Carlsbad Caverns with Kids

Author: Dan Brewer

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We’ve been lucky to have visited some pretty incredible caves in our world travels, including some in South Africa, Belize and the Canary Islands. Up until now, I thought they were all pretty impressive, but our visit to the Carlsbad Caverns with kids changed all of that.

The Carlsbad Caverns is easily the most impressive cave complex we have ever visited. The size and scope of these magnificent New Mexico caves need to be seen to be believed. The National Park Service has done an incredible job making the Carlsbad Caverns easy to visit and accessible to all, including kids.

Our family had an incredible visit to this New Mexico national park, and would highly recommend anyone visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park with kids.

a family trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Our kids loved the Carlsbad Caverns!

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Family Travel Advice You Can Trust

Did you know many ‘travel blogs’ are written by AI bots or people who have never been to the destination? At Family Can Travel, we are a real family who travels to real places. We then write about our family travels in hopes of inspiring other real families to travel with their kids too! We hope you enjoy reading about our real life visit to Carlsbad Caverns with kids!

a young boy poses with a fun cardboard cutout at Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico.
We had fun at Carlsbad Caverns National Park!

Highlights: Carlsbad Caverns with Kids

The Carlsbad Caverns National Park is such a special place that it was declared a US National Park in 1930 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. It’s nearly impossible for words to do a place as grand and magnificent as this justice, but to help your family plan a trip to the Carlsbad Caverns with kids, here are some of the highlights of our visit.

two kids work on their Junior Ranger workbooks at the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center.
Our kids work on their Junior Ranger workbooks in the Visitor Center.

Families doing a self-guided cave tour of Carlsbad Caverns with kids have two options:

1)      To enter the Carlsbad Caverns via the natural entrance, or

2)      Take an elevator down instead.

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We loved our visit to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park with kids. Check out the other best kid friendly national parks in the US!

The Natural Entrance Trail

If your family is physically capable, we highly recommend you enter the Carlsbad Caverns via the natural entrance. This extends the overall length of the visit to 2.5 miles (the elevator option is 1.5 miles), but the added experience is totally worth it. Our family chose to enter the cave via the natural entrance trail, and we loved it!

The paved trail from the natural entrance to the elevators is nearly all downhill – in fact, it’s so downhill that you descend the equivalent of 75 stories, nearly the height of the Empire State Building! It’s very, very easy walking, unless you have any kind of knee issues.

a young boy walks down the ramp into the cave entrance.
The ramp into the cave isn’t very steep.

To get to the natural entrance, it’s a short walk though some beautiful natural gardens. Before long, you are greeted by a park ranger who will give you a quick rundown of the important Carlsbad Caverns National Park rules. Be sure to use the bathrooms before entering the caves as it will be a long time before you have another chance.

As you stand at the top of the Bat Flight Amphitheater looking at the mouth of the massive cave, I dare you not to be equally impressed and excited. Knowing that you and your family are about to enter the giant mouth of the cave entrance and descend 75 stories into the belly of the Earth is an exhilarating feeling!

The walkway which enters the Carlsbad Caverns natural entrance near the Bat Flight Amphitheatre.

Entering the Cave by the Natural Entrance

The paved Natural Entrance Trail descends gently into the mouth of the Carlsbad Caverns via a series of switchbacks. It’s pretty exciting as you leave daylight and start to venture into the growing darkness of the cave. You slowly, but surely start to lose natural daylight and start to venture along the beautifully illuminated cave pathways.

The walking trail down into the Carlsbad Caverns.

Our 7-year old found the growing darkness of the Natural Entrance Trail to be a little scary at first, but it didn’t take long for the excitement to overwhelm the scary feelings. Before long, he was leading the charge into the darkness eager to be the first to discover the next amazing formation within the cave.

As you continue to descend into the darkness, take a moment to look back at the mouth of the cave. Again, it’s an exhilarating feeling to be entering such an incredible underground natural wonder.

