Next morning, Sunday, November 11, I woke in our tent at Pine Top before sunrise. Sean and I had a full day of hiking ahead of us, some 7.8 backcountry miles to the primitive campground on McKittrick Ridge up closer to the Park’s northern boundary and the state line.
My phone was dead, but it must have been a little after six by the light. Sean was sleeping, so I climbed carefully out of the tent and pulled on my boots. I nearly yelped in pain as the boot slid into place on my right foot. The blister that had developed on the previous day’s climb into the mountains was no joke. Once outside, though, I gave the pain no heed. I peed downslope from our site and then settled into my backpacking chair to watch the pre-sunrise light change and grow on the low country below.
It appeared that the actual sunrise would be blocked by Hunter Peak. But the clouds in the morning sky pulled the spectacle up to where I could see it.
The sun was well up before it finally “rose” behind Hunter Peak. By then, I had the coffee going.
At about a quarter to seven, Sean poked his head out of the tent while I was reading and sipping coffee.
It was about at this point of the morning that we saw the three fellows camping near us at Pine Top hit the trail. At the time, we barely noted it, but it would turn out that we were not to see another human being (besides each other) for the next twenty-seven and a half hours. But we didn’t know that then.
Although there were clouds resting on the eastern horizon, it promised to be a sunny day in the high country, and we knew from the weather report we’d seen at the visitor center two days before that this full day in the mountains was the warmest and fairest weather we were to expect in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. So far, it didn’t disappoint.
We made more coffee and ate breakfast skillet while the warming sun climbed higher.
We decided to eschew hiking up to the top of Hunter Peak in favor of a relaxing morning in the high country before our hike to McKittrick Ridge. We missed out on some views, but it was the right decision. It was also not the decision we likely would have made five years earlier, the last time we celebrated my birthday in the mountains of a National Park in West Texas. But we were a little older and a little wiser. The sun was warm, and relaxing in it was lovely. Plus, our feet and legs ached from the climb into the high country, and we wanted to pace ourselves. And the family of Mule Deer came back to visit.
By a quarter to ten, however, we had struck camp and packed up.
We set off and dropped quickly down the 0.2-mile spur from Pine Top Campground to the junction with Tejas Trail.
At the junction, we turned north, continuing on Tejas Trail, which we’d begun hiking the day before down at Pine Springs.
The forest was a mix of Alligator Juniper, Piñon Pine, and Ponderosa Pine with an understory of prairie plants, wildflowers, and Chihuahuan Desert plants.
It had been burnt. That and the time of year meant that it was not lush. I was actually surprised at how not-lush it was because so much of the literature about the Park talks about the lush forests of the high country. Certainly compared to the Chihuahuan Desert of the lowlands, it was more green. And I don’t want to discount the presence of Ponderosa Pines and oaks and maples in this island in the sky, but I had been expecting something more actually lush. Again, I suspect that the extensive burning played a part on my impression.
The trail undulated as we skirted the part of the high country known as The Bowl, a forested depression ringed by mountain ridges. A popular day hike in the Park is to ascend Tejas Trail, hike around The Bowl, hit Hunter Peak, and descend steep Bear Canyon Trail.
As we hiked along, we both began to second guess that we were on the right path. I began to wonder because the trail was far more up-and-down than I’d been expecting. I was very glad we’d chosen Pine Top instead of Tejas for our first night’s camp because I’d likely have been very grumpy about this rocky, undulating trail, which was described in the hiking guide as basically a gentle descent. Sean really began questioning our route when we climbed over yet another downed tree across the trail. He observed that it just didn’t feel like a major maintained trail in a National Park. He was right. Iit was surprisingly rough for the major north-south trail in the Park.
But there really wasn’t another trail, and the GPS indicated we were basically on the right track.
Then at the bottom of a switchbacked descent (which was not apparent on any of the maps), we reached the junction with Juniper Trail. We were right where we were supposed to be.
Our trail at this point followed a dry creek bed.
And shortly we reached Tejas Campground. We dropped our packs and settled in for a snack. It was shortly after 11, so we really hadn’t been hiking all that long.
In terms of the weight of my pack, I was doing fine. But the weight of my camera hanging from my neck was beginning to be a problem. So while we were eating, I looped my camera strap through a strap that led from the armature of my pack to its “brain,” This pulled the camera up off my neck, but kept it still convenient at my chest. It was so much better! I just had to be mindful not to get tangled up or bash my camera on the ground when I dropped my pack.
We continued on from what was actually the lowest elevation point of that day’s hike.
Since Tejas Trail is the major north-south artery, a fair number of trails branch off from it. That meant that for the next section of the hike, we were able to gauge our progress easily: 0.7 miles to the next junction, 1.1 miles to the next campsite, and so forth.
The inclines were rough. I found myself stopping to take photos and catch my breath. It’s a toss-up which was the real motivation for stopping at any given point.
We were climbing pretty steadily in the heart of the Park.
It was fast becoming clear that the imposing formation ahead of us was McKittrick Ridge, our destination. I was not thrilled that it was likelier and likelier that our trail was going to follow the striations of stone up and around that rise. I really didn’t want my acrophobia to hit me on this long-anticipated hike.
Up on a ridge above Mescalero Campground, we came upon a little bench made of rock. We took advantage of it, and I helped Sean adjust his pack.
