How to Make the Most of One Day in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
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America’s national parks have something for everyone. Whether you love historic sites, back-country trekking, or delving deep underground… there’s a park for that! It turns out that I personally am partial to the latter: I have loved caves and caving since I was a child (along with mining and mineshafts, which is a weird thing for kids to love!). Unsurprisingly then, some of my favorite national parks have caves – and it’s also unsurprising that Carlsbad Caverns National Park jumped right onto my list of personal faves since IT’S ALL CAVES.
If you’re planning a trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, you might have some questions: what is there to do? How long do you need to visit? And what if you – like most Americans – are short on vacation time and want to do as much as possible?
I’m here to help! In March 2023, my friend Marissa and I took our annual national parks trip and visited three parks in four days. We did – almost literally – exactly what I’m about to recommend to you if you want to make the most of one day in Carlsbad Caverns. (I also have resources on nearby Guadalupe Mountains and White Sands national parks, which all together make for a great road trip itinerary.)
So grab your pencil, take some notes, and get ready to dive deep underground with me. Carlsbad Caverns is such an incredible place – I can’t wait for you (and everyone!) to see and be awed by it too.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Mescalero Apache and Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Planning a Visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Before jumping into the step-by-step itinerary I recommend for one day in Carlsbad Caverns, here are a few important logistical details to cover first – and which make sense for my suggestions later.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park Entrance Fees
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a fee-collecting site within the National Park System. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.
Here are your options:
- The cost to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park is $15 per adult. (Children under 16 are free.)
- Reservations are required to visit Carlsbad Caverns – but more on that below!
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver. The America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it, and I buy one every year!
You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Carlsbad Caverns NPS website.
Driving & Parking in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
For the most part, Carlsbad Caverns is a pretty easy park to visit; there’s one road, a few pull-outs, and a large parking area with an overflow lot up at the visitor center (which is the only way to access the main caverns). You don’t really need to worry about driving or parking availability in the park at all – a welcome change from some parks where you need a special plan just to find a spot near the main sights.
Here’s how I would plan your day, depending on what time you get your cavern tour reservations (more on that in a sec): set out 45-60 minutes before your reservation window opens, and make stops at any interesting pull-outs along the way.
There are two pull-outs I recommend: one on the floor of the canyon (“Walnut Canyon Nature Trail” on Google Maps) which lets you walk into a small cave and one once you climb out of the canyon (“Walnut Canyon Vista Trailhead”) which takes you a short distance to overlook the canyon and the cars driving below. In total, you probably won’t spend more than 15 minutes at both – so you’ll still have plenty of time for the 7-mile drive to the visitor center (takes 15-20 minutes), finding a parking spot, and lining up to check in for your reservation.
Carlsbad Caverns Ranger-Led Tours & Reservations
Speaking of reservations, Carlsbad Caverns has limited access – you need a reservation to visit the caverns, whether you’re on a self-guided tour or doing a ranger-led tour.
When I visited, there was only one ranger-led tour available (the King’s Palace Tour), and there were only 12 spots per tour, twice each day; as of April 2023, those two tours are at 10:30am and 12:00pm. You MUST make a reservation 30 days in advance on Recreation.gov. Tours sell out 30 days in advance, so set a calendar reminder for 8am Mountain Time 30 days before your planned visit, and grab tickets as quickly as possible.
If you miss getting tickets for the ranger-led tour, go ahead and book the self-gudied tour; you also need a reservation for this (available on Recreation.gov too). There are 300 tickets per time slot (every hour on the half-hour from 8:30am to 1:30pm) so you can usually wait as late as a day or two before your visit and still get a reservation.
One last pro-tip: there’s often a ranger-led afternoon tour available each day that’s not open to online reservations. The NPS offers this for people who don’t have access to a computer to make reservations, and it can only be reserved by arriving early in the day and requesting a spot if available. On the day we visited, the ranger told Marissa and me that there was still space on the 1pm tour – we were there at 9:30am, so I don’t know how long that lasted. Either way, arrive early and see if you can snag one of those tours – if not, you can just do the tour self-guided, as we did.
What to Do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)
As in all of my national park guides, I like to include a step-by-step list of things to do in the park in just one day. While that might not be enough for some parks, one day is the perfect amount of time to spend in Carlsbad Caverns (especially in light of some park closures, which I cover below this section). Here’s how to spend it and see it all (or as much as you can, anyway).
