15 Best Sights in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center

Fodor's choice

Within this user-friendly facility at the top of an escarpment, a 75-seat theater offers engrossing films and ranger programs about the different types of caves. Exhibits offer a primer on bats, geology, wildlife, and the early tribes and settlers that once lived in and passed through the Carlsbad Caverns area. Friendly rangers staff an information desk, where maps are distributed and tickets are sold. A gift shop, café, and bookstore also are on the premises.

Evening Bat Flight Program

Fodor's choice

In the amphitheater at the Natural Entrance (off a short trail from the main parking lot) a ranger discusses the park's batty residents before the creatures begin their sundown exodus. The bats aren't on any predictable schedule, so times are a little iffy. Ideally, viewers will first hear the bats preparing to exit, followed by a vortex of black specks swirling out of the cave mouth in search of dinner against the darkening sky. When conditions are favorable, hundreds of thousands of bats will soar off over the span of half an hour or longer.

Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park

Fodor's choice

More preserve than traditional zoo, this park contains an impressive collection of plants and animals native to the Chihuahuan Desert. The Desert Arboretum has hundreds of exotic cacti and succulents, and the Living Desert Zoo is home to mountain lions, javelinas, deer, elk, bobcats, bison, and a black bear. Nocturnal exhibits let you view the area's nighttime wildlife, a walk-through aviary houses birds of prey, and there's a reptile exhibit. The park also sponsors some great educational events. Though there are shaded rest areas, restrooms, and water fountains, in summer it's more comfortable to visit in the morning before the desert oven heats up. The expansive view from here is the best in town.

1504 Miehls Dr. N, Carlsbad, New Mexico, 88220, USA
sights Details
Rate Includes: $5, Memorial Day weekend–Labor Day, daily 8–5; Labor Day weekend–Memorial Day, daily 9--5; last entry into zoo 3:30 year-round

Recommended Fodor's Video

Natural Entrance

Fodor's choice

As natural daylight recedes, a self-guided, paved trail twists and turns downward from the yawning mouth of the main cavern, about 100 yards east of the visitor center. The route is winding and sometimes slick from water seepage aboveground. A steep descent of about 750 feet, much of it secured by hand rails, takes you about a mile through the main corridor and past dramatic features such as the Bat Cave and the Boneyard. (Despite its eerie name, the formations here don't look much like femurs and fibulae; they're more like spongy bone insides.) Iceberg Rock is a massive boulder that dropped from the cave ceiling millennia ago. After about a mile, you'll link up underground with the Big Room Trail and can return to the surface via elevator or by hiking back out. Footware with a good grip is recommended.

727 Carlsbad Cavern Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, 88220, USA
sights Details
Rate Includes: $15, Late May–early Sept., daily 8:30–3:30; early Sept.–late May, daily 9–2

Rattlesnake Canyon Trail

Fodor's choice

Small cairns guide you along this picturesque trail, which winds 600 feet into the canyon—it's especially lush with greenery from spring through fall. Allow half a day to trek down into the canyon and make the somewhat strenuous climb out; the total trip is about 6 miles. For a look into the canyon, you can make the ¼-mile stroll to an overlook. Moderate.

Rattlesnake Springs

Fodor's choice

Of the several places to picnic in the park, this is the prettiest by far. There are about a dozen picnic tables and grills, many of them tree-shaded, and drinking water and restrooms are available. The seclusion of the site and the oasis-like draw add to the tranquility. Be alert to the presence of wildlife.

