I’m going to be perfectly honest. This hike was incredibly boring. We followed trail-marking posts for five miles along gently undulating sand-colored sand dunes. No one was ahead of us but a couple of hikers were always right in view, just out of earshot to our rear. The sand was cold and there was nothing to see out there. Well, there was one thing to see: a curious building way off into the distance. We walked towards it but never seemed to get any closer.
Finally, around the midpoint of our hike we came to a sign. It sternly warned us to stick to the trail because there were unexploded munitions beyond the sign. The building was located way beyond the sign, so the only interesting thing we’d sighted was far off the trail. Solemnly, we circled back and finished the loop. At the parking lot we descended into throngs of people posing with props for social media, sledding down the sand hills and just generally taking up space. It was an anticlimactic way to end our stay at White Sands. If I had to do it all again I’d skip this loop altogether.
Onward to new adventures in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The only way to camp in the sand dunes is to grab one of ten “backcountry” sites in the park. And, the only way to get a permit is to show up at the Vistor’s Center the day of your anticipated trip. We arrived a few minutes before the Visitor’s Center opened and there were already three groups ahead of us. Since we had to get moving to go on the Lake Lucero tour, I was antsy to just turn in the paperwork and get out of there.
After our tour we re-entered the main park and found the overnight parking area. We made sure our packs had all necessary supplies for the night and began the one-mile walk to our assigned site. It was mid-afternoon and already getting cold. I set up the tent, picked up the trash the previous campers had left behind, and prepared for a short walk. We didn’t have too much sunlight left and the rules clearly stated you were not to leave camp after dark. Because of the proximity to the missile testing range, GPS didn’t work out there and the minimally-featured landscape made it difficult to navigate.
I took my shoes off, because sand, and we began walking towards the western horizon. I took a bearing with my compass and we tried to follow that pretty strictly as we headed away from our campsite. We zigzagged a little bit to avoid shadows and the occasional smattering of plants. I looked for critters, animal tracks, any sign of life. Nothing. We kept walking into the endless, rolling, white landscape. As the time ticked away, daylight waned and temperatures dropped. We wanted to get back before dark to watch the sunset and to get bundled up in our warmest clothes in camp. My feet felt as if they were marching over ice.
When we reached the tent, Aaron slipped in to his sleeping bag and I quickly set up a cooking area. I’d packed in a bag of beef and squash that I’d dehydrated and home and just needed a quick boil in water. By 5 pm, it was dark. We had 13 hours to go until sunrise, so I pulled out a crossword puzzle book and turned on a podcast to help pass the time. Occasionally we peeked outside the tent to look up at the sky full of stars. It was a long night.
In the morning, we arose to the tent and the dunes coated in a layer of ice. I boiled water, then walked to the top of the nearest dune to sip hot coffee with Aaron. As we stood there, watching the sky turn orange and pink, I noticed a lovely stillness in the air. One of the best ways to experience national parks is to get up earlier than anyone else to see it like no one else sees it.
We still had one more hike to do before moving on, so we returned to camp, ate breakfast and packed up to go. I threw the trash I found—a plastic fork, some tent stakes and a fuel canister—in my pack. I couldn’t believe that someone could leave a fuel canister behind. Leave No Trace has a lot of work to do.
The sun was bright, but the air was frigid. A quick walk brought us back to the car, where we grabbed small day packs for one more hike in White Sands.
We pulled off the highway at a sign for the White Sands Missile Testing Range. That’s where we were told to meet the ranger for our tour of Lake Lucero. There was already a long line in front of us.
It was dumb luck that we got a spot on this tour. One day, I was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and noticed that White Sands posted a link to sign up. (I always follow the land management agency’s Facebook page prior to visiting). I clicked to check it out and our trip just happened to coincide with the tour! Although I usually prefer to explore on my own, but this particular location was only accessible with a ranger, so I registered and hoped for the best.
We sat, and sat, and sat, as the ranger walked from car to car. She asked the same questions and reiterated the same rules to each individual tour group. The plan was to caravan together to the start of the hike. Since we had to drive several miles through the missile range, we had to be on our best behavior.
