Monday, May 15, 2017

How Not to Fall off Sitting Bull Falls

Tucked in there behind Capital Reef is the southernmost ranger district of the Lincoln National Forest, the Guadalupe unit.

It anchors itself on the back side of both Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks to the south and coma's some 42 miles up towards the north-northwest from there.

This is a remote piece of ground!

An escarpment, the Guadalupe Rim, as tall Capital Reef to the south, protects the western boundary of the NF, a few county roads poke around the edges of the northern end, one state road penetrates from the east and there are no, as in zero, US highways anywhere near this unit of the NF.

The state road, SR 137, or Queens Highway, named not for a monarch but for the sort-of-community of Queen, population around 50 - services iffy, that it passes through, is the only road that breaches the Guadalupe Rim on the western side of the NF, spilling over the edge there at Sixshooter Canyon on its way down through El Paso Gap to where the road abruptly ends at the New Mexico/Texas border and turns into a NP road for the short run into the otherwise isolated Guadalupe Mountain NP Dog Canyon campground. (9 tent and 4 RV sites, No hookups, no showers, no dump.)

Queens Highway, other than being long and lonely, is a decent road, though this is open range out here and some of the lushest grass can be found alongside the road where runoff keeps the ground slightly wetter than the rest of the area so you have to be careful because, as bad as hitting a squirrel is, hitting one of these will totally ruin your day!!

I've found that a good way to get a feel for a place I've never been before is to head to the visitor center, of which there are none out here. So second best is to head for a popular spot because I know I can not only get there without too much nail-biting, but probably pick up some more information about the area in the process.

One of the most visited sites in this part of the Lincoln National Forest is Sitting Bull Falls so that's where I headed. (Dog Canyon down there in Guadalupe NP was tempting but required even more commitment to get to so I decided to save it for another time.)

About 23 miles from where Queens Highway turns off of US 285, (Itself a lonely spot miles north of Carlsbad.) I came to CR 409. A right turn and 4 miles later on this paved road I entered the NF. 3.5 more miles, still on paved road, and I came to the Sitting Bull Falls day-use area parking lot.

This is a self-pay fee area so I whipped out my Geezer card and copied the number onto my pay envelope. Unlike my Texas State Parks pass with its 16 digit number, my geezer card number is only 9 digits long, less than a telephone number, so it's not so bad writing it down.

The picnic shelters are rather palatial and there are flush toilets and even volunteer hosts available here, and pretty much all the walkways in the vicinity of the parking lot are paved,

The falls are that white slash just visible on the far right

including the short trail out to the base of the falls. Perfect for when my body devolves to a walker or wheel-chair situation

Looking down the paved 'trail' from the falls viewing area back towards the picnic area which is just around the corner there.

The falls are about 150 feet high and it's an easy scramble from the paved 'trail' down to the pools at the base of the falls.

But don't be fooled by this bucolic scene. In April 2011 the Last Chance Fire swept through and really dinged thing up, so much so that it took a year to repair the damage and open the area back up again. Then in 2013 and again in 2014 a flood tore the place up all over again. The current trail out to the falls has only been there since the area reopened yet again in 2015 but there's no reason to expect that it too won't succumb to the natural forces of Mother Nature sometime in the near future.

If the short paved stroll out to the base of the falls is disappointingly easy, not to worry, there's some other trails in the area that are a bit more challenging.

Unfortunately the USDA chooses to operate all the National Forest Ranger District Headquarters, your source of maps and information, on a banker's 9 to 5 schedule so if you happen to be around the area on a weekend, like most National Forest visitors are, tough shit!

(On top of that, if you poke around the official NF web sites you will find two different Carlsbad addresses listed for the Guadalupe District Headquarters and I don't know which one is correct.)

In this case there was a rudimentary trail map posted near the parking area that I could take a photo of for reference, of sorts, but most of the time

these cryptically numbered trail markers found at trailheads and some trail intersections are all you are going to get.

In this case T68A is an alternate or branch of T68, the Sitting Bull Falls Trail, that skirts the upper end of the falls. When you start from the picnic area T68A is a shortcut rather than going down below the parking lot and then climbing up the backside of the bluff the falls spill over,

Here I'm on T68A, The first little bit of T68 can just barely be seen snaking up the slope down there at the top center.

but that just means it has to gain the same altitude in less distance!

Photographs have the habit of flatting a scene and editing out the drama, but you see that person sitting in the notch right of center? That notch is where the falls drop off the bluff and - well, fall - for 150 feet. As I took this photo I was shaking my head at the foolhardiness of some people, but that was going to come back and bite me in the ass later.

From a different angle, (The previous notch is hidden around there behind the outcropping to the right of red-shirt.) these people in the lower center are playing in some pools just above the falls that must really be refreshing, if not a little scary, on a summer day.

But if I turned and faced the other way, up the canyon, this was the view and it's every bit as refreshing as the previous but without the knee-knocking drama.

