Carlsbad is a city in New Mexico often referred to as “The pearl of the Pecos”, surrounded by the Chihuahuan desert, this picturesque city is outdoor heaven. With many public spaces like the Lake Carlsbad Beach park for swimming and water skiing, beautiful walking paths along the river, and many excellent spots to pick for a picnic. Those interested in the local fauna that lives overground can check out the Living Desert Zoo, which has mountain lions and bison.
Carlsbad was established as a frontier city in the 19th century and is built on a grid and is home to 55 thousand people. Downtown visitors can seek a night out and check out one of many restaurants, see a show or stroll along the river.
There is so much on offer in the above-ground in Carlsbad that it is easy to forget that the main reason why so many visit this city each year is for its world-famous sights under the ground! No wonder as Carlsbad is the gateway to the Carlsbad caverns national park.
Interactive Map of 20 Things to Do in Carlsbad (NM)
1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The caverns are a must-see for casual adventurers as they are a subterranean art gallery filled with sculptures crafted by nature for over 4 million years. The caverns had been known to the local Mescalero Apache Indians for hundreds, possibly thousands of years.
In 1901 caverns were discovered by a local cowboy who thought he saw black smoke rising in the desert. As he went to investigate, he realized that this was not smoke but a black cloud of bats! Since then, the Carlsbad caverns have been a magnet for tourists and attracted over 440.000 visitors in 2019 alone.
Thankfully the park is not your typical crowded tourist destination as there are over 100 caves to explore, which are over 3 miles of an exciting underworld! Caves might sound scary to some, but the cavern system is vast and very accessible, with different levels of difficulty. For some, the Natural entrance trail sounds like the perfect way to start the journey as its steep descent is around 1.25 miles(2 km) down. Equivalent to a 75 story building and takes around an hour to reach the end of the trail.
The caves are very popular and not just with travelers but also the estimated one million bats that sleep in the cool caves during the day. During the evening, it is said to be an unforgettable sight to witness as the bats leave the cavern at sundown and disappear into the black night. It’s easy to catch that show of wonder and get tickets to the Bat-flight program; there even is an amphitheater for up to 200 hundred guests!
The caves are family-friendly and fairly accessible in general except for the Natural entrance trail, but in case if you are looking for a more adventurous guided tour in a cave, a good indicator is the word “lower”, book tickets for the Lower cave tour, which balances fun and difficulty well. There, visitors need to use ropes and ladders to explore. It’s exciting to have to carefully navigate the deep corridors, but there is no need for concern as all visitors are guided by park rangers that make sure you won’t miss a thing.
There are many different tours to choose that cater to each visitor; if in doubt on which cave to opt for, use their names as an indicator. That usually helps with assessing difficulty and claustrophobic, the King’s palace cave, for example. This underground chamber is so impressive that one might speculate that Grieg’s famous orchestral piece “In the hall of the mountain king” had been inspired by this wonder of time and nature.
There are other more eerie names like the self-explanatory one, the Bottomless pit.
If you dare make it to the edge of the pit, the park rangers reward you by telling you about the history of this desolate place. Not wanting to spoil anything but the pit is not exactly bottomless. Neither is it a smart place to drop your smartphone as its 140 feet deep!
For many, the Giant dome is memorable. A subterranean showroom of geological formations and ancient pillars that hold up the dome, which stretches up 62 ft (18m). Take your time with this one! Don’t forget to come by at the visitor center; it is, of course, located at the caverns natural entrance cave where you can book tours and learn more about Carlsbad caverns. It’s clever to start your exploration early in the day as the guided tours tend to sell out quickly. There are so many to choose from. Slaughter canyon cave? The Lion’s tail? Maybe not Spider cave! But be sure to check out the “Left-hand channel tour” or the “Hall of the white giant”.
2. Sitting Bull Falls
South of Carlsbad, about an hour’s drive, are the Sitting Bulls falls. A sparkling oasis in the desert! There is a paved walkway that leads to the base of the 150-foot waterfall that pours along the canyon walls. It is probably tough to forget, but when in a hot desert, other rules apply! Everyone is allowed to go for a swim to cool off! The hike is fairly easy and accessible to all skill levels, which is good on a hot day.