After what felt like hours later, we finally got to get out of our car. We stood around and listened to the rules again, heard about a little history and endured some goofy activities that were clearly designed to entertain the kids. At last, we began walking.
It was a sunny but cool day, great weather for being outside. Partway down the trail to the lake, we stopped at the remains of the old Lucero homestead, where we looked at barbed wire fencing, a water trough and other remnants of the ranch. Then we finished the walk to the lake.
We began noticing some unusual formations on the ground. The sunlight caught them just so. Selenite crystals, the source of the sand dunes!
It was like when you’re hiking in the forest and you see an unusual flower. You stop and take a hundred pictures of it, then walk a few more yards and come across a meadow full of those flowers? Suddenly the entire ground was covered in these gleaming crystal shards, as if we were in some sort of alternate universe. All that waiting and lollygagging about was immediately worth it!
“Don’t stop til we reach the lake!” Our guide shouted at the group. She was really intent on sticking to our schedules and the rules, and while she was informative and knowledgeable, there was an edge to her voice that insinuated she was completely sick of dealing with tourists’ nonsense. She needed a vacation.
We dutifully followed her to the shore. I’d been waiting for this since she told us that’s when we’d be free to roam around at our own pace. I scanned the lakebed and made a mental calculation of where I thought most of the group would be headed. They’d go left; I’d go right. As soon as we were permitted to go, we bolted to the right.
The lake was impossibly broad and vast. Crystals shimmered in the late morning sun. We walked along the edge of the lake, as recommended, so we didn’t sink into the mud. The area had just gotten some rain, so the previously dry lake bed was saturated with moisture. Without too much time to explore, I kept a quick pace, keeping my eyes open for something, anything different. The landscape was quite barren and same-looking. But I knew there had to be some treasure to discover.
And that’s when I found it. I braved the muck and began walking out towards a piece of driftwood far from shore. I followed animal tracks to try and avoid the worst of the mud. The hoofprints made a fairly compact surface that made travel rather easy. Near the driftwood, I noticed an unusual plant growing on the mud. It had squishy, sausage-like, purple stems. Later I’d learn that this was a type of pickleweed, so named because it likes to grow in briny conditions. Clever.
Off in the distance I saw one, lonely, snow-covered peak: Sierra Blanca, the highest mountain in Southern New Mexico. It looked rather imposing from our position on the salt flat many thousands of feet below. Away from the tour group, it was quiet and peaceful. I stood there, out on the mud, for several moments, grateful for the experience.
We retreated to the group gathering spot, where the ranger was waiting. A good portion of the visitors had already started hiking back. I, on the other hand, could have stayed out there for hours. What were they doing? Did they not understand what a unique and special opportunity this was?
Aaron and I had so many questions. We chatted up a ranger while we walked towards the trailhead. She had some of the answers and shared our curiosity about the ones she didn’t have. It was a great reminder that sometimes it’s worth the red tape and hassle to get a guided tour. I won’t ever forget that place.
On the drive back we kept our eyes peeled for oryx. YES, ORYX. Apparently this African hoofed animal was introduced in the area in the late 1960’s to offer hunters something exotic to shoot. Can you even? And now they’re becoming a bit of a nuisance and crowding out native animals. We didn’t see any, but were fascinated with the idea that we could.
Back in the main park, we packed up our gear to spend a night sleeping on the sand dunes…
We had visited McKittrick Canyon just a couple days ago, but we returned to this gated trailhead to hike up a much less popular trail: Permian Reef. According to my research, the trail was a walk through geologic time, with interpretive signs telling the history of the rocks. I was excited to learn more. I was also excited to wear shorts, despite the wind. The sun was warm and bright and this was the southwest, dammit.
We get out of the car and walk about a tenth of a mile before reaching the first sign: 1. That’s all the sign said. “Oh no!” I thought, “we needed to pick something up from the Visitor’s Center BEFORE coming here.” There must have been an interpretive guide to take on the trail that corresponded with the metal numbered signs.
The Visitor’s Center was a 15-minute drive from the trailhead. That meant a 30-minute delay, plus time talking with the ranger. I did a little mental math and decided it was worth the detour. Otherwise it would be just like any old trail.
