Carlsbad Caverns National Park is an incredible natural wonder in New Mexico. From the stunning highly decorated Big Room to the magical bat flight at night – there are so many things to do and see inside the caverns and above the surface.
The best part is you can enjoy the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park all in one day! My one day in Carlsbad Caverns itinerary has everything you need to know to plan the perfect trip. It includes the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where to stay, where to eat, what to pack, and more.
Things to Know About Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Here are a few things to know about Carlsbad Caverns National Park to help prepare and plan your trip. It includes where to sleep, where to eat, general information about the caverns, and more.
Make a Reservation!
At this time, Carlsbad Caverns National Park requires visitors to make reservations to enter the caverns. You cannot make reservations at the park, only ahead of time at this website or by calling 877-444-6777.
The reservations are only for selecting an entry time to go inside the caverns. Tickets to enter Carlsbad Caverns National Park must still be purchased upon arrival, or you can use the U.S. National Park Pass.
Combine Carlsbad Caverns with Three Other National Parks
One day in Carlsbad Caverns is the perfect side destination on an epic West Texas and New Mexico National Park road trip. West Texas and New Mexico are full of desert and mountain adventures, so the cool underground caverns are a refreshing place to explore.
On our two-week road trip, we went to (in order) White Sands National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and Big Bend National Park.
If time is limited, you can easily visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in one weekend. The parks share the Guadalupe Mountains range and are only a 45-minute drive apart.
Whether it is blazing hot outside or freezing cold, the caverns stay at 56ºF (13ºC) year-round. Therefore, you should come prepared with proper attire and equipment. To learn what you should pack for Carlsbad Caverns, keep reading this guide or click here.
Plan Your Day Accordingly
If you only have one day in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, you must plan your day well because it is not a 24-hour operating park.
The self-guided cavern is open from 8:30 am, with the last entry time of 2:30 pm. So you will need to plan your hike or take the elevator according to the operating hours of the caverns. Additionally, if you plan on going on a ranger-guided and self-guided tour in one day, you definitely need to plan your time appropriately.
Hopefully, my 1-day itinerary at the end of this guide can help you time and plan well. It includes an example of the perfect day at Carlsbad Caverns with a self-guided and ranger-guided tour.
Bringing a Baby or Toddler
If you are bringing your baby or toddler to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, here are a few things to know.
A stroller is not allowed inside the cavern. Therefore, you will need a baby carrier or backpack to hold them.
Outside food and drinks are not allowed inside the caverns. However, you can bring unflavored water, and there is an underground snack bar. You can feed your baby formula or breast milk in this designated eating area.
We brought our 11-month-old son to Carlsbad Caverns and had a fantastic time as a family. I hope you do too!
Where to Stay
There are no overnight lodging or campgrounds at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Primitive camping is only allowed in the backcountry, requiring a free permit issued upon arrival at the visitor center.
The closest lodging to Carlsbad Caverns National Park is Whites City Caverns Inn. Whites City Caverns Inn offers an RV park, campground, and hotel rooms with amenities and a restaurant on-site.
There are several lodging options in Carlsbad, about 30 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Carlsbad has accommodations for every budget and almost every brand imaginable such as Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, IHG, Wyndham, and more.
Since we travel with kids and are loyal Hilton members, we stayed at Home2 Suites By Hilton Carlsbad New Mexico. The hotel met our expectations and was the perfect location for our trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Where to Eat
There are two places to eat at Carlsbad Caverns National Park – the restaurant inside the visitor center and the underground snack bar inside the cavern.
Please note that only unflavored water is permitted inside the caverns. Visitors are not allowed to bring outside food and drinks. If visitors have diabetes or other medical conditions, they are allowed to eat or drink on a limited basis.
The food purchased at the underground snack bar must be consumed in the designated eating area. Furthermore, the underground snack bar is only open from Friday to Sunday.
