November 19, 2019.
10.3 mi | 1240′ ele. gain | 5:30 hr.
Today we set out for arguably the most popular hike in the park. The trail is barricaded behind a day use only gate: open from 9 am – 4:30 pm, which meant we could have a long and lazy breakfast. I cooked bacon and eggs on my little backpacking stove and we sipped our coffee as the morning sun hit our camp.
When we arrived at the parking lot, there were only a couple other cars there; we’d see maybe a dozen people all day. As soon as we stepped foot on the trail, we had our first wildlife sighting: a tarantula. It was moving slowly across the trail, but as soon as it sensed us it stopped in its tracks. Giddy upon seeing my first tarantula in the wild, I excitedly skipped on down the trail to see what other surprises lay ahead.
We followed the wide, white gravel path down the canyon. It crossed actual water a couple of times. That was a surprising sight! The fall colors, while past prime, were still impressive. Oak and maple leaves painted the canyon yellow, red and orange. Amidst the fallen leaves, agave, lechugilla and sotol reminded us that we were in the desert southwest.
A casual 2.4 miles of mostly flat ambling later, we reached our first landmark: Pratt Cabin. Not knowing what to expect, we walked through a large stone gate and onto the old Pratt property. The cabin was built almost entirely of stone, even the roof! The limestone making up the Guadalupe Mountains suited this purpose well, as the layers were perfectly flat. Walking around the cabin’s exterior, I tried to imagine the work it took to build this spectacular structure. We sat on the rocking chairs on the back porch to have a snack and enjoy “the most beautiful spot in Texas.”
Another mile up the trail, we took the spur to the Grotto. There, it was like an unearthed cave. In an overhanging section of rock, we saw what appeared to be stalactites and stalagmites; but we weren’t underground. In the back of the overhang there was some water and moss. It was an unusual place.
Not too far beyond the Grotto, we visited the Hunter Line Shack. This building was in much more disrepair than the Cabin that we’d seen earlier. Back in its day, it must have been impressive. But now, it was hardly worth a visit.
I checked the time: 11 am. We had enough time to continue to the recommended turnaround point, the Notch.
Here’s where the trail got real. So far our walk was pretty casual. The path was relatively flat and easy going. But all at once the trail began switchbacking up towards McKittrick Ridge. I was sure glad to not be carrying an overnight pack.
All the effort was worth it, though, when we arrived. Sure enough, the path disappeared in a notch in the rocks and we crossed over into the most beautiful view. Far down below we saw a a rushing stream. All around us, reds and golds. The clouds played with the ridgetop, creating a new scene every minute. We stopped there for lunch.
We had enough time to eat our food and soak in the scenery. It was just us up there, no one had crossed our path since the Grotto. I enjoyed feeling like we were the only people in a National Park. So many of the headlines and photos show huge crowds of tourists, lines of cars, destruction and disrespect. But our experience was blissful, peaceful, quiet. I just kept my fingers crossed that no Instagram influencer would come along and spoil this place.
The walk down was much easier than the hike up. Near the bottom of the canyon, we finally had another wildlife sighting: mule deer. We stopped to watch them for a few minutes before finishing the hike. Since there was a little time to spare, we checked out the mile-long nature loop near the parking lot. Aaron read all the interpretive signs aloud. I busied myself envisioning ancient sea creatures as I ran my fingers along the fossils studding the rocks. What a fascinating place.
The wind picked up again that evening, portending nasty weather in the day ahead. That was no matter, as we had a caving tour booked at Carlsbad Caverns…