At the Visitor’s Center, I asked about the information we’d need to make sense of the Permian Reef hike. The ranger directed me to a book in the bookstore: a dense, scientific graphs filled with graphs, tables and vocabulary I hadn’t seen since undergrad. And it was like $30.
“Is there a more…user-friendly… version of this somewhere?” I asked.
The other ranger thought for a minute, then reached behind the counter and pulled out a free pamphlet designed for people who weren’t professional geologists. “Thanks!” and we ran out the door.
Back on the trail, we stopped at every sign to read the information on the pamphlet. Some numbers did not have any printed information so Aaron and I took turns making up facts about the rocks near the sign. It was an entertaining way to make the trail feel less steep.
In addition to the abundance of fossils along the trail, we noticed lots of cactus of various shapes and sizes. I was enamored with all the little tubular cacti and their intimidating spines.
After 20-something geology stops we reached the top of the ridge. Today’s rock ridge was yesterday’s Permian coral reef. I found that so incredible! As we climbed up, we learned about ocean creatures that had been transformed into fossils and preserved in the stone. Following the Law of Superposition (thank you, science teaching), the fossils we saw at the start of the hike were older than those found at the top of the ridge. There were a few exceptions, pointed out in the pamphlet; some boulders had fallen from higher levels and landed along the trail, where we could compare those fossils to the older ones on the rock nearby.
At the top of the ridge, we had some decisions. The trail rambled along the mostly flat plateau and continued northwest into New Mexico. But the ground was damp and it was kind of ugly up there; a brown oak forest. I looked on my map and spied a highpoint labeled “McKittrick” not far off the trail. We decided to bail on the trail and sneak over to the highpoint.
It was a short but lovely diversion. I found the benchmark and we sat there, savoring the remaining sunshine despite the breeze. We knew weather was on its way, and this would be our last day in the Guadalupes, so we wanted to make the most of it. I loved the views from the ridgetop. The clouds added an air of sophistication and anticipation to the scene. Would we make it back before the rain? I sure hoped so.
The whole way back, the wind continued to pick up. It got colder. I was ready to get into my sweats and curl up in my sleeping bag. Not long after we began our drive, the sky turned gray and rain started coming down. Before heading back to the campground we drove to a viewpoint of El Capitan, which was one of our first summits in the park. It was so dramatic from the road!
The rain and wind continued all afternoon and through the night. During one short break in the weather I sneaked out of the tent to cook dinner. As I sat, huddled over a pot of chicken cooking, a rat appeared in the beam of my headlamp. In an instant, we both realized each other was there and he was gone. But in his place was a prickly pear fruit, which he must have dropped before he ran. I started laughing. It was the highlight of the evening.
After navigating the Hall of the White Giant ranger tour, we ate some lunch and took the elevator down to walk through the “Big Room.” Before we were allowed to get on the elevator, we reviewed the cave rules with a stern ranger. She said the usual stuff, like don’t touch the cave, don’t take your latte down there, etc. But then she mentioned something that caught my attention: “Please whisper while visiting the cave in order to preserve the cave’s natural quiet.” Now, that was a rule I could get behind. I am a person who really values quiet. I get irritated by large, chatty groups, loud drones, Bluetooth speakers, barking dogs. Preserving the quiet, I like that.
We stepped out of the elevator and into an enormous room. Yes, it was aptly named. I could hardly wrap my head around the scene that unfolded in front of me. It was majestic. Unbelievable. Awesome.
CLICK. CLICK. . . . CLICK. FLASH.
I whipped my head around. What was that stupid beep? Of course, it was a tourist. Someone who couldn’t figure out how to turn the sound off on her camera and who was also using a flash. And to make it even better, she was taking photos literally 30 seconds apart. It must have beeped a hundred times before I just stopped in my tracks and waited for her to get down out of earshot. Once she was gone, the cave was silent. Aaahhhh…
I hope no one has to sit through a thousand photos taken with a flash on that cheap digital camera. I only posted a few of my own crappy photos just so you get the idea. In fact, even the nice, professional photos on Carlsbad’s website were uninspiring. But being there, in that space, I felt an immense sense of connection and awe. It’s just one of those places you have to experience to understand.
