On Saturday morning, November 10, Sean and I walked into the Guadalupe Mountains for a three-day backpacking trek that would mark, on the third day, my fortieth birthday. The nineteen-mile route from Pine Springs Trailhead to McKittrick Canyon Ranger Station is the classic route up into the Guadalupes, across the high country, and back down. It is a shuttle route from one trailhead to another, and the Park cannot provide transportation between the two. Happily, Adam and Phil had agreed to collect us early Monday afternoon when we emerged from the mountains.
Our goal for day one was Pine Top Campground, one of a constellation of primitive backcountry sites for backpackers in the Guadalupe Mountains high country. From the main trailhead at Pine Springs, it was 3.9 miles and 2,200 feet up to Pine Top.
I climbed out of the tent at 6:30am that morning, which wasn’t long after sunrise. Standing up and looking about, I was a touch crestfallen to see that the cloud cover had returned, although it was not nearly as heavy as it had been the previous afternoon. Overnight it had gotten a little chilly in the tent toward dawn, and the thermostat in the car told me it was 35 degrees. Not too bad, actually.
After I walked to the toilet and back, I started coffee while I waited for Sean to emerge.
The campground was bustling for so early in the morning. Sprightly campground host Nancy was dashing about wrapped in her beige overcoat checking in with campers and helping direct hopeful newcomers to sites that were going to be vacated.
Successive groups of hikers, some almost absurdly wrapped in tundra-level parkas and ski masks walked past toward the trailhead, which was the main artery from Pine Springs into the rest of the Park. Few of these hikers appeared to be backpacking, though.
We rehydrated some breakfast skillet while we worked on final preparations for our pack trip. We didn’t rush since we had a confirmed site up at Pine Top, the day’s hike was only four miles (even if it was all uphill), and we had no cause for concern whatsoever from a roasting Chihuahuan Desert sun. So we were slow and methodical in our preparation. This still didn’t prevent me from forgetting my toothbrush, but overall it was probably one of our most efficient and well-prepared packing jobs for an overnight backpack.
We were forced to be efficient in particular because there are no water sources in the backcountry of Guadalupe Mountains. We had to pack in all the water we’d need for the next three days. That meant that we were facing packs that were a good fifty pounds even while being sparing in terms of gear.
While we were finishing up, we noticed a wet spot under Sean’s pack. His MSR dromedary was leaking. We pulled it out and tightened the lid and spigot, which seemed to fix it.
Then we finished packing the things we were leaving behind in the car and clearing the campsite. We drove up to the trailhead parking, but there were no spots. On a second go-around, someone pulled out of a spot, and we grabbed it. We made sure the correct permits were displayed on the dash and grabbed our packs from the back.
Unfortunately, the dromedary in Sean’s pack was still leaking, so badly (after being laid down) that there was a wet spot in the back of the car, and some of Sean’s clothes in the pack were wet. We punted and tossed the leaky dromedary. Instead we filled up a few Nalgenes that we usually use for hot water bottles and shoved them into Sean’s pack. In total, it meant we were heading into the mountains with about 4.5 liters less water than we would have otherwise.
After all that, we locked the car and secured the keys in my pack. We were ready to go.
Sean signed the trail registry, and we set out at a few minutes after 10am.
“The mountains are calling and I must go,” indeed, John Muir.
The first part of the trail crossed to the north side of the wash at the bottom of Pine Canyon.
At the other side of the wash, the trail climbed up an embankment and connected with Frijole Trail, which led off into the foothills to the east. Tejas Trail turned west up the broad bottom of Pine Canyon.
Shortly we reached a sign that indicated we were entering the Park’s sizable federally designated wilderness.
After about half an hour we were warm enough that we dropped our packs and took off our jackets. In addition to being warm, we needed to readjust our packs on our bodies. It had been a while since we truly backpacked, particularly with such heavy, water filled packs. We were each still getting readjusted to the feel of the pack.
The trail began slowly to rise along the slopes on the north side of the canyon.
Ahead of us, the trail headed out onto a ridge extending out into the canyon.
Before we turned onto the ridge, we reached a small oasis where the topography caused water to flow when it flowed at all.
