ROAD TRIPS

The Allure of Southern New Mexico

The lower half of New Mexico is an otherworldly place--but you certainly don't have to be abducted to have an unforgettable trip

We turn south on Highway 285 for a two-hour drive to see what lies under all that desert. Carlsbad Caverns came to attention in 1898, when Jim White, a teenage ranch hand, saw what he thought was smoke rising from the earth. It was actually a swarm of bats streaming out of the cavern. During summer sunsets, as many as a half-million Mexican free-tailed bats--each able to eat half its weight in insects in a night--come out to hunt.

With 50 or so other people, we sit by the cave entrance, listen to the free ranger talk, and wait. Quite suddenly, the air is alive with bats that pour from the cavern mouth for 45 minutes, a black ribbon stretching miles into the sky. Lynn and I beam like kids at Christmas.

We decide to spend the night in Carlsbad, which is actually 25 miles from the caverns. A closer town, White's City, is really just a souvenir shop and a hotel that is slightly pricey due to its proximity.

Day two

Lodging

  • Carlsbad Inn2019 S. Canal St., Carlsbad, 505/ 887-1171, from $39

Attractions

  • International UFO Museum and Research Center114 N. Main St., Roswell, 505/625-9495, free

The trail ends at the Big Room, which has some of the cave's most spectacular formations, from tiny nubs of minerals to hanging stone curtains the size of buses. We sign on for an extra tour, of the Left Hand Tunnel (wishing that we'd planned ahead better and booked one of the spelunking trips, where you crawl through dark, tight passages). There are no electric lights; our walk is lit by candle lanterns.

After lunch in the underground restaurant, we elevator back to the surface, squinting like moles. At Highway 82, we head west, traveling slowly uphill along a perfect river valley with one horse pasture after another, peak at the town of Cloudcroft, and then drop nearly 5,000 feet in only 16 miles, to the deserts surrounding the small town of Alamogordo.

It's still early enough to visit Alamogordo's main attraction, the New Mexico Museum of Space History. The models of rockets and satellites are interesting but easily trumped by the astronaut food. On the space shuttle, they toss back Pepsis in what look like whipped cream dispensers, but back on the Mercury flights, dinner consisted of little brown squares labeled "graham cracker cubes" and "cheese cracker cubes." Clearly, NASA was testing the future of airline dining.

Southwest of Alamogordo on Highway 70, White Sands National Monument first appears on the horizon as a glare, and then the shape of the dunes comes out, pure white against the brown and green surroundings. White Sands is 275 square miles of gypsum sand, and even on a hot day you can walk barefoot on it.

We buy a sled at the gift shop, then drive to the park's biggest dunes. We try to describe to each other how weird this place is, but words fail. Surrounded by giant dunes, the only colors we see are the white sand glare and the pure blue sky above. Except for the tarantulas, even the insects are translucent white. Lynn climbs 50 feet up a dune and leaps onto the sled as if the sand were New England snow.

We get to Las Cruces, the state's second largest city, just in time to find a hotel with that vital something for summer travel in New Mexico (and an afternoon playing in the sand): an indoor pool.

Days three and four

Lodging

  • Comfort Suites2101 S. Triviz Dr., Las Cruces, 505/522-1300, $80

Food

  • Mesilla Valley Kitchen2001 E. Lohman Ave., Las Cruces, 505/523-9311, burrito $6
  • La Posta de Mesilla2410 Calle de San Albino, Las Cruces, 505/524-3524, chiles rellenos $7
  • Pete's101 N. First St., Belen, 505/864-4811, enchiladas $8

Attractions

  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park505/785-2232, 800/967-2283 (tour reservations), entry $6, tours $7-$20
  • New Mexico Museum of SpaceHistory Alamogordo, 505/437-2840, $2.50
  • White Sands National Monument505/479-6124, $3
  • Hay-Yo-Kay Hot Springs300 Austin Ave., Truth or Consequences, 505/894-2228, $5.50 (half hour)
  • Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge505/835-1828, $3 per car
  • Harvey House Museum104 N. First St., Belen, 505/861-0581, donations accepted

Interstate 25 is actually a section of the Pan-American Highway, which stretches from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Patagonia, Chile. We're four hours or so from Albuquerque, so we have plenty of time to pull off at Truth or Consequences for a stretch and a soak. T or C used to be called Hot Springs, after its natural Jacuzzis--unusual in that they're highly mineralized but almost sulfur-free. Then, in 1949, the game show Truth or Consequences offered to throw a party and broadcast a show from any town that would change its name to match.An hour later, it's time for a stretch at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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