Looking back at the natural entrance cave opening at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

As you and your family venture deeper into your self-guided cave tour, take a moment to encourage everyone to use their senses. Stop and listen for the sound of water dripping, or the feeling of a fresh breeze hitting your face at the most unexpected moments. While stopping to take it all in, our daughter was lucky enough to see a couple of bats flying back-and-forth overhead!

The amount of discoveries you’ll encounter on your visit to Carlsbad Caverns with kids is staggering. The number of different cave formations (stalagmites, stalactites, etc.) is mind-boggling and are all on full display.

an interpretive sign on the natural entrance trail in Carlsbad Caverns park in New Mexico

Encourage your kids to use their imaginations and look for shapes in the Carlsbad rock formations. For example, near Iceberg Rock, our kids found a horse’s head and a massive hamster face in the rocks. What will your kids find?

It took us approximately 1 hour to complete the downhill walk from the Natural Entrance to the spot where the folks taking the elevator down start their self-guided tour. From this point onwards, the walking path through the Carlsbad Caverns is mostly flat with only minor up and downhills to contend with.

Beautiful Carlsbad Caverns rock formations along the easy walking route.

The Big Room Trail

The Big Room Trail portion of the self-guided tour is very showy, with an incredible amount of stalactites and stalagmites on display. There’s also some exciting elements to look for, such as an old explorer’s rope hanging from the ceiling and an old rope ladder used by National Geographic explorers.

an old ladder left behind by National Geographic explorers is still inside the caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

The Big Room trail features notable formations such as the Giant Dome, Bottomless Pit, Painted Grotto, Rock of Ages and, of course, the star of the show, the 8.2-acre Big Room. It also took us about an hour to complete the Big Room Trail section of the self-guided tour of the Carlsbad Caverns with kids.

The Whales Mouth formation within the Carlsbad caves

Thankfully, after descending 75 stories into the belly of the Earth, we all have the option of taking an elevator ride back to the surface (although you can choose to turn around and walk back to the natural entrance).

Once back at the surface level of the Visitor Center, look for a large, scale model of the Carlsbad Caverns. This model will make much more sense once you’ve actually gone down and explored the caverns with your kids.

What an incredible family experience to explore the Carlsbad Caverns with kids. I’m certain this is one family activity we will not soon forget!!

A massive stalagmite next to the self-guided our walking trail in Carlsbad Caverns.
Look at the size of that stalagmite compared to our kids!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Junior Ranger Program

Without question, one of the best things to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park for kids is the fun and educational Junior Ranger program. Kids must complete a number of exercises within the Carlsbad Caverns Junior Ranger Handbook, which are available from the park rangers at the Information Desk at the Visitor Center.

The Junior Ranger program is educational, but is designed to be a ton of fun for the kids. When our kids completed their assigned tasks, one of the park rangers checked their work, led them in saying the Junior Ranger Oath,

A park ranger at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park leads two children in the junior ranger oath.

“I am proud to be a National Park Service Junior Ranger. I promise to explore, learn about, and protect my national parks and the natural world around me. I will share my knowledge of these special places with my friends and family”

Two kids proudly show off their Carlsbad Caverns junior ranger badges.
Our kids love earning Junior Ranger badges at all the national parks we visit.

The Carlsbad Caverns Junior Ranger Program has a variety of activity books tailored to different age groups. Our kids did the booklet for kids aged 7-12, meaning they had to complete a minimum of 7 exercises to earn their Junior Ranger Badge.

At all the other US national parks we have visited with our kids, they have simply done their Junior Ranger exercises as we explored the park. But, it was quite hard for them to do any of the exercises while in the cave as it was really dark, so they had to complete them once back on the main ground level in the Visitor Center. There is a special room in the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center just for this purpose, called the Junior Ranger Station.

The Junior Ranger Station at Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico.

