Guadalupe Mountains National Park: To the Shrouded Mountains

Sean and I departed for our twelve-day adventure/birthday celebration in the Southwest on Thursday, November 8 after an unusually brutal period leading up to the trip. Sean had a lot on his plate at work, and I was wrapping up a very busy and exhilarating autumn of work and personal projects. We also looked forward to hosting my parents visiting from Detroit for Thanksgiving immediately after the trip. It’s a good thing that we are very experienced at National Park trips at this point because we didn’t actually start packing proper until 9pm on Wednesday night. We had everything we needed, and we were able to pull items from the camping closet fairly swiftly. Even so, it was something of a mess. Eventually we decided that because the trip was so big with so many components we’d each need to take a suitcase in addition to our backpacks and carry-on bags. It was more luggage than we’d taken on our three-week honeymoon in Alaska, but we hadn’t been planning a serious pack trip for Alaska.

In addition to wrapping up a bunch of projects, I spent some time on Thursday morning writing thank you notes for early birthday presents and posting the final two posts on this site about Glacier National Park.

In fact, I posted the Glacier National Park species list from the Lyft on the way to O’Hare because my big computer had melted down and I just finally had to turn it off. I really didn’t want to have any backlog of posts waiting when we returned from this long-anticipated adventure.

At O’Hare, we got our traditional Fronterra before heading to our gate. Sean thought about also getting a hash brown from McDonald’s, but the line was way too long.

Skies were cloudy over the continent until we reached New Mexico where the clouds dissipated to reveal a landscape quite different from Illinois.

After collecting all our luggage, we picked up our rental, a Hyundai Santa Fe, from Enterprise. In the five years since we were first at the El Paso airport, they’d built an entire rental car garage and building on what had been just a lot full of vehicles.

We were hungry since it was still lunchtime, so before we started our afternoon errands we stopped at a Whataburger, where I had a green chile cheeseburger in what was the first of many green chile-laden meals I was about to consume.

The Whataburger had a very…present…old man security guard with a sidearm who just stood there menacingly in the parking lot. It was rather odd.

After lunch, we started our errands. The first order of business was to get backpacking stove fuel and food (and matches, lithium batteries and other such things we couldn’t fly with). We tried something called a Big 5 Sporting Goods near the airport, but it didn’t have much. In truth, it was a little sad.

So instead we drove across town to a Cabela’s. On the way, we went through downtown and near the border with views of sprawling Juarez, Mexico on the other side.

We rounded out our procurement of supplies at Target and Whole Foods, where we got a bunch of weird kombucha flavors that we had never seen before.

Then we drove back to the east side of town and our lodging for the night, a Home2 Suites.

It turned out to be pretty perfect. The suite was huge, which gave us plenty of space to pack and resort and prep for backpacking. It also had a full size fridge and a sink and dishwasher.

Neither of us had gotten enough sleep the night before, so since we were tired, instead of going out to dinner, we Grubhubbed some local Tex-Mex (I had fried chicken coated with Lay’s potato chips and smothered with cheese and green chiles). While we ate, we watched Frozen Planet on BBC America (foreshadowing). Then we kept right on watching it while we prepped our various car camping containers and turned our packs from luggage into backpacking gear. I also uploaded the final Glacier photos to social media, psychically putting that trip to bed.

That night around two in the morning I laid in bed wondering what the pounding noise was and why the hotel was banging at that hour. Then I realized that it was the echo of my own beating heart in my ear plug.

Next morning, I woke up around 7. Low clouds hung over El Paso and the forecasted high was around 60, some fifteen degrees cooler than the previous day. Back in Chicago, that day, Friday, November 9, would see the season’s first snowfall as a cold weather pattern advanced across the plains.

I wrapped up my digital life while waiting for Sean to awaken. When he did, we showered and finished packing up and loading the cooler. The skies were sunny now, but clouds still hung over the low mountains to the east, in the direction we would be headed.

The breakfast bar in the lobby featured waffles shaped like Texas.

We checked out of the hotel and ran one final errand to a nearby Target to get coffee, which we’d forgotten the previous afternoon.

Then we got on highway 62/180 and started east out of town. We’d not been driving five minutes when my phone rang. It was Bethany with good news about a Chicago prospect. Very exciting!

Sean turned on the 50th anniversary remastering of the Beatles’ White Album, which had been released that morning. It kept us company for a good portion of the hour and forty-five minute drive to Guadalupe Mountains.

Large parts of the drive were flat, but occasionally lone north-south trending mountain ranges would loom in the distance. One in particular I thought might be the Guadalupes, but there wasn’t the dramatic escarpment of El Capitan at the southern end.

Sean was dozing when the Guadalupes actually came into view (or at least somewhat into view). they were so much higher and more dramatic than the other ranges we’d passed. The clouds that had been moving east had caught on them, so El Capitan was playing peekaboo as we began the climb up Guadalupe Pass to Pine Springs, tucked into the southeast-facing portion of the range.

Very quickly we were in the clouds. The visibility was so poor in fact that Sean had to help me watch for the sign indicating where to turn into the Park. We passed what was obviously the pullout to view El Capitan and Guadalupe Peak but we could not see anything except a group of about twenty people walking along the side of the highway. Weird.

We turned into the Park and immediately turned left, driving through the mist to the campground. The instructions at the registration booth said to select a site and then return to pay the fee, so we drove into the campground. Pine Springs Campground has twenty sites, eight of which are accessed through a short walk in and the rest are adjacent to vehicle parking areas. (RVs and trailers park/camp in specially designated spots in the large trailhead parking lot.)

