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Guadalupe Mtns May 2008

By Darin Kerr

 

  

After visiting Big Bend National Park in February, I started doing some more research on other mountain parks in TX.  Guadalupe Mountains National Park contains the highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak, along with over 80 miles of hiking trails.  The pictures of the scenery and trails looked very rugged and challenging. 

With todays' gas prices, I was looking for someplace within 1-2 tanks of fuel, and this was within that range at around 600 miles each way.  I began planning for this trip in March.

May 18 - Sunday

I wanted to get an early start on my trip, and I left home around 4:30am.  My Toyota Matrix did quite well on gas on the trip, averaging between 35-40 mpg.  This kind of gas mileage does not come without some penalty - I drove 60-65 mph the entire way, taking about 11 hours to arrive at my destination for the first night.  A lot of folks passed me on the highway, but then I doubt my credit card bill was as high. :) 

You could see the Guadalupes from about 40 miles east of Carlsbad coming in on US 62.  I arrived at the park around 3:30pm.  This is the view of the front face of Hunter Peak taken from the Pine Springs campground:


I arrived in the park early enough in the day to explore around the campsite area.  There were plenty of empty campsites available; the main thing was finding one with at least some shade from the afternoon sun.  Temperatures were in the low 80's that day with little wind, but both were to go up much higher during my visit.

Before turning in for the evening, I did walk up the Guadalupe Peak trail a few switchbacks just to stretch my legs and begin to get used to the altitude.  The wind blew almost constantly all night long at Pine Springs.  I could also hear truck traffic noise from Hwy 62.  All in all, not the greatest campsite I've stayed at.

May 20 - Monday

My goal today is to summit Guadalupe Peak, 8749 ft, rising over 3000 ft above the surrounding desert.  I got up around 5:30am and got my camp packed up and in my car.  I gave up trying to properly fold my tent in the wind and just rolled it up and tossed it in the back of the car.  I moved my car over to the visitors parking lot which meant I had to hike an extra 1/4 mile or so to get to the trailhead.  I was at the trailhead around 7:30am.  Temperatures were already in the upper 70's.  I was carrying a small daypack which contained 4 liters of water, some energy bars, trail mix, and some powdered Gatorade.  The pack weighed around 20 lbs.  

The first hour of hiking the summit trail was through some switchbacks on the eastern face of the mountain, putting me in direct sunlight most of the way.  Even though the temperatures were moderate, it felt much warmer than the reading on my watch.  One thing I wish I had done was wore lighter colored clothing.  My black hat and shirt were soaking up the sunlight, warming me much more than I cared.

I finally got some relief from the heat by the time I hit the first set of ridges.  The wind was probably 40-50 mph on some of the exposed ridges.  It would die off briefly, only to blast away again.  I had to keep a low profile to the ground and watch my footing in these sections.

This photo was taken looking towards the south.  It seems to be a popular photo due to the precarious nature of the rock pictured.


I crossed the highest bridge in Texas - another very popular photo op: 


After 3 hours of hiking, I finally made it to the tetrahedron at the top, only to find the 'true' highest bridge in Texas.  That's the 'bridge' just to my left in the picture:


Fortunately, a couple of college-aged guys attending school in Abilene arrived at the top shortly after I did and were kind enough to take my picture at the summit.  The wind wasn't really that bad at the summit... maybe 15-20 mph, so I considered myself fortunate.


The hike down took a bit less than 2 hours, and I only met one other group of 3 guys that were hiking up.  It was almost noon at that point, and for them not really good planning to attempt a summit of Guadalupe in the heat of the day.  All 3 looked pretty worn out with only 1/3 of the ascent completed.

The descent is where my hiking poles really saved a lot of pounding on my knees.  If you haven't tried hiking poles thinking they look silly, give them a try.  Your knees will thank you.  I compare it to the difference of having a vehicle with four wheel drive.  I didn't have a single problem with sore knees the entire trip.

