You can do Carlsbad Caverns National Park in a day if you are strategic and can plan to spend the full day there.
When packing for the trip bring a few snacks (to be consumed outside of the cave), water, and a flashlight. Also wear shoes with some grip and layer your clothing as it gets hot when going up and down the hills in the cave but cold when standing still.
The visitor center opens at 8:00am, start there to get oriented with how the Carlsbad Caverns were formed and learn a bit about the history of the area. Also while you are there sign up to take the Ranger led tour of the Kings Palace (the 1:30pm tour is walk-in only but if you want to do a different tour like the Left Handed Tunnel you should book online at least two weeks in advance). The tour will cost you an additional $8 but this will be a $8 well spent.
Also while in the visitor center sign up for the Junior Ranger Program (I highly recommend this at every National Park that offers it). They have programs for people of all ages (even adults!), and you get a badge if you complete nine of the 14 activities!
After your time in the Visitor Center head to the Natural Entrance, it’s a steep down hill hike so be sure to wear shoes with some good grip and don’t be afraid to use the handrails. Going through the Natural Entrance will allow you to ease your way into the cave and build your excitement as you head down and take it all in. The trail is 1.25 miles and is “self-guided”; hiking down the Natural Entrance will take you about 1-2 hours depending on how quickly you go. Remember not to touch any of the formations and to let a ranger know if you have been in a different cave with bats.
The bottom of the Natural Entrance will land you in the Big Room chamber (where you would enter if you just took the elevator). Give yourself an hour or two to really explore, take pictures (and do some of the activities in your Junior Ranger book). The Big Room chamber of the cave is a relatively easy “self-guided” 1.25 mile walking trail, parts of it are even ADA accessible.
You are probably now pretty hungry for lunch so either grab a snack in the Underground Lunchroom (how often do you get to eat 750 feet below the ground!) or take the elevator upstairs to the Visitor Center Café (or you can just bring your own lunch, which is what I did).
After lunch head back down the elevator to the Big Room meeting spot for your Ranger led tour. The tour of the Kings Palace takes about 1.5-2 hours and be sure to bring your receipt from the morning as they check it at the gate. One of my favorite formations was on this tour (the Queen’s Draperies).
After the tour head back upstairs and enjoy some coffee in the Visitor Center while you finish up your Junior Ranger book. Turn it into the Information Desk, say a pledge that you will help protect and preserve the National Parks and then receive your badge!
After receiving your badge head out to the Nature Trail (located just to the right of the Bat Amphitheater) and have a stroll while you wait for the bat show to start. On the trail you can learn about some of the native plants and even wander for a bit down the “Old Guano Trail” and see the old entrance to the cave where they used to mine bat guano.
It should now be pretty close to the start of the bat show so head to the amphitheater and grab a seat. The bats are wild animals so they fly on their own schedule but I suggest getting there about an hour before sunset (ask a Ranger when they recommend showing up for that day). I was there on a pretty misty day and the bats still flew. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take pictures (or even have your phones on) during this part but sometimes it’s nice to unplug and just enjoy. There will likely be a Ranger at the amphitheater who will give a presentation about bats and answer any questions you might have.
After the show head out, you did it! And it was probably rad!
If you want a quirky bonus stop, on your way out swing by the Whites City Gift Shop. Just look for the giant green aliens and strange oversized animals.
I hope you enjoy your day at Carlsbad Caverns National Park! If you’ve been and have any other tips or advice let me know in the comments section!