On the way, nature has a lot on offer to wonder at from the slowly revealing vista as you ascend to the waterfall. The path is also perfect for birdwatching. Most visitors hike to the top of the falls to enjoy the dramatic view from the top and then cool down in the abundant pools at the top. Some even go for a swim as there is a good possibility to find some shade up there.
No one is sure why it was named Sitting Bull falls and has no relations to the famous Indian. But it is known that the Apache name for it is “gostahanagunti” or “hidden gulch”. It is easy to speculate to its naming, but many believe that what the Apaches meant by “hidden” was to indicate this desert gem at the top, a well-earned respite for those that went looking above the falls.
3. Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park
For travelers not accustomed to living in the desert, the Living Desert Zoo is an excellent way to get acquainted with the fauna and flora of the arid Chihuahuan region. The plant life is fascinating up-close as visitors can follow a trail that highlights the desert fauna like the cacti, the Yucca, and desert flowers. On the animal side, there are antelopes, mountain lions, and bison grazing in their natural desert habit. But thankfully, the smaller predators of the desert-like snakes and lizards on display are caged.
The Zoo has on display other animals not native to this part of the world, like Giraffes, camels, and many more. There are nature hiking tours to choose from as well as a safari! There is a discovery center for kids, a wildlife hospital, and a conservation center. A park is a great place for a family day out and conveniently located as it overlooks the Pecos River Valley.
4. Carlsbad Museum and Art Center
The museum and art center is conveniently located in central Carlsbad and is open every day with entrance free of charge! The museum has permanent displays that tell visitors the local and regional history of Carlsbad.
In the art center, guests can dive into the creative side of this desert world and see native American art and artifacts as well as modern and contemporary Southwestern art. One of the more renowned works of art on display is the “Taos ten” paintings that originated from the Taos art colony in New Mexico.
5. Lake Carlsbad Beach Park
When many have had their thirst for cave exploring “quenched”, the Lake Carlsbad beach park is the next logical step. No matter if you are looking to go for a relaxing swim or looking for an enjoyable walk with a picnic in mind. This beach park on the banks of the Pecos River has you covered with walking paths, beaches, watersports, paddle boats, and even fishing spots!
The park and recreation area covers over 120 acres of land and has many shaded areas that have picnic tables and grills. For many, walking the well-kept sidewalks that follow the river makes for a wonderful experience. The park is known as a great place for swimming but is not just popular by tourists or locals alike, but the local ducks as well. It is possible to feed them at designated places like the Duckpond close by.
6. Brantley Lake State Park
This state park’s name comes from the Brantley dam, which was built across the Pecos River during the 1980s. This man-made reservoir has a surface area of over 4.000 acres (16 km2) and is perfect as a base camp for trips around the area. The water is a popular fishing spot as the lake is well stocked with bass, catfish, carp, and many other species. Brantley Lake state park has 51 developed camping spots with picnic tables, outdoor shower fasciitis, playgrounds, and a visitor center.
If you are looking for the right scene to experience the desert above ground, this is a good place to start as you don’t have to travel far to find yourself surrounded by cacti. There is plenty to see and explore in the desert during the day. At night when the desert cools down, the nighttime sky never ceases to amaze visitors. The state park is known for being well kept and has some excellent staff on-site for advice.
7. The Artist Gallery
Don’t forget to visit the Artist gallery where you can find local art. The gallery is bright and spacious and always has many things happenings. There are exhibits to check out as well as local jewelry. So when planning a visit to Carlsbad, keep in mind that the bright galleries overground can be as memorable as the dark ones in the caverns!
8. Pecos River Antique Mall
The antique mall could be for some like a secret cave filled with treasure; for other a complete waste of time, but for those who enjoy exploring flea markets, the Pecos river antique mall might surprise you. The market is larger than it looks from the outside, and for a keen eye, it might very well hide something as eye-catching as underground stalagmite or the Big room!
