Carlsbad Caverns Is an Underground Wonderland for Families

Want to make a cave fit for Elsa the ice queen part of your family’s favorite getaway? Visit the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where underground rock formations carved from limestone and spindly stalactites form a tapestry of whimsical beauty. But don’t worry: Although it can be a little chilly, it never actually freezes over. 

Cave Dwellers

In the mountains of southeast New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns is a treasure of hidden chambers formed of limestone that was once eroded by water and petroleum deposits embedded underneath. After this mixture created the cave itself, moisture from precipitation would seep into the cave. As it evaporated, it left calcium carbonate deposits, forming the spiky stalactites drilling down from the ceiling and the stalagmites rising from the floor.

Today, the cave is home to hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats, who comfortably hang from stalactites during the day, and soar around the high desert landscape surrounding the caverns all night looking for food.

Far from being a barren landscape, the high elevation and surrounding climate from the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains ensure that there are lots of plants, from ferns and mushrooms to cacti, mosses, and even marine plants, to sustain the bats and other animals in the park.

Dozens of other birds, fish, amphibians, mammals, insects, and reptiles call the northern Chihuahuan Desert their home too, and are worth a trip into the backcountry and away from the bats to see.

Visiting the Lair

Visitors can hike into the cave via its natural entrance, or take an elevator down into the chambers. When inside, self-guided cave tours and ranger-led tours are available for the six main chambers. The Giant Dome and Lion’s Tail are caves of particular interest to hikers. For intrepid cavers, check out the Hall of the White Giant, a hike rated “strenuous” for all its clambering through nooks and crannies to see some of the more impressive formations in the cave.

But there are plenty of things to see at Carlsbad Caverns, even if a severe case of claustrophobia sets in. Summertime brings night sky programs to the park, where celestial viewings via telescope midnight moonlight walks around the desert make for some pretty special nights under the open sky.

If visiting in July, you’ll want to turn out for Dawn of the Bats, an annual event that starts before sunrise. At dawn, witness a swarm of bats fly into the cave after a night out on the prowl. Watching the mass migration, which sees bats inhabit the cave all summer, kicks off a variety of other bat-related activities throughout the day.

For a great daytime hike, Rattlesnake Canyon Trail goes just off the path of the caves and is a great trek for wildlife spotters. Be sure to bring plenty of water and sunblock for a daytime adventure though.

Just south of the park, be sure to check out Rattlesnake Springs.  Beyond the namesake creatures, you’ll find a peaceful desert oasis that’s home to lots of birds and is great for wildlife watching, picnicking, and relaxing in the open air.

Back in the town of Carlsbad, up the road, check out Lake Carlsbad and Lake Brantley, where swimming, fishing, and boating are cool summertime activities that provide a great counterpoint to your batty cave adventures too.

Park Practicalities

You can enter the park in southeast New Mexico, just north of the Texas border from Highway 62 at White’s City, where the road will take you directly to the visitor’s center inside the cavern. There is another entrance off Route 418, which takes you through Rattlesnake Springs, and eventually into the western half of the park at Slaughter Canyon Cave. There is no ranger station or visitor center on this side of the park.

The park is open year-round, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. You can start a hike into the cavern at 8:30am and the entrance is open for visitors until 2pm. You’ll want to make your way out of the cave by 5pm, when the visitor center closes.

Backcountry camping is allowed with a free permit, issued at the visitor’s center, but the lack of campground facilities makes this option unappealing to most. Twenty miles north of the park is the town of Carlsbad, where you can find hotels, motels, and campgrounds aplenty.

Take a break for lunch at one of the picnic areas near the entrance or outside the park. No food or drink (except water) is allowed inside the caves, so be sure your family is well-fed and watered before starting your underground adventure.

Of course, if you get thirsty, you could always take the bats’ lead and just drink some blood.

Ever been to the Carlsbad Caverns? What are some of your favorite national parks you’ve visited with the family? Share your travel stories with us!

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