Monday, January 13, 2020

The Frijole Ranch Museum

By the time I finish lollygagging over lunch at Smith Spring things have cleared up quite a bit. As in the clouds have lifted off the mountain enough that I can actually see more than just a handful of feet in front of me, though it is still overcast which is muting the colors.

Of course the new and expanded view reminds me of how much mountain there is up there, and I swear I can hear it taunting me, ("That's right old man, I dare you to try me!")

but at the same time, by turning around and looking east I can finally get an almost-glimpse of the Permian Basin spreading out to the east. This is the area that used to be the sea along the shores of which the Capitan Reef behind me formed.

In 1921 the Permian Basin was described by Wallace Pratt (I'll come back to him many posts from now.) as a 100 mile " road-less trek" between Pecos TX and here.

Today the basin is a dry morass (Yeah, I know, since a morass is technically a swamp/bog/slough/quagmire, by definition it can't be dry, but the other, implied, definition of morass is mess/confusion/chaos/muddle, which fits so well I couldn't resist using the word.) of oil-wells, temporary impoundments, (built with tarp-covered earth-berms filled with trucked-in water used for fracking) drilling rigs, pipeline pumping stations, equipment yards, flair towers, and a complicated, unmapped web of roads and tracks over-populated with commercial vehicles of every description, all trying to get wherever it is they are heading in the shortest possible time resulting in many scary encounters and ridiculously beat up roads. So unless you work the oilfields it may be best to give the heavy traffic, potholes, (Tire shops in the remote and scattered towns are doing a booming business!) near misses, and ridiculously expensive lodging a miss for now. Give it a decade or two and things may improve.

And yes, in case you are curious, the official name of that feature out there in front of me is Nipple Hill.

Now that lunch is history I have a choice to make.

Either backtrack the way I've come, and a fine hike that would be, I know since I've already done it, or head on down the eastern leg of the Smith Spring Trail to the Frijole Ranch History Museum.

Only thing is, the museum has no set hours, instead it is posted as "open intermittently - check at the Pine Spring Visitor's Center".

Well the visitor center is farther from where I'm standing right now than the ranch, so I decide to take my chances.

Besides, there's yet another spring down-slope from here, between me and the ranch, and I want to see if it is as good as Smith Spring.

A perfect example of why you don't want to plant trees too close to a building.
This one is busy shoving the mountain out of the way!

But before I leave Smith Spring I wanted to show you this.

It's not all wind and water shaping the terrain around us. In fact, one of the oldest plants, lichens, a symbiotic combination of algae and fungi, were the first organic terraformers, releasing acids that break down underlying rock. The main reason lichens do this is to get access to minerals and nutrients locked away in those rocks but a side-effect is to decompose rock into soil.

Now that visibility has improved beyond just barely seeing the pointy-thingies before they stick me,

as I hike down towards the ranch I can look back and see what I couldn't as I approached. The swath of trees, many sporting fall colors, (Sometimes I wish I still had my film-camera since digital images don't always seem to pick up the vibrancy of the true colors. In person the fall colors were not this muted.) lining the wash as they take advantage of Smith Spring is quite evident when you can actually see it. As are the imposing ramparts there above the spring.

Unlike the trail above this point, the couple tenths of a mile from the Frijole Ranch parking-lot to Manzanita  Spring is paved, more or less anyway, making it accessible for many of the mobility challenged,

Look close at the lower center and you can catch a glimpse of the pond that is Manzanita Spring.
And yes, that's El Captitan looming out there on the horizon. First time I've gotten a good view of it since catching that scary and humbling glimpse as I drove up from the south three days ago.

but honestly, after chilling out in the glory of Smith Spring, Manzanita is a visual disappointment. I probably should have hiked this loop the other way around to get to Manzanita first, before my senses were spoiled by Smith.

Frijole Spring doesn't show up on many maps anymore but it is right next to the ranch house and now has a spring-house over top of it.

Although, apparently Manzanita made for

a great swimming hole in its day.

