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  • Writer's pictureChristina Trotter

Carlsbad Caverns to Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Yes, You Can Do It In 1 Day

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Two National Parks in a weekend? Yes, it's possible. Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks are co-located less than one hour away from each other. In this article, I'll tell you about our summer road trip and how to maximize your time within the parks and nearby Carlsbad, NM, including recommended Airbnbs.

If you want to combine this with other National Parks for a bigger trip, read our 2-week bucket list road trip around the southwestern US, including 6 National Parks.

Can you take a trip Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains in one day?

Yes, you could do both in one day, although I think you need at least two days to give either justice. I recommend a half day in Carlsbad and a full day in Guadalupe National Park.

Is Guadalupe Mountains National Park worth visiting?

All National Parks are worth visiting because each contains something specific that enabled its creation as a National Park. I love Guadalupe Mountains National Park for hiking, but the official National Park designation came because of geological sequences and "unusual plant communities."

How many days do you need in Guadalupe Mountains National Park?

As previously mentioned, I would take at least one full day, ideally two to do the park. There are a ton of hiking trails and if you enjoy hiking, this is a great place to go.

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Carlsbad Caverns is bigger than you can imagine.

Everything that I read about the park leading up to our trip was just general information; I certainly wasn’t prepared for the massive size of this cave system. The front desk lady asked if we planned to take the elevator down or walk in. “We’ll walk in and then take the elevator back up.” She didn’t bat an eye but made sure that we understood that it was a 2.5-hour walk. We apparently didn’t properly acknowledge that because she told us twice. I suspected that they overestimated.

They didn’t.

A narrow, winding paved road just wide enough for two people disappears down into the opening of Carlsbad Caverns.
The winding entrance to Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns Ticket Reservations and Park Fees

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is just 25 minutes, or 21 miles away from the town of Carlsbad. Because of COVID restrictions, capacity is limited at the park and requires a timed reservation. We were fortunate enough to know that in advance, but we did talk to people that had shown up unaware of the requirement and they were unable to get tickets.

The reservation is only $1 per person. Once you arrive to the park, you go to the desk and show your reservation and pay the entrance fee.

You actually have a one-hour window to make your time; I mention that because we saw people running during our window and my husband started to follow suit, thinking that we only had an hour total to make it through the caves. Fellow late people, rejoice! We have a full hour to make it to the entrance!

History and Geology of Carlsbad

The Park covers 46,766 acres near the town of Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico. There are 120 known caves within it that were formed 4-6 million years ago by a reef that covered southern New Mexico and West Texas. As the water receded, the reef was compressed and formed limestone. Over millions of years, rainwater seeped in and when mixed with hydrogen-sulfide-rich water, created sulfuric acid. This acid created the rooms of the cave and mineral deposits mixed with water continue to shape the caves and its formations.

Entering Carlsbad Caverns from the Natural Cave Entrance

The known caves are 30 miles long and the deepest known cave with Carlsbad is 1,027 feet below ground. The hike down through the natural opening is quite surreal (see the picture at the top of this page). Cave swallows swirl around the opening. You look down into a big deep hole. Immediately, a strong scent of ammonia overtakes the air – bat urine. While you likely won’t see a bat unless you stay until dusk to see them emerge, you can certainly smell their presence. Don’t worry, you get used to it and eventually move further in than they go.

The natural entrance trail is 1.25 miles and takes about 1.5 hours to walk it. The descent is equivalent to a 75-story building!

One of the coolest things to see along this route is a rope ladder that was used by cave explores back in the 1920s. One look and I though, "no thanks."

A word of caution – the entrance is rather steep, and strollers aren’t allowed. It is also not wheelchair accessible. If you have physical limitations or young kids, I’d suggest taking the elevator down. It is all paved and not strenuous, but there is a moderate downward grade in places. I am not sure if they allow you to do this – though I don’t see why not – but I think walking from the visitor center to the amphitheater that precedes the cave is a great spot to get a feel for the vastness. From there, you could head back to the Center and take the elevator.

The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns

The walk down to the Big Room took about an hour or so. There is a shortcut in this room and it can be reduced to 0.6 miles of walking distance.

For me, the first part (Act I) of the tour showcased the depth and vastness of the cave system rather than the formations (that's Act II). By the time we reached the Big Room where there are restrooms and the elevator, we read that we were the depth of the Empire States Building underground. As a claustrophobic, I found this both interesting and terrifying. Special props to my husband for pointing this information out to me.

From the Big Room, you start the second part of the hike that takes you around a large loop to the true variety and beauty of these caves. Admittedly, our kids were mostly over the cave at this point and I almost acquiesced to my daughter’s request just to grab the elevator and call it a day. I’m glad that I didn’t. This is where the really cool stuff starts.

There are a huge variety of formations in these caves. You can see stalactites and stalagmites, of course, but also soda straws, draperies, columns, cave pearls, popcorn, and helictites. If you don't know what those all are, don't worry. There is a map and signs. Truthfully, I had all that information and missed (read: didn't know how to find) some of them anyway. Additionally, you can see large deposits of gypsum which is the same mineral that comprises the fine sand in White Dunes National Park just over three hours away.

Little mineral deposits form like gems on the walls of the Carlsbad Caverns
Cool formations in Carlsbad Caverns

The Top of the Cross marks a cross-like shape at the end of the Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns
Top of the Cross in Carlsbad Caverns

An hour and a half after leaving the elevator/restroom area, we returned to that same area. We were lucky to have a short line to wait in and we rewarded ourselves with a picnic lunch outside of the Visitor's Center.

Note: Parts of the Big Room Trail are wheelchair accessible. There's an accessibility guide online and the park rangers will also provide more information on site.