I was back at my car a little after 1pm, and began the drive around the park to Dog Canyon.  I figured I could use that for a staging point for backpacking hikes in the backcountry.  Dog Canyon is around 800 ft higher in elevation than Pine Springs, making the climb into the backcountry a bit easier.  Being on the opposite side of the mountain chain, I was also thinking the wind wouldn't be as much of an issue.

You really have a goal in mind if you are driving to Dog Canyon.  It's not a stop alongside the main road.  Driving from Pine Springs to Dog Canyon took quite a while, as you hit all the traffic lights in Carlsbad.  I ended up stopping for lunch there.  About 12 miles north of Carlsbad on US 285, I found the turnoff for Hwy 137.  I was amazed at the amount of truck traffic on the road until I began to see oil rigs dotting the horizon. 

Sidenote:  I noticed that the oil companies all drove new or nearly new pickups.  Good to see what we pay at the pump is going for a good purpose.  *sarcasm*

The first 20 miles of so of Hwy 137 isn't so scenic due to this activity.  The remainder of the drive was nice, and I think I met a total of 3 cars for the remaining 40 miles of the road. 

The paved road ended right at the NM/TX border, but it is only 1/4 mile or so on gravel road to the Ranger Station.  It was about 4:30pm by the time I got to the station, so it was closed for the day.  The camping setup for Dog Canyon is the same as Pine Springs.  You pick a camping spot, then go up to the self pay sign and leave your $8.00 in the envelope provided.  I was hoping to catch the ranger before 4:30pm so that I could setup my itinerary for the following few days, but this would have to wait until 8am the next morning. 

The Lincoln National Forest was closed due to extreme fire danger.  The mountains were very dry, and there is a lot of ground vegetation just ripe for fire.

My plan was to hike up the Tejas trail to Mescalero, spend one night, then hike to Pine Top for the second night.  I could resupply my water by hiking down the Tejas trail to Pine Springs.  The third night I planned on hiking back to Mescalero, then back to Dog Canyon on the fourth day.  I planned on carrying 10 liters of water in my pack, which turned out to be too little for the 3 nights.

May 21 - Tuesday

I was up before my alarm went off at 5:30am.  For some reason, my internal clock was getting me up without the need for an alarm.  I think part of that was due to going to sleep around 9pm each night, which was much earlier than I am accustomed to.  I had my camp packed and the gear I needed for the 3 night backcountry outing in my pack ready to go by 7:30am. 

I headed over to the ranger station to setup my itinerary for the 3 nights.  There I met Ranger Carver, and 2 volunteer rangers, Mike and Pamela.  I had spoken to Mike the night before, but had not realized he was a volunteer Ranger as he wasn't wearing a Park Service shirt.  Ranger Carver went over my itinerary plans, making some recommendations.  He agreed with me about water consumption, saying there was no way I could carry enough water for 3 days without resupply.  Other than that, my itinerary was approved, and I made it to the trailhead about 9:00am.  I really was hoping for an earlier start in the day, as the temps were already in the low 80's by that time.  The early sections of the Tejas trail were fairly well shaded as you can see in this picture:


However, this welcome shade was short-lived.  Not long after that, I was out in the open.  This is a view looking back towards the north at Dog Canyon:

Not sure about the exact weight of my pack, but I'd guess with 10 liters of water it was about 50-55 lbs.  I keep telling myself, 'one of these days I need to get some better ultralight gear'.  Someday, I'll listen.  I took it slow on the rocky trails, making plenty of stops for rest, water and food.  After about 3 hours of hiking, I arrived at the intersection of the Tejas and McKittrick trails:


At this point, I knew I had less than an hour of hiking left to get to my destination, Mescalero camp.  The trails in Guadalupe Nat'l Park receive far less foot traffic than those in Big Bend, and I found the rocky terrain definitely slowed my pace and increased my energy output and increased water usage.

