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As the story goes, an alien spacecraft crashed on a sheep ranch here in 1947. Despite alleged government "coverups," reports of flying saucer and alien corpse sightings persisted. And almost overnight, this sleepy farm town became a hot spot for flying saucer fanatics and curiosity seekers alike.
These days, aliens are big business in Roswell. Restaurants serve alien-themed dishes. Souvenir shops let you pose with life-sized Martians. And little green people are painted on streetlights and in store windows.
Every summer, Roswell hosts the UFO Encounter, a festival commemorating the crash. Tens of thousands of sci-fi buffs, as well as cast members from shows like Star Trek, congregate to share the latest theories on what really happened 50 years ago.
Indeed, Roswell takes its outer space heritage seriously. The International UFO Museum and Research Center, for one, attempts to explain "The Roswell Incident" -- and the possibility of life beyond Earth -- with a straight face.
Located in a former movie theater, the museum maintains a huge UFO-related research library, as well as a database of UFO sightings around the world. (Let the kids check to see if aliens have visited your town.) Frequent guest lecturers include UFO experts espousing their latest theories.
Older kids will get a kick out of the exhibits, which tell the story of "The Roswell Incident." Since no artifacts exist from the crash (they were reportedly seized by the military), reconstructed models recount the event. Most fascinating is the "supporting evidence": old photos, copies of radar reports, transcripts of communications, news articles, and press releases (including the government's claim that crash debris came from a weather balloon).
Don't miss the alien body -- a prop created for the 1994 Showtime movie -- displayed on a hospital gurney; it's guaranteed to elicit squeals from your younger children. Also, don't miss the life-sized replica of the famous flying saucer they can board and pretend to fly.
Locals who lived through the incident act as museum docents, telling their own stories of what happened. It's neat to hear their tales, but if you're limited on time, beware -- they'll talk your ear off.
And now for something completely tacky: The Alien Zone. Roswell's largest UFO-inspired souvenir shop runs a cheesy exhibit area, of sorts. For a small fee, you can snap an unlimited number of pictures of your little ones next to life-size aliens. They can choose from 20 different backdrops, including a schoolhouse and a crashed space ship.
Alien Zone's outer space souvenirs are just as creative -- large stuffed Martians, tiny alien heads that stick their tongues out when squeezed, alien bodies (to be used for fake autopsies), and Roswell t-shirts and sweatshirts. The store occasionally screens sci-fi movies or hosts alien puppet shows.
On a more serious note, learn about real-life space exploration at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. Robert Goddard (1882-1945) grew up dreaming of flying spaceships to the moon, and went on to develop the first successful liquid fuel rocket.
At the museum, you can see a replica of Goddard's Roswell workshop, where he conducted experiments from 1930-1941, as well as displays of the actual rockets that made history. Printed commentary includes the scientist's own accounts of his successes and failures.
The museum also has a surprisingly good contemporary art collection (funded by 1960s and 1970s oil money) and history collections with Native American objects and Spanish suits of armor.
The adjacent Robert B. Goddard Planetarium, the largest planetarium in the state, explores the mysteries of the cosmos including comets and black holes in a multimedia show.
Type of trip: Educational, fantasy, nature
Best for ages: 7 and up
Ideal trip length: Long weekend
Distance: Albuquerque (200 miles), El Paso, (202 miles), Phoenix (560 miles)
Best time to go: Late spring and early fall, to miss the summer heat. Unless you're a hardcore Martian chaser, avoid 4th of July weekend, when the annual UFO Encounter festival takes over the town.
Weather: 95/62 degrees in summer, 60/25 in winter
Squirm factor: None
International UFO Museum and Research Center 114 N. Main St. Phone: 800-822-3545
Roswell Museum and Art Center 100 W. 11th St. Phone: 505-624-6744
Robert Goddard Planetarium Richardson and 11th St. Phone: 505-624-6744
The Alien Zone 216 N. Main St. Phone: 505-627-6982
Roswell Convention & Visitors Bureau Phone: 888-ROSWELL
You won't stumble over any alien corpses at Carlsbad Caverns. But you will see some awesome stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, and swirling liquid rock at this "8th Wonder of the World," two hours south of Roswell.
The main attraction here is the Big Room, a cavern the size of 14 football fields, located 750 feet underground. To get there, you have two choices: Take the elevator, or walk a steep mile down. The paved path and its narrow switchbacks is more interesting, with amazing rock formations along the way.
Guided ranger tours (from 1.5 to 4 hours long) must be booked in advance and cost extra. Some are not recommended for kids under 12. Whichever you choose, bring a jacket; the caverns are a constant 56 degrees. And be aware: Strollers are not allowed.
During peak season, hundreds of thousands of bats take flight from the caverns at sunset. Rangers time daily free talks about bats with this natural phenomenon. 3225 National Parks Hwy, 96 miles south of Roswell off Hwy 285, 505-785-2232. Reservations for guided tours: 800-967-CAVE or reserve online.
To break up the trip from Roswell, stop at the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park, which showcases animals from the Chihuahuan desert (America's largest desert) in a natural environment.
Get acquainted with 40 types of local wildlife on a 1.5-hour, self-guided tour (you may even spot a mountain lion or bobcat). At the Greenhouse, you can see cacti from around the world, or buy some to bring home as souvenirs.
The park is noted for its annual Mescal Roast when members of the Mescalero Apache tribe harvest and prepare traditional food, perform ceremonial dances, and hold an art exhibit and sale. 1504 Miehls Dr., 76 miles south of Roswell off Hwy 285, 505-887-5516.
Favorite local spot: The Crash Down Diner, 106 West 1st St., 505-627-5533. Alien-themed eatery dishes out alien-head pancakes, Far Out barbecue roast beef sandwiches, and Big Dipper salads. Kids can take home the alien drinking straws as a souvenir.
Local food: Steaks, red or green chili, Tex-Mex cuisine.
Best souvenir: Anything with aliens on it.Annual events:
Roswell UFO Encounter, UFO museum and the Convention Center, 505-624-6860. Parade with alien floats, Alien Fun Run, carnival rides, costume contests, food booths, speakers, celebrities.
Pinata Festival, front of the Chaves County Courthouse, 401 N. Main St., 888-616-0889. Family-oriented activities, including breaking piñatas (pâpier-maché sculptures filled with candy), musical entertainment, Mexican cuisine, and games.
Eastern New Mexico State Fair, State Fair Grounds, 505-623-9411. Oldest and longest running fair with 13 counties participating.
Reviewed April 2004.