Carlsbad Caverns Important Information

  • Yes, as of February 2023, you must have a reservation to enter the cave. You have a one-hour window to arrive during your scheduled time.

  • Strollers are not allowed. You do NOT want to attempt the full hike unless you are a seasoned hiker. Get an external frame backpack to hold small kids if you can; they are often available used on Facebook groups for $15 or so.

  • Going down into the natural opening is cool, but if you are concerned about time or physical constraints, take the elevator and focus on the Big Room. That’s where you see the most formations and it’s magical.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Most people come to Carlsbad and see the Caverns, but many overlook Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, just 32 miles further down the same road and just over the state line in Texas. Because they are basically co-located, I can’t imagine skipping one if you have the time.

Key Features of Guadalupe Mountains National Park

One of the key features of our National Parks is that the Park system has selected parks that are all unique in some way. Guadalupe Peak, for example, is the highest point in Texas. The Park is also part of the world’s largest Permian fossil reef and there is a lot of local history on display at this park as well. The Pinery Trail is just 0.6 miles roundtrip but it takes you to the ruins of the Pinery mail station that was part of the Butterfield Overland mail route back when the West was being settled. It starts just outside of the Visitor's Center.

Hiking Devil's Hall in Guadalupe Mountains

There are many hikes, but a lot of them are very long and/or moderate to strenuous. We selected the Devil’s Hall hike, which is 3.6 miles roundtrip. The hike takes you partially uphill, through cacti and desert forest, and then leads you down into a rocky creek. As you follow the wash, you eventually get to a set of boulders that you need to climb. It’s not overly difficult – we had a 5- and 6-year-old do it. You are rewarded at the top with a tiny, lovely pool of clear water and a beautiful vista of mountain, rock, and trees. Is this it, you wonder. No, it’s called Devil’s Hall so surely something must resemble a hall, right? You keep going and just when you think you must surely have passed it, there it is in front of you. Because this is a small park, you may have a few other people around you, but it is nothing like any other National Park crowd. There was one other couple there and we did the if-I-take-a-picture-of-you-will-you-take-a-picture-of-us thing. The woman deferred to her husband as she said she didn’t take pictures. She then proceeded to be a backseat photographer. Ha!

The hike back is just covering what you've already seen but make sure to pay attention to trail markers. When we travel with these friends and take a hike, we always all make it to the main spectacle, and then inevitably at least half the group gets lost. This hike was no exception.

We saw a gopher snake and some cool insects but the real treat was seeing the prickly pear cacti in bloom. June is hot, but it's such a treat to see the yellow and pink blossoms.

Click the arrow on the right side of the picture to see more photos of Guadalupe National Park.

Carlsbad, New Mexico

For Memorial Day weekend, our family of four took a trip with our friends and their three children to Carlsbad, New Mexico. For our family, it was the start of a two-week adventure covering New Mexico and Arizona. We arrived in town, and each went to our respective Airbnbs. The town of Carlsbad, NM is the best place to stay if you want to see both National Parks. From the town of Carlsbad, it is about 25 minutes to Carlsbad Caverns NP and 50 minutes to Guadalupe Mountains NP.

Three separated rectangular windows for a diamond shape on an adobe house. There is a serape blanket hanging over the windows creating a colorful display of rainbow through the windows against a white backdrop.
The colorful, unique window at our Carlsbad Airbnb

Carlsbad is a rather small town that straddles the Pecos River. It has a central shopping district and modest neighborhoods that border it on every side. There is a nice area along the river that has several Airbnb choices that are centrally located.

Map of Carlsbad, Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains

Photo credit: Desert USA

We were really impressed with the Riverwalk area. There were great playgrounds on either side, a small but fun waterslide park, paddle boats, a boat ramp, a performance venue, and a free rec center. There were also plentiful benches, picnic tables, and grills available. A shaved ice food truck was a daily visitor while we were there.

The town of Carlsbad is very functional, but not gorgeous. It’s not ugly either. It just is. But despite the ambivalent look of the place, we all agreed that it had a very friendly and laid-back vibe. It’s hard to explain it, you just need to experience it. It's like a sparsely inhabited Moab.

A floating foot bridge crosses the Pecos River. The bridge takes a few travelers from one side of the Carlsbad, NM River Walk to the other side.
The foot bridge across the Carlsbad, NM River Walk
A sprawling children's playground with castle peaks. It's known as "The Playground on the Pecos".
"The Playground on the Pecos"

Where to Stay in Carlsbad, NM

Carlsbad, New Mexico isn't a very big town. There are a few, nice options for hotels and then many home stays available.

Most homes are modest houses and good for one family. If you are traveling with friends, you are better off probably renting two homes. The good news is that with most places between $100 and $200 per night, it is a very affordable option.

I recommend trying to get a house that is near the riverwalk or alternatively, a hotel in the small town. At the end of two long days of National Parks, our kids still had enough energy to want to go down to the local park along the river.

We enjoyed spending time at our friend's home rental near the river and made good use of the grill and outdoor space. Our place was nice, but was a little further away and wasn't in easy walking distance of anything.

Final Thoughts

Our National Parks are such a treasure. This is a great trip that can be part of a larger regional trip to Big Bend or westward to National Sands.

Remember that if you have a child that is between 6 and 12 years old, they can complete the Junior Ranger packet and earn a badge. You can get the booklets in the Visitor’s Center at any National Park.

Here are a few posts that may help you plan even further. As always, please reach out to me if you have any questions - I answer all of my emails - and please subscribe or pass along to someone that may be interested in getting updates.

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Happy Travels,



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