Sometimes, as a family, we need to get out of town. This past Saturday, we loaded in the car for a day trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Originally, we wanted to take a little more time and spend the night, but after some research, we realized that the hotel prices in Carlsbad, New Mexico were astronomical! (Thanks to a booming oil industry in the area.) Instead of paying close to $300 per night, we decided to make the drive there and back in one day.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico. A winding road takes you to the information center where you can buy your tickets to enter the caves. The entrance fee is $10 per adult, but children 15 and under are free. (Score for us!) The first thing we did (the first thing we do at every National Park) was grab 2 Junior Ranger brochures. The kids love the Junior Ranger program offered by the National Parks, and we rarely leave a site without a new Junior Ranger badge.
We also splurged and spent $5 per person on the audio guide. If your family has never invested in renting an audio guide before, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The audio guide puts the child in charge of seeking out information for himself. He must be on the lookout for the different numbers to input and he is the one listening to the information. Luke and Ellie love to listen and then recount to us what they just heard. I’m not going to tell them that if they can relate it back to us it is learning, I’m just going to let them keep thinking it is fun. (The only down side to the audio tours that we’ve found is that the kids won’t talk to us if they are listening. I’ll try to point something out and they will be frustrated that they have to stop listening to the lead microbiologist from the park. When that happens, they start the recording again and listen to the whole segment a second time. Ha! More learning.)
There are two options for getting into the cave. You can either take an elevator to the Big Room or you can go in using the Natural Entrance. We chose to hike down the Natural Entrance. This path descends almost 800 feet into the earth and is just over a mile in length. And, while you might start in the Chihuahuan Desert, by the time you get into the caves, the temperature is 56°F year round, so you should bring a light jacket to put on once you get underground.
Once you get to the end of the Natural Entrance, you find yourself in the Big Room. In addition to being the location of the elevators and restrooms, there is also a small cafeteria serving sandwiches. We were pretty hungry after the hike down to that point, so we decided to stop and have lunch. When else do you have a chance to eat 800 feet below ground? The sandwiches are large, and we should have split them. We should have split the Gatorades, too, because no food or drink (or gum or candy) is allowed into the caverns. We ended up throwing away everything we didn’t consume.
After lunch, we ventured into the Big Room. The caves themselves are amazing. The decorations on the walls are made even more tremendous when you consider that they were formed by water acting on rock. There were stalagmites (that grow “mightily” from the cave floor), stalactites (which hang on “tight” the the ceiling above you), cave pools, and various decorations everywhere we looked.
Luke was fascinated by the stories of the earliest explorers who ventured into the caves using homemade ladders. (I kept stressing just how dangerous it was to venture into unknown holes in the ground and that those explorers probably got in trouble with their mothers!) After they were discovered, early tourists would enter and exit the caves using a wooden staircase. Examples of both the ladder and staircase still exist and can be seen from the current path used by visitors.
Ellie liked looking at the rock formations and giving them names based on what she saw in the shapes. She named “Mother and Baby,” “Lady in a Party Dress,” and “The Spikes”. It was also fun to consider why the major formations were given their names. Places like The Hall of Giants were pretty obvious, but we got to have a great conversation about why one formation is called Rock of Ages.
There is a 1-mile path leading around the Big Room. It takes approximately 1.5 hours to walk and leads you by memorable sites including Mirror Lake and the Bottomless Pit. This was a considerably easier hike than the one coming into the caverns, but it should be noted that no strollers are allowed in the caves, so those with little ones should bring a baby backpack.
After a full day of adventuring, we took the elevators 800 feet up to the information center. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to hike out of the caves, so everyone exits the same way.
Of course, before we left, the kids had to turn in their Junior Ranger booklets to be sworn in and get their newest Junior Ranger patch. I’ve written before about how the kids collect patches on our travels – free patches are my favorite kind.
This really was the perfect day trip for our family. We cannot wait to go back later in the season to do all the things that we missed out on this time – watch the Mexican free-tail bats fly out at dusk, take a Ranger guided cave tour, and hike in the Chihuahuan Desert. There’s even a stargazing event happening later in the year that we would like to go back for.
Carlsbad Caverns is a great destination for the whole family and aspects of it can be enjoyed by people of all ages. There’s even a chance that you’ll see us there when you get a chance to visit.