Guide to One Day at Carlsbad Caverns with Kids

Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most unique national parks you’ll visit. From stalagmites and stalactites in 360 views to education on bats and incredibly huge rooms of formations, its unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Furthermore, visiting Carlsbad Caverns with kids is really exciting and keeps the young ones interested.

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Located in the southern part of New Mexico, we wondered if it was really worth driving a few extra hours from our main destination to “see a cave.” I can tell you now that it was so worth it. Carlsbad isn’t just any little cave off the side of the road. It’s a national park for a reason.

Here are a few things to know about visiting Carlsbad Caverns with kids to make your visit go smoothly and not have any disappointments (spoiler: you must have a reservation!).

pinnable image that says "all you need to know about visiting Carlsbad Caverns with Kids". 4 image collage includes interior cavern room, interior of cavern when it's very dark except for a light shining on a smaller formation, exterior view of visitor center with official Carlsbad Cavern sign in foreground, view from top of the natural entrance with a paved path making switchbacks down a steep hill into the opening in the rock

History of Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns was formed starting hundred of millions of years ago as pressure turned an ancient sea reef into limestone. The inland sea was separated from the ocean and as the sea evaporated, the reef was buried by salts.

Plate Tectonics shifted the landscape, created valleys and the Guadalupe Mountains. Gases and sulfur crystalized the walls, which were renewed with newly formed rinds and spongework.

The formations of stalagmites, stalactites, and other things you see today began their formation about a half-million years ago.

It’s believed that 1,000 years ago, natives found the caves and the only trace they left were some drawings on the walls. Then, in the 1800’s, local settlers witnessed the great bat departure from the cave, leading them to the cave entrance.

Overview of the Cave Today

In 1923, it was named a national monument. A few years later in 1930, Carlsbad Caverns became a national park. It is one of the most accessible cave systems in the world and enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people each year.

It is home to hundred of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats which make their flight out every evening.

While there are a few areas to get some hiking in outside of the cave, the main attraction is the large cavern that will not disappoint. A couple miles of path are open to the public for encountering, but there are around 30 miles of passage that have been explored!

visitor center exterior at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, official national park sign in foreground and building in back

Timed Entry to Carlsbad Caverns

Before you do anything, know that you must have a reservation to enter the cave. This is the timed-entry requirement that is happening at many parks.

You can make the reservation online up to a month ahead of time. I highly suggest making your reservation as soon as possible and they do sell out. Reservations cost $1 per person.

You can then pay your entrance fee for the caverns when you arrive at the visitor center.

indoors of the Carlsbad Caverns visitor center, a line queue that isn't filled much, white tile floor, tv's hanging above with check in staff behind a counter at the front of the line

Check in at the Visitor Center

As long as you have your park reservation, you don’t have to worry about reserving anything else to take a self-guided tour of the caverns.

For the self-guided tour, simply show up to the visitor center with your reservation (our name was on a list, so if you forget to print it, they will have it.)

You may have to wait in a line during busy seasons to check in, but as long as you are there within your 1-hour window you will be fine.

While you should already have your timed-entry reservation, you’ll purchase your park admission fee here. Note that admission is per person, not per car as it is at other parks.

Right now (2024) that rate is $15 per person. Kids ages 15 and under are FREE. If you have an interagency / America the Beautiful Pass, that will cover up to 4 individual fees for your party.

Entrance to the cave is through the visitor center.

Ranger-Guided Tours

If you’d like to take a ranger-guided tour of the cave, you must reserve that ahead of time as well (because they sell out quickly). These tours do cost extra, but will take you to parts of the cave that you cannot go on a self-guided tour.

You can add the King’s Palace tour to your entry. This will take you into the King’s Palace, which also includes the Queen’s Chamber, Green Lake Room, and Papoose Room.

This tour sells out QUICKLY and is available a month before, so log on ASAP the day a month before your visit, before it sells out.

Carlsbad Caverns Self Guided Tours

Here is what you need to do to take a self-guided tour at Carlsbad Cavern. This means that you won’t have a guide.

