Date of Trip: April 6th, 2018
Fees: Go to this site for current entrance and tour fees.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is more than just a cave. Carlsbad Caverns is the main attraction but there are also ground-level hiking trails, beautiful picnic spots, and an entire second cave to explore!
When we went we did two things:
1. Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour
2. Natural Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns
I’ll talk about the main attraction (Carlsbad Caverns) first, then loop back to Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour.
On the nps.gov website for Carlsbad Caverns National Park there are a lot of tours listed. Before you choose a tour, know this: You can tour the cave without a guide. This cave is huge and you and your group will have an incredible time touring the cave all on your own. A tour is not necessary. If you are interested in a tour, I talk about this later on in the post.
You can enter and exit Carlsbad Caverns two ways: by use of the elevator or by use of the natural entrance. The natural entrance is a series of switchbacks that take you 1.25 miles underground. This is equivalent to about 79 stories. When we were there, the elevator was broken so we had to take the natural entrance down into the cave and then back up again.
Everyone we talked to made the natural entrance sound like one of the most intense and difficult hiking experiences of their lives. It’s really not that bad. The switchbacks are gradual, slowly changing in elevation. The sights along the entrance are worth the effort. My suggestion would be this: Take the natural entrance down because the sights are worth it and going down is actually pretty easy. If you have young ones, elderly group members, or you are just feeling lazy, take the elevator up when you have had your fill of the cave.
The Big Room is the cave’s “must see” route. This is where the best formations are found (supposedly). The Big Room closes at 2:45 p.m. so we actually got to the bottom of the cave too late to see this area. The rest of the cave closes at 4:45 p.m.
As I said, the park offers many tours, of varying lengths. You do not have to be on a tour to see the cave. Visit nps.gov if you are interested in tours. Remember to read ALL the details and requirements because some of them require you to bring things like batteries.
We chose the Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour. It was AMAZING and I definitely recommend it. It only had two downfalls: 1) This cave is NOT part of the main Carlsbad Caverns cave. While it is in the park, it is an entirely separate cave. 2) This tour is the reason we missed seeing the Big Room. It got over at 1:45 so by the time we made it back to the Visitor’s Center, purchased our tickets, and got underground the Big Room was already closed.
My recommendation is this: If you have ONLY ONE day in the park, only go to Carlsbad Caverns and see the whole thing. You can spend the entire day in that cave. If you have TWO DAYS or more in the park, use one of them to tour Slaughter Canyon Cave. It has incredible formations and you can get right up close to them because the tour group is so small.
Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour is listed as a strenuous tour. This is because there is a hike to get to the cave entrance that is 500 feet of elevation in less than a mile. Yikes! Our group had people ages 8 to mid-40s, of varying physical fitness, and everyone made it to the top. Kenon and I are regular hikers so we had no problem at all with this ascent.
On the website, this tour is listed as 5.5 hours but you are only actually in the cave for about 2.5 hours. The tour meets at the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center at 8:30 a.m. for a 30 minute orientation. This time is also used to get everyone set up with a helmet/lamp (bring three of your own AA batteries for this) and gloves. Then the tour caravans 45 minutes to the trailhead. Once there, the group hikes the mile or so to the cave entrance (remember: 500 feet of elevation for this). Finally, at about 10:30 a.m. the tour actually enters the cave. The tour goes around the cave and then makes it back to the surface around 1:00.
The tour is filled with incredible formation.
And more formations.
Including some that are still active and continue to grow.
And when you are all done, stop for lunch at Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area. In the spring, it is filled with turkey and deer. There is shade, picnic tables, and toilets. The road to this picnic area is on the way back to Carlsbad Caverns from Slaughter Canyon Cave. Follow 418 onto Rattlesnake Springs Rd, toward Camp Washington Ranch. Keep following the road through a fence until you find a tree-shaded area.
Places to Camp:
There is not any camping inside the park boundaries. The closest campgrounds are as follows:
1. Whites City Campground: This is just outside the entrance of the park. This is a… rustic… campground. There are flush toilets and functional showers. However, everything about this campground is a little rundown.
2. Carlsbad KOA Holiday: This KOA is located 38 miles from the entrance of the park. We did not stop here but it has fantastic reviews.
3. BLM Land (Bureau of Land Management): This land is open to use for the public, free of charge. You can drive up and camp on it at a moment’s notice. There is free camping on BLM land at Mile Marker 10 as you drive north on National Parks Highway (Highway 62), just a few miles south of Carlsbad Caverns. There are not camping facilities, just open lots where others have camped before. It is named “Mile Marker 10 Gypsum Caves Camping” but this will not show up on Google Maps.
4. Pine Springs Campground at Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Pine Springs is located 36 miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park entrance. All campsites (except group sites) are on a first-come, first-served basis. They rarely fill up but on weekdays and holidays, I suggest getting to the park between 9 a.m. and noon to claim a spot. Bonus to this campground: You get to knock TWO national parks off of your bucket list! Visit the website here.
1. Bathrooms are located just outside of the visitor center and they are NICE. Multi-stall, clean, and taken care of.
2. Bringing your pet? Animals are not allowed inside the caves but Carlsbad Caverns does offer a kennel service. Leaving animals unattended in a vehicle is prohibited in the park.
3. At the bottom of Carlsbad Cavern, near the elevators, is restrooms, a drinking fountain, and a snack bar! You can buy snacks, drinks, and cavern souvenirs.
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