Carlsbad Cavern (the park's main cave), Slaughter Canyon Cave, and Spider Cave are open to the general public. All guided tours must be reserved and have individual fees in addition to the general cave entry fee. Guided tours are sometimes fully booked weeks in advance, so reserve early.
Most park visitors head first to Carlsbad Cavern, which has elevators, a paved walkway, and an underground rest area. A 1-mile section of the Big Room self-guided tour is accessible to those in wheelchairs (no wheelchairs are available at the park), though it's best to have another person along to assist. Pick up a free accessibility guide at the visitor center.
The Big Room Tour, Natural Entrance Route, and King's Palace Guided Tour are the most popular trails, and all of them are lighted, are paved, and have handrails. However, the Big Room is the only one of the three that's considered easy. The formations along these trails are strategically lit to display them at their most dramatic. This also means that today's visitors can see much more of the cave than early explorers, who were limited by their weak lanterns.
The Big Room Self-Guided Tour is an easy 1-mile loop that you get to by taking the visitor center elevator to the Underground Rest Area or via the Natural Entrance Route. Considered the one thing that all visitors to Carlsbad Caverns National Park must do, this easy trail meanders through a massive chamber -- it isn't called the Big Room for nothing -- where you'll see some of the park's most spectacular formations and likely be overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Allow about 1 hour.
The Natural Entrance Route, also 1 mile, is considered moderate to difficult, and is accessed outside the visitor center. This fairly strenuous hike takes you into Carlsbad Cavern on the same basic route used by its early explorers. You leave the daylight to enter a big hole, and then descend more than 750 feet into the cavern on a steep and narrow switchback trail, moving from the "twilight zone" of semidarkness to the depths of the cave, which would be totally black without the electric lights conveniently provided by the Park Service. The self-guided tour takes about 1 hour and ends near the elevators, which can take you back to the visitor center. However, I strongly recommend that from here you proceed on the Big Room Self-Guided Tour if you have not already been there.
The King's Palace Guided Tour is a moderate 1-mile loop that you get to by taking the visitor center elevator to the underground rest area. This 1 1/2-hour ranger-led walk wanders through some of the cave's most scenic chambers, where you'll see wonderfully fanciful formations in the King's Palace, Queen's Chamber, and Green Lake Room. Watch for the delightful Bashful Elephant formation between the King's Palace and Green Lake Room. Along the way, rangers discuss the geology of the cave and early explorers' experiences. Although the path is paved, there is an 80-foot elevation change.
Ranger-Led Cave Tours
In addition to the popular self-guided and guided tours discussed above, there are a number of ranger-led tours to less-developed sections of Carlsbad Cavern that provide more of the experience of exploration and genuine caving than the above tours over well-trodden trails. These caving tours vary in difficulty, but all include a period of absolute darkness or "blackout," which can make some people uncomfortable. Because some tours involve walking or crawling through tight spaces, people who suffer from claustrophobia should discuss specifics with rangers before purchasing tickets.
Left Hand Tunnel starts in the visitor center near the elevator. The easiest of the caving tours, in this one you actually get to walk (rather than crawl) the entire time! Hand-carried lanterns (provided by the Park Service) light the way, and the trail is dirt but relatively level. You'll see a variety of formations, fossils from Permian times, and pools of water. Open to those 6 and older, this tour takes about 2 hours. The moderate Lower Cave Tour, which is 1-mile round-trip, starts at the visitor center near the elevator. This 3-hour trek involves descending or climbing over 50 feet of ladders, and an optional crawl. It takes you through an area that was explored by a National Geographic Society expedition in the 1920s, and you'll see artifacts from that and other explorations. In addition, you'll encounter a variety of formations, including cave pearls, which look a lot like the pearls created by oysters and can be as big as golf balls. This tour is open to those 12 and older only. Four AA batteries are required for the provided headlamp; sturdy hiking boots and gloves are recommended.
The Hall of the White Giant Tour, which starts at the visitor center, is only .5 mile (one-way), but it is strenuous and will take 3 to 4 hours as you crawl through narrow, dirty passageways and climb up slippery rocks. The highlight is, of course, the huge formation called the White Giant. Only those in excellent physical condition should consider this tour; children must be at least age 12. Four AA batteries for the provided headlamp and sturdy hiking boots are required; and kneepads, gloves, and long pants are strongly recommended.
More Cave Tours
It takes some hiking to reach the other caves in the park, so carry drinking water, especially on hot summer days. All children 15 and under must be accompanied by an adult; other age restrictions apply as well. Each tour includes a period of true and total darkness, or "blackout."
The Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour is 1.25 miles round-trip and is considered moderate. The parking area is about a 45-minute drive from Carlsbad and is reached via U.S. 62/180, going south 5 miles from White's City to a marked turnoff that leads 11 miles to the parking lot. Discovered in 1937, this cave was mined for bat guano (used as fertilizer) until the 1950s. It consists of a corridor 1,140 feet long with many side passageways. This highly recommended guided tour lasts about 2 hours, plus at least another half-hour to hike up the steep trail to the cave entrance. No crawling is involved, although the smooth flowstone and old bat guano on the floor can be slippery, so hiking boots are recommended. You'll see a number of pristine cave formations, including the crystal-decorated Christmas Tree, the 89-foot-high Monarch, and the menacing Klansman. Open to children 6 and older; participants must take D battery flashlights.
The 4-hour tour of Spider Cave is a very strenuous 1-mile loop (plus a half-mile hike to and from cave). Meet at the visitor center and follow a ranger to the cave. This tour is ideal for those who want the experience of a rugged caving adventure as well as some great underground scenery. Highlights include climbing down a 15-foot ladder, squeezing through very tight passageways, and climbing on slick surfaces -- all this after a fairly tough half-mile hike to the cave entrance. But it's worth it. The cave has numerous beautiful formations -- most much smaller than those in the Big Room -- and picturesque pools of water. Children must be at least 12 years old. Participants need four AA batteries for the provided headlamps and good hiking boots. Kneepads, gloves, and long pants are strongly recommended.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.