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AARP’s Guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Travel more than 700 feet below the Earth’s surface to walk among otherworldly rock​formations in a cavern system so massive, it’s been called the ‘Grand Canyon with a roof’​

Cave interior in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico
Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

In southern New Mexico, where the Chihuahuan Desert’s vast plains rise up to meet the foothills of the rugged Guadalupe Mountains, lies one of the most unique experiences in the National Park Service: Carlsbad Caverns (CCNP). These are some of the deepest, largest and most unique caverns ever discovered, and they’ve been protected by the NPS since 1923. Until you descend into the depths, it’s hard to comprehend the massiveness of these caves. The actor Will Rogers described the cavern system as a “Grand Canyon with a roof over it.”​

The largest cave measured in the park, Lechuguilla Cave, stretches more than 140 miles, with a depth of more than 1,600 feet. It’s off-limits to anyone but researchers, but other caves open to visitors are wildly impressive. The Big Room, North America’s largest single cave chamber by volume that you can explore, is a limestone chamber that’s 255 feet high. Stalactites, many as long as 60 feet, drip from its ceiling, and spectacular stalagmites, some six stories tall, rise from the floor. Delicate “soda straw” formations, cave pools, shimmering “popcorn” structures and brilliant speleothems add to the spectacle. “Some of the formations can be 150 to 200 feet tall, and they even seem taller than that when you’re standing there looking at them,” says Michael Larson, the park’s public information officer and chief of interpretation and education.​

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Together, they give this cavern system with 120 known caves that’s millions of years old an ornate, baroque feel, like walking through a Gothic cathedral. At times it can feel like walking on another planet — and in some ways you are. The elevator that takes visitors​down stops at 754 feet below the Earth’s surface, and walking around at this depth, where subtle lights guide your way, is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced topside.​

Carlsbad Caverns
Getty Images

Facts box

Location: Carlsbad, New Mexico​

Total acres: 46,766​

Highest elevation: 6,368 feet​

Miles of trails: More than 50 miles of backcountry trails​

Main attraction: The underground cavern system, with 120 known caves​

Cost: $15 per person; reservations ($1) required​

Best way to see it: On a ranger-guided tour​

When to go: September or October, when the bats still take flight each night, the days are​cooler, and the peak tourism season is over​​

Above ground is spectacular, too. The 46,766-acre park is situated at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert, with piñon and juniper trees in its higher elevations and grasslands in its lower corners. Thanks to this merging of ecological zones, it teems with life, including 750 plant species and 67 mammals, ranging from black bear and mule deer to the Chihuahuan Desert pocket mouse. The park’s most famous mammals are its 17 bat​species, three of which roost inside the cavern system. The flights have become such an attraction that the park built amphitheater seating and created a Bat Flight Program so visitors can take in the sight more comfortably, with rangers on hand to answer questions and offer insight into the phenomenon.​

Unlike Yellowstone or Yosemite National Parks, you can experience most of Carlsbad Caverns in one day, although it’s diverse enough to spend two or three days exploring.​

Cave information display at Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, USA
Chris Howes/Wild Places Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Plan your trip

Unlike most national parks, Carlsbad Caverns requires advanced reservations for entry; make sure you book before your arrival because they can’t be made on-site. Reservations cost $1, and they’re limited to a 60-minute window based on the time you choose. For example, if you select a 10:30 a.m. slot, you only have until 11:30 a.m. to enter. Once you arrive at the visitor center, you must pay an entrance fee of $15 per person. Once inside, you can stay until that day’s closing.​

Given the park’s remoteness, getting there will probably require going out of your way — or making it a destination in itself. But the effort is more than worth the exhilaration inspired by venturing into its depths. Most visitors come from El Paso, 149 miles to the west, but another option is Albuquerque, 302 miles northwest. Although much farther, the latter offers a road trip option in which you see some of the most interesting attractions in southern New Mexico, including the town of Roswell, home of the 1947 “flying disc” incident.​

The visitor center, 7 miles into the park on Carlsbad Caverns Highway, has restrooms, a cafeteria, bookstore, information desk and hands-on educational exhibits. From here, you can take an elevator down into the cavern system. Or walk down into it from the​Natural Entrance Trail, which begins a short walk away.​

