Living Desert: Exploring the Chihuahuan Desert in Carlsbad, New Mexico

Lisa Fritscher July 21, 2011 No Comments

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens Carlsbad NM

The Living Desert depicts the various regions of the Chihuahuan Desert

Carlsbad, New Mexico is perhaps best-known for the stunning Carlsbad Caverns, despite the fact that the caverns are actually 23 miles from Carlsbad, much closer to the tiny town of White’s City. Carlsbad proper is a small but vibrant arts community. Dad and I had the good fortune to visit during the 40th birthday celebration for the beautiful Living Desert attraction.

About the Living Desert

Living Desert Visitor Center Carlsbad

The Visitor Center is surprisingly comprehensive

The Living Desert opened in 1971 as a showcase for the plant and animal life of the Chihuahuan Desert. Today the complex features an informative visitor center packed with displays and a 1.5 mile walking trail. Accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Living Desert serves as a rehabilitation facility for injured wildlife as well as an educational facility for the public.

The Chihuahuan Desert encompasses a vast region from southwestern Arizona through New Mexico to west Texas and south to central Mexico. The massive desert is one of the most biologically diverse on Earth, and each section of the Living Desert focuses on a different region.

As of 2011, admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children aged 7 to 12. Kids 6 and under are free. We visited on the attraction’s 40th birthday, when the admission price was rolled back to $1 per person, the original fee in 1971.

Our Experience

The Living Desert Sculpture Unveiling

We enjoyed watching the sculpture unveiling

The 40th birthday celebration was in full swing when we arrived, with a mariachi band on a temporary stage in front of the visitor center building. As the musical acts continued, a virtual who’s who of local politicians and dignitaries gathered near the stage. Each was given a few minutes to speak, and all told interesting stories about the Living Desert’s history and the city of Carlsbad in general. Though we are not locals, we found ourselves fascinated by the local flavor.

Promptly at 10 a.m., a brand-new sculpture by a local artist was unveiled. Located just outside the visitor center, the sculpture is well worth a closer look. It showcases the plant and animal life of the region in an incredibly detailed way, and many of the best parts are not immediately obvious at first glance.

Inside, the visitor center offers a wide range of exhibits that explain the history of the region from prehistoric cultures through today. Additional musicians were set up throughout the building. We spent some time perusing the exhibits before heading out on the trail.

Walking Trail

Carlsbad Living Desert Pathways

The meandering pathways take guests through each desert region

The 1.5 mile trail meanders through representations of each region of the Chihuahuan Desert, from arid plains to juniper forests. Animal exhibits include bears, elk, bison, mule deer, pronghorns, kit foxes, mountain lions, bobcats and endangered grey wolves. A walk-through aviary and a reptile house are also included. Volunteers, many of them local teenagers in the Living Desert’s internship program, are stationed throughout the park to provide additional information.

Don’t miss the greenhouse near the end of the trail. Packed to overflowing with cacti and other succulents, it seemed incredibly exotic to Dad and me. We’re from the land of massive live oak trees and gently swaying palm trees, so the arid desert landscape was quite a shock!

Tips for Parents

Carlsbad Living Desert Enclosures

The animal enclosures are wide open and naturalistic

Part zoo, part botanical garden, the Living Desert is filled with natural wonders. The meandering paths are easily wide enough for strollers, wheelchairs and ECVs, making this an attraction that the entire family can enjoy. The layout creates a feeling of wide-open desert exploration, yet all paths lead in a generally circular direction, making it impossible to get lost.

Make sure the kids stay on the paths. Western diamondback rattlesnakes are common in this part of New Mexico, and have occasionally been spotted in the park. In addition, the cacti and other plants have sharp spines that could cause injury. Do not allow children to stick their fingers or any food items through the animal exhibit fences.

Chihuahuan Desert Succulents

We don't have plants like these in New Orleans!

Carry plenty of water. The Chihuahuan Desert is hot and dry, and it is easy to get dehydrated before you realize you are thirsty. Dad and I went through a 16 ounce bottle each, and could easily have split a third. The reptile house is dark and cool, making it a great place to go if anyone feels overheated while on the trail. Take advantage of the shaded benches strategically located at points along the trail, and carry a few salty snacks to replenish electrolytes. At an average walking pace, the loop should take approximately an hour and a half or so to complete.

Vending machines and restrooms are available at the visitor center, along with a small but well stocked gift shop. The trail begins and ends at the visitor center.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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