Twenty miles or so northeast of the turnoff to Carlsbad Caverns, the town of Carlsbad (pop. 28,914) makes its living from the 380,000 tourists who visit the caves every year. Lining Canal Street (a.k.a. US-180, the National Parks Highway), the main road through Carlsbad, you’ll find most national motel chains along with funkier local counterparts. There’s also one good Mexican-American restaurant, the Pecos River Café (409 S. Canal St., 575/887-8882), where locals come for early-morning short-order breakfasts and lunchtime enchiladas.
Apart from the caverns, the one other wonderful thing to see in the Carlsbad area is the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park (575/887-5516, daily, $5), five miles northwest along US-285, which shows off the plant and animal life of the arid Chihuahuan Desert region. Foxes, wolves, hawks, and eagles are kept in re-creations of their natural environments and can be seen along a 1.3-mile nature trail.