The spring-house is in the foreground here,  the main house behind that, (The unimposing entry door to the house/museum is the green door on the left side almost hidden by the tree and leads into the kitchen) and the schoolhouse to the left. The bunk-house is behind the left-rear corner of the main house.

By pure luck the ranch museum is staffed by a volunteer and open when I get there,

so I'm able to get my hands on the very helpful and interesting printed brochure from which the above two images were taken.

Even if the museum had been closed the grounds are interesting in their own right, though it probably would have been safer to ask for the brochure at the visitor center in case the volunteer wasn't at the ranch, but I didn't know it, the brochure, existed when I was in the visitor center a few days ago.

The ranch started out as a two room building built of double-walled native stone with mud packed between them

built in 1876 by a couple of brothers that never did file on the land and soon moved on into the obscurity of history.

In the very early 1900s the Smith family filed on the land, expanded the house, including the stone-walled kitchen there on the back under the green shed-roof,

added the separate bunkhouse, (the white building in the previous photo) and

built the red schoolhouse just a few steps from the back corner of the house.

Smith was a bit of an inventor and engineer and set up a carbide generator (a larger version of what the old miners used on their helmets) to provide acetylene-gas to lamps in the house, built a ram-pump to pump water into a raised tank which provided running water in the house,

and used a wind-generator set up near the corner of the bunkhouse to charge this glass-jar battery which powered a radio.

The house even served as the area's post office from 1916 to 1941 with mail coming down from Carlsbad three times a week, which got easier to do once US-62/180, laid out in the late 20's, was finally paved in the late 30's.

Eventually the Smiths sold up and moved on. In 1942 Noel Kincaid, born and raised in what is now the Dog Canyon area of the NP, became the ranch foreman and moved in with his family and stayed there until 1970.

I have to admit, I'm a little jealous when looking at this photo.

While I was being raised on the edge of suburbia with two siblings, these three kids were growing up on the edge of the wilderness. . . How cool would that have been! (Guffaw all you want. I still think, even at my age when I should be happily embracing the modern comforts, that outhouses and composting are a far superior way to deal with our waste than flush toilets, that heating domestic water on a stove is perfectly acceptable, and carefully managing off-grid electrical power ensures resource-mindfulness which generates good karma.)

OK, I'm not sure boys ever needed a book on how to pull tricks. . .
 I'm fortunate to have stumbled across the ranch when it is open.

The displays and information inside the house are very interesting, but eventually the number of people trying to occupy this small space (Remember, this house was built long before we developed this insatiable need for bedrooms large enough to hold square dances in and living-rooms the size of bowling alleys.) drives me back out the door.

But never mind, it's probably time to head back to the campground, which is still about 4 miles away, anyway

I have the choice to return via the Frijole Trail, back-tracking the way I came this morning, or dropping further south and returning via the Foothills Trail.

I choose the Foothills Trail but frankly it is far less interesting down here on the flats than up against the base of the mountains on the Frijole Trail. It was like walking through a pasture, a rough and cactiky pasture, but a pasture. Nice, but that terrain up there on the other trail is even nicer.

Next time I'll know better.

By the time I get back to The Van the sun is sinking and for the first time since I got here I have a clear view of Hunter's Peak looming colorfully up there above the campground. (This is the view out The Van's side door.)

That's all for me today as the sun sinks with a promise of clear weather to come.

Tomorrow, the mountains!

(I just hope they don't kick my ass too bad. . .)

Monday, January 6, 2020

A Foggy Hike to Smith Spring

The sun is well up, but once again the Guadalupe Mountains are snugly cuddling the clouds and it appears they intend to keep this carnal interplay up for a while, so it's another rain-jacket and Tilley hat day. (And gloves! At a damp 45 degrees it's kinda chilly, even after oatmeal!)

After yesterday's hike I'm overly pretty optimistic about my ability to handle the elevation, feeling like I am doing much better here than when I first went up to about the same elevation in the Sacramento Mountains two years ago, but I'm not in any real rush to climb mountains only to have the views obscured, (At last that's the excuse I came up with to mollify the guilt-demons in my head.) so today's hike will remain at lower elevations as I go check out what Smith Spring is all about instead.