It would have been cool to do the King’s Palace Tour (we really wanted to but it sold out right away), but we still had a great time doing the tour on our own.

As we went down and through the caverns we saw a few park rangers that stopped to say hi and see if we had any questions. This was very helpful 1) so that we could get any questions answered and 2) so the kids could fill out some of their junior ranger booklet (one page asks you to talk to a ranger).

So even though you do the tour on your own, there are rangers to help if you need.

Choose your Entrance- Natural or Elevator

looking down into the hole of a mountain with a steep switchback patch leading down to it

Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance

There are two ways to make it to the main cavern area.

The first is to take the Natural Entrance into the cave. This means you go outside and literally walk down into the cave. This entrance adds about a mile to your journey.

It is also very steep and long. And at times, a bit dark.

To access the natural entrance, walk through the visitor center area (behind the check-in desk) through the door to the outside. There will be a path guiding you where you need to go and through the amphitheater area, then down to the cave entrance.

Make sure to prep your kids for what is coming. It is not scary, it just can be unexpected or cause some nerves if you don’t know ahead of time.

The walk down can get dark. It never gets narrow or has a lack of space.

the darkest part of Carlsbad Caverns. No lights except for a bright light shining on a specific formation on the side.

The dark part of the cave here has a purpose. It’s called “The Dark Zone” and is kept without much light to prevent the animals that live in the cave from getting confused and going deeper into the cave. So there’s a reason for the darkness!

There are lights along the way, but they can be dim.

We used our phone flashlight at times just to see where our foot was falling.

This entrance is pretty fun. It’s easy to do (it’s all downhill. Very downhill) and has a few benches along the way down in case you need a little break.

There are cool formations to see along the way that you wouldn’t see if you took the elevator instead, giving this extra effort a worthwhile experience.

As you go down deeper into the cave, remind the kids to look up to where the entrance to the outside world is to see how far down you’ve come!

Elevator Entrance

The elevator entrance is easier and shorter. If you have really little ones that don’t do well walking for a long time, this is the right choice. Or, if you have knee problems or other health issues that would make going down a steep hill for a long time difficult, this is the right choice.

The elevator entrance simply takes you down 700+ feet in the elevator to the main cavern called The Big Room.

looking at the overall room inside a cavern.  An overall dark area with a few lights lighting up formations and the rock ceiling

The Big Room

This is the place the kids will be most amazed!

Whether you took the natural entrance or the elevator, you’ll land yourself into the main event of the cavern: The Big Room.

Touring the entire Big Room clocks in at 1.25 miles. It’s mostly flat as you walk through, making it fairly easy for any age.

If you are traveling with someone in a wheelchair, they will be able to take the elevator and enjoy most of the big room as well as it is accessible.

The Big Room is full of all kinds of formations all within a large cavern area. There are two main sections. If the kids are too tired, you can tour the first section and then take a little shortcut to skip the second section.

Unlike making the trek down from the natural entrance, the Big Room areas are very well lit.

The path that goes through Carlsbad Caverns is a one-way route, making it much easier to avoid fighting crowds. There are handrails both for holding and for keeping visitors away from the formations.

The Big Room covers 8.2 acres of space filled with named formations, almost like the room has been intricately designed.

kids walking down steps outside amidst natural stone amphitheater seats. Cave opening in the distance

The Amphitheater where the Bat Flight takes place

Other Things to do at Carlsbad Cavern with Kids

Doing the self-guided or ranger-led tour of the caverns will take a pretty big chunk of time. Plan for a couple hours as you do either of those.

However, if you still have time, there are a few other things at Carlsbad Cavern you can check out as a family that the kids will enjoy!

Junior Ranger Program

I mentioned this earlier, but grab your junior ranger booklet at the information desk inside the visitor center. Then, fill it out while you are still in the park. Do the puzzles and activities, talk to a ranger, and then turn it back in when you complete it.

You’ll get your badge for Carlsbad Caverns after a ranger looks it over!

