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Bird-Watching

From redheaded turkey vultures to svelte golden eagles, about 330 species of birds have been identified in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Ask for a checklist at the visitor center and then start looking for greater roadrunners, red-winged blackbirds, white-throated swifts, northern flickers, and pygmy nuthatches.

Rattlesnake Springs. Offering one of the best bird habitats in New Mexico, this is a natural wetland with old-growth cottonwoods. Because southern New Mexico is in the northernmost region of the Chihuahuan Desert, you're likely to see birds that can't be found anywhere else in the United States outside extreme southern Texas and Arizona. If you see a flash of crimson, you might have spotted a vermilion flycatcher. Wild turkeys also flap around this oasis, which also has a shaded picnic area. Potable water and permanent toilets are onsite. As elsewhere in the park, you are expected to leave a small footprint. Do not disturb, and if you pack it in, pack it out. Hwy. 418, 2½ mi west of U.S. 62/180, 5½ mi south of White's City, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.

Caving

Carlsbad Caverns is famous for the beauty and breadth of its inky depths, as well as for the accessibility of some of its largest caves. All cave tours, except for the self-guided Natural Entrance and Big Room, are ranger led, so safety is rarely an issue in the caves, no matter how remote. There are no other tour guides in the area, nor is there an equipment retailer other than the Walmart in Carlsbad, 23 miles away. Depending on the difficulty of your cave selection (Spider Cave is the hardest to navigate), you'll need at most knee pads, gloves, flashlight batteries, sturdy pants, hiking boots with ankle support, and some water.

Hall of the White Giant. Plan to squirm through some tight passages for long distances to access a very remote chamber, where you'll see towering, glistening white formations that explain the name. This strenuous, ranger-led tour lasts about four hours. Steep drop-offs might elate you—or make you queasy. Wear sturdy hiking shoes and bring gloves, kneepads, and four AA batteries with you. Visitors must be at least 12 years old. At the visitor center, 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444–6777. $20. Reservations essential. Tours Sat. at 1.

King's Palace. Throughout this regal room, stunningly handsome and indeed fit for a king, you'll see leggy "soda straws" large enough for a giant to sip, plus bizzare formations that defy reality. The tour also winds through the Queen's Chamber, dressed in ladylike, multitiered curtains of stone. The mile-long walk is on a paved trail, but there's one steep hill toward the end. This ranger-guided tour lasts about 1½ hours and gives you a "look" at the natural essence of a cave—a complete blackout, when artificial lights (and sound) are extinguished. While advance reservations are highly recommended, this is the one tour you might be able to sign up for on the spot. Children younger than 4 aren't allowed on this tour. At visitor center, 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444–6777. $8. Tours: late May–early Sept., daily 10, 11, noon, 2, and 3; early Sept.–late May, daily 10 and 1.

Left Hand Tunnel. Lantern light illuminates the easy half-mile walk on this detour in the main Carlsbad Cavern, which leads to Permian Age fossils—indicating that these caves were hollowed from the Permian Reef that still underlies the Guadalupe Mountain range above. The guided tour over a packed, dirt trail lasts about two hours. It's a moderate trek that older kids can easily negotiate, but children under 6 aren't allowed. At visitor center, 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444–6777. $7. Tours daily at 9.

Lower Cave. Fifty-foot vertical ladders and a dirt path lead you into undeveloped portions of Carlsbad Caverns. It takes about half a day to negotiate this moderately strenuous side trip led by a knowledgeable ranger. Visitors must supply gloves and four AA batteries. Children younger than 12 are not allowed on this tour. At the visitor center, 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444-6777. $20. Reservations essential. Tours weekdays at 1.

Slaughter Canyon Cave. Discovered in the 1930s by a local goatherd, this cave is one of the most popular secondary sites in the park, about 23 miles southwest of the main Carlsbad Caverns and visitor center. Both the hike to the cave mouth and the tour will take about half a day, but it's worth it to view the deep cavern darkness as it's punctuated only by flashlights and, sometimes, headlamps. From the Slaughter Canyon parking area, give yourself 45 minutes to make the steep ½-mile climb up a trail leading to the mouth of the cave. Arrange to be there a quarter of an hour earlier than the appointed time. You'll find that the cave consists primarily of a single corridor, 1,140 feet long, with numerous side passages.

You can take some worthwhile pictures of this cave. Wear hiking shoes with ankle support, and carry plenty of water. You're also expected to bring your own reliable two-D-cell flashlight. Children younger than 6 are not permitted. It's a great adventure if you're in shape and love caving. End of Hwy. 418, 10 mi west of U.S. 62/180, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444–6777. www.nps.gov/cave. Adults, $15; children and seniors, $7.50. Reservations essential. Memorial Day–mid-Aug., daily at 8:30 am; mid-Aug.–Memorial Day, weekends at 8:30 a.m.