 As the trail-guide says, by leaving from the Frijole Ranch trailhead this can be a pretty mild 2 - 2.5 mile hike, but that requires breaking camp and driving a mile and a half, not even enough to warm up The Van properly, and a move that is sure to set the guilt-demons to screaming at me, so, by setting out on foot from the campground instead

and stringing a bit of the Tajas trail, some of the Foothills trail, all of the Frijole trail, and finally the Smith Spring Trail together it turns into more like an 8 mile round-trip. (Which includes a stop at the Frijole Ranch, the focus of the next post.)

The elevation of my route today runs from a low of 5700' to a high of 6200', a relatively mild 500',

but that turned out to be some rather optimistic thinking as the hike is across the face of the Capitan Reef Escarpment so there is a significant amount of up and downing within that 500' window as I cross the numerous washes radiating out from the escarpment.

As I gain and lose portions of that 500' difference in elevation over and over again I tell myself it's a decent workout, one that will help prepare me for the more rarefied heights I'll be facing in the days to come. Of course my heaving lungs and burning legs are sending slightly less forward-looking messages.

Once again the limited visibility keeps my focus on the close-up and personal

as I push my way through the muted depths of the belly of the cloud. It's not really raining in general, but water is constantly collecting on my Tilley hat and dripping off the brim in a slow, personalized rain as I go.

Turns out I'm not the only one out and about this morning

as ghost trees briefly creep out of the mist before fading back to obscurity again,

and house-sized boulders lunge out of nowhere, only to quickly creep back into the oblivion of the drifting cloud.

It's a strange juxtaposition of feelings, hiking through this truncated world. On the one hand it's kind of cozy and comforting to be softly wrapped in a small cocoon all my own. On the other hand, with the view so limited things keep looming up unexpectedly, which is keeping my danger-radar on high alert.

About 2 miles out I come to the intersection of Frijole and Bear Canyon trails.

I don't know it right now, but I will be back to Bear Canyon in a few days, but that's a whole different story.

Today I take the right and stay on Frijole.

Not too much later I come across this chunk of the fossilized remains that make up the Capitan Reef.

In case it isn't clear, those are my glove-encased fingertips there on the left providing some scale.

Unlike the far more common coral reefs I am familiar with through Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough, Capitan Reef is made up of the remains of algae.

Yes, that stuff that turns your aquarium green, but not all algae are single-celled. In fact the Giant Kelp, which can grow to 120' tall at a rate of up to 5' per day, is an algae.

Clearly these are not what's left of giants like that, but structures up to an inch or two long are visible here.

Another trail intersection emerges from the mist and I leave the Frijole behind, taking the next, and final, trail in the chain towards my Smith Spring destination.

It isn't long before a temporary hole in the mist gives me a lush hint of what I'm heading for.

A little more scrambling up this canyon,

and just like that I find myself in the micro-world of Smith Spring.

An oasis standing in startling contrast to the surrounding desert.

And as an extra gift, I got here just in time for things to start to brighten up

in this little corner of the world.

And since, despite being the Friday of a holiday weekend and little more than a mile from the Frijole Ranch parking-lot, I have the place all to myself,

this seems like an excellent spot to stop for a leisurely lunch serenaded by leaves stirred by a gentle breeze and the rare sound, for these parts, of running water.

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Guadalupe's Devil's Hall Trail

OK, I woke up this morning so apparently the mountain didn't kill me yet. Must be time for more hiking!

One thing a hiker should never be without, even in a familiar area, is a trail map. And here in Guadalupe, in addition to the fold-out map that fits nicely into the handy thigh-pocket of cargo pants, (This map is also available in PDF from the web site which can be downloaded onto a smartphone and tucked into a pocket as a backup.) they have also produced a flyer of suggested day hikes.

And after some careful perusing last night while I was optimistic about my chances of surviving until morning I picked out the Devil's Hall for my next hike in these mountains.