We walked slowly, with many stops. Aaron busied himself taking panoramas and videos. I mostly just listened to the audio guide and looked around. There was so much to see. The paved path led us through the cave and brought us up close to many distinct cave features. This cave is so deep underground that naturally, no light would enter this room. So the park service hired a Hollywood lighting specialist to design a system to illuminate the cave. As a result, we get to see these spectacular rock formations in beautiful light.
I marveled at the jellyfish-like stalactites, the ribbon-like draperies, columns of cave popcorn and mineral shelves overhanging pools of water. Each step brought a new perspective. It took us two and a half hours to walk just over a mile. We really immersed ourselves in the cave.
With few exceptions, most visitors were speaking quietly and being respectful of others. I appreciated that effort. In the silence, the cave felt even more magical. I couldn’t imagine being in there on a busy day.
On our way to camp, we swung through the town of Carlsbad to re-supply our grocery stash for the next few days. Back at our site, I made a big pot of chili and sipped on a glass of red wine. Since I’d forgotten to pack bowls for our trip, I made use of our Styrofoam cups from Whataburger. I felt bad about the Styrofoam, so the least I could do was re-use the cups as many times as possible along the trip. They came in handy several times!
We awoke to another ridiculously beautiful sunrise in the Guadalupe Mountains. The clouds were pretty, but that meant a storm was brewing. We reinforced the tent last night with lots of staked out paracord in order to feel confident leaving our site for the day. We had plans to do a “wild cave tour” in Carlsbad Caverns.
On our way up the windy road to the Visitor Center, I spotted a couple of animals in the hills on the side of the road. “Sheep!” I shouted. We pulled off the road as soon as we could to get a better look at the animals. They weren’t bighorn sheep, what were they? The longer we watched, the more sheep appeared. There must have been at least 30 of them bunched together in a herd. Big ones, little ones, munching on vegetation and strolling on by. Later we’d learn that these were Barbary sheep, an invasive species that is currently a scourge on the southwest. Oh well, they were neat to look at.
When we checked in at Carlsbad Caverns, we were informed that the tour we originally booked was canceled and instead we’d be visiting the Hall of the White Giant. Was that okay? She asked. I hadn’t researched that one, but I figured we’d make it work. We waited for our tour guide and the rest of the group to appear. Out of a maximum of 8 participants, there were only 4 of us plus our two young guides. This was going to be fun.
Before heading out on the tour we had to sit through an orientation. Our guides explained the nature of the tour and geared us up with helmets, headlamps, gardening gloves, knee pads and elbow pads. We were set!
Oh, there’s just one more thing. We’d have to squeeze and shimmy through some tight spaces on this tour. In preparation, we each took turns wriggling through a replica of the smallest opening in the cave to give us one last chance to back out before our group departed. We all eagerly accepted the upcoming challenge.
The entrance to our cave tour was located about halfway down the Natural Entrance Trail. This 1.25 mile trail drops steeply down into the gaping mouth of the canyon, losing 750 feet from start to finish. I gladly held on to the handrail as my eyes were drawn upwards to see the whole of the natural cathedral we were entering. I felt a strange burning sensation in my chest, that feeling of awe when you are experiencing nature’s finest. I had only put Carlsbad Caverns on our trip itinerary because it was a half hour away from where we were staying, not because I actually wanted to visit. At that moment I was so glad that my travels had fortuitously taken me there. And we’d only just begun…
Our tour group came to an abrupt stop. “We’re here!” said our guide, cheerfully. I looked around wondering what the hell she was talking about. She pointed to a portion of the wall that looked like Swiss cheese. “We crawl through that gap to start the tour.” I guarantee 99.9% of visitors walk right past that wall, oblivious that anything could be found through that hole. I would have been one of them!
With that, we adjusted all our gear and belly-slid through the hole, one by one. Unbelievably, on the other side, we entered what felt like a tiny hallway. At some points it was tall enough that we could stand up. At other points we either crawled, squatted or dragged ourselves forward. Our guide regularly stopped the group to talk about cave formations, the discovery of this cave, the history of caving in the park and the few critters that live there.
