There’s plenty to see above and below ground at Carlsbad Caverns National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site in New Mexico. Cacti, Ponderosa pines, canyons, and cougars abound at ground level, while a lesson in geology hides just below the surface, where you can wander through the intricate maze of more than 119 enormous caves that lurk underneath the Chihuahuan Desert.
Related: More National Parks trip ideas
Millions of years in the making, a network of stalagmites and stalactites loom large, continuing to grow droplet by droplet in these formidable chambers that were created thanks to naturally occurring sulfuric acid seeping into and dissolving the limestone.
While the area is home to many desert creatures, the most famous residents are the Brazilian free-tailed bats, which billow out of the caves at twilight in search of food, creating a massive dark cloud and the unmistakable sound of hundreds of thousands of whooshing wings.
Where to Stay Near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
While basic backcountry camping is allowed with a free permit obtained at the Visitor Center, no lodging or campgrounds are found within the park itself. Overnight RV parking also isn’t allowed in the park.
If you want to stay overnight, your best bet is to book one of the many standard hotels that can be found in Carlsbad, located roughly 20 miles from the caverns.
What to Do at Carlsbad Caverns
Exploring the web of caverns is the main attraction at this national park. Take a self-guided tour at a leisurely pace walking down the steep switchbacks of the Natural Entrance Trail to The Big Room. Parts of The Big Room are wheelchair accessible, thanks to an elevator that transports guests down into the cavern. Glean even more cave knowledge and history on a ranger-guided tour. Just be sure to make a reservation 48 hours in advance, especially during the summer and over holiday weekends.
No trip to Carlsbad Caverns is complete without watching the bats’ mass exodus from the caves. The free Bat Flight Program takes place every evening from Memorial Day weekend through October, and it includes an evening ranger talk about the bats before watching them soar into the sunset.
During the warmer months, take in the gleaming desert panoramas by night on a free star walk or moon hike.
How to Get to Carlsbad Caverns National Park
When to Visit Carlsbad Caverns
The caves stay a cool 56 degrees all year round. However, late May to October is prime season for the bats and the fall and spring months offer the best times to see desert blooms. The main caverns can get packed during summers and holiday weekends, so opt for shoulder seasons to beat the crowds.