Above: Cool off at the Carlsbad Water Park. Photograph by Jennifer Coats.

I REMEMBER MY FIRST drive through Carlsbad. I was headed north, planning to stop for fuel and a fast-food lunch. Then I got lost. I took a right fork instead of a left and ended up on the banks of the Pecos River. Pecan trees shaded the green lawn of a park, anglers cast their lines into the placid water, and a kayaker waved as she floated downstream. A great blue heron took flight and settled on the far bank. Surprise! I wanted to stay. I vowed to come back.

Twenty years later, I returned as a National Park Service ranger—and the place continues to surprise me. I’ve enjoyed world-class birding, springs, rivers, and waterfalls, a national forest, and a landscape riddled with caves that go way beyond any others in the United States.

But Carlsbad’s delights aren’t only outdoors. It’s a spunky little town with a vibrant social and cultural life. Weeknights offer plays, lectures, or highly competitive games of trivia at the local brewpub. Festivals abound on weekends, sprawling across the courthouse lawn, hugging the banks of the Pecos River, or scattered throughout the historic downtown area. 

The people enthrall me as much as the natural and cultural wonders. Carlsbad is a boom-and-bust oil town with trailer parks that give a sense of rough impermanence. But one road off the highway, visitors are welcomed by wide, shady sidewalks and small-town shops run by folks who love their community.

Yet friends still pause when I invite them to visit me. They see miles of desert scrub and shimmering heat waves, pump jacks, and natural gas flares. Ignore all that, I urge them. We’ll take our cues from the desert creatures: Move early in the morning and late at night, stay inside during the day, and gravitate toward water. Act like a bat and you, too, may be surprised to discover that Carlsbad is one of the coolest places in New Mexico.

1. Howl at the Moon
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park perches on the hills north of town. Although the zoo is fun to visit anytime, I arrive at sunset for the monthly Full Moon Hike. A docent brandishing a red-filtered flashlight leads us around the moonlit grounds. Porcupines pace, and great horned owls hunch their shoulders, drop their heads, and hoot—a deep, muffled who, who, who-who. The elk and bison are settled down. From their enclosure, the lights of Carlsbad sparkle like diamonds on black velvet. I shiver as the haunting howl of a Mexican gray wolf floats through the trees (livingdesertnm.org).

2. World-Class Birding
I never know what to expect when I head out to bird-watch in the chill of a desert dawn. I’ve seen ducks, shorebirds, warblers, and golden eagles at birding hot spots such as Rattlesnake Springs, Sitting Bull Falls, Brantley Lake, Six-Mile Dam, and Lake Avalon. If you’re an avid bird-watcher, rent a historic stone cabin at Washington Ranch, an oasis in the desert 26 miles south of Carlsbad. Dozens of wild turkeys wander the grounds, while the towering cottonwoods, weeping willows, and pecan trees that surround the ponds and line a stretch of the Black River lure more than 250 kinds of birds—that’s nearly half of all the species seen in New Mexico (campwashingtonranch.org).

3. Beyond The Caverns
Mention Carlsbad and caves come to mind. Deep, dark, and 56 degrees year-round, the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the ideal place to escape the heat of summer. But it’s not the only game around. Gather some experienced friends, apply for a free permit from the National Forest Service, and explore a wild cave in the Guadalupe Mountains. An excellent place to start is Cottonwood Cave. The path drops into the cave mouth and winds through stunning formations until you reach Goliath—a massive stalagmite worthy of its name.

4. Selfie Time
The historic Cavern Theatre is one of downtown’s architectural jewels. The International Style cinema was a sensation when it opened in 1951. Air-conditioning, colorful tile floors, black-light illuminated murals of Carlsbad Caverns, soundproof cry rooms for fussy babies, electric hand dryers in the restrooms, and the largest screen in the Southwest were ultramodern innovations. I’m pleased to hear the sound of construction there. The city is giving the building a major face-lift, and it will soon debut as the Cavern Theatre Performing Arts Center. Until then, take a selfie in front of original bright green, orange, and yellow theater sign—one of the best-preserved enameled marquees in the country.

5. Head to the Drive-In
Carlsbad has one of only two drive-in theaters left in New Mexico. Built in 1948 and renovated in 1990, the Fiesta Drive-In features three screens. Roll down the windows and enjoy the fresh night air, the buzz of cicadas, and a flick.

6. Where Oil and Water Mix
Carlsbad’s history is steeped in water, oil, and the desert landscape. The Guadalupe Backcountry Bywaygives you a taste of all three as it follows NM 137 through the Chihuahuan Desert and ends at the cascades of Sitting Bull Falls. Start your drive 12 miles north of town, where NM 137 connects to US 285—the site of one of Carlsbad’s earliest oil wells, drilled in 1917. Stop and read the interpretive panels along the way to learn more about the history of the oil fields and the people here. After the falls, follow NM 137 up into the Guadalupe Mountains and stop for a green-chile-and-bacon cheeseburger at the Queen Store and Cafe.

7. The Oasis
The Pecos River is the heart and soul of Carlsbad. Lake Carlsbad, just east of downtown, stretches from the railroad bridge south to Tansill Dam. Joggers circle the park that lies on both banks of the river, while children splash at the Beach—an area designated for swimmers—and squeal down the waterslide in the Carlsbad Water Park. Carlsbad Cruises will take you for a spin or rent you a paddleboard, kayak, or canoe. The Pirates of the Pecos welcome all lil’ swabbies and buccaneers for a pirate training course. While I love the sense of community at the park, I often go upstream to the Jumping Off Rock, a local swimming hole. Towering above a deep pool in a wild section of the Pecos between Brantley Dam and Lake Avalon, it requires some off-road driving skills and a navigator to guide you through the maze of dirt roads, but it’s worth the trip.

8. Locally Crafted
I love locally made arts and crafts, so I stroll the Canyon Street Arts and Cultural District, in downtown Carlsbad. The Artist Gallery features the work of painters, weavers, a blacksmith, and whistle maker John Barry. Across the street is the Recycled Cow, where the rich smell of leather envelops me as I walk in the door. Saddles, chaps, boots, and hand-tooled purses crowd the shop, but in addition to leather goods, the Recycled Cow carries exquisite knives made by retired schoolteacher Tom Lewis. Shopping makes me hungry, so I meet a friend at the Lucky Bull Grill for lunch. The smoky Lucky Bull burger comes topped with strips of green chile, bacon, and a fried egg. To top off our meal, we head to Milton’s Brewing to sample a flight of freshly brewed beers. If you prefer to try Pecos Valley wines, the historic Trinity Hotel offers tastings of its Seven Rivers varieties every afternoon.

9. Quirky Carlsbad History
On a day when it’s best to stay inside, the cool confines of the Carlsbad Museum and Art Center beckon. Director Dave Morgan tells me that the McAdoo Collection of “Taos Ten” paintings is the envy of the state, but I’m drawn to the quirkier side of Carlsbad. One exhibit features The Big Shot, a photograph of Carlsbad Caverns’ Big Room that took 16 hours and 2,400 flashbulbs to make. You can also see a gun used by Bonnie and Clyde to kidnap the sheriff of Carlsbad and a miniature train that winds through a scale-model replica of 1905 Carlsbad. But I’m charmed by a small case with exquisite, lifelike carvings of birds and flowers by Carlsbad minister Jack Drake. Each tiny detail is perfect—just like Carlsbad.

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For more details about the activities listed below, and other gems, head to carlsbadnewmexico.com.