Crater Lake Ski Circumnavigation

March 20-22, 2020.

32 miles | 4300′ ele. gain | 3 days

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Two years ago, my friend Dave messaged me to ask if I’d be interested in skiing the loop around Crater Lake that winter.

“I’m not a skier,” I bluntly replied.

But the idea weighed heavily on my brain and before long, I had convinced myself to get back on skis for the first time in a decade and learn how to cross country ski. I knew this much about the route: it was about 33 miles around the lake following the rim road. Talking to people who have biked the rim, I knew it felt like it was all uphill. There were a few avalanche detours that we might have to take due to snow conditions at the time. While it can be skied in a day, most people take 3. That’s basically all there was to it.

I did some research prior to embarking on this trip. I read a handful of trip reports that basically had the same message: everything will hurt, lots of things will go wrong, this is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, it will destroy you. One after another, seemingly confirming how much of a grueling assault skiing around Crater Lake could be. I just knew it didn’t have to be a sufferfest. I didn’t want it to be. So I thought about what physical skills and conditioning I’d need, what gear I’d have to bring and what knowledge would be essential. I made a plan not only to complete this circumnavigation but to do it well.

After a couple months of training… going for longer distances, covering varied terrain, learning how to ski on different types of snow, managing up and downhills…I fell and badly injured my hip. My trip was set back an entire year.

Then, on our planned weekend adventure in 2020, a storm blew in. We stayed home. The following week, the Coronavirus slowly started shutting things down. But the weather forecast was phenomenal. If the park would stay open for just a few more days, we would go.

And we did.

Day 1

Our team of 4 arrived at the South Entrance of Crater Lake around 8:30 am, where we acquired a backcountry camping permit and readied ourselves for the 3 day trip. We drove up to the rim, where Beverly and I dropped LeeAnn and Dave off with all the gear before driving back down to leave our cars in the overnight lot. We then ate some doughnuts to fuel up for the trek up the Raven trail to get to the “start” of the route.

We strapped on our skis and started making our way up the trail. It was very packed down and icy from the hundreds of skiers, walkers and snowshoers who had used the trail before us. Soon it became obvious that it would be faster and easier to take our skis off and walk. A mile and a half later, we met our two friends at the rim and prepared to take off into the backcountry. It was 11:30 am.

crater lake ski

It was later than we anticipated, but with cloudless blue skies overhead and the warmth radiating down from the sun, we were amped up for this adventure. Within the first 5 minutes, we all had to take our skis off once and the team had at least 2 crashes, but then we began to settle into a groove and make progress along the West Rim Road.

Our only goal for the day was to travel at least 10 miles before setting up camp. We skied around the Watchman, cautiously negotiating the avalanche-prone slopes along its northern aspect, and enjoyed the immense relief and quiet the snowy road brought to our lives. For days, it had been a 24-hour onslaught of media about how the world was going to hell in a handbasket, and it felt good to shift focus to the ground beneath my feet. There was no internet access here.

The road traveled north and then east, rolling up and down a vast, snow-covered landscape with views for miles. To our right was, of course, the lake. To the left was a meadow-studded forest blanketed in shimmering white.

Photo by LeeAnn O’Neill

I loved noticing the changes as we skied clockwise around the lake. How the snow texture changed by the minute. How the reflections in the lake changed. How the surrounding landscape changed. Every stretch of road had a new story to tell.

Each of us skied at our own pace and we stopped to re-group occasionally along the way. In the afternoon, Dave decided that his pace was not going to allow him to complete the circuit in time and he preferred to turn back. The three remaining team members would go on together. We made sure he had all of his own gear to camp solo and made a plan to meet Sunday after noon. Knowing Dave’s excellent winter camping skills, I felt comfortable leaving him on his own. LeeAnn, Beverly and I continued skiing and soon began scouting possible camp locations.

And then, we found it. This was the spot.

Backcountry camping rules are specific in Crater Lake National Park: camp no closer than 100 feet from the edge of the rim and out of sight of the road. We located a flat spot in a grove of trees for our tents, but a quick walk out of the trees led to a stunning, panoramic view of the lake. The rock wall on the road’s edge was melted out enough to provide us with a seating area and kitchen. It was one of the most incredible camp spots I’ve ever had the privilege to enjoy.

That evening, we made dinner, ate pie, told stories and watched the sunset over the lake. The air was cool but not cold. There was not a hint of wind. It was pure bliss. As it grew dark, we retreated to our tents for journaling, crossword puzzles and podcasts before falling asleep in paradise.