The Big Room

Fodor's choice

With a floor space equal to about 14 football fields, this subterranean focal point of Carlsbad Cavern clues visitors in to just how large the cavern really is. The White House could fit in one corner of the Big Room, and wouldn't come close to grazing the 230-foot ceiling. Entrance can be accessed by elevator or through the Natural Entrance and a 1.25-mile descending trail. Either way, at 750 feet below the surface you will connect with the self-guided 1.25-mile Big Room loop, a relatively level (it has some steps), paved pathway through the almost hallucinatory wonders of various formations and decorations. You also get a layman's lesson on how the cavern was carved. This self-guided tour costs $12; kids under 15 are admitted for free but must be accompanied by an adult. Reservations are not necessary. An audio guide is available from the visitor center bookstore for $5. Even in summer, long pants and long-sleeved shirts are advised for cave temperatures in the mid-50s.

Yucca Canyon Trail

Fodor's choice

Sweeping views of the Guadalupe Mountains and El Capitan give allure to this challenging but beautiful trail. Drive past Rattlesnake Springs and stop at the park boundary before reaching the Slaughter Canyon Cave parking lot (four-wheel-drive or high-clearance vehicles are recommended; check with visitor center for road conditions before setting out). Turn west along the boundary fence line to the trailhead. The 7½-mile round-trip begins at the mouth of Yucca Canyon and climbs nearly 1,500 feet up to the top of the escarpment for a panoramic view. Difficult.

Carlsbad Museum and Arts Center

Pueblo pottery, Native American artifacts, and early cowboy and ranch memorabilia fill this downtown cultural center, along with contemporary art shows and an exhibit on Carlsbad's bats. The real treasure, though, is the McAdoo Collection, with works by painters of the Taos Society of Artists.

418 W. Fox St., Carlsbad, New Mexico, 88220, USA
sights Details
Rate Includes: Closed Sun. and Mon., Mon.–Sat. 10–5

Dawn of the Bats

The third Saturday in July each year, early risers gather at the cave's entrance to watch tens of thousands of bats return home from their nocturnal search for food. Nature walks and other special ranger programs are offered as well during this free event.

Guadalupe Ridge Trail

This long, winding trail extends for some 100 miles through the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico and western Texas and can be hiked from Carlsbad Caverns through to the Guadalupe Mountains. Within Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the most interesting portion runs for about 12 miles one-way from the western side of Walnut Canyon Desert Drive to the park's western boundary with Lincoln National Forest. If you hike all 12 miles and back, an overnight stay in the backcountry is strongly recommended. The hike may be long, but for serious hikers the up-close-and-personal views into Rattlesnake and Slaughter canyons are more than worth it—not to mention the serenity of being miles away from civilization. Difficult.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, 88220, USA

Old Guano Road Trail

Meandering a little more than 3½ miles one-way on steadily descending terrain (elevation gain is about 750 feet), the trail dips sharply toward its end at Whites City campground. Give yourself two to three hours to complete the walk. The high desert sun can make this hike a bit taxing any time of year, especially in summer. Moderate.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, 88220, USA

Rattlesnake Springs

Enormous cottonwood trees shade the picnic and recreation area at this cool, secluded oasis near Black River. The rare desert wetland harbors butterflies, mammals, and reptiles, as well as 90% of the park's 357 bird species. Don't let the name scare you; there may be rattlesnakes here, but no more than at any similar site in the Southwest. Restroom facilities are available, but camping and overnight parking are not allowed.

Slaughter Canyon Trail

Beginning at the Slaughter Canyon Cave parking lot (four-wheel-drive or high-clearance vehicles are recommended; check with visitor center for road conditions before setting out), the trail traverses a heavily vegetated canyon bottom into a remote part of the park. As you begin hiking, look off to the east (to your right) to see the dun-colored ridges and wrinkles of the Elephant Back formation, the first of many dramatic limestone formations visible from the trail. The route travels 5½ miles one-way, the last 3 miles steeply climbing onto a limestone ridge escarpment. Allow a full day for the round-trip, and prepare for an elevation gain of 1,850 feet. Difficult.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, 88220, USA

Star Parties

Coinciding with the new or first-quarter moon of every other month, star parties are held outside Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park about six times a year. A laser tour and powerful telescope bring the heavens closer. Call for dates.