Almost exactly an hour later, I arrived at the sign directing me to the Mescalero campground.  The campground was completely deserted.  I sat my pack down in the first campsite, then walked around to the various campsites looking for one that suited me best.  Many of the sites had some afternoon shade, and the furthest one south, campsite #1, seemed like the best one.  Here's my camp for the night:


I'm glad I brought that extra blue mat you see pictured, as it gave me a place to lay down outside to catch a bit more breeze than I could in the tent.  The temperature was around 90F, even in the shade.  I checked my water, and to my dismay I had used over 5 liters of water in the 4 hours of hiking.  All of my food was Mountain House dehydrated food, and I knew I'd use another liter or so just preparing meals for lunch and dinner that day. 

Another thing that surprised me was the insect problem.  There were flies and gnats everywhere, and since I seemed to be one of the few warm-blooded creatures in their kingdom, they decided to make me their home.  While eating meals, the only way I could get some relief was to eat inside my tent.  I could only handle the heat inside for so long, so I ate fast.

One trick I learned was that if you put on your earbud headphones, at least the gnats couldn't fly into your ears. 

Since I was at around 6700 ft elevation, I assumed that the night would cool off quickly once the sun went down.  Another miscalculation.  The temperature that night dropped to only 65F.  Other than a brief blast of wind when a afternoon thunderstorm collapsed, the wind barely even blew all night long.

May 22 - Wednesday

Once again, I awoke just before my alarm at 5:30am.  I had decisions to make.  I now had around 4 liters of water left, which would be enough to hike to Pine Top.  However, that wouldn't leave me enough to last the remainder of the day.  I would then have to empty my pack, hike down the Tejas trail to the main campground at Pine Springs, refill my water bottles, then hike back up to Pine Top.  That would be a lot of extra hiking, most of it done in the hottest part of the day. 

Here's what that section of the Tejas trail looks like as viewed from the Guadalupe peak trail:


That idea was quickly dismissed, and I decided the wisest option would be to hike back to Dog Canyon.  I did not regret this decision.

I got my camp packed from Mescalero and was on the trail by 7:30am.  The views from along the Tejas trail looking north along Dog Canyon were beautiful:


Here's a typical ankle-twisting section of the Tejas trail.  A rock lovers dream:

I only passed one couple around 9am who said they were hiking a 14 mile loop hike.  They seemed to be carrying enough water in their daypacks, and I wished them good luck on their hike.

It took about 3 hours to hike back to Dog Canyon.  The first thing I did was grab a cold Gatorade from my ice chest in the car.  A cold drink tastes so good after drinking lukewarm water all day.  The remainder of today I used my time just relaxing in the shade around the Dog Canyon campground.  I did walk the nature trail and got some nice afternoon shots of Dog Canyon:



About 7:30pm I noticed that the couple had not returned yet from their loop hike.  Earlier when Ranger John stopped by my camp, I asked when they would consider the couple overdue.  He said they wouldn't send up a rescue team unless they failed to return by morning.

I decided to take a short hike up the Bush Mtn trail to get a sunset photo.  Also, I brought along a few extra bottles of water in my daypack just in case I met the couple on the trail and they needed water.  I was only about 1/2 mile out of Dog Canyon when I came across the couple.  Both looked exhausted, and they told me they ran out of water about a 1/2 mile back.  I offered them my water, but they said they didn't need it as the campground was close.  It was a relief knowing they made it back.

Evening clouds spoiled my sunset shots, so I ended up hiking back to camp for the night.

May 23 - Thursday

I decided to head for home a day early as the weather predictions were for more heat in the area.  If anything, my hiking trips teach me some valuable lessons:

1) Be flexible.  Can't always do what you plan.

2) Have alternative plans.

3) Never overestimate your abilities.

4) Hike smart.

5) Oh, and be sure and bring along plenty of $1 bills.  You'll need it to pay the $8/night fee at either Pine Springs or Dog Canyon.   Hard to get change for a $20 out there :) 

I'd highly recommend visiting Dog Canyon.  It is worth the 62 mile drive.  Ranger Carver and his staff are first class folks who will provide you with a lot of information about the backcountry along with helpful advice.

Thanks for reading my report.  If you have hiked this area and can share your experiences, I'd like to hear from you.  My e-mail address is cddman@*nospam*hotmail.com.  Just remove the *nospam* from the address.


 
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