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Located in the southeast corner of New Mexico, the town of Carlsbad is perhaps best known for the cavernous national park nearby that shares its name. Bisected by the Pecos River, this town of just 30,000 residents might not seem like it offers much other than overnight accommodation for national park travelers; in fact, there are more things to do in Carlsbad than you likely realize.
I had a chance to visit Carlsbad in early 2023 as part of a Texas and New Mexico national parks road trip with my friend Marissa; we had dinner two nights and stayed one night in Carlsbad as part of our trip, and it gave me a chance to explore this city first-hand.
In this post, I’ll cover some of the top things to do in Carlsbad, New Mexico – including Carlsbad Caverns National Park, of course. After reading, you’ll have a good idea of other ways to fill your time especially if you choose to extend your trip for a day or two in this area.
Whether you’re only in town for the caves and bats or want to dive deeper to explore more of southeast New Mexico, you’ll have ideas for how to do so from this post.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache) and Mescalero Apache peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
1. Explore Downtown Carlsbad
Wandering through the streets of a city is the best way to know a new place; even in a small town like Carlsbad, this is a great way to get oriented.
Carlsbad offers plenty of things to do and see in its downtown: park and base yourself near the Eddy County Courthouse; there are lots of shops around the main square (more on that below), and you can spot the iconic “Welcome to Carlsbad” mural pictured above. You can also take a walk along the river towards the Pecos River Flume to see the turquoise bridges, or visit Heritage Park to explore the many historical establishments from the founding days, like the Eddy House.
2. Visit the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park
Photos courtesy of Larry Lamsa via Flickr
If you find yourself in Carlsbad, you’re probably at least a little curious about the ecosystem and environment around the city. Carlsbad is located in the Chihuahuan Desert, and the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park is a great way to learn more about the flora and fauna of the region.
The zoo and gardens have been carefully designed to preserve the surrounding natural ecosystem; all plants and animals are displayed in their native habitats. The zoo has more than forty native animal species, including cougars and prairie dogs, whereas the gardens and greenhouses are full of local succulents that botany enthusiasts will love.
3. Explore the Carlsbad Museum & Art Center
Carlsbad Museum & Art Center is a great option if the weather is hot, windy, or you just need a break from the endless beating sun outside throughout most of the year. (Carlsbad receives 278 sunny days per year!)
Created in 1931, this is the oldest municipal Museum in New Mexico. Here, you can learn all about Carlsbad’s history and the surrounding communities of southeastern New Mexico and the greater American Southwest. The Museum features a permanent collection that focuses on local and regional history with Native American art and artifacts, and modern, contemporary, and Southwestern art.
4. Shop Southwest Style
Who’d have thought that shopping could be one of the things to do in Carlsbad, New Mexico? To shop true southwest style, you have two options: Mexican 2 Imports and Pecos River Antique Mall.
In Mexican 2 Imports, you will find colorful Mexican pottery, furniture, and indoor and outdoor decorations. The cute Pecos River Antique Mall has everything you can imagine, from antiques and collectibles to jewelry and candles. The even better news is that both stores have excellent prices, so all you need to worry about is the cost of checking luggage to bring something home.
5. See the Pecos River Flume
Being the only river that crosses itself in America won the Pecos River Flume a mention in Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Located on the northern end of Carlsbad, the Pecos River Flume is a great alternative for history buffs and architecture fans. Originally made of wood, the flume was rebuilt in 1903 to bring water to the dry areas of Carlsbad. To this day, this engineering feat still is a crucial part of the city’s irrigation system.
6. Explore Carlsbad Caverns National Park
As you might have guessed, Carlsbad Caverns – though it’s about 30 minutes drive away from the city – is definitely one of the top things to do in the Carlsbad area.
I’ve got a whole guide on making a day trip to Carlsbad Caverns, as well as a guide to Whites City, the gateway town you’ll pass through on the way. Be sure to plan ahead though and arrange reservations to visit the caverns; it’s easy to do online.
Additionally, if you’re visiting Carlsbad between mid-April and October, you can see an amazing sight at the end of the day: thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats leave the cave each evening at dusk to seek out their dinner in the dark hours. Stargazing is also great at Carlsbad Caverns (year-round), so you can stay to enjoy the night sky afterward.
