They say everything is bigger in Texas, but that is not true when it comes to caves like those at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Carlsbad Caverns is much larger than those we have in Texas, and surprisingly incredible. We have journeyed through more than a few caves in Texas, and did not expect anything different inside Carlsbad Caverns.
We were wrong.
As it turns out, these caverns are more incredible than hiking to the highest point in Texas (Guadalupe Peak), and we will show you why in this Carlsbad Caverns review.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park has two caves on the list of top 15 longest caves in the country. Lechuguilla Cave is more than 140 miles long, but is limited to research and exploration crews. Carlsbad Cavern is nearly 40 miles long and contains the “Big Room”, which is where most visitors spend their time.
At 8.2 acres, the Big Room is the largest accessible cave chamber in the country. There are also two smaller caves (Spider Cave and Slaughter Canyon Cave), which are accessible by taking a guided adventure tour. Carlsbad Caverns National Park receives more than 500,000 annual visitors, and you are about to learn why.
Carlsbad Caverns vs. the Guadalupe Mountains
Many people love hiking to peaks, or overlooks, and we are no different. Our first activity during a week-long trip through the mountains in west Texas, was a hike to Guadalupe Peak. Climbing to the highest point in Texas may sound exhilarating, but the 4-mile hike takes place on a long series of steep switchbacks.
The views along Guadalupe Peak Trail are stunning, but the trail is exhausting. The temps during the 3,000ft climb fluctuate between cool and too hot depending on where you are on the trail. However, the trail into Carlsbad Caverns is a much easier descent, temps are consistently cool, and the views are arguably more incredible.
Hiking to Guadalupe Peak was our first activity in the morning for obvious reasons. In most cases, a challenging hike will be easier closer to sunrise. In the heat of the afternoon, the coolness of the caverns will be much more refreshing. When we arrived at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we were surprised by the sight of a full parking lot. There were very few vehicles at the nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park, in comparison. Apparently, Carlsbad Caverns is far more popular than the mountains.
If you are reading this Carlsbad Caverns review prior to your visit, make a reservation before arriving, and/or purchase a national parks pass.
How Deep Are the Carlsbad Caverns?
The trail leading down into the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns is a little more than one mile long. The depth of the caverns is greater than 1,000ft, but visitors only go about 70 stories beneath the surface. Don’t worry about having to hike back up out of the cave.
Once you finish exploring Carlsbad Caverns, you can take an elevator back up to ground level. This elevator travels 750ft through a cavity in the limestone. However, you are welcome to hike back out of the cave if you desire. We noticed only one couple taking the path less-traveled as we explored this national park.
In addition to the elevator, Carlsbad Caverns National Park has two gift shops inside its visitors center. The large gift shop is across from the ticket counter. The other is considered a bookshop, which you will see after the elevator returns you to the surface. There is also a restaurant, a short park film and several exhibits. That’s not all!
You can also watch the bats emerge during certain seasons, take a desert scenic drive, hike the trails above ground, or camp in the wilderness. However, Carlsbad Caverns National Park does not have developed campgrounds or opportunities for lodging. You can easily spend the entire day in this park. If you require other food and lodging options you can head to Whites City, Carlsbad, or Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
The Descent Into Carlsbad Caverns
The cavern opening at the surface is not spectacular. A single bat was fluttering about as we approached the mouth of the cave. The path to the lower parts of the cavern is paved, but it is also steep and wet. The park has done a great job maintaining this trail. Unlike other cave systems, there are very few stairs considering the distance you can travel through Carlsbad Caverns.
Glancing at the map of Carlsbad Caverns reveals a potential distance of around three miles. This distance is nothing in comparison to the total known distance (185 miles) of the caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. However, three miles is greater than the distances of the several other caves we have explored, including a lava cave in Hawaii.
As we continued to descend into the dark caverns, we kept expecting to arrive at the bottom, but we never really did. The temperature dropped as we passed waypoints and glowing formations. Even though there were hundreds of people nearby, it was quiet inside the caverns.
Eventually, after walking downhill for 1.5 miles, an area levels off (somewhat) and we found ourselves inside the Big Room. This room seems more like a series of rooms with different cave formations, scenic lighting and crystal clear water. The lighting is nearly perfect. There is enough light to find your way, but not enough to know where you are in the room without a map.
The loop trail around the Big Room is about as long as the entrance trail. You can choose between two shortcuts if you’re not up for walking the entire room. However, you will miss out on all of the glowing formations, and other exhibits.
There are a couple of openings where you can see down into lower chambers. Somebody left an old rope ladder down there! A walk around the Big Room is exciting. It’s a wonder that no one built a small city inside Carlsbad Caverns because it is a very large and refreshing space which attracts a ton of visitors.
Hours of operation: 8am – 5pm (visitors center), 8:30am – 2:30pm (cavern tours)
Fees: $15 per person (kids 15 and under are free)
Dog Friendly: No, but there is a $10 kennel service
Self guided tours end at 2:30pm, but you can still access the park after 2:30pm to hike the trails, drive the scenic loop, or shop at the visitors center. Pay attention to the time while you are inside the caverns. Everyone must be out of the cave by 4:30pm. You don’t want to get stuck down there overnight! It will take a few hours to explore everything Carlsbad Caverns has to offer beneath the surface. The Desert Scenic Drive will take at least 30 minutes. Hiking trails can take much, much longer.
Wrapping It Up
The temperature difference from the caverns to the surface was about 45 degrees during our visit. By the time we completed a loop around the Big Room our hands felt like popsicles. You may want to purchase a sweatshirt from the gift shop before entering the caverns because it’s cold down there. Wear shoes with some traction because there will be wet spots throughout the tour. It will take about 3-4 hours to fully explore Carlsbad Caverns and the visitors center.
This is not your basic in-and-out cave. Including the Desert Scenic Drive, hiking trails, and bat emergence you can easily spend the entire day at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. If we have to choose between visiting Carlsbad Caverns or the Guadalupe Mountains in the future, we will be visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park first. It wasn’t just the cherry on top of our sundae, it was an ice cream truck passing out sundaes in the desert.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park Video
A lot of photos were taken inside the caverns, and more than a few made it into this Carlsbad Caverns review. However, we created a video of our experience in order to share many of the other great pics beneath the mountains. Examine the shots for yourself and let us know what you see. If you have already visited this park, or plan to do so, share your experiences with us below!