There’s nothing quite like time spent close to nature. But some locations force a choice between outdoor sports (which can be very social or not), scenery, or solitude. Maybe you like history or maybe you like to leave the past as a mystery. If you are into any of the above or dream of an outdoors getaway for your loved ones or a group, there’s one place that has all the above. The NRA Whittington Center (NRAWC) in Raton, New Mexico is one of the nation’s unsung gems for an affordable break in your routine.
In the past decade, I’ve spent many days at NRAWC, stayed in two of their six classes of lodging, and been blessed to fire rounds using many of its various themed ranges. I’ve taken a 10-mile run on the facility’s guest-accessible roads. Friends and fond memories were made on the way. I’m pleased to share a little about this special place so more people might discover and enjoy it.
Established in 1973, the NRA Whittington Center occupies 33,000 scenic acres of land in the northeast corner of New Mexico. Its high desert grasslands provide excellent forage for numerous game species. On the property’s western half, the southern Rockies rise quickly from the plains, their forests of pine and other species guarding rugged cliffs and providing shelter for large game such as elk and black bear.
As far as its relationship with the National Rifle Association, NRAWC is supportive but entirely separate, with its own budget and leadership within an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Any staff member politely, but promptly, points this out when asked. It’s apparently a question that comes up often.
The experience of visiting NRAWC is visceral and unique for everyone. But a good start for describing what’s there is an explanation of its facilities. So here goes.
Virtually every firearm sport enjoys its own range. Shotgunners have skeet, trap, five stand, and two incredible sporting clays trails in the plains/mountains transition zone.
Long-range shooters have a remote range with targets out to about a mile. It’s accessible with four-wheel drive when big game hunts are not going on and weather permits. There’s also a formal 1,000-yard range that will accommodate large numbers of competitors.
Mid-range rifle enthusiasts have numerous other options to enjoy from covered platforms, with both competition-friendly and hunting-practice steel targets at distances from 50 to more than 1,400 yards. The crowning glory of one such range is the legendary white buffalo target at 1,123 yards.
The gift/pro shop even sells a t-shirt so you can let your friends know you hit it. (Pro tip: If you really want a challenge, hit the small steel plate next to the buffalo. Did I mention the wind blows, hard, more days than not in that part of the world?) Also in the rifle range category is my personal favorite: Coors range, with no small resemblance to the Maroon Bells logo of the company by the same name.
Its slopes hold an enticing array of steel targets out to about 900 yards to exercise your skills when the usually verdant, sometimes snowbound, flat range becomes mundane. The fun starts all over again when, at this or any other of the Center’s ranges, action stops to allow one of the resident pronghorn, mule deer, or bear to amble by.
For special training events, there’s a law enforcement pistol range and several other ranges that are accessible only as part of enrollment in that event. That includes the Cooper’s Walk, a woodsy loop over moderately difficult terrain with hidden targets, appropriate for tactical or hunting practice.
Other short ranges are accessible by day rental and ideal for a small pistol competition or family outing. Most of these ranges have their own toilet facilities; many have classroom space as well.
Food and Lodging
An on-site cafeteria serves up three meals a day for anyone enrolled in events that include meals. The bright, roomy facility overlooks some of the shotgun ranges and is in walking distance for shotgunners.
With a reservation to ensure space is available, NRAWC offers a dizzying number of on-site lodging choices. Each one offers the chance to view wildlife, usually including deer, pronghorn, and songbirds, and sometimes elk or black bear. That’s in addition to stunning, high-elevation views of the nighttime sky.
Reservations for any of these accommodations can be made on the NRA Whittington Center website. Prices range from $12 to $150 per night depending on type, ranging from tent spaces to luxury cabins with gas fireplaces. Membership is not required.
Museums, Education, Art, History
It takes more than just a day to take in all the historical and factual resources of NRAWC. There’s something to pique most anyone’s curiosity.
At headquarters are two crown jewels among collections of historic guns and gun-related artifacts and ammunition. The Frank Brownell Museum of the Southwest contains hundreds, perhaps thousands, of artifacts that chronicle ancient, indigenous, military, frontier, and modern histories of the region. Displays are presented in an easy to view, easy to photograph way that allows the imagination to engage with history. Across the well-supplied pro shop is the Bud and Willa Eyman Research Library, containing many lifetimes’ worth of knowledge about the history of guns and the Second Amendment.
In the library and museum, as well as crowning the first hilltop encountered after passing through the admission gates, are numerous works of western and hunting-related art. A life-size bronze statue marks one place where the iconic Santa Fe Trail wagon route transects the property.
If outdoor historical discovery is your thing, drive, walk, or ride your steed (yes, there are corrals) through NRAWC’s main road until it turns to dirt. The wooded canyon ahead shelters the ghost of what was once a vibrant mining town. Many recovered tools and everyday relics lay there to be observed. Interpretive signs and ruins of stone and concrete, along with the now-gated entrance to the mine shaft, allow one to picture how the locals moved about their days in a landscape that remains alternately beautiful and harsh.
If a trophy game hunt is on your wish list, NRAWC can make it happen. Exclusive guided hunts for spring turkey, mule deer, pronghorn, and bull elk are offered as all-inclusive packages including lodging, food, and guide fees. The Center’s experienced guides boast a near-100 percent success rate for taking down the desired quarry. Prices range from $1,500 to 9,500 and include on-site transportation.
Planning Your Trip
NRAWC is located a few miles from Raton, New Mexico and is not far off Interstate 25. Driving there won’t take you off well-maintained highways, but be warned, high winds and heavy snow/ice often beset the region.
Flying commercial, one can get closer to the facility by landing in Colorado Springs and renting a car for the 2-plus hour remaining drive. Small aircraft can land at Raton’s non-controlled municipal airport, in view of NRAWC’s Visitor Center.
It’s a special feeling arriving at NRAWC, driving up its grand entrance lined on both sides with the flags of each of these United States. After checking in, the gentle climb up to the ranges and most lodging sites is boldly, attractively flanked by mini-billboards of the many gun-related corporate sponsors. Those include one sporting the Cheaper Than Dirt! logo.