When you think of visiting Carlsbad, the first destination you likely consider is the world-famous caverns. But if that’s the only place you explore, you’re missing out on many other adventures! Let’s visit Carlsbad, starting with the caverns and then going above and beyond, finding more great outdoor opportunities where it is easy to be socially distant.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Perched high on a Permian bluff is the visitor center for Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Thanks to a unique geologic history, travelers today can explore the huge caverns that are decorated with breathtaking stalactites and stalagmites, draperies, ribbons, and popcorn. Water dripping into the limestone caverns across the millennia has slowly built these formations, a process that continues today.
If their scheduled tour time is before 1:30 p.m., visitors have the option to explore the steep path that winds over a mile from the Natural Entrance down into the caverns. Those who want a quicker, less-challenging tour can opt for an elevator ride 754 feet underground to the Big Room for the mostly flat walking tour. To avoid people walking in two directions, if you leave earlier than 2:30 p.m., you’ll depart by elevator, but after that time, visitors may choose to exit by hiking out of the caverns along the trail to the Natural Entrance for a real cardio workout. Wait times for the elevator to exit can be up to an hour (we waited about 25 minutes the afternoon we visited).
My husband is fascinated with the caverns not only due to the amazing geology, but because it connects him to movies he loves, like Journey to the Center of the Earth, which was filmed in one of the 119 caves. The caverns are not only home to their most famous residents, Brazilian free-tailed bats, but also nesting cave swallows. We were fortunate enough to assist several times with a cave swallow bird-banding project that allowed us to have an up-close view of the iconic evening exit from the caves by the bats. While you won’t have the view we had from inside the cave, at the outdoor amphitheater starting in April you can watch thousands of bats depart to do their nightly hunting around sunset. The ranger-led Bat Flight Program runs Memorial Day through October near the Natural Entrance. Check for times for this free program and know that seating is on a first-come basis.
Before the pandemic, there were a number of special tours to areas of the caverns not on the self-guided walking tour, some more strenuous than others. However, as of press time, none were available, and before you visit, you may wish to check if they have been reinstated.
In addition to all there is to see underground, this UNESCO World Heritage Site includes walking trails and a driving tour that provide more opportunities to explore the area. The park’s website lists 11 hiking trails for your consideration, from the 180-yard Walnut Canyon Overlook trail to the 100-mile-long Guadalupe Ridge Trail, which goes from Guadalupe Mountains National Park to Whites City and is planned to be extended to the City of Carlsbad.
Carlsbad Caverns is a “must see,” and in order to visit, you need to do some planning — especially if you’re going during the busy season, as they limit visitors to 1,000 a day. Book your tour time online, then pay for your ticket upon arrival (be sure to check the website for current procedures, as things were in flux when we visited). More information is available on the park’s website.
Rattlesnake Springs Historic District
Part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Rattlesnake Springs is accessed from Interstate 62/180 south of the park — look for signs for Washington Ranch and Rattlesnake Springs. Homesteaded in 1880 by William Harrison, who established a system of ditches that irrigate the land, the National Park Service acquired the land after Harrison’s death in 1930, and improvements were added by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The attraction of the park for birds and birders is the year-round availability of water at the springs — the source of water for the cavern’s facilities.
I’ve visited twice, and it’s the only place I’ve seen a northern cardinal in New Mexico. This trip, there was a large flock of American robins, a pair of phainopepla, some American wigeons floating on the pond, and some black phoebes chasing after bugs. This lovely spot is on the National Register of Historic Places and it’s perfect for a picnic and to do some birding while enjoying a bit of history.
Guadalupe Mountains Scenic Byway and Sitting Bull Falls
In 2018, travel site Expedia published a list of 21 of the most scenic cities in the Southwest. Carlsbad landed at number one, thanks in part to the numerous recreational opportunities in the area, from Carlsbad Caverns to the nearby Guadalupe Mountains and locations discussed below. If you want to take a desert driving tour with an unexpected treat midway, do the Guadalupe Mountains Scenic Byway. After a drive through the desert, you’ll be able to take a short walk to a waterfall and swimming hole: Sitting Bull Falls in the Lincoln National Forest. Two falls drop water into pools, one of which is available for cooling off on a summer day. The more adventurous can take a hike to the top of the bluff and look down upon the falls and out over the area, or hike one of the many other trails. The byway is accessed south of Carlsbad at Dark Canyon Road (look for the signs that say Dog Canyon if coming from the south) or north of town at Highway 137. There is a $5 entry fee at Sitting Bull Falls.