7 Things to do at Carlsbad Caverns National Park with Kids

In addition to earning Junior Ranger Badges and the must-do self-guided walks along the Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room Trail, here are some other fun activities for kids in the Carlsbad Caverns:

1. Kid-friendly Hiking Trails

One of the things we love most about visiting US national parks with kids is the hiking. The US national parks protect and preserve some of the most beautiful landscapes in America and going on kid-friendly hikes is the best way possible to share them with your children.

Sadly, our visit to Carlsbad Caverns with kids was a day trip with a 3 hour drive each way, so we were unable to enjoy any of these kid-friendly hiking trails. We list the most popular hikes below. I can’t wait to come back to enjoy them with our kids!

2. Evening Bat Flight

At night thousands of Brazilian free tail bats dramatically leave the cave in massive swarms. Visitors can watch this amazing natural phenomenon at the aptly named Bat Flight Amphitheater.

The large amphitheatre at Carlsbad Caverns where visitors can watch bats fly out of the caves in the evening.

3. Cave Tours

Experience areas of the caves and the national park area where you cannot go with a self guided tour. The very popular series of ranger led tours includes the King’s Palace Tour (a 1 mile descent into the ‘Scenic Rooms’), the Left Hand Tunnel Tour (a fun candle lit tour), and the Lower Cave Tour (a strenuous descent beneath the Big Room via a handline and three ladders). Tour offerings vary by season and minimum ages apply.

4. Night Sky Programs

You are in for a treat if you are lucky enough to visit Carlsbad Caverns on an evening when the park rangers offer one of their night sky programs.

Night Hikes
Night hikes (sometimes known as moon hikes), are a 1.5 mile (2.5 km) night walk through the desert with a park ranger.

Star Viewing Programs

In the star viewing programs, the park rangers highlight astronomical features with a high-powered laser pointer. The star viewing programs are often lined up with known meteor shower activity.

a dark sky full of stars.

5. Walnut Canyon Desert Drive

If your family has a high-clearance vehicle, your kids will love a drive through the Walnut Canyon Desert Drive; a scenic nine mile gravel road. We weren’t comfortable taking our small rental car on this road, but it sure sounds fun!

6. Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area

If you are looking for a place for a nice family picnic, check out the Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area – a well-treed picnic area near the national park. There’s picnic tables, grills and even a natural spring which attracts many species of birds.

7. Carlsbad Caverns Theater

Enjoy a 16 minute long national park film called “Hidden World”. This park film is shown in the visitor center theater every 30 minutes.

The welcome sign at the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center near Carlsbad, NM.

Kid-Friendly Hiking Trails Around the Carlsbad Caverns

There are over 50 miles of hiking trails within the park. Here are a few of the kid-friendly hiking trails in Carlsbad Caverns National Park:

Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail

This is the only fully accessible hiking trail in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The mostly paved trail leads from the visitor center to the Bat Flight Amphitheater. From here, this flat walking trail becomes a short 0.5 mile (1 km) loop through the desert, with many interpretive signs to learn about the local flora. This trail closes each night just before the bat flight program.

Old Guano Road

This hiking trail follows the old road which used to be used to haul Guano from the cave. It begins near the Bat Flight Amphitheater and runs all the way down to the Whites City Campground. Along the way, your family will pass ruins from the old guano mining operation along with amazing desert views. The full round-trip distance of this easy hike is 7.4 miles (12 km).

Juniper Ridge

This scenic family-friendly hike has a gradual climb to the top of a ridge. From this vantage point your family will enjoy elevated views of the desert canyon below. The full round-trip distance of this easy hike is 7 miles (11 km).

Check the NPS Desert Hiking Trails information page for desert hiking safety tips and any current trail closures. And don’t forget to download your Carlsbad Caverns hiking trail maps before setting out.

Tickets to Visit Carlsbad Caverns

You may be surprised to know that you can’t just show up at the Carlsbad Caverns and go right in as reservations are required to visit Carlsbad Caverns. Thankfully, it’s super easy to visit with the NPS online reservation system.

