Stretch your legs on an interpretive trail or wander through quiet canyons on one of these classic day hikes in Carlsbad Caverns NP.
Often paired with a visit to the nearby Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers a stunning and solemn backcountry experience for avid hikers. While some of the park’s most well-known trails are short in length or within the caverns themselves, others wander through quiet canyons lined with stunning views, beautiful plant life, and scattered remnants left by native peoples who previously inhabited the area. This guidebook highlights six of Carlsbad’s top day hikes, plus some information about hiking within the caverns.
If you are planning a visit to the main cavern found at the visitor center, consider a pit stop at the Walnut Canyon Nature Trail or Walnut Canyon Vista on your drive in. The nature trail includes trailside signage highlighting “how native peoples, ending with the Mescalero Apache, may have used the various desert plants” as they “lived off the resources of the land," according to this source. In contrast, the Vista is a short path to a commanding overlook with expansive views of the canyons, a harsh desert ecosystem home to wildlife including rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, and an abundance of birds.
If you are planning a day to explore the caverns, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail is another short interpretative hike with striking views and signage highlighting local flora and fauna. While the Nature Trail should take less than 30 minutes to complete, the trail is rarely hiked on its own. The caverns tucked deep beneath the landscape are Carlsbad’s main attraction.
Beginning from the visitor center, two trails lead into the caverns and can be explored at your own pace and without a guide. The Big Room Trail is the most popular route and can range from 45-90 minutes based on the exact route. In contrast, the Natural Entrance (which can be seen along the Nature Trail) is a steeper route into the cavern that takes at least an hour to negotiate the 750' descent. More information on hiking within the caverns can be found here.
To the southwest, Slaughter Canyon is another staple hiking area in Carlsbad Caverns NP. Make your way up the short yet steep Slaughter Canyon Cave Trail. Though “the cave itself can only be seen on a ranger-guided tour,” this hike offers spectacular views looking north into the canyon. For those seeking solitude, follow the Slaughter Canyon Trail to Guadalupe Ridge instead. The further the trail leads into the canyon, the less traveled it is—so pay especially close attention to trail markers. As you hike, take note of the juniper, prickly pear cactus, mesquite, and sotol that paint the landscape with dull tan, green, and red hues.
For those looking for a quiet loop hike in the backcountry, head over to the Rattlesnake Canyon Loop on Desert Loop Road. In this trail guide by explorenm.com, the author notes how this is one of their favorite hikes in Carlsbad thanks to the "variety of cacti and other desert plants, and some history," seen along the way. "If the preceding winter had sufficient precipitation," they continue, "the flowers are likely to be stunning in the spring."