Spider Cave. Visitors may not expect to have an adventure in a cavern system as developed and well stocked as Carlsbad Caverns, but serious cavers and energetic types have the chance to crawl on cave floors, clamber up tight tunnels, stoop under overhangs, and climb up steep, rocky pitches. This backcountry cave is listed as "wild," a clue that you might need a similar nature to attempt a visit. Plan to wear your warm, but least-favorite clothes, as they'll probably get streaked with grime. You'll also need soft knee pads, a flashlight (with spare batteries), leather gloves, and water. It will take you half a day to complete this ranger-led tour noted for its adventure and for its continuing role as a living research laboratory. Visitors must be at least 12 years old and absolutely not claustrophobic. The cave is named after the hordes of daddy longlegs that pulsate on the walls of the opening, but they're harmless. Meet at visitor center, 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444–6777. $20. Reservations essential. Tours Sun. at 1.

Cavemen Speak

Sound like a serious caver with this cavemen cheat sheet. These speleothems (cave formations) are ones you may see at Carlsbad Caverns.

Boxwork: Composed of interconnecting thin blades that were left in relief on cave walls when the bedrock was dissolved away.

Cave balloons: Thin-walled formations resembling partially deflated balloons, usually composed of hydromagnesite.

Flowstone: Consists of thin layers of a mineral deposited on a sloping surface by flowing or seeping water.

Frostwork: Sprays of needles that radiate from a central point and are usually made of aragonite.

Gypsum beard: Composed of bundles of gypsum fibers that resemble a human beard.

Logomites: Consists of "popcorn," small calcite nodes that form on cave surfaces and superficially resemble a hollowed-out stalagmite.

Pool Fingers: Deposited underneath water around organic filaments.

Ribbons: Thin, layered formations found on sloping ceilings or walls that resemble curtains or scarves.

Soda straws: Hollow tubes that hang from a ceiling, often in clusters.

Stalactites: Carrot-shape formations that hang down from a cave ceiling and are formed from dripping water.

Stalagmites: Mineral deposits that build up on a cave floor from dripping water.

Tours

Cave Resources Office. Those who want to go it alone outside the more established caverns can get permits and information about 10 backcountry caves from the Cave Resources Office in the visitor center. Heed rangers' advice for these remote, undeveloped, nearly unexplored caves. 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 575/785–2232.

Ranger-Led Tours. Cavers who wish to explore both developed and wild caves can go on ranger-led tours, some of which require knee pads, gloves, and flashlights. Reservations for the six different tours (Hall of the White Giant, Lower Cave, Slaughter Canyon Cave, Left-Hand Tunnel, King's Palace, and Spider Cave) are required at least a day in advance. Payment is by credit card over the phone or online, or by mailing a check if you're making reservations 21 days or more in advance; confirm first that space is available. 727 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220. 877/444–6777. www.nps.gov/cave.

Hiking

Deep, dark, and mysterious, the Carlsbad Caverns are such a park focal point that the 40,000-plus acres of wilderness above them have gone largely undeveloped. This is great news for people who pull on their hiking boots when they're looking for solitude. What you find are rudimentary trails that crisscross the dry, textured terrain and lead up to elevations of 6,000 feet or more. These routes often take a half day or more to travel; at least one, Guadalupe Ridge Trail, is long enough that it calls for an overnight stay. Walkers who just want a little dusty taste of desert flowers and wildlife should try the Desert Nature Walk.

Finding the older, less well-maintained trails can be difficult. Pick up a topographical map at the visitor center bookstore, and be sure to pack a lot of water. There's none out in the desert, and you'll need at least a gallon per person per day. The high elevation coupled with a potent sunshine punch can deliver a nasty sunburn, so pack SPF 30 (or higher) sunblock and a hat, even in winter. You can't bring pets, but you do have to bring a backcountry permit if you're camping. They're free at the visitor center.

Easy

Desert Nature Walk. While waiting for the night bat-flight program, try taking the ½-mile self-guided hike that begins just east of the visitor center. The tagged and identified flowers and plants make this a good place to get acquainted with much of the local desert flora. Part of the trail is an easy stroll even for the littlest ones, and part is wheelchair accessible. The payoff is great for everyone, too: a big, vivid view of the desert basin. Easy. Trailhead east of the Visitor Center, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.

