Friday, February 21, 2014

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We continued to enjoy fine weather in West Texas and with a favorable long term forecast, we set our sights on Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The results of my research told me that the weather could be severe in these mountains, with high winds and cold temperatures being the biggest threat at this time of year. Most of the information was pertinent to the largest and easiest approachable campground Pine Spring Campground, on the southeast side of the park. However, I found that there is a much smaller campground on the north side, Dog Canyon Campground. Dog Canyon is reached by driving north, past Carlsbad, New Mexico then driving another 60 odd miles southwest to reach the campground. While the number of hiking trails accessible from this campground were much more limited. The weather was generally milder than on the southeast side owing to better protection by the surrounding mountains.

As with Big Bend National Park, there are no Disneyesque amusements surrounding the entrance to the park. This park, even more than Big Bend National Park, requires that the visitor explore it on his or her feet, hiking into the mountains to gain the reward of spectacular scenic vistas.
Guadalupe Mountains
To reach the park we drove about a dozen miles north of Carlsbad on highway 285 then turned south onto state road 117. Sarah and I both become apprehensive about the choice of our destination. Very soon after driving on route 117 we encountered a landscape strewn with drilling rigs, pipelines and signs warning of the potential for lethal levels of hydrogen sulfide gas in the area and to evacuate immediately should one smell the gas. The gas is found with the oil and some believe that fracking has the potential to release greater quantities that could be deadly than older drilling techniques did. We learned that several homes in, Artesia,  one of the towns we passed through had to be evacuated and roadblocks erected when a fracking well blew out in the town. Despite our fear we pressed on. After about ten miles, we entered the Lincoln National Forest and the landscape once again become the beautiful rolling hills we have come to appreciate in the foothills of the other mountains we have approached here in the southwest.

We could see the Guadalupe mountains in the distance and the popping of our ears told us we were constantly gaining elevation. In this part of the Lincoln National forest we continually passed from areas of private onto public lands then back again with areas of open and fenced pasture land. At one point I remarked to Sarah that we had seen a lot of open pasture land with cattle but this was the first where we saw horses. I no sooner finished expressing my thoughts than a horse stepped onto the shoulder right in front of us. Fortunately, neither of us were going so fast that we could not stop. Otherwise, there would have been a lot of damage to a horse and our tow vehicle.

It was late in the afternoon when we reached the campground. The small National Park Office was closed so we drove into the Dog Canyon campground, which is really nothing more than a gravel parking lot next to a small horse corral with space for four RVs and a place for tent campers to park their cars. There were no other campers when we arrived, just a small herd of deer browsing on the dry grass and juniper trees near the horse corral where they found drinking water in the stock tank. The deer didn't seem too startled, they just loped off to another grazing area about 50 yards away and continued to graze all the while keeping an eye on us.
The deer were not too upset

We hiked each of the next two days into the mountains on the southwest side of Dog Canyon. The first we hiked the Bush Mountain Trail, a moderately difficult continually rising trail that brought us high onto a ridge separating Dog Canyon from South McKittrick Canyon to the west. We were rewarded with spectacular views in every direction. As this is not a loop trail, we intended to return by the same path we had come. But, upon climbing to a knoll just to the south, I could see another trail descending into Dog Canyon. I presumed this to be the Tejas Trail that we hoped to explore the next day. So, Sarah and I followed the ridge about half a mile to Lost Peak, elevation 7,830.  The peak was only about 100' above the trail we had seen and there we had our lunch while enjoying a stunning vista that overlooked the beautiful Guadalupe Mountains. It was the Tejas trail and it took us on a quick descent back to our camp.
Ridge at the top of Bush Mountain Trail
Sarah at Lost Peak, Dog Canyon. Guadalupe Mountains National Park

To descend from the peak back to the trail we had to bushwhack a couple hundred yards through a dense stand of short spruce trees. It was slow going because of the loose rock scree. But we were delighted by the presence of a large number of mule deer that we surprised, including a magnificent large buck with great rack of antlers.
The buck took his time following the rest of the deer

We descended the Tejas trail and reached our campsite in time to meet the ranger before he closed his office for the day. The ranger, Jon, was very pleasant and seemed pleased to have company. He told us that in addition to the deer we had seen, there was a mountain lion active in the area. He shared with us photographs of the cougar taken with a wilderness camera he had set up at a watering hole some two miles distant. The photos showed three different cats, a large male, his mate and a yearling they had produced. Jon also showed us pictures of other mammals caught on camera. They included, fox, coyote, skunk and what he described as his nemesis, a Barbary Sheep that he had been trying to eliminate for at least two years. Barbary sheep were introduced to Texas after WWII onto hunting preserves. Unfortunately, they escaped and have successfully reproduced to the detriment of the native mule deer of Texas with which they compete. They are now considered a nuisance and invasive species that should be eliminated.
The deer came everyday in the late afternoon

The next day, Sarah and I ascended the Tejas trail. The weather was perfect for hiking, clear skies, little wind and temperatures in the upper 50s. As soon as we gained a few hundred feet of elevation after leaving the campground, we could see a solitary peak with only a few trees and a prominent limestone outcrop, the highest point on McKittrick Ridge. We agreed that we should try for that peak. We passed the peak we had achieved the previous day and continued onto the McKittrick Canyon trail that took us higher and deeper into the Guadalupe Mountains.  The McKittrick Canyon trail continued on the same ridge we had traversed the day before but after about a mile then it turned abruptly to the northeast and as we rounded the bend, Sarah and I both stopped in awe at the view. In front of us the land dropped away for about a thousand feet and about three miles away was a majestic cliff that formed the norther terminus of South McKittrick Canyon. Both of stood looked with wonder on this beautiful scenery. Another hour and we were a hundred feet below our destination. Because none of the trails in these mountains go the peaks due to the dangerous winds and lightening strikes, we had to bushwhack this final distance. Thankfully, it was mostly scrub oak with few thorn bearing cacti or shrubs to contend with. Once again, we jumped a magnificent mule deer buck with the finest antlers we had seen yet. We started out at 8:30 AM and made the summit of this ridge on the north side of South McKittrick Canyon just in time to enjoy another lunch while enjoying the most amazing scenery one could wish for. We finished our lunch and retraced our steps. I had underestimated how long this trip would take and had not brought enough water to be completely comfortable, for on the way down with still one third the distance to go we ran out of water. Luckily, there was still snow in the shaded places high on this north facing slope. I found a pristine area and filled my water bottle. In my black back pack it quickly melted and Sarah commented on how fine it tasted.
We had water available
We returned to camp at 3:45PM, tired, sore and very pleased. 

The next morning we hitched up and said our goodbyes to Jon and thanked him for sharing such a beautiful place. We told him where we had gone the previous day and he nodded in approval, seemingly pleased that we had put in such an effort. I told him I thought I had smelled cat urine on the trail and asked if mountain lions mark their territory just like domesticated tom cats. He smiled and assured they most certainly did. He then said, that since we were leaving he could share with us the fact that one of the cougars made a kill a few week earlier just a few hundred yards from the campground, near the trail that we had been hiking. Even though we never saw the magnificent animal, we felt lucky to have shared its mountain. 
Guradalupe Mountains National Park

As we continued on to our next destination, not even passing through the area despoiled by the drilling rigs could dampen our appreciation for this remarkably handsome landscape and mountains of West Texas and Southern New Mexico.

Stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I appreciate all comments whether about content or style