When touring the cavern system, wear proper footwear (closed-toe shoes with good traction); the caves are humid, and the paths can be slick in sections. For clothing, it’s probably best to wear long sleeves or a light jacket because the caverns stay around 56 degrees year-round, and there isn’t any sunlight once you’re inside. On guided tours, bring an extra layer because there’s no turning around once you start. In general, the self-guided paths inside the caverns are easy to navigate, and parts of the Big Room Trail are wheelchair-accessible. If you require accessible services, the park has a good map for assessing options above and below ground.​

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The park is busiest in the summer when the bats take flight each night. During this time of year, the viewing area gets crowded, especially around holidays and weekends. The crowds begin to thin after Labor Day, and the bats don’t migrate south to Mexico until late September or October, so early fall is a good time to witness the spectacle with fewer people.​

Where to stay and eat

The park has no lodging or campgrounds, so you’ll need to stay in Carlsbad, 20 miles northeast, the nearest town. (See Gateway towns.)​

Visitors entering the caves in Carlsbad Caverns in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Richard Green / Alamy Stock Photo

Things to do

The cavern system, naturally, ranks as the park’s main attraction, and you should spend as much time as you can underground exploring it. Enter the caverns in one of two ways: via an elevator or walking down the 1¼-mile path through the Natural Entrance. By far, walking down is the best way (and riding the elevator back up at the end of your visit) because you’ll get a much clearer sense of the cave system’s massiveness. You’ll descend roughly 800 feet as the sunlight slowly disappears. As you walk, imagine what it must have been like more than 120 years ago when cowhand Jim White, likely the first Westerner to explore the caverns, descended into the darkness. The payoff for the extra effort of walking: You see the gradual transformation of the Earth’s surface into a moon-like landscape. Although the trail is all downhill, it’s not recommended for people with mobility issues because the long descent can be difficult on the hips and knees, with occasional slippery spots.​

Once on the main cavern floor, where there’s a small concession stand with restrooms, you can self-tour the Big Room Trail at your own pace. The relatively flat trail runs 1¼ miles and is easily explored in an hour-and-a-half (and you can take shortcuts to shave off time); it’s full of spectacular rock formations of all shapes and sizes and even an artifact: a decades-old rope ladder that explorers used in 1924 to enter the cave. The various rock formations are generally all stalagmites or stalactites, and the Big Room has more than its fair share. Highlights include the Hall of Giants (a series of roughly 60-foot-high domes built up from water droplets depositing minerals in the same spot over eons), the Bottomless Pit (a 140-foot-deep hole) and Crystal Spring Dome, one of the park’s largest active stalagmites at 21 feet, with water flowing down the sides of the white rock into a pool below. It’s hard to explain how impressive walking through the Big Room is; you just have to see (and experience) it for yourself. “When we have people that are nervous about going in, we let them know how big it is, and they are so impressed by the expansiveness of it that their fears go away pretty quickly,” Larson says.​

You’ll want to sign up for a ranger-led tour (an additional cost) to areas of the caverns that are off-limits otherwise. Before the pandemic, the park offered several, but only one is currently available: the 90-minute King’s Palace Tour ($8 per person), which takes you​into the cavern system’s deepest portion open to the public. You descend 82 feet by walking through four chambers and see all manner of rock formations, including helictites, draperies, columns and soda straws. All these stalagmites and stalactites create the effect of intentional embellishment, like some regal throne room (it’s called the King’s Palace, after all). On the tour, rangers do a blackout, turning off all artificial lights so you can experience the natural darkness. It’s a darkness that envelops you, with the sound of dripping water piercing the air.​

Evening Bat Exodus, Mexican Free-Tail Bats, Tadarida brasiliensis, Carlsbad Caverns NP, New Mexico
Phil Degginger / Alamy Stock Photo

