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.


  1. Looks like a great hike and all the intersections well marked. The fog definitely added a little more adventure. It even looked cold while I read. I'll have to get over in that area sometime. It looks like a hike I could do.

    1. It's not flat, but you could definitely do the Smith Spring loop from Frijole Ranch right now.

      The ups and downs and rocky bits of the Frijole trail between the springs and the campground might be a bit of a challenge at the moment but I bet it won't be long before you are ready for that too.