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To the Batcave!To the Batcave!

Carlsbad, New MexicoCarlsbad, New Mexico

Experience amazing cave formations on a gigantic scale at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Then stick around as half a million bats fly out of the cave and over your head each evening. Good cuisine, hiking, golf, and water recreation can all be yours in sunny Carlsbad, New Mexico.

  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park hosts 17 species of bats, but it’s the 500,000 or so Brazilian free-tail bats that wow visitors each evening from May to October. A ranger gives a talk on the bats until they emerge at dusk, flying right over visitors’ heads. Photo by Nick Hristov, courtesy NPS.
  • Switchbacks descend into the natural entrance of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico. Photo by Dave Wilson via Flickr.
  • The Hall of Giants in Carlsbad Caverns has a floor space of 357,469 square feet. Photo by Vadim Kurland.
  • Dramatically lit stalactites inside Carlsbad Caverns. Photo by Turcottes78 via Flickr.
  • The numerous formations in this chamber include soda straws, “bacon,” stalactites, and a large column. Photo by Vadim Kurland.
  • During Christmas on the Pecos, Nov. 24 to Dec. 31, you’ll cruise the Pecos River at night. The water’s reflection provides one of New Mexico’s greatest light shows—a fairyland of twinkling lights created by more than 100 Pecos River homeowners and corporate sponsors who spend hours creatively decorating backyards and boat docks with millions of lights. Photo courtesy Danny’s BBQ Facebook.
  • See this beautiful cougar at the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park, a great place to bring the family for an educational and fun day trip. Photo by Mike Fisher.
  • Bobcats are relatively common throughout wide swaths of the U.S., yet they are rarely seen. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park, located just outside the city limits, also features 1.3 miles of relaxed hiking trails that are perfect for visitors of all ages. Photo by Mike Fisher.
  • The nine suites at the Trinity Hotel are each equipped with free Wi-Fi, flat screen TVs, iPod docking stations, wine chillers, fine travel amenities, and exclusive robes. Upscale beds and mattresses are fitted with high thread-count sheets, and top-quality pillows and bedding. Photo by Robin Rowell, courtesy Trinity Hotel.
  • The “Pronto” burrito, topped with green or red chile, is the most popular dish at the Pecos River Café. Photo courtesy Pecos River Café.
  • Super-meaty ribs from Danny’s BBQ. Photo courtesy Danny’s BBQ Facebook.
  • "What’s up, Doc?” This jackrabbit was hopping near Brantley Lake. Photo by Tom Spinker.
  • A pyrrhuloxia at Brantley Lake State Park. Photo by Russel Smiths.
  • The “El Capitan” butte in Guadalupe National Park, Texas. From the Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor’s Center, it’s a 45-minute drive to the Pine Springs Visitor Center at Guadalupe. 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. Photo by Jerry Briix via Flickr.
  • A wild horse grazes in Guadalupe National Park, Texas. The park features over 80 miles of hiking trails through woodlands and forested mountains. Wildlife include coyotes, lizards, mule deer, and elk. Photo by Ted Morgan via Flickr.

Fly to Cavern City Air Terminal, just south of Carlsbad. The Talon High East Military Operations Area is active from 12,500 feet msl up to but not including Flight Level 180, so it should be no problem to scoot beneath it, even though the field elevation is 3,295 feet msl. The friendly Doug and Terry Chandler offer a fixed-base operation that looks more like a cozy living room inside, with crew and rental cars waiting outside (call ahead to reserve).

From the airport, it’s a 27-minute drive south on Highway 62 to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitors Center. 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 some 500,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge en masse, flying directly overhead as they disperse to feed all night. This was the first large cavern I ever visited; my family and I were suitably wowed! Aboveground, the park offers eight hiking trails that introduce you to the Chihuahuan Desert backcountry.

Totem pole formations are long, narrow stalagmites. Due to their crooked nature, the totem poles along the Natural Entrance earned the name the Witch's Fingers. Photo by Peter Jones, courtesy NPS.

Carlsbad’s nickname is “the Pearl on the Pecos,” not only because the Pecos River flows through the city, but also because of the tree-lined streets and numerous public parks and recreation areas, including the municipal beach and greenway along Lake Carlsbad. Carlsbad Cruises offers daily hourlong guided river tours on the Bella Sera, a 49-seat boat that provides visitors with insight into the city’s history. They also rent pedal boats, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards so you can explore the river on your own. Christmas brings a holiday light river extravaganza.

Other fun ways to spend a day in Carlsbad include the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park, home to cougars, kit foxes, bison, bobcats, and elk, as well as golden eagles, owls, hawks, and a roadrunner. The Carlsbad Museum and Art Center features exhibits on the history of Carlsbad and the surrounding region as well as an extensive Native American and Southwest art collection. The Lake Carlsbad Golf Course hosts a nine-hole, par-3 course that runs along the Pecos River, as well as a par-72, 18-hole course in the foothills that comes with tight fairways, changes in elevation, and small greens to challenge players.

Downtown Carlsbad sports a pleasing blend of New Mexico Pueblo-style façades and 20th-century architecture. Stay at the Trinity Hotel, constructed in 1892 as the First National Bank. Built from locally crafted brick, the structure almost succumbed to the wrecking ball but was rescued by a trio (hence the name) of partners who restored the decaying property, now home to nine luxurious hotel suites and The Trinity restaurant, Carlsbad’s finest dining establishment. Hotel guests may partake of late-afternoon wine tastings at the beautiful bar, including The Trinity's own Seven Rivers varieties. Italian classics are executed with flair; my favorite is Chicken Bolloco, fettuccine Alfredo infused with green chile.

Early morning dew and mist greet the sunrise at the Lake Carlsbad Golf Course. Photo by Matt Castro.

Yellow Brix started as a coffeehouse; owners Barbara and Dan Rempel still roast their own beans. But now you can also get not only great tacos, sandwiches, and wraps at lunch but gourmet dinners like salmon topped with a pomegranate beurre blanc, grilled steaks and chops, a kid’s menu, and house-made cheesecakes and gelato. Pecos River Café is the place for breakfast. I’m embarrassed to say it but the fresh cinnamon rolls, drowned in made-from-scratch icing and served warm with whipped butter, are to die for. The Pronto burrito, with scrambled eggs, hash browns, thick-cut bacon, spicy sausage, and your choice of house-made red or green chile, is their best seller and another don’t-miss (we split one of each). I also love barbecue, and Danny’s Place does it right.

You can work off some of that feasting if you drive 16 miles northwest of Carlsbad to Brantley Lake State Park. The reservoir on the Pecos River is especially popular with locals due to its fishing and campsites with restrooms and showers. It’s also a great spot for birdwatching. There are 2.6 miles of hiking trails throughout the park. Serious about hiking? Get your fix 55 miles south of Carlsbad, just across the Texas border, in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, known for its extensive backpacking trails, camping, and diverse wildlife.

The Pecos River winds slowly through Carlsbad. There are beaches, bike paths, a swimming area, and plenty of room for pedal boats, paddle boards, and kayaks. Photo by Russell Smiths.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. 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. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. 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 editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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