Great American Road Trip with Kids (and on a budget): Exit 10 – Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Welcome to Exit 10 of our Great American Road Trip with Kids (and on a budget)!

Exit 10 – Carlsbad Caverns National Park – was our last stop before we made the 8-hour trek back home, completing our nine parks, five states, three kids, two old west towns, one minivan tour in 11 days.

As mentioned in Exit 1, it was a trip of lifetime. An 11-day road trip with minimal technology to distract the kids, a perfectly planned itinerary by yours truly, a perfectly planned food prep by the wife, surrounded by the beautiful country of the southwest, and visiting majestic parks that can only be experienced in-person.

This journey has been fun to recap and write about. As Vacation A was cancelled due to COVID-19, and Vacation B is on the cusp of being cancelled due to COVID-19, it’s been fun to reminisce on a year back when things were less chaotic. Imagine if this trip, a trip I’ve planned in my head for years, was planned for 2020. I’d not be a good person to live with during this time.

Thankfully my daughter completed her fourth grade year in 2019 and we were able to knock out this trip a year before … all this happened.

If you’ve been following along with us, much appreciated!

If you haven’t, please check out the following:
Exit 1 – Route 66
Exit 2 – Petroglyph and Aztec Ruins National Monuments
Exit 3 – Mesa Verde National Park
Exit 4 – Hovenweep National Monument
Exit 5 – Monument Valley Tribal Park
Exit 6 – Glen Canyon National Recreational Area
Exit 7 – Grand Canyon National Park
Exit 8 – White Sands National Monument
Exit 9 – Wild Wild West – Tombstone, Arizona and Lincoln, New Mexico

We know traveling is hard to do these days (Carlsbad Caverns National Park is open), but we hope that times to travel will return soon, and that you can use these recaps of our 2019 Great American Road Trip to help plan your next stop to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Want to follow along with us on this journey? Awesome! You can follow us through RSS feed, InstagramFacebook and Twitter, or just by subscribing to receive emails when posts are release. Much obliged!

As a reminder, we’re giving you our recommendations and non-recommendations (or highlights and lowlight), for a Great American Road Trip with kids (and on a budget). This will include tips and tricks, what there is to do, how kid friendly each place is, how you can do it on a family-friendly budget, and what you’ll need for that portion of the trip.

And remember, we seriously recommend this trip with a fourth grader. The National Park Services have a wonderful program called “Every Kid Outdoors” where every fourth grader, and their family, get into the parks for free. We saved $30 at Carlsbad Caverns National Park by having our fourth grader with us.

Great American Road Trip: Exit 10 – Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Enchanting was how the wife mentioned the inside of the caverns. And to think Carlsbad Caverns National Park wasn’t on our original agenda.

Driving through Roswell, New Mexico

Our initial plan had us stopping at Roswell, New Mexico (home of the infamous UFO landings of 1947) and driving straight home from there.

After researching Carlsbad Caverns National Park and realizing that we may not head that way again in the near future, we decided taking the two-hour detour home might be well worth it. It was.

As I’ve mentioned over and over again in all of my national park posts, words, photos, videos, nothing can do these parks justice. In fact, unless you’re a skilled photographer, you’re not taking a decent picture in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

We did both the Natural Entrance Trail (1.25 miles) and the Big Room Trail (1.25 miles).

Walking the steep downhill Natural Entrance Trail.

The Natural Entrance Trail is an extremely steep descent into the cave, but nobody in our posse had problems with it. The Big Room Trail is relatively flat and takes you around the entire floor of the cavern. I’d recommend doing both if you’re physically able to. Find out about the self-guided tours here.

The Carlsbad Caverns are rich in history. I won’t go too much into the history but, if interested, you can find it here. Currently there are 120 known caves, the elevation will range from 3,596 to 6,368 above sea level.

Note that it may get slippery inside the cave, plus you’ll be doing a lot of walking, so wear comfortable shoes. You can hike into the cavern from 8:30 – 2 p.m. We showed up a little before 1:30 and were one of the last people to enter. It is dark, a bit humid, but well worth it.

Walking through the caverns you felt like you were at the beginning of a Disneyland ride, it just seems unreal. The speleothem (our Word of the Day, see below) hang from the roof of the cavern, stunning springs of water and deep unexplored caves also fill this amazing “room”. It truly is, as the wife so aptly put it, enchanting.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park (4 out of 5):
Another five rating from Mom and Dad, kids just don’t appreciate the majesty of it … but will some day. The daughter did give it a four, and the boys each rated it a three probably because you had to walk.

Age: 7 and up. No strollers are allowed so you’ll have to have little ones in a backpack. Plus, shhh! You need to be a bit quiet, and be able to walk.

Cost: $15 (Adults 16 and older), children 15 and under are free.

Badges Earned: Carlsbad Caverns National Park Junior Ranger

Word of the Day: Speleothem (noun) – a structure formed in a cave by the deposition of minerals from water, e.g. a stalactite or stalagmite.

The Johnson Five Recommends: My brother and I had a discussion recently on the appropriate ages to take kids on vacations. I’m all for taking them on vacations every year, we never leave our kids behind, but some trips are better left for when they are older and will enjoy the experience more.

I did the Mesa Verde / Grand Canyon trip at age 7. All I remember from it was that it was fun. I don’t remember taking part in any activities, or even what it looked like, and only my mom’s photos give me a memory of the place.

Before age 8 I recommend making smaller trips. Hiking trips, camping trips, small adventures that are more relaxing, and more about visiting with each other than sticking with an itinerary. You’ll all enjoy the vacation more.

Trekking them on a cruise, to Europe, heck, even to Disneyland at a young age (we’ve done that, I’d recommend waiting until at least age 5) is going to be a lot of work for you, wear you both down, and they likely won’t have any memory of the experience, other than the photos you took of them.

There is a reason the U.S. National Parks has the “Every Kid Outdoors” program for fourth graders. As the site mentioned, “We chose fourth graders because research shows that kids ages nine to 11 are beginning to learn about the world around them…and they are likely to connect to nature and our history.”

It’s likely my kids, all over 8 at the time, will remember this trip. I’m hopeful they’ll remember it with fondness and that their ratings would increase as they become more grateful for the experience they had. Fingers crossed, but yah, that’s my recommendation. In the end, you do you and imma do me!

The Johnson Five Doesn’t Recommend: Bringing your cellphone into the cavern (unless it doubles as your camera, but even then you’re not taking great pictures). You have no service for one. Secondly, if it drops you’re likely going to be upset and make some tourists laugh at your expense. We watched a teenager drop his phone into a puddle of acidic water. We laughed at his expense. Sorry bro, it was funny. There’s a reason signs are posted everywhere. Luckily for him it wasn’t into a deep cave, but he still wasn’t able to retrieve it, and had to wait for the Park Rangers to ship it to him after the next time they clean the caverns.

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