Rattlesnake Canyon Overlook Trail. A ¼-mile stroll off Walnut Canyon Scenic Drive offers a nice overlook of the green-carpeted Rattlesnake Canyon. Easy. Trail begins at mile marker 9 on Walnut Canyon Scenic Dr., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.

Moderate

Juniper Ridge Trail. Climb up in elevation as you head north on this nearly 3-mile trail, which leads to the northern edge of the park and then turns toward Crooked Canyon. While not the most notable trail, it's challenging enough to keep things interesting. Allow yourself half a day, and be sure to bring lots of water, especially when the temperature is high. Moderate. Trailhead at mile marker 8.8 of Desert Loop Dr., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.

Old Guano Road Trail. Meandering a little more than 3½ miles one way on mostly flat terrain, the trail dips sharply toward White's City campground, where it ends. Give yourself about half a day to complete the walk. Depending on the temperature, this walk can be taxing, but the high desert sun can be potent any time of the year. Wear a hat and drink lots of water. Moderate. Trailhead at the Bat Flight Amphitheater, near the Natural Cave Entrance, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.

Rattlesnake Canyon Trail. Rock cairns loom over this trail, which descends from 4,570 to 3,900 feet as it winds into the canyon. Allow half a day to trek down into the canyon and make the somewhat strenuous climb out; the total trip is about 6 miles. Moderate. Trail begins at mile marker 9 on Walnut Canyon Desert Dr., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.

Yucca Canyon Trail. Sweeping views of the Guadalupe Mountains and El Capitan give allure to this trail. Drive past Rattlesnake Springs and stop at the park boundary before reaching the Slaughter Canyon Cave parking lot. Turn west along the boundary fence line to the trailhead. The 6-mile round-trip begins at the mouth of Yucca Canyon and climbs up to the top of the escarpment. Here you find the panoramic view. Most people turn around at this point; the hearty can continue along a poorly maintained route that follows the top of the ridge. The first part of the hike takes half a day. If you continue on, the hike takes a full day. Moderate. Trailhead at Slaughter Canyon Cave parking lot, Hwy. 418, 10 mi west of U.S. 62/180, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.

Difficult

Guadalupe Ridge Trail. This long, winding ramble follows an old road all the way to the western edge of the park. Because of its length (about 12 miles), an overnight stay in the backcountry is suggested. The hike may be long, but for serious hikers the up-close-and-personal views into Rattlesnake and Slaughter canyons are more than worth it—not to mention the serenity of being miles and miles away from civilization. Difficult. Trailhead 4.8 mi down Desert Loop Dr., Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.

North Slaughter Canyon Trail. Beginning at the Slaughter Canyon Cave parking lot, the trail traverses a heavily vegetated canyon bottom into a remote part of the park. As you begin hiking, look off to the east (to your right) to see the dun-colored ridges and wrinkles of the Elephant Back formation, the first of many dramatic limestone formations visible from the trail. The route travels 5½ miles one way, the last 3 miles steeply climbing onto a limestone ridge escarpment. Allow a full day for the round-trip. Difficult. Trail begins at Slaughter Canyon Cave parking lot, Hwy. 418, 10 mi west of U.S. 62/180, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM, 88220.

Boating and Fishing

Lake Carlsbad Recreation Area. The Pecos River is the main artery of Carlsbad, a source of civic pride. Here you'll find boating, fishing, water-skiing, wading, and swimming, although the latter has become somewhat restricted over the years. Adjacent green space offers picnicking and a wealth of playground options. A meandering riverwalk lines either side of the Pecos River. Kids and the young-at-heart will enjoy watching the ducks and feeding bread crumbs to the seagulls. Along Riverside Dr. west of Pecos River, Carlsbad, NM, 88220. 575/885–6262. Free. Open daily; swimming area open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.

There's another boat ramp at Brantley Lake State Park. But there are no rentals; you must bring your own boat. If you fish here, rangers advise practicing catch and release, since the fish seem to be suffering from higher-than-average levels of DDT.

Golf

Lake Carlsbad Golf Course. The only public golfing in town features both an 18-hole and a 9-hole course. The 9-hole, with an idyllic layout by the Pecos River, is all par-3 and easy on the swing. The 18-hole can be challenging with some steep fairways, prickly desert rough, and unrelenting heat. A pro shop serves both courses. In summer, arrange to play in the morning, while it's still cool. They are not common, but rattlesnakes have been known to join a game, too. 901 Muscatel Ave., Carlsbad, NM, 88220. 575/885–5444. Greens fees: $12 (weekdays) and $15 (weekends) for 18-hole course; $6 daily for 9-hole course. Daily dawn–dusk.