We don’t care that there is no perfect sky above, or turquoise lakes, or craggy, snow-kissed peaks. As much as we love a white-sand beach it doesn’t matter. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the single most amazing thing we have seen in our USA travels.
There is nothing like it anywhere on the planet. Around every turn is something unimaginable. Thousands of cave formations and structures present for your amazement, from fields of “popcorn” to inconceivable curtains of rock. Emperor stalagmites that have been forming for millions of years introduce their magnificent selves again and again, each varying in texture, color, and shape.
Brilliant pools of age old water and frightening abysses add to the unparalleled variety of wonder. In the furtherest part of the room the ceiling is so impossibly high you will stand amazed. If ever there were a “feast for the eyes”, Carlsbad Caverns is it.
What we are saying is, don’t miss this one. You can visit any time of year, rain or shine. It’s all the same in the cave. We’ve been here twice and have a few opinions on what details are important. These are our ten best tips for visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
In 1898, 16-year-old cowboy, Jim White, saw what he thought was smoke in the distance. Turns out it was a swarm of bats (see photo below). Jim’s imagination was consumed with the dark hole in the ground, and before long he constructed a ladder, descended into the abyss, and became the first known human to begin an in-depth exploration of the caves. Today you can enter the same hole as young Jim White and walk the mile-long path into the heart of the cave.
There are elevators in the visitor center that drop you right into the action — I mean, there’s restrooms down there with flushing toilets, they make it easy to do this — but you won’t want to miss the spectacle of walking in through the natural entrance.
Carlsbad Caverns is an alien world, and to walk around the Big Room is to come to grips with how ancient is our earth. The Big Room is the largest cave chamber in North America. The trail that winds throughout the Big Room is 1.25 miles. It takes about an hour to walk the path, but you may never want it to end.
No other cave we have witnessed compares — or even comes close. The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns is the grandaddy of them all. This is perhaps the coolest thing you will ever do.
Carlsbad Caverns sees a lot of visitors (about a half-million annually). The tours have limited room, so if you’re planning on walking into the visitor center and booking a tour for later that day you’re going to be disappointed. We recommend booking tours several weeks to months in advance. Here’s a link.
From Memorial Day through October, every single day you can watch the bats of Carlsbad Caverns leave and enter the cave. Here’s a link. There is no cost. Festival seating. A park ranger will engage the crowd with information as y’all wait for the bats to exit the cave in the evening. Anyone is welcome to watch the bats return in the morning, although there is no “presentation” by park staff. This is a much less popular activity, although they say it is equally impressive.
It takes well over an hour for all the bats to exit the cave. You’ll likely be satiated in about ten to twenty minutes. They leave in a double helix movement (like a tornado), rising upward. When they return in the morning they dive into the cave from a hundred feet above.
The Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center is impressive. There is a lot of information to consume, and an otherworldly amount of swag to purchase. One could easily spend an hour or two in the visitor center if their children were not squawking about the facility.
The most popular tour to reserve is the King’s Court Tour. We’ve done it. It is very cool, and immensely popular. The curtains of rock on the tour are some of the most incredible formations in the cave, and there is a wonderful moment when they turn off the lights and engage the group with an emotionally-stirring, historical anecdote.
That said, if you cannot get tour tickets (because you didn’t plan ahead), do not stress it. The natural entrance and Big Room are more than enough to blow your mind at Carlsbad Caverns.
Cave photography is difficult on its own. There isn’t a lot of light, so shutter speeds need to slow way down. Adding to the challenge is the pathways are filled with people, some of whom are on motorized scooters. It’s no joke. The slow pace of our elderly friends can transform the pathway into a shuffling conga line grinding forward at a snail’s pace.
If you’re trying to get good snapshots of the cave formations — which we did not succeed in doing — you’ll want some clearance on the pathways to put up a tripod and take your time.
The Carlsbad Caverns are pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The town of Carlsbad is about 20 minutes north (MAP). The town of Carlsbad has whatever you need, but it’s a dump and sprawls in an intelligible fashion. White’s City is right outside the park, about a ten minute drive from the visitor center, and there isn’t much more than a gas station and a gift shop.
White’s City has a campground. The location is fantastic and the cost is fair, but it’s otherwise a dump. We found our site was full of burrs. Every time we kneeled around the motorhome we were yelping in pain, and the dogs could barely go for a walk. The next closest RV Park is south at Guadalupe Mountain National Park (see below), or north in Carlsbad (MAP of campgrounds).
One of the hidden values of traveling to Carlsbad Caverns is you get a twofer on National Parks. Guadalupe Mountain National Park is a forty-five minute drive south (MAP). Guadalupe Mountain has beautiful hiking and an iconic rock face. This is the highest point of Texas.
If you’d like to learn more about visiting Guadalupe Mountain N.P., check out our article.
We may have gone overboard in our zeal for Carlsbad Caverns and established expectations no cave could ever deliver. Chances are, however, that we’re still underselling how amazing it is. We have visited a fair amount of caves in the USA: Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, Cave of the Mounds, Mammoth Cave, etc., and intend to see a few more before we’re done. The problem is, once you’ve experienced the Carlsbad Caverns you’ve seen the best of what underground earth has to offer (until we discover something else).
The Carlsbad Caverns are out of the way and it’s a cave. Like we said in the opening paragraphs, there are no sunsets, turquoise oceans, or dramatic cliffs beside alpine lakes. It’s a hole in the ground and the temperature is always — always — 56 degrees.
And guess what? It. Doesn’t. Matter.
Thank you for stopping by our website! We are the Hoffmann family, a full-time RV family that has split residence in Seattle, Washington and San Antonio, Texas. We have special needs children that we homeschool, and work travel assignments for the Veteran Affairs Hospital. If you would like to learn more about us, check out our Start Here and Biography pages. In the meantime, God bless and travel happy!
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