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.
Carlsbad, New Mexico
Let me back up. 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.
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 and a nice-looking RV park (Pecos River RV Park) that is centrally located.
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.
We only had two full days, so we did one day at Carlsbad Caverns and the other at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
The Best Airbnbs in Carlsbad
Carlsbad, NM has less than 100 Airbnbs at the time of this post. Most are very clean and 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 an Airbnb that is near the riverwalk. 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 Airbnb 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.
Carlsbad Airbnb Recommendations:
For a single family:
"The River Runs Near" - this house is nicely renovated and has a different decor than the ubiquitous decor found in many of the area options. It has two queen beds so it fits well for a family of 4.
"Very Clean House by the River" - our friends stayed at this lovely home. It was clean and had a spacious backyard. If you walk out of the house and go right, the riverwalk is just a couple of blocks away. It has three rooms with three king size beds so it can accommodate a slightly larger single family.
For larger groups:
"Grand Abode" - this charming house has a fun vibe and even has a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game in the house. It also has a lovely outdoor seating area. The house can accommodate 18 guests in 4 rooms: 2 king, 1 queen, 4 full-size bunk beds and 2 queen size sofas.~$200
"Casa Excelente" - this large house can accommodate 15 people with 2 king beds, 1 queen and a bunk room with 4 full bunks plus a sleeper sofa. Younger kids will love the backyard playground and the adults will enjoy watching the kids from the covered porch inside. There's also an X-box with 18 loaded games. ~$175
"Kick Back and Relax" - This lovely house can accommodate a groups of 8-10. It has 2 king size beds and a bunk room with 2 full size bunks. It also has a sofa bed. This house is made for fun - there's a fire pit and separate pergola area out back, a ping pong table in the garage and a Pac-Man arcade game plus a TV with game console in the bunk room.~$175
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
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.
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!
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 their formations.
The known caves are 30 miles long and the deepest known cave 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.
A word of caution – the entrance is rather steep, and strollers aren’t allowed. 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 walk down to the Big Room took about an hour or so. 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.
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.
Carlsbad Caverns Important Information:
As of June 2021, 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.
Do whisper. As Aimee Mann warned us, voices carry.
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.
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.
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.
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.