We continued on. The ridge we were now climbing led up to McKittrick Ridge, but off to our left was West Dog Canyon, part of the Park’s more remote and seldom visited northwestern section.
Beyond West Dog Canyon was the state line and New Mexico in the distance.
This part of the Park had been hit particularly hard by wildland fire. With virtually all the trees on the slope dead, the wind whipped up the slope.
From up here McKittrick Ridge didn’t look quite so intimidating.
At 1pm, we reached McKittrick Ridge and the junction with McKittrick Canyon Trail.
It was a good place to have a second trail snack. Sean tried to take our photo together, but instead captured a nice little video.
Beneath the ridge was Dog Canyon. Tejas Trail continued down to a ranger station and campground just south of the state line.
But we were finally at the point where we’d leave Tejas Trail and continue east along McKittrick Ridge.
It wasn’t nearly so unnerving to be on the ridge as it appeared to be from a distance.
Up over the rise, we got our first look at South McKittrick Canyon, a landscape so special and fragile that the National Park Service lets no one into it. Only researchers with clearance are allowed into the canyon. The closest lay visitors can come is the ridge Sean and I were about to traverse.
And then out in the distance I saw the dramatic saddle that I knew we’d have to cross on the third day of hike.
(At the time, I thought that the saddle (or perhaps the notch in the rock above and to the right of it) was “The Notch,” a famous spot along the trail with views of South McKittrick Canyon. That impression was reinforced by an account of this backpacking route I had read years ago (and can’t find now) that talked about the saddle at The Notch with its sheer drops thousands of feet on either side. Apparently, though, the dramatic saddle and notch are not The Notch, which is farther along the trail and much lower. My confusion was warranted, though, because Bill Schneider’s Falcon guide to the Park visually indicates that The Notch is near this higher notch, but the mileage doesn’t match up. The point on Google maps indicating The Notch does not precisely match the only Park Service map indicating The Notch, but that map is low-res, so it’s hard to tell. I’ll get into more detail in the next post, but for now, I’ve decided that The Notch is a state of mind.)
I very lightly freaked out about that saddle. But crossing it was in the future, and I couldn’t worry about it now.
It remained very windy along the slope of the ridge, and we anticipated being shielded from the wind a bit when the trail wound around the backside of one of the peaks along the ridge.
As the trail wound away from McKittrick Canyon, vistas northwest into New Mexico emerged.
This part of the forest too had burned extensively.
The trail wound back toward South McKittrick Canyon.
Our route lay down a slope and along the spine of a narrow ridge. In my mind, I thought that this might be a reasonable rehearsal for the saddle awaiting us the next day.
Where the saddle met the main ridge, there was a lovely, quiet bend in the trail right at the very top of Devils Den Canyon.
The ridge turned out to be broad, and the wind had died down a bit.
Up ahead, no matter what it was called, our next day’s route clearly led across that saddle, up onto that massif, and then down the other side of it in a series of crazy switchbacks. Such an adventure awaited us!
Meanwhile to our right, we could see down into South McKittrick Canyon, all the way to the bottom some 1,200 feet below.
The trail left the narrow ridge and headed back into the forest for a final climb up to the top of McKittrick Ridge and the backcountry campground.
Whatever awaited us beyond that rise the next day, the remainder of our day would be restful because we’d made it to our stopping point.
We arrived at McKittrick Ridge Campground at 3:15pm.
Our second day’s hike was 8.3 miles and took five hours and forty-two minutes. Although it was undulating terrain and not a steady climb like the previous day, we still did a total ascent of 2,897 feet. Our total descent, though, was 3,271 feet. The highest elevation was right at the start at Pine Top Campground (8,040 feet), and the lowest elevation was also early in the hike at Tejas Campground (7,368 feet).
We chose campsite six. It wasn’t the most private, but there was no one else there, so it hardly mattered.
Sean nixed the two most secluded sites because they had features that felt weird and altar-like.
Perhaps it was because we’d not seen any other humans since early that morning…and actually we’d seen virtually no wildlife either save for some American Robins and some distant raptors…but McKittrick Ridge Campground felt extremely remote and secluded.
It was also pretty cold and very windy. Happily there was still a bit of sun to warm us up a bit.
By 5:15pm, the sun was gone.
After I snapped that last photo, I remarked to Sean that the sun was setting on my thirties. His response: “If it’s any consolation, you’ve always seemed older.”
We braved the increasing cold with a dinner of piping hot chicken and dumplings and some dark chocolate covered nuts for dessert.
Then after a quick KP, we climbed into the tent. We weren’t particularly tired, but it was getting too cold to sit up and wait for the Milky Way. So Sean played a video game on his phone while I caught up writing notes about the trip and then read some more Gary Snyder.
Eventually, I climbed out of the tent to pee. Clouds had begun to roll in, so it was intensely dark beyond the gleam of my headlamp. It was genuinely eerie. It was definitely the first time in all our National Park travels that I’d described a feeling as eerie. There is a mysterious vibe to the Guadalupes.
I looked around with my headlamp, half expecting to see the glowing eyes of a cougar or something reflected in the darkness. But there was nothing out there.
Then I climbed back into the tent and went to sleep. That night I dreamed, among other dreams, that I was Elizabeth Warren’s roommate.