Category Archives: Roadtrips

Cape Final

May 17-18, 2022.

4.2 mi | 400′ ele. gain | overnight

cape final

In looking for a quiet and unique experience at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I stumbled across a blog describing an overnight trip to Cape Final. It described an easy 2 mile walk out to a single backpacking site along the rim of the canyon. Sounded perfect! So, what was the catch? You had to secure a permit ahead of time to reserve the site. I dug around the NPS website to learn about reserving permits, and I learned that I missed the first possible date to send an application in by a few weeks. Undeterred, I faxed (yes, faxed) my application in and just a few days later learned that we got the site!

Fast forward to the afternoon of May 17. We had just finished the scenic drive and accumulated a few miles of hiking already. The sun was blazing hot, but this hike promised shade trees. We loaded up our overnight packs with every possibly luxury (since the pack in was so short!) and slowly began plodding up the trail.

We passed a few groups hiking out, all of whom were shocked that you could camp up there. Yes! I thought, my planning had really paid off. Cheery purple larkspur dotted the trail through the airy Ponderosa pine forest. In fact, I couldn’t even tell we were at the Grand Canyon; it was forest in every direction. After nearly 2 miles of walking, we finally got some peek-a-boo views of the canyon at the edge of the trees. The trail took a sharp right turn and soon deposited us at a little campsite marker just before the sign for Cape Final.

We quickly dropped our backpacks at the flat spot behind the sign. But Aaron noticed another flat spot tucked just behind some trees, and there it was: the ultimate campsite. We hoisted our heavy packs up once more and claimed this more private site as ours for the night.

After setting up camp, we gathered up food, beer and layers and walked out to the viewpoint. It was even more spectacular than I’d expected. We’d already seen so many incredible vistas, so I didn’t think this one would be any different. But this provided a panoramic view over deep, dramatic gorges; we could hardly figure out which one held the Colorado River just by looking out at the landscape.

I happily drank my Grand Canyon Prickly Pear Wheat Ale, accompanied by prickly pear cactus on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and we watched the setting sun paint ephemeral pictures of the cliff edges all around us. Vultures played in the thermals rising up from the warm canyon bottom as we reclined on the rocks. It was so quiet and peaceful.

And then we went into the tent to sleep. *Snort*. Those lovely thermals turned into ripping gale force winds that rattled the tent, the trees, my brain and everything else all night long. The nearly full moon blasted through the thin nylon walls like a bright headlight. And the remarkably hot air made this cold sleeper crawl out of the bag, sweating, for the duration of the night. I barely got an hour of sleep over the course of the evening. I could not wait for my alarm to go off.

I set an alarm for 50 minutes before sunrise, but it was already light by the time the alarm rang. We sprang out of bed and rushed to the viewpoint to catch the sunrise. I fumbled back to the food bag I hung last night to grab our coffee making supplies, because when else in my life would I be able to sip coffee with the sunrise at the edge of the Grand Canyon?!

Admittedly, the sunrise was not that exciting. But I couldn’t sleep anyways and the coffee tasted good. We returned to our camp where I made breakfast: dehydrated eggs, kale, turkey sausage and onions, topped with hash browns. Better than any lodge breakfast you could have asked for! We slowly packed up and then I scouted a morning watercolor spot while Aaron poked around and took more photos.

We stumbled across several other overlooks, arguably better than the official Cape Final, until I settled on my favorite one. For the next couple hours, it was just me and the birds and the ever changing light on the canyon.

cape final watercolor

To say this was a highlight of the trip is an understatement. Despite all the advance planning and anticipation (which can sometimes make a place feel *less* exciting once you finally get there), finding so much solitude and peace at Cape Final was worth the effort. I’ll catch up on sleep some other time.

See all our photos from the North Rim here.

Cape Royal Scenic Drive

May 17, 2022.

The Cape Royal Scenic Drive is an excellent way to spend the day getting acquainted with the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. We began our drive around 9 am and made a point to stop at every pullout and scenic viewpoint, 11 stops in all.

The first few stops only had an interpretive signboard to read. Several made note of the role wildfire plays in the ecosystem. Others talked about the creation of the park and other historical facts. The best stops were, of course, the ones that involved at least a little walking.

