The metaphorical road to hell might be paved with good intentions. But in New Mexico, it’s paved with asphalt.
Diving deep into the earth, this pathway plunges over 750 feet into the ground. What you’ll find at the bottom might just make you break a sweat.
Today, we’re following Orpheus down into Hades on the famous trail into Carlsbad Caverns. Hang on, it’s a bumpy ride.
Let’s go spelunking!
Where Is the Road to Hell?
Smack dab in the middle of nowhere, the caves that became known as Carlsbad Caverns exist. They’re a massive underground conglomerate of geologic wonder. In 1930, the national park was officially designated by President Herbert Hoover. But there’s a deeper history.
Before modern discovery, the Mescalero Apache and Zuni Pueblo inhabited the area. They called it Jadnut udebiga (Home of the Bat) and Ashosti an alaluckwa (Bat Cave) after the immense populations there.
In 1898, the little mammals led cowboy Jim White on his path of discovery.
One day, he thought he saw a plume of smoke while herding his cattle. He approached to see how big the fire was and realized it was tens of thousands of Brazilian bats. After sleeping on it, he climbed down to find something that changed his life.
Today, the official Road to Hell is the paved hiking trail that leads you through the system. It’s over a mile from the parking lot into the opening. Make sure you bring water with you in summer. Otherwise, it’ll feel like you’re on fire.
While it’s not rocky, it is treacherously slanted. Visitors who struggle with mobility will have a difficult time navigating the switchbacks. Thankfully, there’s an elevator to the bottom.
About Carlsbad Caverns National Park
With over 119 caves, this national park is one of the most unique sites in the country. Instead of being formed through dripping water, these had a different origin. Water that was rich in hydrogen-sulfide mixed with oxygen and rainwater resulted in sulfuric acid. It dissolved the limestone and left behind what we have today.
The Road to Hell begins at the visitor’s center and ends in the belly of the caves. Visitors could easily damage the delicate ecosystems within them. Therefore, the staff maintains some essential rules to protect it.
When young Jim White entered for the first time, he started naming the features. Favorites include the Bat Cave, Devil’s Spring, King’s Palace, and the Big Room. The latter contains several of the most unique features in the park.
The self-guided tour includes Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, and Bottomless Pit. A ranger-led version only traverses the upper parts of the system, including a lunch space and restroom. And at 755 feet below the surface, they’re likely as low as you’ll go.
Bio mats kill microscopic critters hitching a ride on your shoes, and only water is allowed inside.
Tours of the geological structure begin in the morning, with the last admission in the mid-afternoon. These time cutoffs let you explore at your own pace. You won’t, however, get to see everything. There are over 145 miles of cavern below, and it’d take a lifetime to see it all.
There’s plenty of parking at the main entrance, including RV lots. But don’t plan to overnight in your rig there since it’s not permitted.
How Long Is the Road to Hell?
Several avenues along the Road to Hell give you access to different experiences. Tours on these routes allow you to enjoy the sights without rushing through.
Big Room Trail, the most popular, is about 1.25 miles and takes an average of one hour and 45 minutes. A shortcut drops the hike to just over half a mile, which most folks complete in less than one hour. Parts of this path are wheelchair accessible. Check with park rangers if you have any questions.
Another option, the Natural Entrance Trail, is precariously steep, the equivalent of climbing down a 75-story building.
Is There a Fee For the Road to Hell?
As one of the region’s most famous national parks, visitors have some restrictions to preserve the space.
Passes to the caves are around $15.00 for folks 16 years and older, with 15 and under entering for free. In addition, timed reservations ensure the quality of your experience and protect the formations. You’ll have to book that ahead online.
While it’s a popular spot, you usually won’t have to worry about times filling up. Our search showed plenty of available tickets.
Best Hikes in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Once you’ve explored the Road to Hell, there’s still plenty to see in the mountains. And since it’s such a long way from anything, it’s worth venturing into the surrounding areas.
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail
This year-round track stretches 1.25 miles, showcasing local plants and scenic views. The entrance leads hikers out onto a mostly paved route just past the visitor’s center. The top portion of the path is wheelchair accessible and leads to a shaded overlook.
Even in the height of summer, it’s doable if you come prepared. Signs describe the flora, and kids love the easy walk. However, you’ll want to leave your pups at home to protect the land.
Rattlesnake Canyon Upper Loop
At six miles, this is a moderate to challenging trek into Rattlesnake Canyon. While there’s no fee to access the trail, you’ll need a free permit to camp in the backcountry. You’ll appreciate the scenery and quiet nature, but it’s not easy. Part of it traverses a dry, rocky riverbed.
Most report that it took them longer than the estimated 3.5 hours. Bring plenty of water and some sturdy shoes if you head out on this one.
Best Places to Stay Near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
There’s no better place than the desert to look at the stars. And since you’ve made the drive already, you might as well stick around. These are a few of the best places to spend the night.
Sunset Reef Campground
For RVers, the Sunset Reef Campground is about as close to boondocking as possible. With 11 dry sites available, you’ll want to come prepared to rough it for as long as needed. Other than restrooms and covered picnic tables, there’s little in the way of amenities.
The Bureau of Land Management operates it as a free stay less than 15 miles from the Road to Hell. Most visitors report positive experiences, but you’ll have to drive down a long dirt road to get there.
And during peak season, it fills up early. So, arrive with plenty of time to spare to ensure you get a prime spot.
We have more options for you! 7 Best RV Parks in Carlsbad, New Mexico (With Video Tours).
National Parks Inn
National Parks Inn is in Carlsbad, New Mexico, around 17 miles from the caves. With 59 rooms and plenty of amenities, it’s a more comfortable option if boondocking isn’t your style. Reasonable prices mean a night here won’t break the bank.
The inn has WiFi, cable TV, and a pool for the family. You’ll also get complimentary breakfast and barbecue grills for gatherings.
If you’re traveling with your pets, they can stay here too, for a small fee. So, while you’re off exploring the caverns, your pups have a nice place to hang out.
La Quinta Inn & Suites
The La Quinta Inn & Suites in Carlsbad is an ideal place to overnight within walking distance of several restaurants. Air-conditioned rooms and free WiFi are a couple of the perks. They’ve also got an outdoor pool and nearby art galleries.
You’ll love the Southwestern flair of the hotel and enjoy breakfast on your way to the Road to Hell. A reservation here allows you to sleep just 17 miles from your destination.
Plan your trip with the New Mexico Bucket List Adventure Guide.
Is a Road Trip to Carlsbad Caverns Worth It?
As one of the world’s natural wonders, Carlsbad Caverns is worth the trek to southern New Mexico. You’ll see otherworldly geologic formations and striking landscapes.
However, hiking down the Road to Hell might not be for everyone. It’s a steep descent into the underground cathedral. But with the elevator, nearly anyone can see what brought Jim White back again and again!
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