Driving the 9.5 mi Walnut Canyon Desert drive up to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitors Center, you’ll see pretty desert mountain scenery and flowering cactus. The real show stopper, however, isn’t what’s on the surface, but what’s nearly 1,000 feet below your feet: cavernous rooms and chambers filled with awe-inspiring formations.
Stalactite or stalagmite?
If you’re like me, it’s easy to confuse the two. Fortunately, through my time at Carlsbad Caverns NP, I picked up a handy little saying to keep the distinctions clear:
- Stalactite — hangs “tight” to the ceiling
- Stalagmite — the formations “might” touch the ceiling one day, but for now, form up from the ground.
As a visitor, you have the option of one of two self-guided tours or selecting a ranger-led tour. It may also help to know that the caves are a constant 56 degrees year-round, so a light jacket or sweater may come in handy!
Self guided -Big Room route
You can take the elevators in the visitor center down to the start of the Big Room route. As the name suggests, this route will take you to the largest cavern – the 8.2 acre Big Room. It will take your breath away! The paved trail is about 1 mile in length and will take you past a number of popular “must sees”: Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, Bottomless Pit, etc.
Self guided- Natural entrance trail
This trail will test your stamina. While only a mile in length (or two miles if you add on the Big Room route), this route has steep inclines, switchbacks, and steps, and follows the original explorers’ route into the caves. It left me breathing heavier, and it wasn’t just from the views!
At the end of the natural entrance trail, you’ll find a lunchroom/gift shop, the start of the Big Room trail, as well as a restroom. It’s not everyday that you can say you used a restroom that was over 750 feet underground!
Ranger led tours
Reserve your tours well in advance as you’ll not likely secure any spaces on the day of your arrival. Tours are kept small on purpose and they don’t allow stand-bys. I believe I made reservations a few months prior to our anticipated arrival. Below is information on the three different ranger-led tours I signed up for. There are others in addition to these. Note that the ranger-led tours have an associated fee. Highly recommend!
On the day of your tour, arrive at least a 1/2 hour early. You may want to give yourself a comfortable margin as the visitor center can get busy and it may take you some time to stand in line to pick up your tickets. Add extra time for parking and for checking in your pets at the on-site kennel (located next to the Visitors Center), if applicable. The kenneling fee is $10/pet.
- King’s Palace Tour, $8/person On this 1.5 hour tour, you’ll go deeper underground and see four beautifully decorated chambers. The highlight is the King’s Palace chamber (pictured below). You’ll also see a variety of cool formations including stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, columns and draperies.
- Left-hand tunnel Tour, $7/person
Experience what early cavers would have experienced by exploring the caverns by candlelight! The formations are even more beautiful by the soft glow of your lantern.
- Lower Caves Tour, $20/person
Gear up with a headlamp and explore the caverns underneath the Big Room. You’ll do a short rope climb, climb up and down a few sets of ladders, and have the option to do a crawl through some smaller tunnels.
It’s incomprehensible that such awe-inspiring formations like this could exist, or that the mammoth and delicate structures enjoyed by Carlsbad Cavern visitors are the result of millions of years of slowly building deposits. Hopefully, through careful stewardship of lands like these, we’ll get to enjoy these sites for many more years to come.
RV/Oversized Vehicle Parking: The visitor center has a RV/oversized vehicle section to the parking lot. When we visited, it happened to be Spring Break week and the parking lot, including the visitor’s center, was a madhouse! Get there early if you can, especially if you have a ranger-led tour scheduled.
We spent two nights camping at Dark Canyon BLM for free. It’s approximately 10-miles away from the start of the drive up to Carlsbad Caverns NP, in White’s City. There’s a closer option — the White’s City RV park, but we opted for the BLM site instead.
Sonora Caverns, Sonora, Texas
Fascinating caves extend beyond the Carlsbad Caverns area. Traveling through Texas, you may encounter a number of interesting sites. Fresh off our visit to Carlsbad, we weren’t sure how we would like these smaller versions. Nonetheless, we pressed on and visited Sonora Caverns.
What we enjoyed was the more intimate feel. You’re able to get closer to the cave formations – though of course, the same rule of “look, don’t touch” still applies. The tour groups are small and you aren’t surrounded by mobs of other visitors. The formations were also pretty impressive, in our opinion!
You can also spend the night tent or RV camping at Sonora Caverns. Water and electric sites were $25/night.