The Bat Flight

I mentioned that there were hundreds of thousands of bats living in the caverns. Luckily, they don’t dwell in the main visitor areas, but in their own bat cave closer to the natural entrance.

During the spring to fall months, you can head to the outdoor amphitheater (along the path to the natural entrance) to witness a pretty cool phenomenon. The bat exodus.

Each night, the bats fly out of the cave in droves to go find their dinner. As the amphitheater is right outside the natural entrance, you’ll be sure to amaze the kids with this bat flight.

Night Sky Programs

During the spring to summer months, if you happen to be visiting on one of the scheduled nights, you can enjoy looking through powerful telescopes up to the stars. Thanks to its location, Carlsbad Caverns is a great, dark sky location to witness the galaxy beyond what you can see in the city.

Dawn of the Bats

This is a once-a-year activity that watches the intense migration of the bats’ return from their winter getaway to Mexico.

You’ll have to be a really early riser for this 5:00 AM return on the third Saturday in July. It’s pretty specific timing, but if you’re there, it’s a great opportunity.

The park holds bat activities and programs afterwards for the kids to participate in at the visitor center.

Hiking in Carlsbad Caverns National Park

While the cool, sparkly stuff may be below ground, Carlsbad Caverns also offers some above ground hiking.

Young kids can manage the short, 5-minute walk on a paved trail to the Walnut Canyon Overlook.

The other hikes are longer and some more difficult, but you could do part of the trail and turn back after a mile.

For instance, kids might find the Old Guano Trail interesting as “guano” is bat poop. You only have to hike in about a mile to see evidence from when settlers would collect and remove guano, which used for fertilizer back in the early 1900’s.

skinny but tall formations growing from the ground up inside a dark, large cave

One Day at Carlsbad Caverns

Here’s basically how one day at Carlsbad Caverns will look like. Before you even arrive, make sure you have a reservation. Then:

  • Check in at the Visitors Center
  • Head into the cave via elevator or natural entrance
  • Explore the cave (around 2 or more hours, depending on your tour)
  • Grab a souvenir at the gift shop
  • Walk through the visitors center, collect your junior ranger badge, if applicable
  • Check out the Walnut Canyon Overlook on your way out
  • (optional) head back in the evening to witness the great Night Flight

Can You Take Your Dog to Carlsbad Caverns?

The Carlsbad Cavern Dog Kennels:

Dogs are NOT allowed in the caverns, nor are they allowed to sit in your car. The solution is to take your dog to the onsite dog kennel while you explore the caverns. You are charged a daily fee so that you can explore until 3:30.

The kennel does not provide overnight service and your pet must have proof of up-to-date vaccines.

What to Wear at Carlsbad Caverns

For outdoor activities, you’ll want to dress appropriately for the weather. But when it comes to the caves it’s like April 25th, “all you need’s a light jacket” (can you name that movie? Check the bottom of the post for the answer.)

The caves stay around 56 degrees (F) year round. We visited in March and were dressed for the chilly overcast, windy day that it was. But as we made it to the bottom of the caves, we got a bit sweaty. Truly all we needed was a sweatshirt.

When heading into the caves, you’ll be good with a light jacket or a sweatshirt.

inside Carlsbad Caverns, a dark room with light shining on a tall, skinny formation that is a light beige color and appears to be "dripping" with hundred of dripping rocks
carlsbad caverns

What to Bring to Carlsbad Caverns

Water! It’s a long hike down and if you overdress like we did, you’ll get hot. Make sure to bring water.

You cannot bring any other food or drink. This helps protect the caves from contamination.

I would also bring a headlamp or just use your phone’s flashlight. This is really only necessary for entering via the Natural Entrance as it’s not lit quite as well as the main cavern area.

You can also bring your camera. A fancy camera or your phone camera will do. You may use flash photography to capture those sparkly images. Just don’t annoy other visitors with it.

That’s it. That’s all we brought and it was all we needed.

You could bring your map down, but again, it’s a one-way path. There is a short cut available, but it is well marked when you come to it.