Point Imperial, the highest and most northern of the North Rim viewpoints, has a large parking area and developed viewpoint. We got out there, walked past several old Rolls Royce cars that were touring the park, and meandered over to the official overlook. The views were breathtaking. It was still early, so we were among a small handful of people who were out and about. I enjoyed having some time to soak in the views without feeling rushed to get out of anyone’s way.

Next, we stopped at Greenland Lake. More a puddle than a lake, we followed a decent trail counterclockwise until we reached an old salt shed. From there, the trail disappeared. But, determined to circumnavigate the soggy depression, we pressed on through thorny thickets made of New Mexican Locust until we returned to the main trail.

We took another short walk at Roosevelt Point, where a short scramble off the official trail led to a rock outcropping with a tremendous view. The gnarled old trees and wildflowers added some drama to what was already a pretty dramatic vista.

The next interpretive stop was Walhalla Pueblo. I downloaded the guide from the NPS app and read aloud the description of each room of the pueblo as we walked by it. Without the guide, it would be a bunch of boring lines of stone on the ground, so I was grateful to have the information on my phone to provide context to what we were looking at.

After lunch, we headed down the Cliff Spring Trail. I had low expectations for this hike, but it was just the thing to get out of the heat! A short, steep walk down through open forest led us past an old granary and then to a shady pathway leading under an overhanging rock. The walls of the rock were wet; moss and plants grew there. As we neared the spring, water began to pool at our feet. It was obvious why Native Americans used this area to escape the intense heat just a quarter mile away! I was ready to move in for good after just a short time in the sun.

We continued past the spring and the end of the official trail. The user path was nearly as good as the actual one. Anyway, the vegetation got more diverse and interesting as we walked. I recognized several plants from previous trips to the southwest: Mormon tea, buffaloberry, agave…but as the path began to deteriorate, we decided we had to call it somewhere.

Cape Royal marked the end of the road. Suddenly, it felt like we were back in a National Park. Most of the other stops, even the ones with trails, were very quiet. But here, the large parking area was bustling with people. Hikers walking right past the “No dogs” sign with their dogs. People taking Instagram selfies right on the edge of the cliffs. Large groups of people oblivious to anyone else trying to walk around them. All what you’d expect at a National Park. I grumbled to myself that the whole day had been really lovely and I could tolerate this nonsense for a half an hour.

We read all the signs along the paved paths, learning about the unique ecosystem at this very point. Apparently, warm winds blowing up from the canyon below create a microclimate in which lower elevation cactus and shrubs can thrive. I was delighted to try and spot as many cacti as I could while we tried to avoid the worst of the crowds.

I was surprised at how few guard rails there were at major viewpoints, and also at how close people walked to the edges of dizzyingly high cliffs. I’ll never forget the rule I learned in rock climbing: never get closer than a body-length away from an edge unless you’re anchored in. Clearly, this is not a universal rule. Even where guard rails existed, they were barely waist high and didn’t really make me feel much safer. I have a great respect for heights and kept my distance from the edges. Watching people’s super casual behavior here is what inspired us to buy the book about deaths in Grand Canyon.

In a single day of exploring with several easy walks to punctuate the car time, the Cape Royal Scenic Drive was an excellent way to gain an appreciation for the natural and human history of the North Rim.

Widforss Point

May 16, 2022.

9.7 mi | 1000′-ish ele. gain | 7:45 hr including watercolor time

After a chill morning getting acquainted with Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim, we set off on our first real hike. Widforss Point is located at the end of a nearly 5 mile trail, with who knows how much elevation gain. My newly updated app decided to stop tracking accurately, and online sources range from 300-1200 feet of elevation gain overall. This seemingly simple fact is hard to track down. But, after having hiked it, I can report that there is a small chunk of elevation gain but in the grand scheme of things it’s not that much.

Regardless of the stats, we loaded up with plenty of water and snacks. Aaron packed his hammock and I packed my watercolor kit for trail’s end activities. We hit the trail after 10 am, and the temperatures were already pretty hot. We walked slowly, enjoying the lovely Ponderosa pine-aspen forest as we ascended the trail. Early-spring wildflowers dotted the trail. Now, out of my home range, I had a lot of researching to do in the Arizona wildflower app (yes, this exists, it’s free and it’s an incredible resource!).

