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Dec 2000/Jan 2001

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The Best of the Boneyard
Pima Air & Space Museum
The T-Cart
Taylorcraft Restored
A Family Blow Up
The 69th Battalion
The $100 Hamburger
Crosswinds Grill, Las Cruces, NM
Back To Basics
Operating at Icy Airports
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Midair Collision Avoidance
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SW Aviator Magazine
3909 Central NE
Albuquerque, NM 87108
Phone: 505.256.7031
Fax: 505.256.3172
Carlsbad, NM, Oasis on the Pecos
story by Gerrit Paulsen photos courtesy of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce

Sipping hot chocolate aboard a 40-person pontoon boat, gliding quietly past twinkling Christmas lights on a still, starlit lake may not be the first image that pops to mind at the mention of Carlsbad, New Mexico. More likely, the image is of the famous caverns named for the city, and perhaps the bats that inhabit its shadowy depths. However, the growing popularity of Carlsbad’s “Christmas on the Pecos,” attended by over 16,000 visitors last year, attests to the diversity found in this pleasant town. Festive holiday pageantry, the fascinating underground world of Carlsbad Caverns, and good winter flying weather make the town of Carlsbad a great weekend, or week-long, fly-in destination.

Running water, rivers, and lakes are not commonly associated with the desert mountains and plains of southeastern New Mexico, but water is an integral part of the history and life of this region. Even the town’s name comes from a nearby spring, with mineral content similar to that of the famous European health spring spa of Karlsbad, Bohemia.

The Pecos River also brings water and life to Carlsbad. The Pecos has been deepened and widened where it flows through town to form a graceful lake, flanked by parks, beaches, and elegant homes. During the Holiday Season, homeowners trim their waterfront backyards with merry displays and thousand of lights. Nothing escapes festooning; houses, trees, even boats and docks are covered with twinkling holiday cheer. Over 100 homes participate in this annual event. The city pitches in by lighting the parks and decorating public spaces. The all volunteer “Pecos Navy” runs a pontoon boat flotilla, taking visitors on a 50-minute scenic cruise up and down the lake from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. nightly. The growing popularity of this colorful family event necessitates advance reservation, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, and during the Thanksgiving and Christmas week. Tickets are $7, and are sold in advance only. Lap children under three are free. Call (505) 628-0952 for tickets and information. The Pecos waterfront is a nice place to visit year-round, with frequent festivals and special events. Contact the Chamber of Commerce at (800) 221-1224 or for more information.

Flowing water is also the reason for the existence of Carlsbad Caverns. Long ago, this area was covered by an inland sea. The sponges and sea life that formed a reef in this sea over the eons now comprise the mountains surrounding the caverns today. In fact, the highest point in Texas, just south of Carlsbad across the New Mexico/Texas state line, is formed of this ancient sea floor, uplifted to the dizzying height (at least by Texas standards) of 8751 feet. After the inland sea evaporated, water continued as the main catalyst in the cavern’s formation. Rainwater percolating down through the limestone mixed with hydrogen sulfide moving up from oil and gas deposits far below, creating a mild sulfuric acid solution. Over time, the acidic water eroded and enlarged the cracks in the rock to form the caverns. Today, Carlsbad Caverns’ many chambers have grown to over 30 miles of explored caves, with its largest chamber, the Big Room, large enough to hold 14 football fields. Water is also the force that has decorated the caverns. Dripping water slowly dissolved minerals in the rock and carried it in solution to be deposited elsewhere, forming the colorful stalactites and stalagmites, delicate draperies, soda straws, and other fanciful formations that make Carlsbad Caverns a world renowned destination.

This underground fantasyland is easily accessible, thanks to “improvements” made to the caverns since its designation as a National Park in 1930. Paved trails and electric lights allow easy exploration of the formerly dark and dangerous passages. Access to the caverns is provided by both a trail through the natural entrance, or by an elevator, that whisks you effortlessly 750 feet underground to the cavern floor. There are two self-guided tours of the cave, each about an hour to an hour and a half long. I prefer to combine the two tours by entering the cavern through the Natural Entrance Route, descending the steep switchbacks and wooden staircases into the increasing gloom, past the bat cave and evermore-fantastic rock formations. This one-mile trail eventually ends at the underground lunchroom, near the base of the elevator shaft. After a rest and refreshment here, I continue on the much less strenuous, nearly level Big Room Route, a one-mile trail that circles the 14-acre main chamber of the caverns. After a leisurely stroll through this marvelous underworld, the trail ends back at the elevator, for a quick lift back to the world of sunshine and blue skies.
Ranger-guided tours are available to more remote and fragile reaches of this and other nearby caves. The popular tour through the incredibly decorated King’s Palace is particularly worthwhile, as is the Slaughter Canyon Cave tour for the more adventurous and physically fit. These tours must be reserved in advance, and costs a few dollars ($7 to $20, depending on the tour) extra over the Park’s $6 entrance fee. I also think it is worth spending the three extra dollars to rent the audio tour of the self-guided trails, available at the Park’s Visitor’s Center. This electronically activated audio CD tour ensures you won’t miss any of the subtlety and hidden delights in this natural wonder. Bring a light jacket year-round when visiting Carlsbad Caverns, as the temperature in the cave varies only slightly from the average of 56 degrees. More information is available at Call (800) 967-CAVE for Ranger guided tour reservations.