The restaurant inside the visitor center has limited food options, such as salad, sandwiches, hot dogs, and nachos. There are also bottled drinks, fountain drinks, and hot drinks.
Of course, you can always bring a picnic lunch and enjoy it on the patio or a picnic table outside the visitor center.
Best Things to Do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
In my opinion, the caverns are mind-blowing and where I recommend, you spend most of your time. Especially if you only have one day in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
With that said, there are plenty of things to do at Carlsbad Caverns National Park – both inside the caverns and above the surface that you cannot miss.
If time permits, here are the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park for one day.
Hike the Natural Entrance Trail
There are two ways to enter and exit Carlsbad Cavern – by elevator or on foot. If you are looking for a fantastic experience, hiking the Natural Entrance Trail is one of the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. I should elaborate that I recommend hiking the Natural Entrance Trail into the cavern and taking the elevator to exit the cavern.
This trail is not recommended for visitors with heart or respiratory conditions.
The Natural Entrance Trail is a steep 1.25-mile descent that leads into the Big Room. The trail is so steep that you gain or lose 750 feet, equivalent to walking up or down a 79-story building.
You might think that the trail is moderately easy because you are descending. However, that is not the case. The Natural Entrance Trail is a strenuous hike because the descent is brutal on the knees and ankles, and the incline is challenging. Overall, it can take around 1 hour to complete.
The beginning of the hike alone is quite impressive. Sharp switchbacks lead into the pit known as the Devil’s Den, the entrance into the cavern. Once you get below the surface and into the cavern, the experience only gets better.
Explore the Big Room
Walking the Big Room Trail to explore the cavern is, hands down, the best thing to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It is essentially the main attraction.
The Big Room is the largest single cave limestone chamber by volume in North America. Needless to say, it is mind-blowing. The Big Room is an underground city of beautiful rock formations, stalactites, and stalagmites.
Again, you can hike the Natural Entrance Trail or take the elevator down to the Big Room. Once you arrive, you can explore the Big Room by walking the 1.25-mile trail. The trail is primarily flat and takes about 1.5 hours to complete or longer if you plan to make multiple stops for pictures.
It is also considered a self-guided tour. So visitors can enjoy the Big Room at their own pace. Along the trail are informative signs of special cavern features such as the Bottomless Pit, Lion’s Tail, and Silent Bell. You can also rent a handheld audio guide (from the bookstore) for more in-depth descriptions of the Big Room’s formations, geology, and history.
Go on a Ranger Guided Tour
Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers five excellent ranger-guided tours for an additional price. Each tour gives visitors a unique experience to explore more of the caverns. Some are more adventurous with rock scrambling, free climbing, and crawling through tight passageways.
Currently, the King’s Palace is the only operating tour. It is also the most popular ranger-guided tour. To go on the tour, visitors need to make additional reservations. An adult must accompany anyone under 16; children under four years old are not permitted on the King’s Palace Tour.
The King’s Palace Tour is a 1-mile walk through four highly decorated chambers and into the deepest portion of the cavern. It also includes one of the best cavern experiences, total darkness. Rangers will conduct blackouts by turning off all artificial lights to reveal the natural darkness of the cave.
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail
If you have a green thumb, you cannot miss hiking the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail. The easy paved trail is only .5 mile long and takes 30 minutes to complete.
Along the pathway are multiple markers on the flora of the Chihuahuan Desert. A few beautiful plants include prickly pear cactus, sotol, ocotillo, and yucca faxoniana.
The trail will close just before and during the Bat Flight program. So if you are waiting for the Bat Flight program to begin, hiking the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail is (literally) a beautiful way to kill time.
Watch the Bat Flight
You cannot miss the bat flight program if you plan your trip to Carlsbad Caverns from Memorial Day weekend through October. The bat flight program is one of the best things to do at Carlsbad Caverns. It is also my favorite experience at the park.