Drive the Carlsbad Caverns Highway
The seven-mile Carlsbad Caverns Highway is your primary (read: only) access to the Visitor Center and caverns. It takes 15-20 minutes to drive from Whites City to the Visitor Center, without stops (which I mentioned above and can be made before or after visiting the caverns).
Along the way, you can admire the Chihuahua Desert in the canyon all around you. Look for beautiful yucca and mountain goats hopping on the rocky walls.
Check-In at the Visitor Center
Once you arrive at the Visitor Center and find parking, you’ll need to check in; usually this means you can go right to the caverns. If you have to wait for some reason (such as before a timed ranger-led tour), you can visit the small museum or browse the two gift shops.
There’s also a ranger information desk where you can learn about other parts of the park, including hiking trails and the (currently closed) Walnut Canyon Desert Drive/Reef Top Circle drive.
Explore Carlsbad Caverns
At your appointed time (or whenever the ranger tells you), you can set out to explore Carlsbad Caverns themselves.
Without getting too granular, the primary area to visit is the Big Room. You can reach the Big Room in two ways: on foot through the Natural Entrance or by taking the elevator from the Visitor Center straight down to the Big Room.
The loop in the Big Room is 1.25 miles long, and is paved with a few small hills. The hike down through the Natural Entrance adds another 1.25 miles and is also paved but at a steep grade. Only those with good mobility and stability should walk the Natural Entrance trail, but if that’s you: absolutely do the Natural Entrance trail. It is a fantastic addition to the Big Room with plenty of incredible formations to admire.
Once you arrive in the Big Room, it takes about an hour to make your way around the loop; you’ll want to stop, read signs, take photos, and just generally stand in awe of the work of Mother Nature in this hidden place.
On a return visit (when I hadn’t just hiked 10 miles in Guadalupe Mountains National Park the day before), here’s how I would explore the caverns:
- Start by hiking down through the Natural Entrance
- Do one loop of the Big Room to get oriented and take all the photos
- Potentially stop for a snack if I’m feeling hungry
- Do another loop of the Big Room using just my eyes to admire it all properly without my camera in the way
In total, that would be about 4 miles of walking, so keep that in mind if you want to do the same.
Enjoy Lunch in the Light (or Whites City)
After one or two loops of the Big Room, you’ll probably be feeling a bit hungry; it took Marissa and me 2.5 hours to do the Natural Entrance and one loop starting at 9:30am, so we decided to grab some lunch. There is a small snack shop underground near the elevators, but your better bet for a full lunch is up at the cafeteria topside.
You could also drive out to Whites City and have lunch at the Cactus Cafe, the only restaurant in town. This is a bit of extra driving though, so I’d only do that if I wasn’t going to go back in the park – which I recommend if you only have one day in Carlsbad Caverns.
Take a Ranger-Led Tour
Photos courtesy of Peter Jones/NPS
If you’ve read this post and planned ahead, you’ll have the whole day planned out and will definitely have snagged tickets for a ranger-led tour. Depending on the time, you may need to rearrange my suggestions for this day, but I’m assuming here that you got onto the afternoon tour since it’s more likely you won’t get tickets online and do get tickets on the no-reservation tour.
In any case, currently, there is only one ranger-led tour – the King’s Palace Tour I already mentioned. This visits a different part of the caverns than the self-guided tour. As you will have already seen the Big Room (or will be visiting it later in the day), it’s cool to visit another part of the caverns that aren’t open to the public normally.
Specifically, the King’s Palace Tour visits the Green Lake Room, King’s Palace, Queen’s Chamber, and Papoose Room. These names don’t mean anything to you now, but you’ll soon see them – and they’re dramatic and different than even the Big Room with all it offers. This tour is a 1-mile loop, accesses the caverns by elevator, and requires the ability to climb 80 ft/8 stories up and down on sloped trails.
For my next visit to Carlsbad Caverns, I will absolutely be doing this tour!
Have a Snack, Underground!
Whether you did the self-guided tour in the morning, lunch, and then the afternoon ranger-led tour or vice versa, you’ll probably be feeling a bit hungry again – and that means it’s the perfect time to visit the underground snack bar for a treat.
While the underground cafeteria is no longer open, there are some cooler snacks and pastries (if memory serves). This is an incredibly cool and historic space, and there are displays up in the area to learn about it.
