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Fly to the National Parks: Central SouthwestFly to the National Parks: Central Southwest

Whether you’re deep inside a cave under the New Mexico desert, high above St. Louis inside the Gateway Arch, or floating down a quiet stretch of the Rio Grande, these National Park Units will surprise and thrill you.

  • Home-sweet-home in the Chisos Basin Campground in Big Bend National Park, Texas. Photo by Jasperdo via Flickr.
  • A Hubbard Tub with patient lift in the Fordyce Bathhouse, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. Photo by Ken Lund via Flickr.
  • Part of a stained-glass skylight in the Fordyce Bathhouse, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. Photo by Ken Lund via Flickr.
  • Into the depths via the natural cave entrance, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico. Photo by Dave Wilson via Flickr.
  • A “totem pole” and “chandelier” inside Carlsbad Caverns. Photo by BevoStevo via Flickr.
  • Some 500,000 Brazilian free-tail bats exit the cave at dusk each night to feed, flying right over visitors’ heads as they sit in the outdoor amphitheater. Photo by Nick Hristov courtesy NPS.
  • The “El Capitan” butte in Guadalupe National Park, Texas. Photo by Jerry Briix via Flickr.
  • A wild horse grazes in Guadalupe National Park, Texas. Photo by Ted Morgan via Flickr.
  • These cactus wrens were nesting near the Window View Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas. Photo by Julio Mulero via Flickr.
  • The Rio Grande runs through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. In accordance with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the park's territory extends to the center of the deepest river channel as the river flowed in 1848. The rest of the river and any land south of that channel lies within Mexican territory. Photo by Robert Hensley via Flickr.
  • A roadrunner has caught a meal at the Daniels Ranch Picnic Area inside Big Bend National Park. Photo by Julio Mulero via Flickr.
  • A one-room schoolhouse stands in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas. Photo by Randy Watson via Flickr.
  • An early spring storm rolls across the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas. Photo by Vincent Parsons via Flickr.
  • The Gateway Arch rises above the Mississippi River as seen looking toward the west from Illinois. Photo by Daniel Schwen via Wikipedia.
  • Looking up at the Gateway Arch, part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri. Photo by Bbadgett via Wikipedia.

Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas: Fly to Memorial Field Airport in Hot Springs, which takes its name from the 47 springs on the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain that produce about a million gallons of 143-degree water each day. Using carbon dating techniques, National Park Service scientists discovered that the water that reaches the surface in Hot Springs fell as rainfall in an as-yet undetermined watershed 4,000 years earlier. The water percolates very slowly down through the earth’s surface until it reaches superheated areas deep in the crust. It then rushes rapidly to the surface. Downtown, the bathhouses (some still in use) of Bathhouse Row are now a National Historic Landmark District and display remarkable Gilded Age architecture. The Fordyce Bathhouse is the most elaborate and represents the "Golden Age of Bathing" in America about 100 years ago, when spas were built to rival those in Europe. The Fordyce now serves as the park visitor center. It’s not all about the baths though; you can enjoy museums, shopping, dining, and nightlife while in Hot Springs.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico: Fly to Cavern City Air Terminal in Carlsbad to access both this park and Guadalupe (below). Formed over millions of years, Carlsbad Caverns contains more than 119 caves, some cathedral-like in size. Descend via footpath or elevator on a self-guided tour of the Big Room or take one of the ranger-guided tours that access different caves. At dusk in summer you can sit in the amphitheater outside the cave entrance as half a million Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge en masse, flying directly overhead as they disperse to feed all night.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas: Known for the world’s premier example of a Permian Era fossilized reef, Guadalupe offers outstanding wilderness hiking, backpacking, and birding opportunities. There is no lodging, but two campgrounds provide primitive camping sites, no reservations needed.

Horses on the riverbank show the scale of Boquillas Canyon in Big Bend National Park, Texas. Photo by Michael Janke via Flickr.

Big Bend National Park, Texas: Big Bend National Park is named for the sweeping bend the Rio Grande makes along part of the U.S./Mexico border in southwest Texas. The Chihuahuan Desert dominates the landscape, and the Chisos Mountains rise above like an “island in the sky.” This stark yet beautiful landscape is remote; the closest airport is Alpine. Reserve a car in advance for the 100-mile drive to the park headquarters at Panther Junction Visitor Center. Big Bend is a magnet for birders, with over 450 species including subtropical migrants like the Mexican mallard, Colima warbler, and Lucifer hummingbird. Stargazing, hiking, river rafting, ranger-led tours, scenic drives, lodging, and dining all promise a well-deserved escape from the ordinary.

A dragonfly rests on a grass stem in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas. Photo by Bo Nielsen via Flickr.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas: Arrange for a rental car or ask about the courtesy car and then fly to Emporia, about midway between Wichita and Topeka. Located in the Flint Hills just north of Strong City and 25 minutes from the airport, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve protects a nationally significant example of the tallgrass prairie system that once covered 400,000 square miles of the country (only about 4 percent remains). The preserve is a public/private partnership between the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy. Five maintained hiking trails allow visitor access; narrated bus tours are given in summer. Three preserve ponds are open for catch-and-release fishing. A herd of bison has been introduced, as the prairie is part of their natural habitat.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, Missouri: Land at St. Louis Downtown Airport to visit this memorial to America’s westward expansion. The 91-acre park along the Mississippi River houses the Old Courthouse (site of local trials in the Dred Scott case), Museum of Westward Expansion, and of course the 630-foot-tall Gateway Arch. A unique tram of ingenious design will carry you to the observation tower at its top. Not as much fun as flying through it of course, but a lot more legal!

Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as both the managing editor of Pilot Getaways magazine and editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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