Although the trail roughly follows the edge of the canyon, there are only occasional peek-a-boo views into its depths. The Grand Canyon is indescribably BIG. So big that, from nearly every viewpoint on this trip, we could not see it’s creator: the Colorado River. It was tucked so deeply into the labyrinthine canyon walls that standing only at just the right angle and elevation would offer up a small glimpse of the water.

As a result, every time we got a peek at the canyon we were overjoyed. And, it gave us good reason to stop and catch our breath. We proceeded from one view to the next until the trail entered into the woods for the last couple miles. On our trek, we passed five groups heading in the opposite direction. The last group assured us we’d have the end point to ourselves, a wonderful side effect of starting a hike later in the day.

After one extended food and shade break, we finally walked the last stretch into the yawning panoramic view at Widforss Point. This was worth the hike in. To our left, a small grove of trees offered Aaron a spectacularly scenic hammocking spot. Straight ahead, a goat path down a few rock terraces led me to a windy point at which I could take out my paints. We went our separate ways for a couple of hours.

I found a broad, flat rock upon which I could set up a small watercoloring station. As I attempted to brush off some of the pebbles atop the rock, I discovered that they were attached. And they were marine fossils. What a wild thought, that this 8000′ cliff’s edge was one submerged in the sea.

In my kit, I found everything I needed except a pencil. Oh well, I thought, I guess I’m going straight to paint on this one! As a novice watercolor artist, it is terrifying to begin a new painting with no graphite guide rails. But, I had the time, the view and the motivation to do it so I gave it my best shot.

The wind was pretty consistently strong, with occasional big gusts. I used an elastic band and a binder clip to keep the pages from blowing around while painting. My paints picked up a lot of grit from the air. So, I guess an actual part of the Grand Canyon lies within the painting itself.

Widforss Point watercolor

After what felt like ages, I wrapped up and hustled back to Aaron. He was happily lounging in the hammock without a care in the world. I could have painted well into the evening with no complaints!

widforss point

Just as we packed up, a few people meandered out of the forest and over to the viewpoint. We said hello, then a quick goodbye, and returned down the trail. It was much cooler now. Well rested, we made good time all the way back to the car. Hungry for dinner but needing a few supplies, we busted back to the Grand Canyon store to pick up a few things before they closed.

The previous day, we’d found a secluded, dispersed campsite in the Kaibab National Forest just outside the park. We returned to our sweet little site where I made a nice chili and we ate heartily. The full moon rose through the silhouettes of trees and we clambered into the tent for an early bedtime.

South Rabbit Ear attempt

November 30, 2019.

5.8 mi. | 2600′ ele. gain | 6:30 hr.

Photo album

I’d been dreaming of visiting the Organ Mountains ever since I saw that first image of them online. I can’t remember how exactly I learned about this little range, but it was love at first sight. The Organ Mountains consist of a series of tightly packed, steep spires and peaks located near New Mexico’s southern border. The craggy highpoints rise dramatically from the flat, desert landscape below. Protected by cactus, yucca and other impossibly thorny and twisted plants, the approaches to these gorgeous peaks are notoriously heinous. While a few peaks, like Organ Needle, had a great deal of information about them online, many were cloaked in mystery. Whether they don’t see many ascents, they are only reachable by rock climbing methods or they’re just too much of a pain to get to, I couldn’t be sure. The only way to know was to go try for myself.

I chose South Rabbit Ear because it wasn’t too far (as the numbers go), looked pretty and had an interesting third class route to the summit, meaning no ropes required. We didn’t have room for technical gear in our luggage, so we were stuck to exploring only the pedestrian routes. Should I want to try for the 4th class route on Organ Needle—the range’s highpoint—later in the trip, I’d have a better idea of what to expect.

As we drove along the edge of the Organs, I craned my neck to look up at all the jagged cliffs, trying to figure out which was which. The topo map showed lots of tightly packed contour lines, with only a few peaks actually labeled. All the summits were so close together it would be impossible to identify them all. Using the scant beta that I had, I made a mental picture of where we were headed.