We were immediately confused because the sites are marked simply with numbers but don’t have receipts attached so it was hard to tell if people were leaving or not. We had arrived just before noon, when check-in/check-out turnovers happen. No one was around so we parked and walked around looking for empty spots. Sean spotted that site 17, the disability access site, was available with a sign to only select it if no other sites were unoccupied. He sat on the picnic table in the site to claim it while I made one more loop on foot. It definitely seemed like there were no other sites.

While I was on my way back, I could hear him conversing with someone. When I arrived, he said that he’d met Nancy, the campground host. She said that sites 15 and 20 were open. I turned to walk back to registration. As I walked up the one road that comprised the campground, Nancy pulled her old sedan over and we chatted. She was a tiny spry woman likely in her early 70s. She gave me the scoop on backcountry permits in addition to reiterating that 15 and 20 were open. Then she checked her notes and realized that only site 20 was available. It was a Friday, so people were arriving for the weekend. But what about Monday when Sean and I would emerge from the backcountry and Phil and Adam and Sylvan would arrive for car camping. She said that she couldn’t say but that it was supposed to be 27 degrees on Monday. I introduced myself and we shook hands before she drove off to continue her monitoring rounds.

Sean began unloading in site 20 while I handled registering for the site.

After we set up our tent so that it would be very clear the site was occupied (we had missed it because it’s sort of hidden right at the top of the road into the campground), we headed over to the visitor center to get our backcountry permits.

We were helped by Ranger Amanda, who also informed us that the temperatures were going to plummet on Monday. We got our permits and selected Pine Top Campground for Saturday night and McKittrick Ridge for Sunday night. We assured Ranger Amanda that we had friends picking us up at the trailhead in McKittrick Canyon, and we were set to go. Each of the two backcountry campgrounds had eight sites, and the permit we’d attached to my backpack and our tent guaranteed our right to one of the spots. At the time we registered, there was only one other party permitted for Pine Top and no one else permitted for McKittrick Ridge. Ranger Amanda finished our orientation and instructed us where to park our car at the trailhead and which permits to display on the dash.

With that, we were ready for our backpacking adventure, a hike I’d dreamed of doing for years.

As we looked around the visitor center, I overheard a kerfuffle among the rangers. Apparently, special VIP guests from the National Parks Conservation Association (an organization I donate to regularly) were coming that weekend, and three campsites were supposed to have been reserved for them. Instead they had to put them in one of the group sites. Two things: we were really lucky to have gotten our campsite, and I wonder if the strange group walking up the highway was the NPCA group (they may have been looking at fossils in an outcrop or something).

As we drove back over to our Pine Springs campsite, Sean had a signal so we called Adam in Detroit to give him the scoop. Since we had just barely obtained a site, we didn’t want to take any chances when they arrived on Monday. So Adam said that they would stay somewhere close to the Park on Sunday night (maybe Carlsbad?) and get to the Park around 8am on Monday to secure a site. Then they’d drive over and collect us at McKittrick Canyon. Originally we’d said to get us at noon, but since they’d be getting a site in the morning, we said to get us at 1pm instead, which would give us a bit more time to get down from the high country.

The clouds were beginning to dissipate a bit, at least enough to see the escarpment above Pine Canyon. Or at least to see it momentarily.

Spotted Towhee

We sat at the picnic table in our site and had a lunch of leftover Tex-Mex from the previous night’s dinner.

Since we took the weather forecast seriously, Sean decided he wanted to go and get some heavier gloves and maybe another layer. Our choices were Dell City, Texas to the west or Carlsbad, New Mexico to the northeast. Dell City was closer, but Carlsbad was much, much larger and more certain to have something. So we got in the car and drove to Carlsbad.

The whole way, the length of the range rose off to the left of the highway to the northwest. That it was a fossilized coral reef was almost unfathomable.

We crossed the state line into New Mexico, the first time I’d been there, and continued on to Carlsbad, which had a lot of truck traffic on its main drag though town.

Image: Sean M. Santos

We drove past the AirB&B house we’d be in the following week. It looked nice from the outside, and the neighborhood seemed quiet, particularly compared to the crazy traffic elsewhere. Then we went to a Big 5 Sporting Goods that anchored the Mall. The mall was just called Mall apparently. Sean got gloves and a fleece-lined hoody, and we grabbed a bunch of handwarmers.

We decided not to linger in Carlsbad so that we could make it back to the Park for the ranger talk scheduled for 5pm.

On the way back, we stopped to top off the gas tank in White’s City, the tiny gateway to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The gas station building was closed, but the pay-at-the-pump was working, and I was asked by two separate international travelers, one from Mexico and one from Germany, how to use the pumps. It turns out they couldn’t because they didn’t have US zip codes with which to verify their credit cards.

Image: Sean M. Santos

When we got back to the Park, the skies had finally cleared allowing us to make our traditional entrance sign stop.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

There were two, so we stopped twice.

Image: Sean M. Santos

At 5pm, we walked over to the campground amphitheater for the ranger program, but no one was there.

We waited for a little while, and left when it was clear no one was coming. As we departed the area, we ran into a woman who had been waiting for the ranger to show up with her lost wedding ring. She had been told that the ranger leading the program would have it. We didn’t know what to tell her except to try knocking on campground host Nancy’s trailer door to see if she knew anything.

As the light faded, we did some more organizing of gear for the morning while we cooked a simple backpacker dinner. We silently commiserated while other latecomer campers arrived to find no room at Pine Springs

After dinner, we waited for the Milky Way to come out. It was dark because the moon was just a waxing sliver low to the south. We also spotted Mars.

We climbed into our tent around 6:30pm. It was chilly, but I didn’t make a hot water bottle as a test of the warmth of my new-ish sleeping bag. We lay in our sleeping bags reading and writing notes for a while before we settled in for the long late-autumn desert night.

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