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Texas: Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Some 250 million years ago, the Guadalupe Mountains were an immense reef poking up through a tropical ocean. Marine organisms fossilized this 400-mile-long Capitan Reef as limestone; later, as the sea evaporated, a blanket of sediments and mineral salts buried the reef. Then, just 10 to 12 million years ago, a mountain-building uplift exposed a part of the fossil reef. This has given modern scientists a unique opportunity to explore earth's geologic history, and outdoor lovers a playground for wilderness experience.

The steep southern end of the range makes up Guadalupe Mountains National Park and includes Guadalupe Peak, at 8,749 feet the highest in Texas, while the northern part lies within Lincoln National Forest and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Deer, elk, mountain lion, and bear are found in the forests, which contrast strikingly with the desert around them.

Just the Facts -- To reach the park, take US 62/180, 55 miles southwest of Carlsbad. Admission to the park is $5, and the visitor center is open June through August daily from 8am to 6pm; September through May from 8am to 4:30pm. For more information, contact Park Ranger, HC-60, Box 400, Salt Flat, TX 79847 (tel. 915/828-3251; www.nps.gov/gumo). The park has more than 80 miles of trails; most are steep, rugged, and rocky. No lodging, restaurants, stores, or gas exist within 35 miles of the park. Leashed pets are permitted only in the campground parking area.

Seeing the Highlights -- The visitor center offers a variety of exhibits and slide programs that tell the story of the Guadalupe Mountains, as well as ranger-guided walks and lectures. Information, maps, and backcountry permits can also be obtained at McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center (10 miles northeast via US 62/180 and a side road; tel. 915/828-3381) and the Dog Canyon Ranger Station (reached through Carlsbad via NM 137 and C.R. 414, about 70 miles; tel. 575/981-2418).

One of the most spectacular hikes in Texas is to the top of Guadalupe Peak, an 8.5-mile round-trip trek accessed from the Pine Springs Campground. McKittrick Canyon, protected by its high sheer walls, with a green swath of trees growing along the banks of its spring-fed stream, is a beautiful location. It is a great spot for hiking, bird-watching, and viewing other wildlife, and it's an especially lovely sight during fall foliage season, from late October to mid-November.

Camping -- Pine Springs and Dog Canyon both have developed camping areas, with restrooms and water, but no hookups or showers. Fires, including charcoal, are not permitted.

Artesia

A downtown rejuvenation project has brought a sparkle to Artesia, a town of 10,692 people, 36 miles north of Carlsbad on US 285. The Artesia Historical Museum and Art Center, housed in a Victorian home at 505 W. Richardson Ave. (tel. 575/748-2390), is worth visiting just to see the Queen Anne-style home with the outside covered with round river stones. Open Tuesday through Friday from 9am to 5pm and Saturday from 1 to 5pm, the museum exhibits Native American and pioneer artifacts, traveling exhibits, and art shows. Admission is free.

If you want to stop over in Artesia, consider the Best Western Pecos Inn, 2209 W. Main St. (US 82), Artesia, NM 88211 (tel. 575/748-3324; www.bestwestern.com). A great place to eat is the Wellhead, 332 W. Main St. (tel. 575/746-0640), a brewpub designed around the notion of oil wells. It's open Sunday through Thursday from 11am to 11pm and Friday and Saturday from 11am to midnight. Reservations are recommended on weekends and holidays. Main courses range from $8 to $24, and most major credit cards are accepted. Further information can be obtained from the Artesia Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 99, Artesia, NM 88211 (tel. 575/746-2744; www.artesiachamber.com).

Hobbs

Located 69 miles east of Carlsbad on US 62/180, on the edge of the Llano Estacado tableland, Hobbs is at the center of New Mexico's richest oil field. Many oil companies base their headquarters here.

The Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center near New Mexico Junior College, on the Lovington Highway (tel. 575/492-2676), honors the area's ranchers (both men and women) and rodeo performers and is open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm (closed college holidays).

Twenty-two miles northwest of Hobbs via NM 18, at the junction with US 82, is the town of Lovington (pop. 9,500), another ranching and oil center. The Lea County Historical Museum, 103 S. Love St. (tel. 575/396-4805), presents memorabilia of the region's unique history in a World War I-era hotel (ca. 1918).

If you plan to stay in Hobbs, try the Holiday Inn Express, 3610 N. Lovington Hwy. (tel. 800/377-8660 or 575/392-8777; www.hiexpress.com). Harry McAdams Park, 4 miles north of Hobbs on NM 18 (tel. 575/397-9291), has campsites and a visitor center set on acres of lovely grass. You can get a good square meal at the Cattle Baron Steak and Seafood Restaurant, 1930 N. Grimes St. (tel. 575/393-2800). Gamblers and horse-racing fans enjoy the Black Gold Casino at Zia Park, 3901 W. Millen Dr. (tel. 888/ZIAPARK or 575/492-7000; www.blackgoldcasino.net), with over 700 slot machines. Live horse racing takes place September to December. For more information on the area, contact the Hobbs Chamber of Commerce, 400 N. Marland Blvd. (tel. 800/658-6291 or 575/397-3202; www.hobbschamber.org), or the Lovington Chamber of Commerce, 201 S. Main St. (tel. 575/396-5311).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.