I took last place in the group (with the other guide acting as sweep behind me) in order to take my time to look around. The interior of the passageways was mostly uninteresting, with occasional flashes of color or unique formations. Mostly, it was just really fun maneuvering through the tunnels. Far into the cave, we reached the “obstacle course.” There, we scrambled over extremely slick rock with the aid of hand lines and ladders. Everyone was working up a sweat despite the fact that the temperature was only 56°F.
The real showstopper, the only reason this network of passageways had been turned into a guided tour, is the Hall of the White Giant. When we reached it, we were all dumbstruck. Out of nowhere, the tiny tunnel opened up into an enormous room. Every surface of the ceiling and floor was covered with speleothems (stalagmites and stalactites). In the beams of our headlamps, it all gleamed a bright white. And the grand focal point: the White Giant, a hulking mass of rock that stands nearly 20 feet tall and looks like it’s coated in white chocolate. Our group spent some time here just enjoying the view and learning more about the first people who discovered it.
Then, we all turned our lights off and sat very quietly. It’s a unique experience to be in complete darkness and complete quiet at the same time. The guide asked if anyone had a poem to share or a song to sing. I was glad no one did.
After putting our lamps back on and letting our eyes adjust to the light, we began the walk out through the obstacles and narrow hallways we’d traversed to get back there. Once we stepped back on the main trail we finished the hike to the main area of Carlsbad Caverns to take the elevator up and out.
The combination of physical exertion and nature’s beauty has always been a winner for me. I was really inspired by our morning’s tour. But I was also really hungry. We stopped into the cafeteria for some delicious New Mexican food before descending back into the cave. We hadn’t yet seen the Big Room, and I had no idea what was in store for me there…
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…
The winds picked up early in the morning, cutting my night’s
sleep short. The forecast called for gusty winds all day and we had two
mountains to climb. The forecast for the next day looked worse, so we had to go
Guadalupe Peak is the highpoint of Texas at 8,751’. It is
one of many peaks along an ancient, exposed coral reef studded with Permian
fossils. It was the inspiration for this trip.
We began our hike at 8 am, marching uphill along the
well-graded Guadalupe Peak Trail. Again my eyes were drawn to the plants:
sotol, yucca, oak trees, cholla. We even saw some flowers! Indian paintbrush, a
familiar bloom, as well as some yellow composites. It was shocking to me to see
flowers this late in the year.
As we gained elevation, the wind grew stronger. I wrapped my
buff over my hat so it wouldn’t fly away. One other woman on the trail had
already had her hat stolen by the wind.
The trail ascended by means of several switchbacks
connecting nearly flat traverses. We dipped in and out of the forest, in and
out of the shade. Near the summit, we finally caught a glimpse of our secondary
objective: El Capitan. It was only a mile off the trail, so I thought it would
be a simple add-on if our hike to the top of Texas wasn’t enough to fill the
I knew we were at the summit when I saw the shiny obelisk
perched on the rocks. I’d seen photos of this structure while doing research
for the trip. Two other people sat near the base of the obelisk, enjoying their
success. We bundled up and joined them, wolfing down some snacks and drinks in
preparation for the second part of the day.
We descended just a few switchbacks from the top before
angling off-trail towards El Capitan. I was not exactly sure where we were “supposed”
to start our route but the landscape was pretty easy to read. We walked down a
broad ridge, dancing between cactus and spiny shrubs. As we neared the
convergence of several drainages, the landscape became a bit more steep and
rocky. After finding the nicest path off of the rocks and into a streambed, we
walked downhill for a few more minutes before eyeballing a possible ascent
The hillside in front of us looked steep and forbidding. The
heavily vegetated slopes were broken up by slabs of rock. And of course, there
were plenty of cacti hiding within the shrubbery.
We took turns leading the way, aiming for the path of least
resistance while avoiding sharp cliff edges and heavy brush. Eventually we
gained the ridge.
Aaron was moving much more slowly than usual. We stopped
frequently so he could catch his breath and get his energy back. But, it was
just not his day. We were within sight of the summit when he decided to stop
and rest while I pressed ahead.
I promised I’d be back quickly and started moving along the
cliff’s edge, peering over occasionally to get a sense of where I was. El
Capitan is an impressive feature, with a sheer west face dropping over a
thousand vertical feet towards the desert below.
