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. . .

Monday, December 23, 2019

Guadalupe Mountains: The Pinery: An Easy Starter Hike

Pine Springs Campground is at 5700' and most everything goes up from there.

If you are a low-lander the elevation can sneak up on you fast, leaving you in a heaving, exhausted,  headachey puddle on the ground. (I'm talking about a friend of mine of course!)

OK, OK, Basically, like me, if you live anywhere from 1500' on down you're a lowlander and higher elevations can be a challenge. Especially if you are on the older side of the scale - hum, let's see, according to my brother on my birthday 25 years ago, 40 is halfway to dead, so - checking the scale. . . checking the scale - yep, definitely me again. Two strikes. . .

through hard-won experience I know my limitations, so when first arriving at lofty elevations (Altitude is often misused here. Altitude is for anything in the air  while Elevation is for anything on the ground, i.e Air = Altitude and Earth = Elevation) I like to pick out an easy hike to start with. A hike that I can gauge my elevation-fitness on without getting myself into too much trouble..

Around the back corner of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park Visitor Center is the upper trailhead for the Pinery trail which fits the bill as a "checkout" hike.

But before you go, it's worthwhile stopping in at the revamped visitor center. (Open 0800 to 1630 daily)

Inside, in addition to the front desk where maps, guides, and advice are available, there is a small theater where a short slideshow about the park is waiting to be seen, (the ranger will dim the lights, push the button, and start the show when asked.) as well as a decent little museum/display area designed to get you oriented to this place.

But once you've procrastinated all you can in the visitor center, there's nothing left to do but brave the trail.

The official trail leaves from the Visitor Center and meanders gently down to The Pinery, but as I mentioned in the last post, a trail from the campground to the Visitor Center can be found just behind the tent-camping pit toilets, pretty much doubling the distance to the Pinery but allowing you to leave your wheeled transportation sit where it is.

Round trip from the campground to the Pinery and back was two miles with an elevation drop/climb from end to end of a couple hundred feet.

If walking any distance at all is an issue, the Pinery, the location of one of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route stations, can also be visited in just a few dozen steps from the lower trailhead parking which is just off the highway.

The trail from the campground to Visitor Center is gravel but from Visitor Center to Pinery it's actually paved.

and lined with interpretive signs with some history, including natural history, as well as info on the various plants and trees found along the way.

I would recommend (based on personal experience) you save the interpretive signs for the return, or uphill part of the trip as they will give you plenty of excuses for stopping and puffing like an asthmatic chain-smoker while you read them. This lets you, without damage to your public persona, secretly rest up for the next few steps!

I did this hike the day I arrived, when the mountains were poking up into the clouds,

which would periodically get overburdened and spit big fat drops, but a rain jacket and my old Tilley hat took care of that.

The Butterfield Overland Mail Route was a short but amazing chapter in east to west communications. After reading the account of a journalist that rode one of the first trips between St Louis and San Francisco I can only still imagine what it was like riding in that coach for 25 straight days as it slammed and bounced across the primitive trail at an average of 5 miles an hour nearly 24 hours a day.

Those people were made of tougher stuff than me! 

This part of the wall,

which is clearly in imminent danger of falling over and joining the rest of the walls laying in bits on the ground,

is the dark area shown in this drawing of what this particular stage-stop looked like back in the day.

A stone-walled corral on the left butting up to one side of an enclosed courtyard with three small rooms tucked into one corner and a cooking shelter in another, with another small stockade type yard  for temporary visitors on the right.

It didn't last long as a Butterfield stage-stop since the route of the stage-line was moved south about a year after it was constructed, but its shelter and water up here at the top of Guadalupe Pass attracted freighters, drovers, and immigrants long after the stage was gone.

From here the original route west continued, actually still continues today as US-62/180, down the south side of the pass and around below the imposing 8000 ft buttress of El Capitan, but, since this hike didn't kill me, only kicked my ass, I'm going to hang around here at Guadalupe for several more days and trails before making that trek.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Camping at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Pine Springs Campground, the official campground for the southern end of the Guadalupe Mountains NP, sitting at slightly over 5800 feet,

The RV area is there in the top left of this image.

 is often described in reviews as a parking-lot, and that's a fair and accurate description.

Unless you are tent-camping that is. The tent camping area, all walk-in sites, is in the lower right of the image above and that is clearly not parking-lot-ish.

By the way, the campground is also the trailhead for many of the more popular trails around here so campers in the "parking-lot" are also sharing space with the parking-lot.

With the size and setup of The Van I have the flexibility to use the tent-only camping area in many campgrounds, but they are serious about this being "tent only" here in Guadalupe.

Even though there are some pretty nice tent-only slots that would work quite well for me, anything that remotely smacks of an "RV" is not allowed in here. Even those sleeping in their cars must use the RV section. And yes, patrols by the three different NP LEO's I saw while here are frequent.

So I was limited to the "parking-lot".

Which wasn't quite as bad as it sounds, at least for my diminutive little "RV".

There are three short, (20') single-wide sites at the north end of the "campground" that are just perfect for vans.

And if you can snag site 31 and pull in nose-first the view on the lounging side of the rig is all mountain.

But if none of those sites are available all is not lost.

There's another 5 back-in sites along the east side that will do as well. At 20' these are also short, but are double-wide so you can back a trailer along one side and still fit the tow-vehicle in along the other.

By parking The Van cattywampus in one of these sites I can turn my back on the majority of the parking lot.