See the Bat Flight (Seasonally)
The timing here gets a bit wonky, so you may have time to go visit some of the pull-outs along Carlsbad Caverns Highway if you haven’t done that yet – or have dinner on your own or in Carlsbad (about an hour’s drive in total from the Visitor Center to town and back) – but no matter what you do in the late afternoon, you’ll want to be back for the bat flight if you’re visiting Carlsbad Caverns between May and October.
During this summer/pupping season, hundreds of thousands of bats call Carlsbad Caverns home; you’ll pass their home within the cave if you enter by way of the Natural Entrance trail.
Each evening at sundown, the bats come out in search of food. There’s an amphitheater where everyone can sit to enjoy the natural show. No photographs or video is allowed to help ensure the bats aren’t put off by device screens or flashes. (The photo I included here was taken by a photographer for the National Park Service.)
After the sun has fully set and the bats are out on the wing, there’s one last way to enjoy Carlsbad: under the stars!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is honestly not the best national park for stargazing – there’s lots of light bubbles in the area due to cities El Paso, Whites City, Carlsbad, and Pecos (among others). You can still enjoy the stars despite this interference; the best place for stargazing in Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the Walnut Canyon Vista Trail. Out at the end of the 500ft path, there’s a concrete slab that’s smooth and level, perfect for a telescope or camera tripod if you want to try your hand at astrophotography.
I took the photos in this section during my trip, under a very dark moonless sky.
After stargazing and a long day of exploring Carlsbad Caverns, it’s time to turn in and rest for your next adventure.
What About Slaughter Canyon Cave or Walnut Canyon Desert Drive?
Photos courtesy of Peter Jones/NPS
As you read this post, you might wonder about other parts of the park. As of writing (early 2023), there are two other parts of the park that are currently closed.
First, Walnut Canyon Desert Drive/Reef Top Circle. For clarity, the NPS calls this “Walnut Canyon Desert Drive” while it’s marked as “Reef Top Circle” on Google Maps. This dirt road sets out from near the visitor center on an 8.3-mile path atop the mesa, with access to other trails and caves you can visit on your own. Unfortunately, due to heavy rains in summer 2022, major portions of the road washed away and the entire area was closed – including the backcountry trails accessible along the road.
I asked a ranger about this during our visit, and he said it would be several years at a minimum before the NPS can come up with a plan to rebuild the road. Sounds a lot like Denali National Park, eh?
Second, there’s Slaughter Canyon Cave; this cave is reached from a different access road; it is only accessible on a full-day (5.5-hour) ranger-led tour – but those tours haven’t restarted post-pandemic. I hope to hear when this one has re-opened and do this tour too. It’s much different than the ones in the main parts of the caverns; Slaughter Canyon Cave is unlit, so visitors must hike up to the entrance and use headlamps/helmets inside the cave to admire this cave.
Where to Stay Near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Last but certainly not least, you need to know where to stay near Carlsbad Caverns, even if you’re only spending one day in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
To be totally honest, the most convenient options are limited: there is no camping in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and there’s only one hotel in the nearby town of Whites City. Whites City Cavern Inn is a decent overnight/multi-night stop; Marissa and I stayed here for two nights of our three-night national parks trip in this part of the country. Rooms are clean and large, with a mini-fridge, microwave, and free (and pretty decent) wi-fi.
Prices start from $100/night, which is also very reasonable – and way more convenient than Carlsbad for the same price (since you won’t have to make the 25-30 minute drive each way to/from Carlsbad).
Speaking of Carlsbad, there are lots more options here. There are lots of chain and cheap hotel options, but here’s where we stayed as well as a couple of other options.
- We stayed at the Carlsbad Inn; this motel doesn’t look like much, but the rooms are recently redone, clean, and the most affordable in town. Book on Booking.com or Hotels.com
- I liked the look of the aptly-named National Parks Inn but it was a bit out of our budget for this trip. Book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- The Trinity Hotel in downtown Carlsbad is where I wish we’d stayed if we had the budget to splurge a little more; it’s located in a historic building with cute boutique hotel-style rooms. Book on Hotels.com.
Okay, that just about covers it – what to do for a day in Carlsbad Caverns, all the logistics and tour details, AND where to stay after an epic day. Have any other questions about how to make the most of one day in Carlsbad Caverns? Let me know in the comments below!