We stopped at a small dirt pullout near a cattle gate. “I think this is it?” I said with reluctance. My eyes settled in on our destination. Everything looked so close.

The hike began up an old mining road, now apparently the middle of a pasture. We walked among a herd of cows, past a crumbling rock cabin and to the end of the road. Now what? It was clear by then that I had misidentified our mountain, and while we were definitely on route, we were going to a different spot than I thought.

I eyeballed the canyon we needed to enter in order to make it up to the base of South Rabbit Ear and we made a beeline in that direction. Well, kind of. I was soon introduced to the plant lovingly called catclaw acacia. Imagine this: with every step you take, you’re attacked by a gaggle of cats (actually, a clowder of cats, but who knows that?). They try desperately to pull your pants off as you walk forward. Then, imagine the ground is peppered with cactus. And the sharp leaves of yucca and sotol. Did I mention the ocotillo? I didn’t have to imagine because I was there. It was incredibly slow-going and frustrating. But, I almost forgot: the ground was littered with large boulders, which we couldn’t really see until we were right on top of them, because acacia. We thrashed through this mess for a while until I heard Aaron say “hey, I think I found a trail!”

I grumpily headed in his direction, mostly because of the vegetation but also because he found the trail before I did.

Had I known there was a user trail, perhaps we would have taken some time to look for it before plunging into the unknown. In retrospect, however, the start of the trail was not located in an intuitive spot, so I think we did just as good as we could have.

The trail led us right into the canyon, where we could hear the sound of rushing water. This was not awesome, because from that point we’d need to walk up the canyon. So now we were avoiding getting our feet wet too.

We rock-hopped up the picturesque and inviting canyon. Despite the water, it was easier to scramble up the canyon because there weren’t as many pointy things to avoid. But the canyon had another obstacle to throw at us: shade. (Yes, the canyon threw shade at us).

For a moment, let’s try and feel the weather conditions that we experienced that day. The sun was up and the sky was the bluest of blue. However, it was cold. How cold? I can’t be sure. But we were bundled up, even in the sunshine. The wind blew consistently throughout the day and it got more violent the higher we climbed. It was as if the universe was telling us: JUST GO HOME.

Once in the shade, we added more layers to fight against the bitter cold.

That’s not all, folks.

“Oh shit,” I mumbled. Straight ahead of us, coating the rocky ledges, was a sheet of ice. I made a conscious decision at the trailhead to leave my Yaktrax at the car because if the conditions warranted them, I didn’t want to continue. We didn’t have our full winter complement of gear because, again, of lack of luggage space. And I knew that I didn’t want to push my abilities in a brand new area with unfamiliar obstacles. Plus, I was basically the trip leader; I had to look out for Aaron’s safety and happiness too. I did not want to drag him up into some Type 2 adventure that he would not appreciate.

We were kind of in it, though. With no traction devices for our shoes, we carefully skirted around the edge of the icy rocks. It was a good exercise in communication skills as well as routefinding. We worked together as a team to choose the best path through the myriad obstacles, helping each other find our confidence and our footing. As we bypassed one sketchy ledge after another, I could see some sunlight up ahead. There was no way we’d be able to summit this peak today, due to the conditions and the amount of sunlight we had left, so my new goal was to climb up into the sunshine and to get close to the base of the route.

Our pace slowed as we were up against the wind and our (mental and physical) fatigue. It felt like a long walk into the sun. Once we were there, we sat out of the wind and ate some snacks, rallying for the downclimb. As I rested I looked all around me; the sun was so bright and warm. Despite the challenges, I felt like I was in paradise. Icefalls trickled down the vertical cliffs to our left. Cute, little cactui poked out from the smallest rocky crevasses. Frozen water droplets clung to the thick brush at the base of the sheer walls. I was grateful to have made it this far. The summit, naturally, feels like a suitable end point. But summits are not guaranteed, and perhaps that is part of the allure of climbing.