But if you are in a large rig your choice of "campsite" is limited to the cheek-by-jowl "pull thru" slots, though, to be fair, these sites are wider than some I've seen in commercial campgrounds.

But seriously, when getting into the RV lifestyle you really need to decide if you are a resort and private campground traveler or a national parks and forests camper.

If you pick the latter then the smaller and more boondocky your rig the better.

It all depends on whether you just have to have air-conditioning, forced-air heat, walk-in shower, full-sized fridge, microwave, wine-cooler, and espresso machine and can't live without slideouts for that roomy, at home, McMansion feel and an outdoor entertainment center with 400 watt surround-sound system and satellite receiver. If you need that stuff and the power it takes to run it, to be comfortable then you might be better off sticking to the resorts and privates, which are also also very parking-lot-ish but have the advantage of longer sites, reservations, and partial or full hookups to keep all those systems operational.

And speaking of hookups, here at Guadalupe there are none. Nor is there a dump-station.

There is however, in addition to the pit toilets at the far end of the tent camping area, flush toilets at the southwest corner of the "parking lot", a dish-washing station adjacent to the flush toilets,  and a potable water spigot next to the self-pay station for filling jugs.

There are no reservations here. This is a FCFS facility which suited me, deliberately arriving on a Wednesday just fine. Even though I didn't realize it was the Wednesday before a holiday weekend - D'oh! My bad. . .

Because of the nature of the campground, many of the campsites have no table of their own, but there are a number of nicely placed picnic tables along the south side of the lot that are available to the first-comer.

The cost for a campsite, tent and parking-lot both, is $15 (half that with a geezer pass). If you pay at the self-pay-station you are limited to cash only, but you can also pay at the nearby visitor center (There's a foot-path from campground to visitor center that starts just to the right of the pit toilets at the end of the tent-camping area.) with a credit card between 0800 and 1630.

Just be aware that the line between the Central and Mountain time zones is very near by and the NP operates on Mountain time. (I found that my phone, when it had service at all, which was sporadic, kept switching between Central and Mountain time depending on what tower it managed to lock onto, so was unreliable for precise timing.)

And don't slack off on paying or overstay checkout time because windshield stubs are frequently checked.

So why put up with all this?

Well first off, as I said, it's really not as bad as it sounds, especially if you are out hiking for much of the day (And if not why are you here in the first place?) and secondly, other options are limited.

As this screen-shot of my Allstays app shows, you have to cross into New Mexico to get to the nearest BLM land, the blue/green dots where you can boondock. (And oilfield development has closed down that nearest dispersed camping site now) The closest private campground, the black dot, is in Whites City which is 35 miles away. (By the way, for cooler-campers that's also where the nearest available ice is.) Other options are private campgrounds at Carlsbad, 55 miles, and Van Horn, 65 miles.

The other NP campground, Dog Canyon, up there on the north end of the park, has 9 tent and 4 RV slots (23' max) but can only be reached from the New Mexico side by going up US-62 to CR-408 halfway between Whites City and  Carlsbad then traveling another 55 miles west and south, down through the Lincoln National Forest, on a road that ultimately dead-ends at the campground.

So, when viewed as a base-camp for hiking the southern end of the Guadalupes, Pine Spring Campground isn't all that bad.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Approaching Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Holy Crap!

About an hour ago, after some 550 miles of I-10 to get here from the house, I was finally able to turn north at Van Horn Texas and leave the freeway behind in favor of SR-54.

Soon I was winding along Sulfur Creek as I slipped through the gap between the Baylor Mountains to the north and Tumbledown Mountain to the south, often slowing to 40 MPH to dip through the frequent low-water crossings as the highway hugs the terrain instead of bulling it's way through on cuts, fills, and bridges.

From Van Horn it is another 65 miles to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the Pine Springs Campground, my destination for today.

To some eyes this is desolate land out here.

Years ago someone I was convoying through the area with (What? - You didn't think I would actually be traveling in the same vehicle with someone else did you!?) got out of their vehicle at the end of the day and said "Well that was a whole lot-a-nothin!"- and they didn't mean it in a good way.

I don't see it that way. As I roll for miles up this wide valley past Baylor Ranch on the east and then later Sierra Diablo Ranch on the west, I look out at this mix of scrub and grass land framed by mountains to my right,

and more mountains to my left, and see a kind of purity, an honesty of peace and simplicity. (Even though I know the eco-system out here in the Chihuahuan desert is actually quite complex.)

I can actually feel it injecting a calmness, a serenity, into my soul as the lonely miles roll by. (in the past hour nobody has passed me going south and a single tank-truck in more of a hurry than me has passed going north.)

It's definitely not a clear, sunny day but up there on the left, just behind that first power-pole, I get a glimpse of a bit of sun on a distant peak.

But wait. do those clouds out there on the horizon just to the right of the road seem a little more solid than they should be to you?

Yeah, you know, I'm not sure that those are clouds up there at the end of the road at all!

 Oh holy crap! That's the Guadalupes!

The vertical, south-facing wall of El Capitan right there in the center -- way up there in the center -- and Guadalupe Peak just behind and to the left of it are the southern end of the Capitan Reef. A 40 mile long remnant of a reef that formed in the shallow waters of the Permian Sea hundreds of million years ago and have fairly recently, 66 million years ago, been thrust high, really high apparently, and subjected to the forces of erosion.

And I'm supposed to be going up there!?

What was I thinking???

(The Pine Springs campground is 2000 feet above where I'm at now and Guadalupe Peak is nearly 3000 feet above that.)