Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Location: Carlsbad, NM
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, in the gift shop
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is best known for the amazing caves. The park also offers ranger-guided tours, night sky programs, bat flight program and some above ground hiking. The park also has food options: a café upstairs and small snack bar in the caverns, a gift shop, a bookstore and interactive exhibits.
The main draw is of course the caves. There are two self-guided tours: Big Room Trail (1.25 miles, mostly flat) and Natural Entrance Trail (1.25 miles, more strenuous as you hike down into the cave). Strollers and backpack carriers are not allowed so we opted for the easier trail since we would have to carry the toddlers.
The Big Room Trail starts in the Visitor’s Center. When you pay your entrance fee, you are given a ticket with a return time for the elevator. We were at the park on a busy Friday in early August and our return time was only about 15 minutes so waits are not that long. You’ll ride an elevator down to the cave. They put about 25 people on the elevator so be ready to be kinda close with people for a few minutes. The cave is a constant temperature of about 60 degrees so a light jacket or a sweatshirt might be a good idea. Also remember to wear good walking shoes. I had on only my normal tennis shoes and I slipped twice. The ground is uneven and moisture does drip from the ceiling so watch your footing. We also saw many people bring flashlights with them. You do not need a flashlight. The caves are expertly lit so that the lighting highlights unique cave formations. It is bright enough that you can easily see where you are going. As far as I could tell all the flashlights did were blind other visitors when the flashlight users were just swinging the lights around. Also be courteous of your camera flash. The caves are lit but it’s like being in a dim room, the LED flashes on your cell phone camera are super bright. Be considerate of others.
The Big Room Trail circles around the main cavern. This is a very large space. At no point do you need to duck. The ceiling of the cave is several stories above your head for the vast majority of the walk. There are thousands of cool formations to check out. If you don’t have young kids with you plan for about two hours to complete the hike at a pace where you can stop and enjoy the sights. The toddlers were starting to get restless about 20 minutes into the hike. We spent a lot of time playing pass the baby. The older two stayed engaged with the hike until they completed their Jr Ranger scavenger hunts (about ¾ through the trail) then they too got bored.
The trail loops back to the same elevators that you came down. You will exit the elevator into the main bookstore. This connects to the museum that had several hands on exhibits explain how the caverns formed and give insight to the ecosystems both above and below ground at the park. The kids had a lot of fun with the exhibits. The toddlers especially liked crawling through the spelunking tunnel.
Overall: Carlsbad is a unique park. I have done many cave tours but none that felt so wide open. The tour probably works a little better for older kids but it was an easy enough hike young kids can do it too. It was a very busy park so be prepared for lots of people if you are coming during peak months. I would recommend this stop if you are in West Texas or Southern New Mexico.