5 foot high falls; not scary at all!

Small pools, so relaxing!

At one point as I hiked up the canyon above the falls I bushwacked down a rocky mini-draw to creek-side because I was drawn to this fire-de-barked tree and wanted a photo that showed some of the damage of the 2013 fire, as well as how quickly the land recovers from the natural event of a fire, all showcased against the backdrop of blue sky (Of course our protracted efforts at quashing natural fires over the years has allowed dense under-stories to grow up which makes modern fires burn hotter and more destructively.)

I hadn't been down by the water for more than 60 seconds when a group of three, ill-prepared for any serious hiking in bare heads, shorts and tennis-shoes with no socks, came crashing down behind me. They had seen me go over the edge and I suppose were desperately afraid they were going to miss something. When they saw I wasn't doing anything particularly interesting they proceeded to trample all over the fragile habitat, walking right up the creek jumping from bank to soft bank just for the hell of it.

But it was a beautiful spring day so I put the stupid/uninformed/callous/ignorant (Pick your adjective of choice) out of mind and retraced my steps,

returning to the less sensitive hard-pan of the trail and going on my way. 

In the lower reaches of the canyon the trail is easy hiking as you can see by the stone and concrete ledge spanning this bit of slick-rock, but the farther the less the less traveled and defined, and refined, the trail became.

I was limited in how far I could actually go by the fact that the day-use area closes at 5 PM, as in a gate is pulled across the road and locked.

When I left the parking area I set the timer on my phone (In airplane mode since there is absolutely no signal out here and searching for one sucks the crap out of the battery.) for one half the time remaining to closing minus a half hour for contingencies.  When the timer went off, ready or not, I turned around and headed back.

I made good time on the way back so when I got to the area above the falls I had some extra time to poke around.

It didn't take long to discover this cornucopia of fossilized sea-life standing out conspicuously against the smooth limestone surrounding it.

That discovery, and the promise of more, lured me on to further exploration.

Well - remember back when I shook my head at the foolishness of those people hanging around where the falls went over the edge??  Right about here is where I got bit on the ass by that.

If you remember from an earlier photo, Sitting Bull Falls isn't a single torrent of water leaping over the edge, but a number of smaller flows that braid their way across the rock and go over the edge at several places. That yellowish green stuff right in front of me isn't some unusual coloration of the rock, but is water forming the eastern most of these 'branches' of the falls as it flows over the edge of the perfectly normal colored, but abruptly ending rock.

See that ledge down there, center-left? To the left of the tree near it's center is a small dark dot and next to that a very tiny patch of purple-red. That's a couple of people standing a few feet from where I'd hit the ground like Sloppy-Joe mix dripping out the end of the bun after a 150 foot fall! 

I guess I have to use my 'damn fool' stamp on myself today, a scarlet 'DF' right square in the middle of my forehead! But first I have to get myself out of here and onto somewhat less precarious ground!!

They say 20 minutes of aerobics a day is good for the body, and what is aerobics other than a fast-beating heart? I'd say I got several days worth in just a few minutes there. . .

After I scared myself away from the edge of oblivion, and grip of stupidity. . . I had to sit down and contemplate the meaning of life for a while before making the final decent to The Van.

You see that pale blob the arrow is pointing to? That's sort of a buttress, a parapet, extending from the wall of the canyon up there. While I was getting a grip I was scanning the far side of the canyon and I realized that some large bird kept landing up there on that buttress.

It was so far away it forced me out beyond the 1200 mm optical zoom and into digital zoom territory, and I didn't have a tripod with me, but I rolled over on my belly behind a rock (Nothing like the bliss of good solid ground against the belly after an encounter with the wrong side of a cliff!) and used it to steady the camera as best I could

to get these iffy shots.

Like Black Vultures, these Turkey Vultures mate for life and clearly this pair have found a primo nesting site!

OK, one last quick visit to the pools below the falls and I need to hustle myself on out of here before the gates get locked. (And before anybody else sees that scarlet DF on my forehead!)


  1. You are determined to hurt yourself this year aren't you? First, walking in the dark towards a lookout and now this ... I like that 20 minutes of aerobic per day. Does that count if Sadie is dragging me through the field on another walk for 20 minutes?

    1. I used to be an elitist and believe that aerobics could only be achieved through the deliberate movement of legs and swinging of arms, now my standards are a little less stringent and I count anything that gets the blood flowing. Carrying groceries, including heavy bags of junk food, in from the car, a near miss at a busy intersection, a cliff-hanger of a mystery on TV (or in your case the closing minutes of a close game), and sometimes I'll even allow hoisting myself out of the chair to go to the fridge. . .

    2. A few years ago I changed my training regime to the same one you have. Increased heart rate is the same whether intentional effort like cycling or running compared to screaming in an off "I hate my job" ... heart rate up ... same stuff. LOL