Not all the wonders of Carlsbad Caverns remain underground. The caverns are summer home to thousands of Mexican Free Tail bats, who’s nightly exodus from the cave’s natural entrance is a spectacle not to be missed. Indeed, it was this thick, black column of life rising from the mountainside that first attracted Jim White to investigate in 1901, thereby becoming the first white man to enter Carlsbad Caverns. A large seating area has been built around the cave entrance for spectators to witness the bat flights. The bats fly every evening at dusk, from mid-May through Mid-October.

There are many other worthwhile sights in and around the town of Carlsbad. The Living Desert State Park is a great place to become familiar with fascinating and varied life that inhabits the beautiful mountains and deserts surrounding Carlsbad. At the museum, a 1.3-mile self-guided trail takes you past hundreds of cacti and succulents from around the world, as well as native wildlife such as prairie dogs, mountain lions, and the endangered Mexican wolf. The museum is located along the well-marked Carlsbad Driving Tour, which provides nice views of the area, as well as winding past most of the other points of interest in town. Just northeast of Carlsbad is Sitting Bull Falls, a pleasant place to hike in the Guadeloupe Mountain foothills. More extensive hiking trails can be found in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and just across the Texas State line in Guadeloupe Mountains National Park.

With advance reservations, you can also visit a man-made underground cavern just east of Carlsbad. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is a series chambers 2150 feet underground, hollowed out from vast underground salt beds deposited by the primordial inland sea. Excavated by the Department of Energy, WIPP is the final resting-place for low-level radioactive waste (such as gloves used to handle radioactive materials, etc.). Guided tours of the facility, including the underground storage rooms, are available on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Advance reservations are required, call (800) 336-9477 as early as possible to reserve space on a tour.

Flying in to Carlsbad is easy. The Cavern City Air Terminal, located a few miles south of town, has four long runways, a reminder of its history as a WW II training base. The numerous runways are welcome during the spring windy season, when winds howl over 30 knots nearly every afternoon. A rental car is the best transportation option once safely on the ground. The Hertz counter is conveniently located in the terminal building alongside the FBO. Call Carlsbad Aviation at (505) 887-1500 to reserve a car, and for more information. There are hotels and restaurants to suite every taste and budget in Carlsbad. Most major hotel chains are represented in town, along with several good independents. The AAA four-diamond rated Best Western Stevens Inn offers free airport pickup (800-730-2851). A touristy, but fun, alternative to staying in town is White’s City, 15 miles south of Carlsbad at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. This self-contained western-themed resort includes three restaurants, two hotels, and diversions for the kids. Call (800) CAVERNS for more information.

Carlsbad is a great place to visit any time of year. Bat-flights in summer, Christmas on the Pecos pageantry in winter, and amazing underground treasures year-round make Carlsbad, New Mexico a destination worth visiting often. Contact the helpful folks at the Chamber of Commerce, (800) 221-1224 or, to plan your next visit to this oasis along the Pecos River.

Carlsbad’s rather remote location, nearly 100 road miles from the nearest interstate, makes flying there particularly worthwhile. If arriving from the west, beware of the White Sands Missile Range restricted airspace, bisecting south central New Mexico. The most benign route around this airspace, for both terrain elevation and weather, is found by detouring around the restricted areas to the south at El Paso. Also, be aware of the numerous MOAs north and east of Carlsbad. It is also useful to query Flight Service as to the status of many Military Training Routes that crisscross this region, as there is intensive jet training over this sparsely populated portion of the Southwest. Of particular note are the “Special Military Activity” routes depicted on the El Paso Sectional chart, outlining Stealth fighter training routes. Flight following with Albuquerque Center (132.55) is the safest way to transit this remote, yet busy airspace.
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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publishing, Inc. and the staff neither assume any responsibilty for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising out of it. Fly safe.