Six Mile Dam
Before our trip, we learned of Six Mile Dam, an area being developed for wildlife viewing by a conglomerate of groups, including the City of Carlsbad, Eddy County, Carlsbad Soil & Water Conservation District, BLM, and local corporations that have an interest in public lands. This area along the Pecos River is believed to be part of the Loving-Goodnight cattle trail. Upon arrival, we found a bluff overlooking a lovely section of river at, of course, a dam. Cattails are lush in the river here and during our visit, I spotted white pelicans, a raptor, black-necked stilts in the shallow water past the dam, killdeer, and a large flock of dark waterbirds. Tall platforms rise from the cattails, providing nesting locations for herons.
Egrets and large numbers of cormorants are also commonly found here. Trails, a driving loop, picnic table shelters, informational kiosks, and an ADA-accessible non-powered boat launch ramp were being planned or under construction when we were there, and once complete, this will be an excellent location for close-to-town birding, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and just enjoying the outdoors. To get there from the intersection of Highway 62/285 and E. Wood Ave., head east on E. Wood Ave. (CR 216) for 2.89 miles. The road will take a wide long turn to the south. Stay on the main paved road and head south for a mile. Take a left on Forni Road and stay on it until you arrive at the dam. The BLM urges visitors to follow COVID-safe precautions when visiting and to check their outdoor ethics guidelines online at blm.gov/outdoorethics.
Pecos River Recreation Area
Speaking of water, you’ll want to visit the Pecos River Recreation Area near downtown Carlsbad. You’ll find a lovely area with a waterfront fit for sailing, canoeing, and kayaking, along with fishing, paddleboarding, and just soaking up the rays, not to mention new outdoor pickleball and volleyball courts nearby (see our story on page 26 for more). Five miles of walking trails wind along the riverfront area, which is dotted with five playgrounds for the kids — including a huge play fort. The city’s recreation center is located next to the fort just past the skatepark.
This former power station now offers indoor basketball courts, pickleball, volleyball, ping-pong tables, arcade games, air hockey, and more. Everything is free to residents and visitors alike except the arcade games. Some activities were unavailable when we visited in March due to the pandemic, but sports activities were open. The south end of the waterfront also includes an 18-hole disc golf course. For those who play regular golf, two courses are across the river. The riverfront also boasts boat tours, and, in late November and December, the lovely Christmas on the Pecos boat tours, during which you float by homes that have been decorated for the season for your enjoyment.
Downtown Carlsbad is a great place to explore history, view art, then go shopping and dining. Ashly Key, executive director of the Carlsbad MainStreet Project, says there are 43 retail and restaurant locations in the 16-block area for the district. She says, “I love downtown Carlsbad. There is so much history and culture. Our homegrown businesses have something for everyone. The food is great, and each store is unique. There are so many amazing things you can find.”
Ashly was right. We stopped at several shops in the downtown area, including the Cat’s Meow thrift store, The Artist Gallery co-op run by the Carlsbad Area Art Association, and the Pecos River Antique Mall, which is filled with fascinating items from days gone by. We walked away with packages from at least two of them!
Kathleen Davis, director of the Pearl of the Pecos Arts & Culture District, said, “The Pearl of the Pecos Arts & Culture District was formed in 2018, and we are in the startup phase of becoming a state-designated Arts & Cultural District. Our district is in the heart of Downtown Carlsbad and it overlaps with the MainStreet and Historical District. There is a lot of rich culture and history in the district as well as great locally owned restaurants, boutiques, and stores.”
The downtown Cavern Theatre is the subject of a rehabilitation project to turn the building into a performing arts center. Chair of the Cavern Theatre Rehabilitation Project Ken Britt said, “The rehabilitation of the Cavern Theater is a project led by the City of Carlsbad and supported by partners Carlsbad MainStreet, Creative Carlsbad, and the Pearl of the Pecos Arts & Cultural District. This project is special to the city in that it will preserve a historical building in downtown Carlsbad, returning the 1950 movie palace back to its glory days as an entertainment destination. Once completed, this project will be an important addition to the arts and cultural economy in downtown Carlsbad, providing films as well as live performances.”