Particularly on these lower slopes we saw some bird life, Common Ravens soaring overhead, Lesser Goldfinches in the shrubs, Violet-Green Swallows swooping around, and especially American Robins. Lots of American Robins.
As we started onto the ridge, we were treated to views to the east back down the canyon.
As Bill Schneider notes in Hiking Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks, Tejas Trail is remarkably well designed. It’s a bit rocky, which is to be expected given the geology and ecology of the mountains, but the trail’s long, sinuous climb with only a few long switchbacks lessens the impact of what is truly a big climb, particularly for the backpackers the Park caters to.
Below us we got a glimpse of some topographic drama in Pine Canyon, which was invisible from the campground. Far up the wash was a short slot canyon, and I made a note of suggesting it to Phil and Adam for their time with us at the Park.
We didn’t yet have a handle on the specifics of the fossilized reef that comprises the Guadalupe Mountains (Adam, Sean, and I would discover more on that later), but Sean and I did begin to notice what appeared to be evidence of fossils in rocks along the trail.
Across Pine Canyon from the ridge we were hiking, the great bulk of Guadalupe Peak rose dramatically above both the canyon and the flat lands beyond. As dramatic as the view was, the summit of Guadalupe Peak was hidden in the clouds.
The trail crossed a narrow saddle in the ridge and revealed the upper portion of Pine Canyon. A couple of hikers whom we’d noticed on the trail earlier were resting on the saddle taking in the view on either side and having some lunch.
We pressed on.
From here the trail climbed the other side of the ridge back toward the main escarpment of the range.
Beneath us was the route up Pine Canyon with washes of fall color still on the Big Tooth Maples.
Jagged limestone formations descended into the canyon. We didn’t know it then, but we were looking at a broken fin of rock called the Devil’s Gate.
We met a lone hiker descending the trail. He was on his way back down from an early day hike. We chatted a bit, and he confirmed how beautiful it was up in the high country. He guessed our packs were about 50 pounds, and we confirmed he was right. He wished us luck on our adventure.
Every time we paused to rest, we had a look back down at the ridge and the shoulder of Guadalupe Peak. It didn’t suck, as Angela would say.
As we increased in elevation up a west-facing slope, the vegetation became a bit more lush with juniper and shrubs.
A series of long, gentle switchbacks led us right up to the weird, gnarled outcrops that defined the ridge and that were visible (from the other side) from the campground at Pine Springs.
I had not guessed that the trail would bring us so close to them. It was another testament to the quality of the trail’s design.
Across the canyon, we noted switchbacks of the Guadalupe Peak Trail steeply climbing the mountain’s shoulder.
Our trail, by contrast, continued its sinuous course up toward the top of the escarpment. We now could if not quite see our destination, at least glean that we were going to emerge among the taller trees near a slight knob (just about in the middle of the photograph above).
Behind us, the trail’s sinuous design was clear.
By this point, we were getting tired, and I could feel a blister forming on my right heel. We stopped for a snack and said hello to a pair of hikers (not the ones we’d passed) who passed us. They were a guy in his 30s and a guy in his 50s (maybe father and son). Their pace was more aggressive than ours.
On we went, ever closer to our destination.
Despite allowing ourselves lots of breaks and rests, I was pleased that we were clearly going to conquer this long-anticipated hike. And we were going to do it more strongly than our hike up Laguna Meadows Trail in the Chisos Mountains five years earlier. Although five years older, we were both stronger hikers.
And I was also gratified that I had no inkling of the acrophobia that had plagued me at Sequoia and Glacier during the summer. I knew the unnerving saddle of the Notch was coming on day three of our trek, but there was no need to worry about that now.
The trail wound around one final ridge, and we were in the home stretch.
Now Piñon Pine joined the Alligator Juniper as we rapidly approached the top of the escarpment.
We took one last break at a sharp right turn before the final push to the top. While we rested, the two fellows who’d passed us earlier appeared descending the trail. They looked at us confusedly before they realized they were going the wrong way. Their destination was Blue Ridge, but they had somehow gotten turned around at the big multi-trail intersection where Tejas Trail reached the top of the escarpment. They were thrilled that we were still coming up the trail so that they didn’t continue even further down before realizing their error. They did not need extra mileage since they still had over four miles to go before they reached their camp.