Above ground, don’t miss the nightly bat flights, typically late April through October. During the Bat Flight Program (Memorial Day Weekend through October), a ranger gives an educational talk about what will soon be witnessed: more than 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats emerging from the caverns, hungry and in search of insects. On good evenings, it looks like a tornado of tiny black shadows darting through the twilight. It’s a magical experience, but be forewarned that you can’t take any photos. In fact, no cellphones, tablets or any other electronic devices are allowed because the light and sounds from them interfere with the bats’ natural behavior. The ban’s upside: It forces you to really watch the spectacle and fully appreciate the marvel of it. “Sometimes the bats will even fly over the audience,” Larson says. “And sometimes you can even feel the air coming off their wings if they get close enough.”​

The most impressive bat flights (those with the largest numbers) usually happen in August and September when the baby bats, born in early summer, join the cave exodus. Migrating bats from colonies farther north often do, as well, so the numbers can swell dramatically.​ A good option for early risers, according to Larson: Head to the park for the bats’ return flight into the caves, usually from 4 to 6 a.m. The bats make their reentry with dives from hundreds of feet above the entrance, reaching speeds of 25 mph or more. “You can’t really see the bats, but you can hear them swooping down into the cavern,” he says.​

Also above ground, there are more than 50 miles of backcountry trails through the Chihuahuan Desert. However, many trails are closed due to recent flooding, so consult the park’s website or call ahead to find which ones will be open when you visit. One you can still hike is a 180-yard paved trail to the Walnut Canyon Overlook, which has excellent views of the desert environment.​

Living Desert Zoo and Gardens Carlsbad New Mexico
Ilene MacDonald / Alamy Stock Photo

Gateway towns

The entrance to the park lies 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico (population: about 32,000). Along the Pecos River in the Chihuahuan Desert, the city started as something of an oasis — “the Pearl on the Pecos,” as it was called. You’ll still find tree-lined​streets, public parks and a greenway along Lake Carlsbad, a small reservoir on the river next to downtown, but the area around town has become a hub for petroleum production and potash mining, so the city can have a decidedly industrial feel. Its other big industry is tourism, thanks in large part to its proximity to the park, so there are some appealing things to do.​

Topping the must-do list: the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens state park, on the town’s northwestern edge. At its visitor center, you’ll see basic exhibits on the region’s flora and fauna and Indigenous cultures, but the park’s main attraction is a 1.3-mile self-guided trail through the desert environs. The trail takes you through multiple “life zones” — from desert upland to a piñon-juniper forest — as you walk past cacti, yuccas, agaves and juniper trees. The zoo features animal habitats that include Bolson tortoises, prairie dogs, mule deer, bobcats and a black bear named Maggie.​

In town, you’ll find a range of brand-name lodging options, such as Comfort Suites and Home2 Suites by Hilton. Or book the moderately priced Trinity Hotel — an intimate boutique property inside a brick building downtown constructed in 1892 as the First National Bank. Two of its nine rooms are easily accessed on the ground floor, and one of them is accessible to people with disabilities. For campers, Carlsbad KOA Holiday, roughly 20 miles from downtown, has more than 60 pull-through RV sites and 10 tent sites in a well-maintained campground with free Wi-Fi, a pool and small cabins for rent, a few of which have full bathrooms and a shower.​

For dining in Carlsbad, the Trinity ranks high. Its restaurant serves three meals a day and turns into a fine-dining establishment for dinner, albeit with a decidedly casual atmosphere. Its menu is mostly classic steak and pasta options. Another favorite is Carniceria San Juan de Los Lagos, which serves authentic Mexican cuisine such as barbacoa tacos and carne asada burritos in a space that’s half butcher shop/deli and half restaurant. For a breakfast treat, head to Blue House Bakery and Café for the large cinnamon rolls or breakfast sandwich — eggs, green chile, cheese and your choice of bacon or sausage on toast.​

En route

If you’re coming from El Paso or Albuquerque, there’s a natural three- to five-day road-trip loop that includes CCNP and two other national parks: Guadalupe Mountains and White Sands. The general loop is from El Paso up to Las Cruces, then over to White Sands, up to Roswell, down to Carlsbad (and Carlsbad Caverns) and Guadalupe Mountains National Park (from there it’s 113 miles back to El Paso). If you’re coming from Albuquerque, simply head to Roswell, then do the itinerary in reverse. You’ll see the best that New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, has to offer in its southern half on this road trip.​

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