9. Carlsbad Cruises Day Tours
The Pecos river that runs through the heart of Carlsbad is a very well kept and clean river as it is home to some very unique species of fish. Many that visit the city say that taking a tour down the river is relaxing but full of surprises. Seeing a city from the water is always memorable as it lends the traveler a different perspective.
Make sure to book in advance if you plan to go for an evening trip. Enjoying the sunset on a relaxing evening cruise is very popular. It is easy to understand as the desert sunset is breathtaking, with a bit of breeze from the river. It is highly recommended!
10. The Trinity Hotel Restaurant
In downtown Carlsbad is the famous Trinity hotel restaurant housed in a building that goes as far back as 1892 when it was built as a bank. Though the building goes way back, the Trinity Hotel was founded in 2007 and had, in that short time, became a staple in the city.
It’s famous for its menu, which is a mix of Italian and American food and an impressive wine list that includes their wine products. The Trinity hotel was faithfully restored to reflect the city’s history and resembles high life from a century earlier. Gleaming chandeliers, impressive decor with paintings and artworks that line the walls.
11. Carlsbard Community Theatre
The cleverly named Carlsbad community theatre has been a hub of activities for the local thespians for decades now. The theatre has regular shows and matinees. A perfect pit stops to catch a show.
12. Yellowbrix Restaurant
If you are looking for a Southwestern feast and proper steaks, the Yellowbrix Restaurant has you covered. From the outside, it looks like you are entering some kind of fairy tale Ranch that specializes in cuisine experience. Yellowbrix also specializes in healthy courses and Cuban cuisine.
13. Eddy’s House
This house belonged to what is believed to be the first resident of Carlsbad, of course, no other than Charles B. Eddy. The house is an original frontier dwelling and was moved stone by stone from its original location. A great little historic stop which speaks for itself.
14. Pecos River Flume
In an exciting area like Carlsbad, the Pecos River Flume is not an easy sell. But what makes this structure interesting is the fact that from there, you can see that the Pecos river is the only one in America that crosses itself! So, cross that off the bucket list.
15. Balzano Vineyard
When people think of New Mexico, many imagine deserts, lizards, or of a certain chemistry teacher. Think again! At the Balzano vineyard, visitors are invited to a great wine experience.
Come by for a guided wine menu and be surprised by the local grapes in this fascinating arid world.
16. Blue House Bakery & Cafe
This is the number one spot for breakfast in Carlsbad, with a wide selection of freshly baked croissants or something classic, like french toast and other classics that belong to the world of American breakfast. Start the day with some pastries and a mean cup of joe so all your senses will still be tingling when you find yourself descending into the lower caves of the caverns.
Kaleidoscoops is famous for its old-style ice cream and classic American cuisine. Go for the classic patty melt and then stare in awe at all the flavorings available. Many visitors to Carlsbad come by Kaleidoscoops, and no wonder that the locals wish it’s existence was a secret!
18. Junior’s Burritos & Mexican Restaurant
If you are looking for proper Huevos Rancheros for breakfast or some Burritos for late lunch, Junior’s Burritos is a great, affordable family restaurant in Carlsbad. Simple great food in a friendly atmosphere in this authentic Mexican restaurant.
19. Lake Carlsbad Golf Course
The Pecos is full of surprise, including the Lake Carlsbad Golf course that runs along the pearly river. Located in its eastern foothills, you have an 18-hole course that is 72 par. A great course for visitors as this semi grassland flanked by the desert is a worthy challenge to any aspiring golfer.
20. Guadalupe Mountains National Park
If the Carlsbad caverns did not satisfy interest for cave exploration, the Guadalupe mountains national park is about an hour’s drive away from Carlsbad. This park is quite different from the Brantley lake state park as its more rugged and mountainous. Well known for many of its peaks, like the famous El Capitan and the Guadalupe peak, the highest point in Texas at 8,749 feet (2,667 m)