Day 2

We woke up with the sun and lazily rolled out of our tents to make breakfast and melt snow. I enjoyed some pre-cooked bacon, hot coffee and oatmeal. We were in no rush to get started, since we wanted the snow to soften a bit before we hit the road again.

By the time we packed up tents and geared up to ski, it was 9:30, sunny and gorgeous. Snow conditions were perfect. We skied off into the unknown.

In some areas, the snow had completely drifted/melted off the road so that there was no choice but to extract ourselves from our skis and trudge across the pavement on foot. These sections almost always coincided with delicious views of the lake, so it really wasn’t that bad.

All year long I had worked on developing a suite of skills that I hoped would help me feel competent on this trip. I knew my biggest challenge would be gaining confidence in the downhills, so I worked on this a bunch. Now, it was coming in really handy. I negotiated all the lumps and bumps on the road with grace, even carrying a heavy, winter, overnight backpack! My friends used a bit more caution and chose to walk across several of the steeper, bumpier segments, but I pushed myself to tackle them on my skis. And it was fun.

Soon, the downhill play came to an abrupt end as we began a long, slow ascent up to the pass between Cloudcap and Mt. Scott. Along the way we encountered a couple heading the other direction, two of just a handful of people we’d see on the entire trip. Social distancing for the win.

The climb was endless, or so it seemed. As the views of Mt. Scott got better and better, the terrain flattened out and became nearly barren of trees. We plopped our packs down for a well-deserved lunch break, our second one of the day.

Our uphill slog rewarded us with a few long downhill sections and shortly we found ourselves at the junction with Dutton Cliffs avalanche bypass. The ranger specifically mentioned taking this bypass at this time, so we turned off the main route and did a mile-long downhill run on a shady, icy forest road to a sign for the off-road component of the bypass.

What followed was the absolute lowest point of the trip.

There was one skier in front of us with an alpine touring set-up: downhill skis with skins for the uphill. All of us had backcountry skis with metal edges and scales, but no skins. We attempted to follow his tracks up the steep, slushy snow but did not have much success. We then did a combination of side-stepping and making large switchbacks to ascend the ridiculously steep slope (it was listed as black diamond/difficult on the map). My friends passed me by, as their skis stuck to the skin tracks while mine slid quickly behind me every time I tried to take a step. It was infuriating. Halfway up the trail, I completely broke down. I was having some flashbacks from the time I tore my ACL; I was first learning how to ski ten years ago, lost my balance in wet, heavy snow while standing almost perfectly still, and snap! These conditions were eerily similar. Plus, I had a ton of weight on my back, was fatigued from a day of skiing and was getting very frustrated with myself. I burst into tears.

After a few minutes I picked myself back up and continued up the hill. This pattern repeated a few more times, including one time I took my skis off and tried to bootpack up the hill; the snow was too deep and too soft to get anywhere. I was completely drained.

Somehow I managed to find a way back to the road, where LeeAnn and Beverly were cheerily munching on some snacks while sitting on their packs.

I believe my exact words were, “I’m not taking off my fucking pack until we get to camp,” and I rage-skied up the road away from them.

We had a rough plan for where to camp that night, based on the limited information we could gather from the topo map. As I climbed up the road I dreaded how much further I would have to go to reach that spot, so I began looking around for alternatives. Soon enough, the forest gave way to open meadows studded with patches of trees. I looked over at one particular tree clump, turned my head to face LeeAnn, and we both agreed: that was the one.

We skied back past that first cluster of trees to the next, and we found our spot. It was flat, shielded from view and overlooking a rolling snowfield that cascaded far off in the distance. I dropped my pack and stood in silence for a while, changed into dry clothes and helped set up camp. Once my temper simmered down I took a big breath of relief and felt a wave of gratitude overcome me. Yes, I will have that sip of brandy now.

We laid out our foam pads on the snow as we ate dinner and watched the only cloud in the sky settle right in front of the sun. It was colder, with an ever-so-slight breeze, so we hit the tents a little earlier. I crashed headlong into sleep.

Day 3

Arising a little earlier, I sat with LeeAnn to watch the sun rise over the flatlands far below us. The air warmed from 15 degrees to 55 degrees in what felt like a half hour’s time. Layers kept coming off during breakfast. I checked our mileage: we had about 7 miles to go, by my estimate. And after a short climb, most of it should be downhill. Easy peasy! I couldn’t wait.