About 200,000 – 500,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats call Carlsbad Caverns National Park home, and guests can watch them fly out of the cave and into the sky to search for food. Every night from Memorial Day weekend through October, a ranger will lead this FREE program to educate visitors on the bats before their flight.
This event does not require reservations; it is first-come, first-served. Therefore, I recommend arriving at the amphitheater at least 30 minutes before the program begins. Make sure you check with the visitor center on what time the event starts.
If you have seen Batman Begins, the experience feels like the movie – when Bruce stands in the cave while the bats circle around him. Hundreds of thousands of bats circle the Natural Entrance like a tornado. Then they gradually break out of the formation and into the night. Everyone is dead quiet, and all you hear are wings flapping. It’s beautiful.
Participate in a Night Sky Program
In addition to the bat flight, the Night Sky Program is another beautiful evening event at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. There are two different night sky programs – star viewing and night hikes.
The star viewing – a park ranger leads this program and educates visitors about astronomy. Some sky viewing dates include seeing a meteor shower and a super moon.
No telescopes are involved in the program, but the park ranger will use a laser pointer to help show the astronomical features of the night. If you want to see the stars better, it is encouraged to bring your binoculars.
The night hike – a park ranger leads this program and takes guests on a 1.5-mile hike through the desert. This is a unique experience and an excellent opportunity to explore Carlsbad Caverns National park at night.
Both programs are free and take place on specific dates of the year. There is no registration for the sky viewing, but the night hike has a first-come, first-serve basis sign up at the visitor center. You can learn more about each program and the specific dates here.
Other Things to Do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Most of the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns National are within the caverns. However, if you have more than one day in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, here are two more things to do above the surface.
Drive the Scenic Walnut Canyon Desert Drive
The Scenic Walnut Canyon Desert Drive is a one-way 9-mile gravel road through the mountains of Carlsbad Caverns. It takes about one hour to complete the scenic drive. You can spot wildlife such as rattlesnakes and bighorn sheep along the way.
The road is not recommended for low clearance vehicles and is closed to RVs, buses, and trailers.
Find the Rattlesnakes Spring Oasis
Above the surface of Carlsbad Caverns is Rattlesnakes Springs – a little hidden oasis in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. Rattlesnakes Springs has a crystal clear natural spring with towering cottonwood trees surrounding it. This area is perfect for a shaded picnic and to go bird watching.
What to Pack for Carlsbad Caverns
I recommend packing a light jacket and closed-toe shoes with good traction because the caverns are 56ºF, and the pathways are slippery.
More importantly, the clothes and shoes you pack for Carlsbad Caverns cannot have been in another cave in the past ten years per the National Park Service (NPS). This also applies to any camera equipment.
If you have clothing, shoes, and equipment that do not meet the requirements, do not fret. You can wipe everything with disinfectant. These precautions help protect the health of the Brazilian free-tailed bats from White-nose Syndrome, a deadly fungus to the bats.
1-Day in Carlsbad Caverns Itinerary
Now that you have all the information needed to plan the perfect day in Carlsbad Caverns, here is an itinerary you may use at your leisure.
If you plan to attend a ranger-guided tour such as the King’s Palace, you will need to plan your one day at Carlsbad Caverns National Park around the tour. With that thought in mind, this itinerary will include a proposed tour time. You can adjust the itinerary as needed for your tour time.
10:00 am – King’s Palace Tour (1.5 hour tour)
12:00 pm – Lunch
1:30 pm – Hike the Natural Entrance Trail (1 hour) or take the elevator down
2:30 pm – Explore the Big Room (1.5 hours)
4:00 pm – Hike the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail (30 minutes)
4:30 – 6:30 pm – Dinner
7:00 pm – Watch the bat flight program
9:00 pm – Enjoy a night sky program
I hope you have found my guide on the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park with a 1-day itinerary helpful. Enjoy your time at Carlsbad Caverns. It is truly an incredible natural wonder.