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[dropcap]C[/dropcap]arlsbad Caverns is high on my list of natural wonders of the world. Where else can you go down 700 feet into the earth and be transported into what seems another world? Moreover, it's a world you’ve only imagined in stories with dwarves and Gandalf, or perhaps with Tom Sawyer, Becky, and Injun Joe. But should you visit Carlsbad Caverns with kids? The answer to that questions is yes, this is a place you want to take your kids. Not only will you look around, but believe me, it will create an impression in their minds they will remember their entire lives.
We have a family reunion almost every year in Ruidoso, New Mexico, and we often do side day trips from there exploring New Mexico. Carlsbad Caverns is definitely a favorite one of those trips for both adults and kids and not to be missed! The kids didn’t even mind the 3-hour drive (too much) back and forth they were so excited.
Carlsbad Caverns is no little cave you walk in and do a quick walk around the main room. The “Big Room” as it’s called, is about a mile around with a walking trail. Keep in mind only part of the area is wheel-chair friendly and strollers are not allowed down in the main cave. There are over 300 limestone caves in the area, and if you are a brave soul you can even arrange a spelunking adventure in some of the less frequented caves. However, it is not for the faint of heart! There will be ropes, crawling, climbing, dirt and wet involved. If that’s your thing then go for it; it’s awesome!
Pick up some great tips here for exploring Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park with kids in winter.
10 MUSTS for visiting Carlsbad Caverns with kids
Back to the main point. If you happen to be in New Mexico, or even if you're not, make sure you plan to visit the Caverns. To make the most of your visit, by all means, read and utilize these 10 tips for an amazing visit to Carlsbad Caverns with kids!
Bring water bottles
Water is the only thing allowed down in the caves so don’t try to sneak in lunch, snacks, juice, etc. This is for the protection of the caves so I wouldn’t get too worked up about it. Still, this makes it even more important to bring water bottles for all as you will be walking around at the very least for an hour or two. There is a little snack area for emergency refueling, and it's an almost eerie experience sitting at your table in the dark cave eating a sandwich.
Don't forget a jacket or sweatshirt
It’s chilly down in the caves, even in 100-degree summer weather, so be sure to bring a jacket or sweatshirt for everyone. Or you can be like my husband and refuse then just be a little cold walking around. However, if you want to enjoy your trip, make sure everyone, especially the kids, have sweatshirts.
The Natural Entrance vs. the elevator
So here’s the debate. Do you walk down the Natural Entrance or use the elevator? It completely depends on your group. The Natural Entrance is about a mile and a fourth and is narrow in places and quite steep. If you have the time, health, a group including older kids, and a sense of adventure take the awesome Natural Entrance where the original explorers descended. On the other hand, if you have younger kids or anyone with health problems (such as a bad knee or asthma) I would suggest taking the elevator down to the Big Room.
Prep kids for what’s below
I didn’t have to worry too much about this as my kids showed only interest and no fear, but I would describe a cave for your kids before you go down. It's not a small, enclosed area, but it is dark with spotlights around to see the pathway and formations. In addition, it’s cool and feels humid so very different than what they’ve experienced on the surface. Another thing to remember is that a cave echoes! Signs and rangers encourage you to speak quietly if you must speak. Your cell phone won’t work either so you’ll want to put it in airplane mode.
Cameras all around!
Do you have a budding photographer in the family? Flash photography is permitted in the caves as long as you’re considerate of those around you. Take advantage of it! My little guy loved getting his camera out and taking pictures of the pools, the “tree”, and “dinosaur” formations as he called them.
Another warning! There are multi-colored mining helmets with lamps for sale at the gift shop and down in the cave. It is inevitable the kids will want one. If this purchase is not something you’re willing to make for everyone, arm the family with their own flashlights or headlamps. We have a couple headlamps we take camping, and they’re great because wherever you look, BAM! the light points there. This lets you see some of the areas that may not be as well lit as others. Explore!
Read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (or listen to it in the car on your way to the cave!)
Okay, so this one is me. You will probably have some travel time on the way to Carlsbad so fill that time with a classic! The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain was a great favorite of mine when I was a kid and should be shared. While you’re not in Missouri, you will be in a cave, and who can forget the great scene when Tom and Becky are lost in the cave with a murderer?! Right? Please tell me this made an impression on you as a child as well because it always comes to mind when I think of caves.
Exodus of the Brazilian free-tailed bats
Are there naturalists in the family with an interest in bats? Be sure to plan time in the evening to sit and watch the departure of the Brazilian free-tailed bats leaving the caves. Don’t worry, they won’t be down in the Big Room on your cave tour, they live in another cavern and stay away from people. Go to the amphitheater for a free talk from one of the rangers about the bats and wait for the mass exodus. The best time to see them is from August to September when the babies join in. It's quite an experience even for those who may not be quite so fond of the creatures. For more details see the link here.
Self-guided and optional ranger-led cave tours
Speaking of Park Rangers, there are all sorts of tours you can sign up for if you want more of an adventure away from the Big Room. My daughter begged to go on the Spider Cave tour because she thought it would be awesome to crawl around through the cave maze on your stomach with her head lamp. Unfortunately for her, most tours are for those 12 years old and up. If anyone in your group is not great with small, enclosed spaces, be sure to talk to the rangers about the particular tour you're interested in. Take a look at the tour schedule here: Carlsbad Caverns tour schedule. Of course, you can do your own self-guided tour of the Natural Entrance and Big Room.
Carlsbad Caverns with kids: The Junior Ranger program
Finally, for my last MUST, take advantage of the Junior Ranger program. Ask in the Visitor’s Center or one of the rangers for a free Junior Ranger Activity Book. They have two books, one for ages 0-6, and the other for 7-12 year-olds. Your child will visit the caverns then complete the book and other requirements. After that, a ranger will review their work and award the participants with a Junior Ranger badge. Super-fun free educational experience! Score!
Are you ready for some more exploration either without kids or with those 12 and older? Experience a ranger-led tour like one of these:
Try this hour and a half journey to the deepest part of the cave open to the public! View the different formations as you go 830 feet below the desert surface. Experience the ranger-led blackouts on one of the most impressive mile hikes you will ever take part in.
2 hours exploring an unpaved section of the cave by candle-lit lantern. Don your hiking boots for staying upright as you view slippery slopes, cavern pools, and delicate formations.
A 5 and a half hour "moderately strenuous" tour where your efforts will allow you to gaze upon magnificent formations: the Christmas Tree, the Monarch, the Mushroom, and the Chinese Wall.
Are you ready to rough it, get dirty, and do some crawling around in small spaces? Enjoy ladder climbing, slippery surfaces, and free climbing too! Make your way through the narrow passage of Matlock's Pinch and see the fabulous White Giant formation.
So what comes to mind when you picture a giant cave? Have you been in a large cave before? For me, it's a once in a lifetime experience not to be missed! Make your plans for summer vacation and visit Carlsbad Caverns with kids. Also, be sure to keep all the MUSTS in mind for a super-amazing trip to be talked about in AWE for years to come!