Not long after I started up the ridge, I crested over the
last bump and saw the summit marker: an ammunition box with a register inside.
I signed into the register and flipped through some of the previous entries
before picking up Aaron for our hike out.
We did our best to re-trace our ascent route back to the
convergence. We made a few minor detours but mostly stayed on track. Then, it
was time to basically re-climb to Guadalupe Peak and hike all the way back
down. It was a link-up that looked better on paper, I guess.
Scrambling up that dry ridge in the heat of the afternoon
felt even more draining than our climb to El Capitan. But, one slow step led to
another and we eventually stepped back onto the trail. Aaron got his mojo back
once we were on the official route and it took us no time at all to get back to
About 2/3 of the way down the trail we crossed paths with a
solo hiker heading up. He was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, carrying a
cell-phone in one hand and a liter of water in the other. No backpack. No jacket.
No headlamp. “Hi,” we said, and continued on our way.
Later that night at camp we noticed a beam of light from the
flanks of Guadalupe Peak. Aaron thought back to the only hiker we knew was
headed up the mountain late in the day. He thought maybe it was the light from
a cell-phone flashlight, and that it wouldn’t last long. As we sat bundled up
in down jackets eating a warm meal by the tent, we worried about the status of
that hiker. Aaron ended up calling in to report what we’d seen, hoping that a
ranger could hike up the trail and make sure whoever was on the trail after
dark could make their way back down safely.
Carry the ten essentials and remember the first principle of
Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare.
We pulled into Guadalupe Mountains National Park late last night. The moonlight cut through the pitch black sky, illuminating silhouettes of the trees and plants surrounding our campsite. The tree branches were blowing in the wind, portending the first obstacle I’d deal with on this trip.
Putting up a tent in the wind was a real challenge. I asked
Aaron to help hold the tent down as I piled rocks on each corner of the fabric.
The ground was rock solid; no tent stake could penetrate its surface. Once I
got to pitching the fly, I had a real dilemma. Rocks wouldn’t work there. But
the soil on the edges of the tent pad was soft…if only I could reach it. I had
no cords or webbing at my disposal. I frantically tore through our luggage to
find something to extend the fly so I could get some stakes in.
My hands fumbled across my Yaktrax, and at last I had a solution. I used a couple of carabiners to clip the Yaktrax to each other and then to the stake. I collapsed into the tent, dreaming about seeing the park in the daylight the next morning (check out my handiwork).
We watched the sunrise from the tent, then ate breakfast and
wandered around the Visitor’s Center. After probing the ranger for some
information about current conditions and recommendations, I settled on hiking
to Devil’s Hall as our introductory hike in the park.
The hike began on a trail right from the campground. We
followed the trail right into Pine Spring Canyon and continued straight towards
the Devil’s Hall. Along the way, my eyes adjusted to the southwestern desert
flora. The most unusual plant I saw was sotol, a succulent that resembles
yucca. A thick cluster of toothed, green leaves surrounds a single, tall flower
stalk. On this day in November, the dried blooms made the stalks look like
giant brushes. They towered over my head, impossibly tall. But those weren’t
the only intriguing plant around. Cholla, bedecked with their bright yellow
fruits, lined the trail.
The vegetation held my attention until we entered the canyon
proper, where the geology took center stage. I marveled at the colors, textures
and shapes of the rock. We explored little caves and undercuts, scrambled over
conglomerate boulders, examined the perfectly horizontal layers of stone.
A natural staircase, carved out of those parallel layers,
led into the “Devil’s Hall.” We climbed the slippery stairs and continued ahead
to a truly remarkable spot. Sure enough, nature had created a wide hallway
between two nearly vertical walls that reached high above the canyon floor. I
suppose water must rush through the hallway during periods of rain, but it was
bone dry on that day. Just beyond the hall, a metal sign marked the end of the
trail. The canyon beyond the sign is closed to entry for part of the year in
order to protect wildlife. Not this part of the year; we kept walking.
Almost immediately, the canyon floor became rougher, rockier
and more overgrown. We rock-hopped our way through the quiet forest. Bright red
maple leaves fluttered down from the branches above. I couldn’t have asked for
a lovelier day.
