Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park is ranked as number one of the top attractions in Carlsbad, NM, by Trip Advisor. In the 1.3-mile self-guided tour of the park, you’ll experience the Chihuahuan Desert in all its beauty and uniqueness. At a leisurely pace, the walk requires about 1.5 hours and will take you through various habitats.
As you walk the trail, you’ll be greeted by a fantastic display of cacti, yuccas, agave, shrubs, trees, and over 40 types of animals from the Chihuahuan Desert, North America’s largest desert.
The Park is arranged in Chihuahuan Desert life zones that take you from the dry, windblown sand of the sandhills, through the life-giving Arroyo, to the populated Pinon Juniper Zone, and finally to the Mountain Canyons.
Upon leaving the Visitor Center, the visitor becomes immersed in the sandhills habitat. Sandy soils, drying winds, and limited rainfall create a challenging environment for plants and wildlife. Plants such as honey mesquite, shinnery oak, four-wing saltbush, western soapberry tree, and soapweed yucca live in this area and tend to have deep, extensive root systems to help them cope with this habitat. Many sandhill animals burrow underground to escape the heat, wind, and dryness of the environment. Be sure to look for wildlife tracks left by lizards, raccoons, and other desert animals in the sand.
A walk-through aviary offers a close-up view of several birds, including doves. The aviary area also includes eagles, owls, hawks, and turkey vulture. The aviary also consists of a gray fox exhibit.
About 250 million years ago, a shallow Permian Sea covered this area. `When it evaporated, it left behind sedimentary deposits of limestone and gypsum (calcium sulfate.)Selenite is the pure, crystalline form of gypsum rock. Gypsum may appear as large reddish or whitish blocks in exposed hillsides or depressions.
Gypsum Sinkholes and gypsum caves form in water-soluble gypsum and limestone formations. Groundwater dissolves the gypsum and limestone, leaving a cavity. The cavity can collapse when the weight above it becomes too heavy.
Gypsum deposits can form salty, crusty soils that challenge growing plants. However, some plants, known as gypsophils, have adapted so well they can’t grow anywhere else! Plants in this area include Mormon tea, prickly pear, little leaf sumac, soaptree yucca, and fourwing saltbush.
Desert uplands are transitional areas between the higher piñon/juniper zones and the lower grasslands. Desert upland plants require special survival strategies due to the high temperatures, drying winds, and the high evaporation level. Many of these plants have small leaves that they will drop when there is not enough moisture, spreading, and deep roots, while others will have specially shaped leaves that funnel water to their roots. Some upland plants are tarbush, creosote, lechuguilla, New Mexico agave (mescal or century plant), yucca, cholla, ocotillo, prickly pear, and one seed juniper.
After a thunderstorm, these dry stream beds can quickly fill with floodwaters. As the water subsides, it becomes trapped in temporary rock pools for weeks or even months. Trees and shrubs that grow along the arroyos benefit from the water that sinks deeply into the arroyo.
Animals like javelina gravitate to these areas that provide them with water and shelter. Javelina is herd animals that don’t see well, so they depend on their sense of smell. They have a gland at the base of their tail that gives off a strong musky odor. By rubbing against each other, they develop a herd scent. To warn intruders off, they will raise their hair and clack their four two-inch-long canines (tusk). If necessary, they will defend themselves to use their teeth for cutting and slashing.
Plants in arroyo areas include Rio Grande cottonwood, sotol, prickly pear, Apache plume, fairy duster, yuccas, desert willow, little leaf sumac, and honey mesquite.
Piñon, juniper, and oaks upland area are the foothills bridging the desert floor and the mountains. The summers are hot, but winters often provide moisture in the form of snow. This habitat is home to porcupines, black bears, birds of prey, and Mexican gray wolves in the wild.
The Nocturnal Exhibit features interactive exhibits as well as live animals. Visitors will learn how animals have adapted to the dark as a survival strategy for living in the desert.
Our black bear, Maggie, enjoys roaming her exhibit, which includes her own pool for cooling off on hot days and a hammock. To keep her from becoming bored, Maggie is given “enrichment” items such as egg cartons, pizza boxes, balls, etc. to play with. As an enrichment activity, Maggie also paints pictures with her paws. Her paintings and bookmarks are for sale in the Visitors Center.
Our Zoo participates in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP). These endangered wolves, nearly driven to extinction, are now making a slow comeback because of zoos and related facilities working together to save them.
The grasslands habitat usually consists of grasses without much other vegetation. Over the years, the grasslands have become invaded with prickly pear, cholla, ocotillo, mesquite trees, and acacia bushes. The grasslands are home to hoofstock, such as mule deer, bison, pronghorn, and elk (in the winter).
The prairie dog exhibit is a popular destination in the Zoo where visitors can enjoy watching these active animals eat and play. These rodents make a barking sound to warn each other of potential danger, leading to their popular name “dogs.”Prairie dogs will touch their teeth as a way of recognizing each other. In the spring, you might be lucky enough to see the young pups.
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park was the first zoo (2006) to exhibit endangered purebred Bolson tortoises. Scientists once thought these North America's largest tortoises were extinct until a small population was discovered in 1959 in Chihuahua, Mexico. During the warmer season, the tortoise hatchlings are in a separate exhibit near the adults.
Mule deer are found throughout the Chihuahuan Desert. They are named for their large mule-like ears that help them listen for predators. Besides grass, they are browsers and eat various vegetation, including mesquite leaves and beans, catclaw and Romer acacia, fairy dusters, prickly pears, ocotillo leaves, and other shrubs and trees.
Bison are often mistakenly called buffalo, which is an Asian and African animal without a hump. Male bison can weigh 2,000 pounds and stand 6 feet high. Bison eat 1 ½ percent of their weight in food every day. In the spring, they shed their wooly-looking winter coats and can look very fuzzy.
Pronghorn are the fastest (about 54 mph) land animals in North America. They can maintain a running speed of 40 mph for miles and can reach up to 60 mph in short sprints. Both the male and female have horns but are not classified as true antelope. These unique animals grow a horn sheath made of fused hairs, which are shed in October or November.
Elk is a member of the deer family. They are larger than deer but smaller than moose. The males can weigh 1,000 pounds. The males lose their antlers in February or March and immediately begin growing new ones at a 1-inch rate per day. The velvet covering the antlers is full of blood vessels and nerves. During this time, the antlers are very sensitive and easily damaged. After the antlers reach full growth in midsummer, the blood vessels dry up, and the antlers become much lighter and calcified like bone. To prepare for the rutting (mating season), the bulls rub the velvet off their antlers and sharpen their tines.
Over millions of years, wind and water have eroded mountains into canyonlands, which provide good habitat for wildlife. Our natural-looking Mountain Canyon exhibit is home to secretive and well-camouflaged mountain lions and bobcats. These predators are known for their ability to hide on the rock ledges or in the vegetation where they wait for deer, elk, rabbits, and other mammals.
When nearing your end of the walk, you will find a greenhouse that features both native and exotic succulents from around the world.
Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park
Update: February 25, 2021
We are now open seven days a week to all visitors.