Tips for Bringing Kids to Carlsbad Caverns

  • Prepare the kids that it’s much darker inside a cavern and may take a while to get through the caverns. When they see their first awesome formation or stalagmite, they probably will forget all about any nerves they had.
  • Have your child bring their own little backpack to carry a water bottle in.
  • Stop at the Visitor Center Information Desk to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet so you can earn your Carlsbad Caverns badge.
  • Bring snacks, but leave them in the car for after your exploration. You can also visit the restaurant in the Visitor Center building.
  • Walk through the visitor center to learn about the caves and local animals
  • Remind the kids not to touch anything in the cave. We want to protect and preserve the beautiful caverns!
  • You can’t bring strollers inside, but you can put little ones in a baby carrier to make the journey easier.

Where to Stay at Carlsbad Caverns

When visiting this park, it’s most convenient to stay in Carlsbad.

Carlsbad Caverns is 25-35 minutes away from Carlsbad, depending on what side of the city you stay.

Make it convenient by staying at the Fairfield which is on the southern side of town, making your drive to the park around 25 minutes. The hotel is nice, clean, comfortable, more affordable, and has an outdoor pool that the kids will love. Plus, they serve up an included, hot breakfast in the morning.

We stayed here and had a great experience.

FAQ about Carlsbad Caverns with Kids

Can Kids Get Lost in Carlsbad Caverns?

Technically, a kid could get lost anywhere. But it is unlikely that your kid will get lost in Carlsbad Caverns with you watching them. The caverns have a one-way designated path to walk on with handrails on the sides, so it would be hard for them to get out of sight or too far from you!

How Long Does it Take To Tour Carlsbad Caverns?

To walk through Carlsbad Caverns, plan for about 1-1/2 hours if you take the elevator down, 2-1/2 hours if you take the natural entrance, and an extra 1-1/2 hours for the King’s Palace ranger-guided tour. If you do the self-guided tours, you are free to walk through at your own pace.

What Should You Wear at Carlsbad Caverns?

The caves stay around 56 degrees (F) year round. So whether it is a blizzard outside or sweltering hot, you’ll need just a sweatshirt or light jacket inside the cave.

Are There Bathrooms Inside Carlsbad Caverns?

Yes, there are bathrooms in Carlsbad Caverns not far from where the elevator drops you off. You’ll walk through a little cave tunnel and get to bathrooms that look pretty normal and will make you forget you’re in a cave, despite being 700+ feet below ground.

Can You Bring a Stroller Inside Carlsbad Caverns?

Nope, no strollers allowed inside the caverns. Some parts of the trail can get steep and narrow. Wheelchairs, however, are permitted by taking the elevator down to the Big Room cavern.

Where is the Carlsbad Caverns Pool?

In the recent past a pool of blue was discovered in Carlsbad Caverns. It’s located in Lechuguilla Cave, which is closed to the public.

What is the Lechuguilla Cave at Carlsbad Caverns?

Lechuguilla Cave is open to scientists and explorers only. It houses the blue pool, Chandelier Ballroom (magnificent formations of white gypsum), and 140 miles of other great formations.

>>Answer to the Name That Movie Question: Miss Congeniality<<

Enjoy Carlsbad Caverns with Kids!

That’s it! If you read this guide to Carlsbad Caverns, you’ll be prepared and set to go. The cavern was so much bigger and cooler than we expected, which makes going to Carlsbad Caverns with kids a super fun family trip.

So when you’re in New Mexico, whether you’re visiting Albuquerque or other great towns, try to make the trip down to the caverns for a unique and exciting experience!

Heading from Carlsbad Caverns to White Sands National Park? Check out this driving guide between the two destinations.

pinnable image that says "all you need to know about visiting Carlsbad Caverns with Kids". 4 image collage includes interior cavern room, interior of cavern when it's very dark except for a light shining on a smaller formation, exterior view of visitor center with official Carlsbad Cavern sign in foreground, view from top of the natural entrance with a paved path making switchbacks down a steep hill into the opening in the rock

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