A beautiful formation at Carlsbad Caverns is reflected in the water of a still pool.

Self Guided Cave Tours

VERY IMPORTANT: The cut-off time for same-day Carlsbad Caverns tickets is 5 AM. Please be sure to buy your self-guided cave tour tickets in advance of your visit!! Even annual pass holders must reserve a time online. We saw many people get turned away at the Visitor Center as they were unaware of the need to reserve tickets in advance.

Self-guided cave tours are very inexpensive at just $1 per person (including kids). But, you must also purchase admission to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park on top of the self-guided tour ticket (or have an annual America the Beautiful Pass). National Park admission can be purchased at the Visitor Center.

A man enjoys a self-guided tour through the caves in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
A rare picture of Dad – enjoying the self-guided tour of the caves.

Ranger Led Cave Tours

Another option for families visiting Carlsbad caverns National Park is to reserve a spot on one of the ranger led cave tours. Offerings change from time-to-time, but if you are interested in a ranger led tour, act early as they often sell out well in advance!

Free Admission Days

If you are visiting Carlsbad Caverns with kids and are interested in saving some money, check to see if your visitation dates align with any of the free admission days.

a beautiful cavern along the self-guided tour walking trail.

Where to Stay Visiting Carlsbad Caverns with Kids

One of the things we liked most about visiting Carlsbad Caverns was its remote New Mexico location. While its remote location adds to the ambience, it does make it a bit inconvenient for those on a family vacation wanting to stay close to the park.

The most convenient place for families to stay while visiting Carlsbad Caverns with kids is the Whites City Cavern Inn. Located at the turnoff from Highway 62 to Carlsbad Cavern Highway, the Whites City Cavern Inn is the closest hotel to the visitor center. With a Pirate Ship Splash Pad & Walnut Canyon Water Park, the Whites City Cavern Inn is not only close to the national park, but is also very kid-friendly.

The closest hotel to Carlsbad Caverns National Park is very kid-friendly, with a pool and waterslide.

If you’d prefer to stay in a nearby city for easy proximity to restaurants, etc., your best bet is to find a family-friendly hotel in nearby Carlsbad, New Mexico. Although it’s a 27 mile drive from Carlsbad, NW to the visitor’s center, many families will appreciate the wider selection of kid-friendly hotels and vacation rental homes to choose from.

Note, that Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers no overnight lodging or campgrounds. Backcountry camping is only allowed with a free permit from visitor center.

Tips for Parents Visiting Carlsbad Caverns with Kids

  • Although the paved walking trails within the caverns are mostly wheelchair accessible, strollers are not allowed on the cave trails.

  • If you are visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park with your family pet, be aware that it is forbidden to leave animals unattended within your vehicle. This doesn’t mean you need to leave your dog at home as there is a kennel service at visitor center. See the NPS information page for current fees and documentation requirements (rabies vaccination records, etc.)

  • There are washrooms at the entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns Visitors Center and near the elevators down below in the caverns. Depending on which route your family takes through the caverns, you may be without washroom access for up to 90 minutes at a time. Make sure everyone goes whenever there is a toilet available as there is no opportunity to go along the trails through this magnificent New Mexico cave complex.

  • There are water stations within the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor’s Center. Be aware that water is the only beverage you are allowed to bring in. No food is allowed. No cigarettes or e-cigarettes are allowed in the caverns as well. A reusable water bottle or hydration pack is preferable to buying water in plastic bottles.

  • There is a massive gift shop in the Visitor Center filled with all sorts of amazing souvenirs of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Let your kids enter at your own peril!

  • Also within the gift shop is a small cafeteria.
Two kids work on the scavenger hunt as part of their Junior Ranger program at Carlsbad Caverns.
Our kids loved the Carlsbad Caverns scavenger hunt.
  • There are inexpensive audio tours available to enhance your visit. We elected not to get the audio tour during our visit to the Carlsbad Caverns with kids as we’ve had pretty bad experiences with kids and audio tours elsewhere in the world.

