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.

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