7. Hike to Sitting Bull Falls
For another option in the Carlsbad area, Sitting Bull Falls is another one; it’s about an hour each way to and from this small day-use recreation area – but it was highly recommended to me by members of the V&V community before my visit and I can attest it’s a great option if you’ve got the time for the drive.
In short, this is a popular spot for spending time during the summer months (though it’s worth visiting all year long); as its name suggests, Sitting Bull Falls is home to a large waterfall that cascades down into a series of pools. During the hottest months, you can bring a swimsuit and dip in the pools (making this a great family activity too), or just stroll the half-mile out-and-back elevated walkway to admire the view of this natural wonder.
I heard (and my research suggests) there’s a trail that will take you up to the top of the falls where the springs emerge, but I wasn’t sure about where that trailhead set out and don’t see any official resources about it to point you to. (If you know better, please let me know in the comments!)
8. Explore Guadalupe Mountains National Park
As part of our national parks trip, Marissa and I also visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is located about 45 minutes from Carlsbad. Admittedly, I’m stretching the definition of things to do in Carlsbad, but stick with me.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of two national parks in Texas; it’s home to the tallest peak in the state, Guadalupe Peak. In addition to climbing the mountain (which is best done on days when the wind is minimal and by those with good hiking experience and fitness), there are a number of other great trails to explore in this hiking-oriented park.
As with Carlsbad Caverns, I have a full guide to spending a day at Guadalupe Mountains, including more info about the two trails I recommend (Devil’s Hall and McKittrick Canyon). Be sure to check that out if you’re keen to tick this national park off your bucket list.
9. Sip Local Craft Beer
For a smaller city, Carlsbad is not short on craft beer options: there are two craft breweries in town and worth visiting during your trip.
First up, Guadalupe M Brewing Company is a popular spot; luckily they have plenty of indoor and outdoor seating to handle everyone. In addition to a full roster of house-brewed beer (give the Green Chile TK a try, though other beers are better for a full pint), you can also order pizza made in their fancy pizza oven. (They have other foods too, but trust me that the smell of pizza’s gonna win you over – they also have a pizza with green chiles on it, and you know I love that!)
For another option, I actually preferred Milton’s Brewing right downtown. (You probably walked right past it when exploring the city square without realizing it.) Their beers were more to my taste and the small spot was popular with locals too; they also host live music fairly often too.
10. Try Amazing Mexican Food
Lastly, I’d be remiss to not mention Mexican and Southwestern food options you can find in Carlsbad, as it’s definitely the most prevalent cuisine you’ll find in Carlsbad. (Barbecue is popular too, but as Marissa is vegetarian, we stuck with Mexican which has more meat-free options.)
If I can recommend one place to focus your research, be sure to put El Charro on your list. I found them as they have quesabirria tacos with consomme (my favorite tacos!) as well as off-menu horchata which was absolutely fantastic; their menu is huge and everyone can find something. Additionally, they’re connected to an ice cream shop next door where you can get delicious cream-fruit pops.
Also, when we told some locals that we chose El Charro, we received approving nods, so this is one of the better options if you’re keen on great Mexican food when visiting Carlsbad – there are plenty of other options too in case you still want more.
Where to Stay in Carlsbad, New Mexico
As part of our trip, we stayed one night in Carlsbad. There are lots of chain and cheap hotel options, but here’s where we stayed as well as a couple of other options.
- We stayed at the Carlsbad Inn; this motel doesn’t look like much, but the rooms are recently redone, clean, and the most affordable in town. Book on Booking.com or Hotels.com
- I liked the look of the aptly-named National Parks Inn but it was a bit out of our budget for this trip. Book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- The Trinity Hotel in downtown Carlsbad is where I wish we’d stayed if we had the budget to splurge a little more; it’s located in a historic building with cute boutique hotel-style rooms. Book on Hotels.com.
Have questions about these top things to do in Carlsbad, New Mexico? Or additional suggestions to add to the list? Let me know in the comments below!