You’ll also find in the Pearl of the Pecos Arts & Culture District the Carlsbad Museum & Art Center, which has an interesting Hall of Fame that contains profiles of locals who became well known or made contributions to culture. You can learn about everyone from NPR correspondent Linda Wertheimer and football player John Wooten to four-star general Fred Mahaffey and drag racer Dick Harrell in the Hall of Fame. There are several exhibits on local history, an impressive collection of art that includes pieces by Peter Hurd, Joan Potter, and Allen Houser, plus a nice collection of Indigenous pottery. The exhibit “Icons and Symbols of the Borderland” is scheduled to be open May through September. Outside the museum and adjacent library, enjoy the Halagueno Arts Park, filled with lovely sculptures and water features.
Living Desert Zoo & Gardens
On the north end of Carlsbad, be sure to visit the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens. The mission of this state-run facility is to interpret the plants and animals of the Chihuahuan Desert. Here you’ll find animals native to the desert who cannot live in the wild, like a three-legged gray fox, 16-year-old Maggie the black bear (who is well known for her paintings), bison, elk, mule deer, endangered Bolson tortoises, Mexican gray wolves, a variety of birds, and javelinas.
My new favorite resident is George the roadrunner, who has claimed lead keeper Missy Garriott as the love of his life. She was getting ready to enter his enclosure and I noticed he was running about with a bit of food, as a male does when he is courting a female and wants to show what a good provider he is. Finally growing impatient, he ate his treat, but when Missy came in, he ran for a nest-making stick to show her he could also come up with building materials. Once she was inside, he perched on her arm, happy to be with his beloved.
The plants at the gardens are arranged to show those that can be found in each of the sandhills, gypsum hills, desert uplands and arroyo, and piñon juniper zones. It provides a good sample of native plants that can be added to gardens or to help you to identify them when you are out exploring.
The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens is open daily except Christmas from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with last entry at 3:30 p.m.
The Pecos River Flume
Near the zoo, you can find an aqueduct built to bring water from Lake Avalon and which allowed the Pecos River to be listed by the Guinness Books of World Records as the only river that crosses itself. Built of wood in 1890, the aqueduct was destroyed by a flood in 1902 and replaced the next year with a concrete arch. For a short while, the new aqueduct was the largest concrete structure in the world.
Carlsbad was originally named Eddy, after Charles Eddy, whose original homesite is near the flume. You can peer into his stone cabin and explore a variety of large mechanical implements. Past the flume is more waterfront access with picnic areas and additional birding opportunities.
When we asked about places to eat, one response was from Chad Ingram, the CEO of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce. He said, “The Trinity Hotel and Restaurant is wonderful. It is in one of the older buildings here in Carlsbad and has the feeling of going back in time. The food is delicious, and the local wines are delightful. We have two breweries in town. They both offer great beer and different environments. Guadalupe Mountain Brewery is on the south side of town and has a great atmosphere. Then there is Milton’s, which the only way I can describe it is a brewery form of ‘Cheers’.”
Ashly from the Carlsbad MainStreet Project noted that the district also offers three other tempting restaurant options in addition to the Trinity: Yellowbrix (freshly made delights from burgers to steak, salads to salmon), Borracho Taco (Mexican fare including chips and salsa visitors rave about), and Lucky Bull (steaks, burgers, and brews in the former city hall building).
In addition to all this, the area surrounding Carlsbad includes a patchwork of BLM and National Forest Service lands, some with technical caves that draw cavers from around the world (permits are required and hygiene procedures are mandated to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome that infects bats). Places like Sitting Bull Falls and nearby Last Chance Canyon draw sport climbers due to the vertical rock faces. North of town is Brantley Lake, a destination for camping and boating. The BLM has two new campgrounds near Rattlesnake Springs, Sunset Reef and Chosa. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, with its many hidden gems and camping and hiking opportunities, is also nearby.
The bottom line? Carlsbad isn’t a day trip. There’s too much to do!
Written and photography by Cheryl Fallstead
Originally published in Neighbors magazineThis article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead