Getting to Carlsbad Caverns requires departing from the well-trodden path. If you’re willing to do so, you’ll be rewarded with a welcome into a mind-bending underground world. In Camping World’s Guide to RVing Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we’ll cover campsites, attractions, the best times to visit, and more.
The park is best known for its massive limestone caves and one of the most well-preserved fossil reefs in the world. Yes, the park was once covered by a vast inland sea more than 265 million years ago. Nowadays, it’s plenty dry for your RV adventure!
Why Visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park in an RV?
Carlsbad Caverns is located in the southeastern corner of New Mexico, approximately 40 minutes south of the city of Carlsbad and 2.5 hours northeast of El Paso, Texas.
The remote nature of the park makes RVing here the clear and obvious choice. It’ll give you a basecamp from which to explore all that the park has to offer. Plus, you’ll be able to enjoy dinner and beverages in the parking lot if you stay for the nightly bat display around sunset (from April through October).
As a visitor, you are welcome to explore the well-lit caverns at your own pace, but the way to learn the most about this underground environment and its inhabitants is to sign up for a ranger-guided tour. The park also offers miles of desert hiking trails, evening bat programs, and exceptional stargazing.
When to Visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns is open year-round, excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The park receives an astonishing 278 sunny days a year, on average, but because it lies in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert, seasonal weather changes dramatically.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the Spring
Spring temperatures range from the mid-60s to the low 80s (about 18-30 ℃). March through May tends to bring more wind than the rest of the year, so make sure your awning is in before bed!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the Summer
Summer means heat in the desert. Temperatures range from the mid-90s to the low-100s (roughly 32-40 ℃). The summer heat makes it the most dangerous season for hikers in the park, but there’s no reason you can’t enjoy summer hiking if you’re prepared.
That means bringing extra water, plenty of sunscreen, and wearing moisture-wicking clothing that provides sun protection. Also, plan to hike first thing in the morning to beat the summer heat.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the Fall
Temperatures in the fall are similar to the spring. They range from the low 60s to the upper 70s (about 16-26 ℃). The park receives much of its annual precipitation in the fall, with frequent rains being common from August through November.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the Winter
Because elevations in the park range from roughly 3,600 to 6,400 feet above sea level, cold temperatures are common from November through February. The park also receives occasional snowfall during the winter, so be aware of icy roads if you’re visiting just after rain or snow has fallen.
Inside the Caverns
The actual caves are the park’s main attraction. Because they’re underground, conditions differ from the land above. The average temperature in the cavern is a consistent 56 ℉ (13 ℃) year-round. It also stays relatively humid inside the cavern, so most visitors find that putting on a jacket or long-sleeved shirt makes them much more comfortable.
Where to Stay
Only backcountry camping is available within the park’s borders. There is no overnight RV parking or car camping permitted, but there are a few RV parks close by for you to set up the perfect RV basecamp.
Also, be aware that Guadalupe Mountains National Park is about 40 minutes south on Highway 62. Consider staying there and then driving over to see the caverns during the day.
Staying Outside the Park
As we said, there are several parks to choose from close to Carlsbad Caverns. Here are a few options:
- Bud’s Place RV Park & Cabins: About 35 minutes from the visitor’s center
- Bonnie & Clyde’s Getaway RV Park: About 45 minutes from the visitor’s center
- White’s City RV Park: About 12 minutes from the visitor’s center
- Carlsbad RV Park & Campground: About 27 minutes from the visitor’s center
Tips for Booking
- About 500,000 people visit the park annually. Make campground reservations in advance, especially if visiting from April through October.
- Booking requirements vary. Check campground websites for more details.
- If you plan on going into the cavern, you will also need reservations in advance. Click here to see tour times and other visitor information.
How to Get Around Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The park only has one main entrance road, but it is accessible to all RVs. The main park road turns west off of US Highway 62 in White’s City. Two-way traffic is allowed on the first 7.2 miles to the visitor’s center.
At the visitor’s center, the western lot is the best place for RVs to park. It will be the first lot on your left when you arrive and the RV-friendly spots are located at the back of the lot.
From the visitor’s center, you can take the one-way loop known as Reef Top Circle (or Desert Loop Road) to enjoy a scenic drive. This loop covers approximately 9.6 miles before intersecting again with the main park road.
If you’re staying outside the park, getting there will require driving. For those that don’t have a toad or a tow vehicle to unhitch, rental cars and taxi services are available from the airport in Carlsbad.