We scanned the canyon for wildlife, but didn’t see anything much. A few little wrens hid in the spaces between boulders. A couple of grasshoppers posed on the rocks. But there were plenty of animal signs. Most notably, we noticed a distinctive magenta scat around every corner of the canyon. We couldn’t figure out who was leaving it, or if every animal out there was eating prickly pear fruit, but it was E V E R Y W H E R E.
After about a mile of walking beyond the sign, we stopped for a rest and then retreated.
Back at camp, I hurried to make dinner before the sun set.
We feasted on taco salad and quickly retired to the tent: it was dark and cold
and fires were banned. Shortly after getting into my sleeping bag I thought
gosh, it must be like midnight!
With only 5 days to experience Salt Lake City and its surroundings, I wanted to pack in as much as I could before having to leave. So after we hiked up the Pfeifferhorn, I set my sights on American Fork Twin Peaks. According to the 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Salt Lake City guidebook, I could snag another highpoint by taking a tram up to nearly 11,000 feet and then hiking just over a mile to get there. CAKE! I thought.
We bought our tram tickets and rode up to the top of the ski area, covering something like 3000 feet in 8 minutes. Now that was an efficient way to climb a mountain! The tram was packed full of people and loud; I couldn’t wait to get off.
Once we unloaded, we followed the book’s description of the route to the base of a little hill that led out towards the ridge. After a short walk the ridge became narrower and rockier, with steep drops on either side. I had to point out good hand- and foot-holds for Aaron, reassuring him as we moved forward.
But not soon into the difficult sections, Aaron said he wanted to go no further. We were atop a gully that he felt was an adequate escape route; he’d meet me back at the tram so I could finish my highpoint quest. After a little bit of debate, we decided this was the best choice and we parted ways. I watched him descend the gully before setting out towards the peaks.
The wind blowing across the ridge made the scramble feel even more serious. I suddenly noticed my aloneness. But I’d climbed, scrambled and hiked solo over all sorts of diverse terrain; why was this getting to me? Taking my time, searching for good hands and feet, I plodded slowly ahead. Partway across the ridge I stopped and gasped, or, was it laughed? A shiny bolt hanger drilled into the rock by my side let me know that I was not the only one who felt a little sketched out on this ridge. Apparently others had chosen to protect the “scramble” with ropes and bolts. I felt justified in my gut feelings and slowed down even more to ensure no slips and falls on this exposed route.
The book description felt laughable at this point. How was the author selling this as a “hike” to a casual adventurer? It was irresponsible, at best. But there I was, determined to finish the route and use it as an opportunity to dial in my breathing, footwork and focus.
Once I was through the “no fall” zone, I scrambled up the loose, slabby rocks on the main face of the mountain. Atop this ridge, it was a quick jaunt to the first peak, followed by a gentle amble to the second. There, I dropped my backpack and sent a text to Aaron that I’d made it and I would be on my way back shortly. He replied that he was back at the tram building watching me the whole way.
I worked up the nerve to return, being mindful of both the tram schedule and our dinner meetup with my friend later that evening. This adventure had taken me much longer than I’d anticipated. With focus, I descended the loose rock and regained the legitimate knife-edge ridge. I’ve often said that I can’t meditate sitting on a pillow in a room surrounded by candles, but get me on a rock climb and I can meditate there. This is exactly how I felt as I eased my body across the rocks on the ridge, choosing each step and body position deliberately. Grateful that I could pay attention only to myself and not have to worry about a partner or a team. One of many reasons why I love solo trips so much.
As I approached the end of the ridge I noticed a group of about eight twenty-somethings hanging out on a wide patch of ground, watching me move closer. I moved quickly, hoping that I would not have to pass them coming in the other direction. But, they never moved, and as far as I could see, they chose to turn back at that point. Probably a wise decision!
Aaron met me as I popped off the ridge and we walked back up to the tram together. Utah had really surprised me with its rugged routes just beyond the city limits! I had just enough of a taste that I knew I would have to return for more. I may decide to cross-reference my route choices a little better the next time, instead of relying on a single book for information. Fortunately there’s a plethora of information available, should you choose to use it.