I was a little nervous about being able to find our route down through the obstacle course, but it ended up being much easier than I thought. Once we neared the point in the canyon that connected with the use trail, we searched desperately for a cairn to get us back on track. With a little thrashing around, we located our path and took it all the way back to the mining road. Sure enough, there was a big, weird switchback right before the road that we never would have found on the way up.

Back at the car, I collapsed into the front seat and reached for more food and more warm layers. It had been a day.

Cross-O Mountain

November 25, 2019.

4.6 mi | 1400′ ele. gain | 3.5 hr.

View from the top of Cross-O Mountain

Photo album

“It’s not that far of a walk…”

After leaving White Sands, we drove into Las Cruces for our first restaurant meal after camping for over a week. Then it was on to Hatch, New Mexico to buy some chiles. Lastly, we needed a place to stay for the night. I spotted some camping opportunities in the Gila National Forest, and we headed that way. We ended up driving all the way up and over Emory Pass, watching the sun drop lower and lower in the sky. At a sign for Wright’s Cabin picnic area, we pulled over immediately. On Google Maps it was listed as a campground, but that was clearly wrong. With a lack of “no camping” signage deterring us, we took it as an invitation to spend the night.

We hastily gathered wood for a fire: the FIRST campfire we’d been allowed to have this whole trip! We wouldn’t be stuck in our tent as soon as night fell! It was really exciting.

The following morning, I scrambled to put a hike itinerary together. Since I wasn’t sure where we’d end up spending the night, I didn’t have a map or a hike planned for the morning. Before leaving home I remember searching on the internet for ideas. I remembered the name “Cross-O” and made a rough estimate of how long the hike would be. With no cell phone data to confirm, we packed up and went for it.

The wind was blowing like crazy. We zipped up, layered up and started moving. Our trail disappeared within a half mile of the trailhead, so we bushwacked a bit and picked it back up again. The area had burned in 2013, which cleared out lots of trees and made it easier for us to see through the forest. The well-graded and maintained trail made it easy for us to get within spitting distance of Cross-O.

We didn’t have to go that far off the trail, but travel was significantly more difficult without a path. Patches of snow, steep hillsides, cactus and yucca provided formidable barriers to progress. We slowly made our way upwards, hoping our summit would come into view at any moment. The wind continued ripping by, and although we were working hard we stayed nestled in all our layers. I was fglad I’d left my long johns on underneath my hiking pants.

When we reached the top of the peak, I dug around for a summit register. It was a glass peanut butter jar, with only one entry in it from this year. Despite being so close to the trail, it apparently sees few visitors. My kind of place.

I asked Aaron if he’d prefer to go back the way we came or to make a beeline straight down the slope to the trail below. Our way up was slightly longer, but more gentle, than my proposed hike down. We decided to take the “shortcut.”

This went really well for a short distance, and then we plunged into a thicket of twisted trees. In between the trees, thorny plants snagged our pants and shoelaces. It was so much type 2 fun.

We stubbornly pushed ahead, dreading the thought of slogging back up slope to go down the other ridge. Miraculously, we made it all the way back to the trail, deftly avoiding some camouflaged barbed wire that could have made for a really bad day.

After hiking off-trail, no matter what distance, it always feels amazing to travel on an actual path designed for walking. The rest of the hike was easy. We managed to follow the trail back to the car, correcting our previous error (the trail turned onto a gravel road with no signage to indicate that).

All I wanted to do at that moment was get out of the wind. But I was happy to have sneaked in a hike, tagged an off-trail highpoint and visited a new wilderness area, all before lunch.

Alkali Flat Loop

November 24, 2019.

5 mi. | 500′ ele. gain | 2 hr.

alkali flat

Photo album

We’d hiked the nature trails. We toured Lake Lucero. We spent a night on the dunes. The only thing left to do in White Sands National Monument was to hike the Alkali Flat Loop.

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.

Backcountry camping in White Sands

November 23-24, 2019.

camping white sands

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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.

Lake Lucero

November 23, 2019.

Photo album

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…

Permian Reef Trail

November 21, 2019.

6.8 mi | 2060′ ele. gain | 5:30 hr.

Photo album

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.

Carlsbad Caverns: Big Room

November 20, 2019.

1.25 miles | 2:15 hr. |minimal ele. gain

Photo album

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.


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!