It's main attraction, here on only my second day at this elevation, is it's moderate rating, primarily because of an elevation gain/loss of only 600'. (Of course even that equates to climbing up then back down the stairs of a 50 story building.)

Although I'm not sure just who it is that determines length and time for these hikes!

First off, you have to be practically running to complete 4 miles of trail in 2.5 hours, at least by my standard average of 1 MPH or less when hiking. I mean for crying-out-loud, I'm not out here to rack up my step-count, I'm here to experience the place, and that takes time! (Yep, go ahead. You can say it -- I'm slow.)

Secondly, my GPS track invariably comes out to be longer than the stated distance. In this case,  even though I just barely poked my nose into the actual Devil's Hall portion of the trail, my round-trip distance was just shy of 5 miles.

Which is about normal for me. If a trail is listed as 8 miles long, somehow I usually come in on the high side of 9 miles.

Yesterday the mountains were just doing some heavy flirting with the clouds, a little playful give and take.

This morning the mountains are firmly inserted deep into the belly of the cloud.

No mater.

Donning rain-jacket and Tilley hat once again, and making sure my GPS is locked on and tracking, I set off anyway.

Yes, the clouds are obscuring the view of the mountains I know are lurking there above me, but it's also kind of nice to be forced to pay attention to the near and up-close as murky shapes materialize ahead at a walking pace.

This is a day of appreciating the small details, such as the contrast in shape and color of these two wildly different cacti.

And just look at how the needles of that Cholla on the left shine even in this diffused light.

 As I climb up into the protection of the canyon trees start to appear, but it's clear that life up here is not easy.

It also quickly becomes apparent that my timing, though inadvertent and purely accidental, 

is just right for catching the maples up here in full color. (In another bit of calendar unawareness I also didn't realize when I left on this trip that a holiday weekend [Veterans Day] was screaming towards me like a freight train - but I survived.)

Did you know that the yellows and oranges of fall were in the leaves all year, just hidden by the chlorophyll, but that the reds come from anthocyanins, the same stuff that makes blue-berries blue, which are produced by the tree right at the end of the growing season, probably to act as a sun-screen to protect the leaves during the tree's last ditch attempt to extract all the sugars from the leaves that it can?  Which is why dry, sunny years are best for red fall colors.

Sorry, there's that botany course I've been taking kicking in again. It's not imperative that I know stuff like this, but it sure is interesting.

Initially I was following a traditional trail, but about halfway to Devil's Hall the Guadalupe Peak Horse Trail abruptly cuts off to the left and up

while the Devil's Hall trail continues on by devolving into the wash at the bottom of the canyon.

By definition, the bottom of a wash is a highly changeable place and sometimes the way forward was more trial and error than - well - trail. (There's a reason most established trails cling to the sides of canyons rather than follow the bottoms!)

By now the clouds seemed inclined to ease their grip on the mountain just a little and I was getting the occasional ghostly preview of what was ahead.

Then the rock abruptly changed from rounded, calcified sandstone to dark, compressed slate-like layers.

And just like that I was at the Hiker's Staircase which marks the beginning of Devil's Hall.

By the way, this feature, half again higher than I am tall, isn't quite as stair-like as the photo implies.

Climbing up the wet, narrow series of ledges wasn't too bad. I let both my hiking-sticks dangle from their straps and all-fours-ed my way up. But coming down was a whole 'nother issue. A whole 'nother scary kind of issue considering how steep the drop and narrow and slickery-wet the ledges were. And that's not nice soft cotton-candy down there at the base!

But after coming this far, and still breathing - sort of - (Dang! I wish I lived at a higher elevation!)  I was determined to at least stick my nose into the Devil's Hall to see what it was about.

After climbing that initial obstacle this is what I was faced with. But scary as it looks, it turned out to be fairly easy to negotiate that ledge over there on the right.

And a couple hundred yards above the Stairs I found a more amenable ledge

tailor made for lunch.

From here I spent a wonderful hour just watching ghostly images of my surroundings appear and disappear as un-felt breezes nudged the clouds this way and that,

as I snapped photo after photo while I put off climbing back down those "stairs" at the entrance to the hall. . .