Places to Go
Most of the attractions in Carlsbad Caverns National Park are accessible from the main road. Here are a few places to add to your itinerary:
The Carlsbad Caverns Visitor’s Center
When you enter the park, the best place to begin is the visitor’s center, which happens to be connected to the Carlsbad Caverns Trading Company. There you can pick up a few pieces of memorabilia while learning more about where to go and what to do in the park.
Be sure to walk through the many interactive exhibits to learn more about how this fascinating cave system was formed. At the very least, you can learn the ever-perplexing difference between stalactites and stalagmites!
The visitor’s center is also the best place to start your cave explorations. From here, you can hop on the Natural Entrance Trail or ride the elevator from the visitor’s center directly down into the Big Room.
While you’re parked at the visitor’s center, you can also enjoy lunch in the picnic area, a quick stroll down to the Bat Flight Amphitheater for a ranger-led program, or hop on a nearby trail for a quick hike.
Slaughter Canyon Cave
When tours are running, the Slaughter Canyon Cave tour is a great way to get off-the-beaten-path in the park. Reservations are required and the tour is advertised as moderately strenuous, but it offers a glimpse into the more natural state of the caves in this region.
Note, this cave is not lit and the trails are narrow and slippery. That said, you’ll be well-guided by a ranger and equipped with headlamps and flashlights.
Slaughter Canyon Cave features an 89-foot tall column (one of the world’s tallest), a crystalline column known affectionately as the Christmas Tree, and plenty of evidence of the old bat guano mining excavations that took place in the early 1900s.
If tours into the cave aren’t running during your visit, you can still hike to the cave entrance. The Slaughter Canyon Cave Trail is accessible by a trailhead to the south of the main park entrance. The hike is steep and takes about 45 minutes to gain the requisite 500 feet required to catch a glimpse of the cave entrance.
While access to this cave is currently limited to trips led by the park service and expeditions of scientific researchers, surveyors, and exploration teams, it’s still worth mentioning. Lechuguilla Cave was believed to be an insignificant speck in the park’s backcountry until 1986.
While it was minimally mined back in 1914, significant exploration didn’t begin until 1984. Two years later, explorers had opened up many new passages into what has today become one of the ten longest caves in the world and the second-deepest limestone cave in the US.
Things To Do When RVing Carlsbad Caverns National Park
From caving to hiking to bat watching, there’s plenty to do at Carlsbad Caverns. Please keep in mind that conditions could impact the availability of certain programs. Check the NPS website for alerts and updates prior to your visit.
The park is home to miles and miles of caves. So, naturally, exploring them is the main attraction. The main cavern can be explored on your own or as part of a ranger-guided tour. You can walk into the cave via the Natural Entrance Trail or take an elevator down and explore the Big Room Trail.
Both trails are about 1.25 miles in length and they connect inside the main cavern if you’re looking for a longer walk. Those that take the Natural Entrance Trail can also hop on the elevator to return to the surface instead of hiking the steep trail back out.
Parts of the Big Room Trail are wheelchair accessible, but the Natural Entrance Trail is not. On average, the Big Room Trail takes about 1.5 hours to walk and the Natural Entrance Trail requires at least an hour.
While they are temporarily suspended until further notice, there are also ranger-guided tours through the caves. Check the website to see if the park service has begun offering these tours again before your visit.
Hiking on the surface is the best way to experience the Chihuahuan Desert while you’re in the park. Plus, it’s fun to imagine where you might be if you were down in the caves beneath your feet.
Here are a few hiking trails in Carlsbad Caverns:
- The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail covers roughly a half-mile and has minimal elevation change. It’s a great place to start when you arrive at the park and it’s dotted with educational signage to teach you more about the flora and fauna of the area.
- The Old Guano Trail offers a glimpse of the historic road used to haul bat guano out of the main cavern. It is roughly 3.7 miles one-way and terminates at the Whites City Campground.
- The Juniper Ridge Trail is about 3.5 miles one-way with a moderate, 800-foot elevation change. The trailhead is just past interpretive marker #9 on Desert Loop Road.
- The Lower Rattlesnake Canyon Trail is a moderate, three-mile one-way hike with a 600-foot elevation change. You’ll find the trailhead about a quarter of a mile past interpretive marker #4 on Desert Loop Road.
- The Yucca Canyon Trail is one of the more difficult day hikes in the park. It is roughly 7.7 miles one way, which is why many hikers choose to backcountry camp off this trail. It’s also one of the few places in the park where you gain enough elevation to encounter ponderosas and other pine trees.