    We’ve found that kids simply don’t have the attention span to listen to audio tours – they’re more interested in running ahead and having fun. There’s a ton of audio tour stops at the Carlsbad Caverns. Unless your kids are calm and patient (and very interested in caves), we recommend that families with kids skip the audio tour.

  • At times the paved trails within the Carlsbad Caverns can be wet and / or downhill. This can create slippery conditions. The NPS recommends that everyone wear either hiking boots or sturdy shoes with grips. Note, that hiking poles are not allowed.

  • The cave temperature is 56 F / 13 C with 90% humidity all year round. The NPS recommends visitors wear a long-sleeve shirt or a light jacket. During our visit the Carlsbad Caverns with kids, we all wore fleece jackets overtop t-shirts. We were all comfortably warm, except our hands got a little bit cold in spots.
Kids dressed in fleece jackets walk through the caves at Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico.
We all wore fleece jackets inside the caves.

Fun Facts about the Carlsbad Caverns for Kids

  • There are 120 known caves within the national park, but this number grows as exploration continues.

  • The longest cave in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park is Lechuguilla Cave. This massive cave is over 150 miles (225 km) long and over 1,600 feet (489 m) deep.

  • The Carlsbad Cavern is much smaller, measuring 30 miles (48 km) long. That said, the Big Room is 8.2 acres , making it the largest, easy to visit cave chamber in North America.

  • The stalactites, stalagmites and other formations within the national park caves began to form slowly over 500,000 years ago.

  • There are 67 species of mammals in the national park, including bears, foxes, wolves, bobcats, mountain lions, weasels, otters, badgers, racoons, deer, pronghorns and skunks.

  • Being one of the largest cave complexes in the world, of course there will be bats! There are 3 species of bats who roost inside the caves. The largest colony is Brazilian free tailed bats, with and estimated population of 400,000!
Two kids run down the long, fun ramp into the mouth of the cave at Carlsbad Caverns, NM.
Look at how excited our kids are to descend into the mouth of the cave!

Kid-Friendly Restaurants near Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Blue House Bakery & Cafe

When we travel with kids, we make an effort to try and find restaurants where we can all get a healthy meal. We look for restaurants where nothing is deep-fried and you can find real ingredients on the menu. This is often surprisingly hard to do, but we were happy to find the Blue House Bakery & Café in nearby Carlsbad, New Mexico.

the Blue House is a family-friendly restaurant in Carlsbad, NM

The Blue House Bakery & Café is a few blocks off the main road, located within, well…  a very charming blue house. The Blue House has a menu filled with breakfast favorites and offers inside or outside seating.

It was a pleasant day in late February when we visited the Carlsbad Caverns with kids, so we elected to enjoy our lunch outdoors under the shade of a beautiful Ponderosa Pine tree.

A girl plays with a cat at the Blue House Restaurant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Our daughter makes a new friend while waiting for lunch.

We all thoroughly enjoyed our healthy lunches. Celine and I each had a breakfast sandwich served on a jalapeño bagel, while our son had a heart bowl of oatmeal and our daughter had a delicious breakfast burrito.

Another Kid-Friendly National Park in New Mexico

As you can see, our family had a great time at Carlsbad Caverns National Park! If you have enough time on your family trip to New Mexico, we highly recommend you also visit White Sands Park with kids. It’s a magical place your family won’t soon forget!

A visit to White Sands National Park with kids is a super fun family vacation.
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Dan Brewer is an intrepid family travel blogger with a passion for exploring the world's most captivating destinations. With 58 countries under his belt and a sense of wanderlust that knows no bounds, he has made it his life's mission to share his travel experiences and insights with fellow families who love to travel.

When Dan isn't traveling with his wife and kids, he's either out enjoying the Canadian Rockies he calls home or working on one of his three travel sites (Family Can Travel, Travel Banff Canada and Ultimate Sports Road Trip).