We began our ski at the same time as the day before, but the snow surface was much icier today. My skies edged nicely on the crust; my friends opted instead to carry their skis back up to the road. Once on the road, I began my morning meditation. Only the sounds of snow sliding beneath me and rhythmic exhales filled my ears. As I reached the top of the hill I paused to let the group come back together. Then, it was (mostly) all downhill.

Much of the terrain was steeper, narrower, bumpier and icier than the road we’d skied so far. Again, I was glad I’d practiced so much downhill and brought my heavy-ass tele skis for this trip. They were slow-going on the uphills but they sang on the downhills. I went ahead and scouted all the bumps and turns, giving the others feedback on whether they should ski or walk. There were a few short, steep bumps that nearly knocked me over but I stayed on my feet, grinning and whooping the whole way.

The sketchiest descent on day three took us through a road cut that was littered with recent rock-fall. I looked ahead and yelled “ROCKS!” “BIG ROCKS” to my pals, who wisely decided to walk that section. I took it as a challenge to do some slow motion slalom skiing. I didn’t stop until I reached the other end. What made it more butt-clenching was the fact that the road dropped off into nothingness on the other side. There was no room for error.

All the downhills after that point were just pure enjoyment. I cruised one looooooong section after another, my thighs quivering for holding the longest chair poses I’d ever done. Any flat spot or brief uphill segment offered an opportunity for my other muscles to pitch in and do some work.

After the longest downhill I stopped for one last pie break. I had carried the damn thing all weekend, so I might as well enjoy it, I thought. It gave me one final burst of energy to get back to the parking lot.

And just like that, it was all over. The trip of a lifetime was complete. I’d achieved what felt like a real stretch goal, something I hadn’t thought I’d be able to do. As we skied along the entrance road to find a place to drop down and return to the car, we waved to Dave, who was happily driving back into the park to meet us. The timing was impeccable.

Photo by Dave Fritz

We arrived back in Bend Sunday afternoon. Just two days later, Crater Lake National Park reported that they were going to shut down access completely. We’d slipped in and out just in time. I’m so glad we were able to put this trip together and now I’ll be content finding ways to have mini-adventures in my neighborhood streets, parks and trails while the country figures out how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. This gives me lots of time to dream up another grand adventure…

South Rabbit Ear attempt

November 30, 2019.

5.8 mi. | 2600′ ele. gain | 6:30 hr.

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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.

Basecamp adventures: Truth or Consequences

November 26, 2019

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I had plotted an escape to civilization about halfway through our road trip so we could shower, relax and sleep in a real bed. Upon seeing the unusual town name on the New Mexico map, I became curious and began researching the meaning behind it.

The town had previously been named Hot Springs, due to its wealth of bubbly hot pools in the area. But in 1950, a popular radio show called Truth or Consequences reached out to its audience, pledging to broadcast its 10th anniversary show in whatever town re-named itself after the program. And so, this sleepy little town came alive with a huge Fiesta and parade with a simple name change. Only in America.

To be honest, the place felt pretty run down and desolate. We had a lovely AirBnB rental with a hot tub in the backyard, and that’s all that really mattered to us. A couple nights here would recharge us for the remainder of the trip.

Caballo Cone

Also known as Turtleback Mountain, Caballo Cone was the local hiking destination. Its long, rolling ridgeline stretched for miles along the edge of town. Although there was no official trailhead or trail, there was a pretty legit user path and specific parking directions were easy to find online. No one was there when we arrived, and it appeared to be on public land, so we gave it a go.

As we’d come to expect from our previous adventures, it was cold and windy right from the get go. We bundled up and started hiking quickly, if only to stay warm in the shadow of the mountain. I could see a pointy bit off in the distance, but I knew it was just one of many false summits before we’d reach the top.

The wind was blowing so hard that the ocotillo on the sides of the trail were making me feel nervous. If the wind pushed me off balance, I’d plow right into one of those things, only to be impaled by hundreds of thorns. I worked hard to stay in control of my gait and leaned heavily on my poles.

The trail wove between sun and shade as it made its way up to the ridge. When the wind blew and it was shaded, I felt the cold go right through my body. When I caught a break in the wind and stood in the sunshine, I felt like I could melt. Temperature regulation was impossible; I was a little grumpy.

On the ridge we were faced with seemingly endless rolling terrain until we reached the top. There were some narrow, rocky spines that would have been fun to walk on in calmer weather. We dipped from one side of the ridge to the other, following the path of least resistance.

Once we reached the summit, I signed us in at the register box and we ducked out of the wind to eat some food. It was only 2.3 miles to get there, but we’d done a fair amount of climbing. I couldn’t wait to get back down, get in the car and strip some layers off. New Mexico was pushing my wind tolerance.


