In December 2010, my husband and I visited Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico with our daughters, 8 and 4. It was an incredible experience and there are many tours and activities available for children. However, several tours and trails are limited by age and ability, and require reservations, so it is good to plan ahead before visiting. For basic information on the park and food restrictions, see my article, "Visiting Carlsbad Caverns with children" in related links below. Here's what we learned that is important to know for families visiting the caverns.
Entering the Cave
The basic admission ticket includes access to two trails - the Big Room and the Natural Entrance. There are two ways down into the cave. The elevator is probably the best bet for kids under about the ages of 8-12, depending on how athletic and experienced with hikes the child is. For mid-aged children, it might be appropriate to hike down, but take the elevator up. The natural entrance is equivalent to a 79-story elevation change over about a mile of distance. It's important to remember that even if a child can handle the hike down that it is strenuous and some stamina/willingness to hike needs to be left over for the big room hike and any other scheduled tours. We did not take the natural entrance trail with our girls, but I would love to go back and do so in the future.
Even if not taking the natural entrance trail, it is definitely worth it to take the very short hike over from the visitors center to see it. It is really quite spectacular. During the months from mid-April through mid-October this is also where visitors can gather for free to view thousands of bats that dramatically exit the cave at the natural entrance each evening at dusk. There is an ampitheater built into the side of the hill by the entrance for viewing (no cameras for videotaping is allowed as it disturbs the bats!).
The Big Room
The Big Room trail is just amazing and is a self-guided tour. There is signage throughout the trail for notable features, or an audio tour can be purchased for just a few dollars per person, which offers a version for kids as well as adults. There is also a shortcut on the trail that will cut out about half of the hike. We did the whole trail, without audio tour and it took us about an hour to an hour and a half. My girls did just fine, although the 4-year old did ask to be carried for a bunch of it (but it was our second tour of the day). While the shortcut is certainly an option, it does skip most of my favorite parts of the trail. Some of those (caveman, active stagmite, bottomless pit, top of the cross) could be seen by taking the shortcut and then going back just a bit on the regular trail, but there is still quite a few other things worth seeing if you think your kids can handle it.
My girls did just fine, although the 4-year old did ask to be carried for a bunch of it (but it was our second tour of the day). While the shortcut is certainly an option, it does skip most of my favorite parts of the trail. Some of those (caveman, active stagmite, bottomless pit, top of the cross) could be seen by taking the shortcut and then going back just a bit on the regular trail, but there is still quite a few other things worth seeing if you think your kids can handle it.
Something to know is that the cave carries sound really easily and so they ask everyone to talk low and quietly. This was really hard for my kids after a while. Part of me wishes we had done the audio tour, because I think the kids tour and fiddling with the audio machine would be engaged them and kept them a bit more subdued and quiet, but it was also nice to experience everything as a family and not each with an individual device to our ear.
It's also important to know that no one is allowed to touch the cave features anywhere in the cave. Before going in the elevator, there is a piece you can touch "to get it our of your system." This is really important, and violators can cause permanent damage, can receive tickets from rangers and be asked to leave. If you really don't think your kids can handle this restriction, you might want to wait on a visit until they can.
Finally, be aware that there are food restrictions inside the cave. For details, see my article "Visiting Carlsbad Caverns with Chidren."
In addition to the Big Room, my family also took the King's Palace Guided Tour. For details on this, and other guided tours see "Carlsbad Caverns Guided Tours with Children" linked below.