THINKING ABOUT CARLSBAD? Think beyond the cave! “There’s so much more to do in Carlsbad than people realize,” says Robbie Franco, who owns Zia Bike and Board in this southeastern New Mexico town. He keeps locals and visitors equipped with bicycles, kayaks, and other gear for the area’s year-round adventures, which are well-suited to families and nature enthusiasts alike.

Even at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the otherworldly wonders don’t end at the Big Room or the 75-story descent from the Natural Entrance. From May–October, the ranger-led bat flight program highlights the thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats emerging each evening. Plus, the park’s abundant aboveground trails will delight hikers of all abilities.

Carlsbad visitors may be surprised at how much water is found in this desert community. The mighty Pecos River runs through town, creating Lake Carlsbad and making Lake Carlsbad Beach Park a popular spot for swimming, kayaking, and picnicking.

During the holidays, the riverfront sparkles as the home to Christmas on the Pecos (November 25–December 31), presented by the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce. The nightly 40-minute boat tours feature panoramic views of islands, docks, and backyards that twinkle with holiday lights and themed displays.

More than 90 homes decorate with lights and themed displays for Carlsbad's Christmas on the Pecos. Photograph courtesy of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce.

Learn more about the inhabitants of this Chihuahuan Desert region at Living Desert Zoo and State Park. A 1.6-mile trail offers up-close looks at cacti, agave, and other native flora, plus mountain lions, Mexican wolves, and golden eagles.

For hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, head to La Cueva Trails. Just minutes from downtown, the 15 miles of well-maintained tracks wind through the desert and the limestone foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains. For an easier trek or evening stroll, try one of the trails or lighted walkways found along the banks of the Pecos River at the Pecos River Recreation Center.

About 20 minutes north, Brantley Lake State Park offers outstanding fishing for largemouth and smallmouth bass and rainbow trout—along with swimming, canoeing, kayaking, and camping under star-filled skies. About an hour from Carlsbad, Sitting Bull Falls, in Lincoln National Forest, makes for a great place to hike or picnic. Cool off in pools near the falls, which drop 150 feet over canyon walls.

After your adventures, check out Carlsbad’s downtown arts, shopping, and restaurant district, where you can boot up at Bennie’s Western Wear, wind down at Milton’s Brewing, or rest your head at the elegantly restored Trinity Hotel. (Find even more ideas on the Carlsbad Chamber website.)

Depending on when you visit, you might even catch a farmers’ market, a craft beer fest, or a festival celebrating the area’s farming and ranching heritage.

“Our downtown area attracts a lot of visitors,” says Franco.

Take on the La Cueva Trails in Carlsbad. Photograph courtesy of Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce.


Hike aboveground at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where options range from the paved half-mile Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail to the difficult 5.3-mile Slaughter Canyon trail.

Catch the sunset at the Pecos River Flume, the only place in the world where a river crosses itself.

Focus on local culture and history at New Mexico’s oldest municipal museum, the Carlsbad Museum, which is always free.