If you are planning a trip to Carlsbad, New Mexico, don’t miss the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park. This gem in the rough offers a chance to get up close and personal with some fascinating creatures and plants. And it is all easily accessible from a short walk (or roll, for those in wheelchairs or strollers).
We visited in May, when the desert was truly alive, especially once we turned into the park gates just off Highway 285 north of town. After driving through stark scrub desert to the north, we were greeted on the park road by tall, snaking ocotillo with fiery red tips and prickly pear cacti covered with large yellow blossoms and furled pink buds. Perhaps because of an unusually rainy spring, the blossoms were budding not only on the edges of the spiked pads but even in the centers of the pads.
The road wound up to a low building on a ridge overlooking the Pecos River valley and town of Carlsbad. We would soon learn we were at 3,200 feet, atop the Ocotillo Hills, named for the bright cactus that had greeted us. Around the large parking lot were large soaptree yucca, also covered in enormous, spiky white blooms, and many species of agave, or century plant. These giants grow close to the ground, storing energy for about twenty years before sending up a single blossoming stalk to reproduce, after which the plants die. Those twenty years must have seemed like a century to whoever gave the agave their common name.
The staff were friendly and helpful, and the exhibits inside the building were well-designed and interesting, covering the geology, flora, fauna, and human cultures of the region. We especially enjoyed the long table with animal horns, antlers, fossils, rocks, and other items to touch and feel. We also learned that the Ocotillo Hills, like the Guadalupe Mountains to the west, were once limestone reefs in the Permian Basin, the ancient sea whose millions of tiny creatures were transformed into the deposits of oil and gas that have enriched West Texans.
The 1.3-mile paved trail winds through the various ecosystems of the Chihuahuan Desert. This desert stretches from southeast Arizona across southern New Mexico into Texas and far south into Mexico. The largest desert in North America, it covers 200,000 square miles.
The trail winds first through the Sand Dunes habitat, with sagebrush, prickly pear, mimosa, and mesquite. Next is the Riparian habitat, an area where a spring or other water makes it possible for trees to grow. (Riparian comes from the Latin ripa, “river bank.”) The trees here include pines, junipers, oaks, and maples. The Riparian habitat, naturally, features the bird aviary with owls, hawks, eagles, and turkeys. Like the other animal displays in the park, the aviary features natural habitat but allows you to get quite close to the birds. I never tire of seeing these magnificent creatures, such as the bald eagle, up close.
Next is the Gypsum Hills habitat-full of “gypsophiles,” or plants that love gypsum. The Desert Arroyo habitat features apache plume, desert willow, and mesquite. It also has an arroyo, or dry streambed, which is home to the zoo’s javelina, or collared peccaries. Wild cousins of the pig but native to the Americas, javelina have sharp tusks and feast on agave and prickly pear. They live in packs, and family members nestle together in cool, shaded mud during the heat of the day.
The Piñon-Juniper-Oak habitat is home to the bear and wolf exhibits and the nocturnal creatures exhibit (salamander, bats, ringtail cats, and kangaroo rats). The bear exhibit was under construction, so we did not get to see Maggie Oso, a black bear famous for her paintings. A volunteer inside described how they place the paints out in shallow containers, and she goes back and forth to different colors, then walks on the paper or swipes it. Apparently, they thought it would be therapeutic for the young bear, who lost her mother and sister.
All the animals at the zoo are native to the area and were orphaned or injured by traps, cars, or bullets. When possible, rehabilitated animals are returned to the wild. The Mexican gray wolves at Living Desert are part of an international effort to revive the endangered species in the Southwest.
Past the bear and wolf areas, a side trail leads downhill and out onto a ridge. My partner refused to enter the Reptile House, which features snakes, lizards, and a Gila monster. On the slopes below the trail we had a good view of the “hoofstock”—the bison, pronghorn, mule deer, and elk. This trail also leads to the waterfowl pond and prairie dog exhibit (fun to watch, especially for kids) as well as spectacular vistas of the Pecos River Valley.
Back up on the main trail is my personal favorite, the mountain lion and bobcat exhibit. The enclosures were small but well designed, so we were only a few feet from the big cats, yet they seemed less stressed than at many zoos. The mountain lion rolled lazily onto his (or her?) back, ignoring me and my camera.
After passing the mescal pit (see article on the annual Mescal Roast), the path leads up to a large greenhouse with Succulents of the World. This exhibit displays hundreds of succulents, many of which would not survive in the Chihuahuan desert environment. I learned that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Succulents include all plants that store water in their leaves, stems, or roots. The display included some of Arizona’s giant saguaros. The final exhibit is a lovely pond, complete with blooming water lilies, surrounded by native plants.
I highly recommend the Living Desert for all ages. It was considerably more interesting than we expected. Early morning and evening are good times for viewing the animals (and less hot for humans), and the park is open until 8 in the summer, so you can go there after the caverns close.