With that hike done, we still had most of the day to get out and explore. I was hopeful for some kind of indoor activity and remembered a recommendation that one of the shopkeepers in Truth or Consequences had suggested: the ghost town of Chloride.

We drove for about an hour and pulled into a small parking lot across the street from the Pioneer Store Museum. There was a little park next door with picnic tables and a restroom, so we set up at a table to have lunch. It was still cold and windy; I waited impatiently for water to boil for my lunch.

After getting some calories down, we walked over to the museum, where a sign directed us to the adjacent store. Apparently we’d need a guide to lead us through the museum. We waited, wandering around the store looking at all the trinkets, while the old man made his way to the store. As it turned out, he was the guy who purchased the old store and several other buildings in the dying town. He made it his mission to preserve the history that was hidden inside the old and decrepit structures. This man was full of knowledge of and, obviously, passion for sharing the stories of the people who used to live there. Once he started talking, he hardly stopped to take a breath,

As we stepped inside, the man’s words faded into the background as I was awestruck at what was in front of me. It was a cute little shop, with every horizontal surface covered with relics from the past. On one side, shelves full of groceries and glassware. On the other, tools, books and clothing. The walls were also covered with paraphernalia for a time long gone. In addition, there were displays of old newspapers, advertisements and letters. I almost wasn’t sure where to look!

Our tour guide told story after story with delight. I’m sure he reveled in having a captive audience. This was easily the highlight of my day.

We departed Chloride and headed back towards our rental, making one more stop at the Geronimo Springs Museum. There, we learned much more about the history of the area. Exhibits spanned from dinosaur bones to Native American history to cowboy culture to mohair goat ranching and, of course, the story of how Truth or Consquences came to be.

Back at the rental, I lamented over the weather forecast. It was only going to get worse. Inches of rain were projected to fall in the next couple days, accompanied by more chilly temperatures and treacherous conditions in the backcountry. I searched fruitlessly for hours in every direction to find a place of respite. The whole American west was being slammed by this storm system.

I booked an AirBnB for the next three nights in Silver City, a place I’d never heard of before. What’s a roadtrip without a big change of plans, anyways?

Cross-O Mountain

November 25, 2019.

4.6 mi | 1400′ ele. gain | 3.5 hr.

View from the top of Cross-O Mountain

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“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

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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.

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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…

White Sands short trails

November 22, 2019.

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We arrived at White Sands National Monument in the late afternoon, without much time to spend on the trails. We wandered around the Visitor’s Center to learn a bit about the park and then planned on hiking all four short nature trails, a total of just under 2 miles, before sunset.

One of the first things I noticed about White Sands was that the dunes…just weren’t that white. It was pretty, to be sure, but the gleaming white expanses that I’d seen in pictures on the Internet felt like false advertising. Ah, the wonders of marketing and Photoshop. I guess “Small Sand Dunes National Monument” just didn’t have the same ring to it.

The dunes were small, compared to other places we’d seen. Nonetheless, we were intent on exploring and finding what made this place special.

Following colored posts in the dunes, we walked each of the trails in relative quiet. We tried to block out the people ignoring the posted signs and the one idiot who was flying a drone. This kind of behavior is par for the course at National Park sites.

Instead I looked up at the dreamy clouds. At the solitary cottonwood trees somehow growing tall among the endless dunes. At the animal tracks weaving across the sand. And I fought the cold beneath my feet. I mean, I couldn’t hike on sand dunes in my SHOES. That’s blasphemy. But the air and the ground were pretty cold; I suffered in silence.

Sunset was beautiful. We stood on the boardwalk overlooking the sand-colored sand dunes, watching the sky turn purple, pink, orange.

Our visit to White Sands was brief, but we had plans for the next two days. I had tickets to a ranger-led tour of Lake Lucero, the source of the dunes, on November 23. Then, we’d camp on the dunes that night and do a longer hike the following day. While I was underwhelmed on this first excursion, I hoped that a more immersive experience would help me appreciate this site more.

Since the campgrounds I had hoped to camp in were just recently covered in snow (!) we made a last-minute decision to splurge on a hotel room with a jacuzzi to clean up before our stay in White Sands. I stuck to my meal plan, however, and whipped up a stir-fry in the bathroom (can’t set the tiles on fire) and we had a wonderfully relaxing evening.

Permian Reef Trail

November 21, 2019.

6.8 mi | 2060′ ele. gain | 5:30 hr.

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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

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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!