national park proximity, we chose to spend the first night in Roswell and then spent 2 nights in Carlsbad. We chose a new motel with a pool and with my AAA rate were happy the rate seemed higher than other cities in NM, but not ridiculous.
There are self guided tours as well as guided tours available at Carlsbad Caverns. We tried unsuccessfully to book a guided tour online 24 hours prior to our visit and learned tours must be reserved 48 hours or later in advance. You will want to check the website as some tours are only available on certain days and times and change depending on the season. If you are planning on staying one day you can take your time and walk in thru the natural entrance, eat lunch, and then tour The Big Room in the afternoon. This was a good one day visit for us and allowed us to see a lot. If you are planning on staying more than one day, you will probably want to also take at least one or two guided tours. These will allow you to see areas of Carlsbad Caverns that you cannot visit alone. You may also try to sign up for tours at the visitor center, if space is still available.
Even though we visited on a Tuesday, it was extra busy because it was Spring Break. We had one full day and the following half day set aside for the caverns, but because all of the guided tours were completely sold out, we spent one full day at the park and still managed to see the highlights. During summer months, the park also offers the Bat Flight Program where you can witness hundreds of bats exit the cave at dusk thru the natural entrance.
We stayed on the edge of town and the drive up to the caverns was about a half an hour. There are two ways to enter the caverns from the visitor center. You may pay and then you can either take a 60 second elevator ride down 70 stories, or walk down starting at the natural entrance. We chose to walk the 1.2 mile self guided path down to the bottom. The visitor center and natural entrance restrooms are your last chance to use the bathroom until you reach the bottom. There are restrooms and a small gift shop there. They ask that you not eat or take food down and the only drink allowed is water. They don't want food attracting animals or disturbing the geology. They also ask that you not even touch any of the rocks. The path is paved with guard rails, but steep. No strollers or wheel chairs are allowed along the natural entrance path. Though I did see some parents with small children, if you take small children, there's a good chance you will have to carry them quite a ways so it may be better to take the elevator down and do The Big Room walk (also 1.2 miles long). Strollers are not allowed at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We did see some parents with backpack baby carriers.
You may purchase audio tour wands and follow along numbered signs that give information along the trail down. We purchased a couple wands and people would summarize and share the information with the kids and rest of our group as we walked, and that worked out nicely. We took our time and took about an hour and a half to do the entire walk down. The kids and adults found this trail absolutely amazing. No one wanted to fly down and rush the walk. Every corner unveiled another gigantic room or fascinating sight that was so incredible. It is hard to adequately describe how immense the caverns really are. At times, one feels like a tiny ant working your way down into the underworld. It's easy to imagine you are in an Indiana Jones movie as well.
The route is dimly lit, but enough light so see well. We all packed flashlights which were extra handy for helping illuminate the stalactites, stalagmites, and columns, as well as provide extra light along the dark path.
The path ends at the junction of The Big Room path and the elevators. We took the elevators up and ate lunch in the cafeteria which is located up above at the visitor center level. The parking lot was close by which was handy for grabbing our snacks. We had taken a backpack on the natural entrance walk but really didn't need it and returned it to the car, as well. The cafeteria served pizza, burgers, sandwiches, and Mexican fare.
After lunch, we visited the large gift shop adjacent to the cafeteria and then took the elevator back down to do The Big Room Trail. Parts of this paved path looked wheelchair accessible, but it is limited where you can go. We did the entire 1.2 mile loop that took us past numerous majestic geological formations. There are enormous rooms filled with stalagmites and stalactites, massive columns jutting into the air, and pits that extend as far as your flashlight will reach. There are sections of massive columns jutting into the air. There is a shortcut about half way through to shorten your walk if you want or need. They only restrooms at the bottom are back by the elevators.
It took us about an hour and a half to complete The Big Room loop. Carlsbad Caverns is a sight everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime, and it is pretty cool it is located right here in New Mexico to enjoy!