For more options, check out the full collection of surface hiking trails the park service maintains for your hiking pleasure.
If you feel like taking a few nights away from your luxury RV, load up your pack and explore the Guadalupe Ridge Trail. This National Recreation Trail totals 100 miles long, 21 of which are inside the boundaries of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Heading south from Carlsbad Caverns, enthusiastic backpackers could finish their hike by summiting the tallest peak in Texas, Guadalupe Peak, which stands at roughly 8,750 feet above sea level. Sections of this trail are also perfect for day hikers if you want to return to your comfortable bed at night.
The caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park are home to a large colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats; we’re talking hundreds of thousands. Enough to make quite the spectacle when they exit and re-enter the caves daily.
They call Carlsbad Caverns home from April through October, but they migrate south for the winter months. During your visit, the park service offers chances to see the daily bat exodus and learn a little more about them.
Their Bat Flight Program is hosted in the Bat Flight Amphitheater and start times vary throughout the season. The exodus of the bats is linked to the sunset, so check at the visitor’s center for more program information once you arrive.
For early risers, the park service also offers the Dawn of the Bats experience. This is a once-a-year event that takes place on the third Saturday in July. Watch the bats return to the cave at dawn and enjoy numerous bat-related events at the visitor’s center throughout the rest of the day.
Learning about astronomy and viewing an unfiltered night sky are also great ways to spend your time at Carlsbad Caverns. They offer numerous night sky programs that include star walks, moon hikes, and meteor shower viewing.
All of these stargazing offerings are free, but they only accept the first 25 registrants. They begin immediately following the sunset bat flight programs, so be sure to ask a ranger about how to register and where these programs start in order to enjoy them during your visit.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
The extremes ranging from the open desert on the surface to the chill caverns below require different considerations than most national parks. Heed these tips to make sure you’re safe and comfortable throughout your time at Carlsbad Caverns:
- Bring a light jacket or sweater if you plan on exploring the caves. The temperature underground maintains a consistent 56 ℉ (13 ℃) year-round.
- Wear closed-toed shoes with good traction when exploring the caves. Some areas may be slippery from water dripping down the cave walls.
- White-nose syndrome is one of the biggest threats to the cave’s free-tailed bats. If you have worn your shoes into any other caves in the past 10 years, you’ll be asked to wipe them down with disinfectant before you are permitted to enter.
- The caves are dimly lit. Headlamps or flashlights are not necessary, but you are certainly welcome to bring them.
- Cameras are welcome inside the caves, but photography is prohibited during evening bat programs.
- Prepare for hot temperatures when hiking in the park during the summer. Carry extra water in a hydration pack, plenty of snacks, a first aid kit, and other hiking essentials.
- Do not bring flavored water or drinks inside the caves. Only plain water is allowed to protect the environment and discourage any substances that could attract animals.
- You can experience dramatic temperature swings from day to night when camping near the park. Check your AC and make sure your RV furnace is in good working order before your visit.
Because the above-ground and underground environments in the park differ so dramatically, we recommend checking out the park service’s full list of things to know before your visit!
Brief History of Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Officially, Carlsbad Caverns became a national park on May 14th, 1930. However, the park was originally a national monument established on October 25th, 1923. One way or another, it has received federally protected status for almost 100 years.
A man named Jim White is credited with the discovery of the main cavern, but it was likely used by Native Americans for centuries before he arrived. Even dating back to the 1500s, Spanish explorers were regularly passing through the region.
The territory was claimed by the Spanish until 1821 when Mexico claimed independence. The New Mexico Territory was officially established in 1850, but conflicts between Native Americans and the US government persisted into the 1880s.
From a geological perspective, the formation of the limestone caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park dates back to a period ranging from 250 to 280 million years ago. During that time, the fossil reef (known as the Capitan reef) that covers the region was laid down by a great inland sea.
From four to six million years ago, waters that were rich in hydrogen sulfide began to permeate through the Capitan limestone. When it mixed with regular rainwater, it formed sulfuric acid, which sped up the process of dissolving the rock along cracks and fissures.
Scientists have found this process of cave formation to be different from processes found in other large cave systems (see Mammoth Cave National Park). If you want to know more about the general stages of cave development, check out this PDF.
Have you ever watched the flights of the bats or gazed upon the dark skies above Carlsbad Caverns? If so, we’d love to hear about your experience!
Tucker Ballister is a Technical Content Writer for Camping World and a lover of the open road. You can check out more of his adventures and outdoor advice at thebackpackguide.com.