After they disappeared, we marched up the final hundred yards to the top.
Sean Santos got there ahead of me.
It was a great view.
As if by plan, Ponderosa Pines greeted us at the trail intersection at the edge of the high country. Welcome. You made it, they seemed to say.
At this intersection, we left Tejas Trail and headed toward Pine Top Campground 0.2 miles up Bush Mountain Trail.
The final tenth of a mile before the campground was steep and (even worse) somewhat boulder-y. I was done. In my notes from that evening, I described it as “rough a.f.”
We arrived at Pine Top at just after 2pm, and we still had three hours before sunset.
According to my GPS tracker, our first day’s hike was a total distance of 4.4 miles. It took us 3 hours, 59 minutes. Our total ascent was 2,359 feet with a paltry 200 feet of descent across the entire hike. Our minimum elevation was in the wash near the trailhead at 5,819 feet. Our maximum elevation was at Pine Top at 8,040 feet.
The backcountry campground consisted of eight primitive sites (really just level tent pads demarcated by logs). Immediately, Sean spied a nice one, but we dropped our packs and had a look at each of the six available sites (two sites were already occupied by other backpackers).
We ended up at the site Sean first eyed. It appeared to be the lowest in elevation of the eight, but it was private and had a better view than probably any of the others.
We set up camp and hung Sean’s clothes that had been affected by the leaky dromedary to dry. The effects of the leak were more extensive than we’d first thought, but happily the sun was warm and there was a cool, steady breeze blowing from the top of the ridge.
After we set up camp, we sat in the late afternoon sunshine and read for a while. I chose to carry Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild in my pack for my reading material. It was my third or fourth time through this extraordinary book.
The sun began dropping to the west, and the undulating topography to the east beyond the Guadalupes began to reveal itself. It was far less flat than it had appeared earlier in the day.
Around four, we were visited by a family of Mule Deer. They browsed the ridge, crisscrossing below our site and paying us no heed at all.
Pine Top is at just about 8,000 feet. Across from us, Hunter Peak rose 366 feet higher.
The skies had steadily been clearing all afternoon, and now Guadalupe Peak, highest in Texas, was visible from just downslope from our campsite.
I suggested that we walk over to the other side of the ridge to see the sunset right around 5pm. So we set off. My blister was angry, and Sean was wearing boat shoes he’d brought for hanging around in camp, so we took it easy.
From our vantage point, the sun disappeared just to the right of Shumard Peak (8,615 feet).
We returned to camp while the sun still glowed on Hunter Peak.
We noticed three human figures on top of Hunter Peak. I guessed that they were three fellows who’d walked out of camp about forty-five minutes earlier, particularly since Pine Top is by far the closest campground to Hunter Peak. I said to Sean that if we saw them return, we’d know for sure.
The cool wind turned cold, and the temperature began to drop as we prepped our dinner of dehydrated chicken and rice. We had dark chocolate-covered almonds and cashews for dessert because we’re not uncivilized, even in the backcountry.
The three fellows returned wearing headlamps. So they had indeed been the figures on Hunter Peak.
While we were waiting for the stars to come out, the family of Mule Deer returned. They were particularly attracted to one area of the slope below us, and I suspected that they were possibly attracted by the salt in our urine.
It was getting colder and windier, but we braved it for some first-rate stargazing. The Swan was flying along the bright smudge of the Milky Way. Mars and Neptune were visible near each other to the southeast. And the sliver of the waxing moon revealed that it was still a sphere and not a crescent.
I managed to capture a photo that approximated the effect.
By about 6:30pm, it was getting uncomfortably cold, so I made a hot water bottle and we climbed into the tent.
Before I could settle in, I checked my blister, which had already ruptured. So I pulled out the first aid kit and cleaned it out and bandaged it. I really should have been more attentive and stopped on the trail to apply a moleskin when I felt it coming on. I’d just have to live with it for the remainder of the trip.
We read for a while in our sleeping bags before turning off our lamps and trying for sleep. I slept fitfully and dreamed about everything from vertigo (I felt that the whole mountain was tipping to throw me off it) to murder (a weird peak-TV sort of thing where a young man was murdered but his corpse could talk to help solve the murder). Multiple times I counted National parks instead of counting sheep to help me fall back to sleep.