The morning of November 13 was cloudless and cold. The pre-dawn low temperature was eighteen degrees, which would have been a camping record for Sean and me had we not beaten it by at least ten degrees the previous morning up in the mountains. Nevertheless, we anticipated a day of adventure with Adam and Phil, and particularly Sylvan, who would go on his very first hike in a National Park.
We were up as usual with the sun at 6:30am. Although it was very cold, Sylvan had come through his first night of camping just fine. The guys had lots of blankets and down comforters in their tent, and Adam remarked that he was ultimately less concerned about the cold and Sylvan than he was about him smothering under all the blankets. Actually, the not-quite-two-year-old probably slept the best of all of us. His dads were a little restless with the cold and concern that he was ok, and Sean and I were stiff and a bit wrecked still from our three days of backpacking.
Given the cold, the sparsely populated campground came to life slowly this Tuesday morning. We confirmed with campground host, Nancy, that we were going to stay for another couple of nights. She kept remarking on the temperature. The normal overnight low at the Park this time of year was fifty with an average daytime high in the seventies. That had been the temperature the previous week, and the Park expected to return to those temps later that week. We just happened to be in the Park during a cold snap that was slowly moving across North America (Chicago got its first snow of the season while we were gone).
But at least it was sunny. That and hot campsite percolator coffee warmed us up.
We breakfasted on scrambled eggs and bacon rolled into wraps with cheese and avocado. While we were cooking, Sylvan had lots to explore in our campsite and its immediate environs. The low Chihuahuan Desert shrubs were like a maze of trees for him.
Sean did KP. Then we all readied for a nice day hike on El Capitan Trail.
El Capitan Trail is an 11.4-mile lollipop loop that traverses the foothills of the southern end of the Guadalupe Mountains from Pine Springs to the base of the El Capitan escarpment and back. It is rated moderate because, although long, it has only a gentle rise.
We in no way intended to do the entire 11.4 miles with Sylvan. But we figured we’d do a nice out-and-back and see what there was to see.
At 10:45, we set out on Sylvan’s first National Park hike.
I was surprised that the guys didn’t have a carrier for Sylvan. Adam and I had talked about it when they were contemplating joining us for the backpacking part of the trip, but then the idea got dropped when they decided that backpacking would be too much. So Sylvan needed to ride piggyback on either Papa or Dada’s shoulders.
At the trailhead, El Capitan Trail swings east to bank around a low ridge south of the campground.
Although an easy hike, we got enough elevation to look down on the campground at the broad mouth of Pine Canyon.
Beneath us, the highway connecting Carlsbad, New Mexico with El Paso, Texas wound through the foothills of the range. Little Sylvan was mindful of the built world around us, excitedly pointing out trucks and buses on the highway and airplanes that were little silver gleams against the blue morning sky.
As we hiked, we discussed the National Park Service’s policy on drones, which led to broader conversations about the attitudes toward natural resource and land use among the Park Service and Forest Service and the Departments of Interior and Agriculture more generally.
As the trail curved around the eastern edge of the low ridge, we were treated to our first views of El Capitan in the distance.
The trail leveled out and our views of the highway and the campground disappeared. Sylvan wanted to get down and walk on his own.
There was so much to explore from the rocks and grasses and little insects to the don’t-touch prickly pear and sotol.
Farther along, Guadalupe Peak, the highest in Texas, came into view.
Flocks of Western Bluebirds and a few scattered American Robins kept us company on the hike. They were all having their breakfasts in the shrubbery.
Wherever the trail was smooth and flat, the guys let Sylvan down to walk himself. Our baby’s pace afforded me the time to get more photos. Things were getting iconic…El Capitan and dead branches…
…El Capitan and mezcal…
…El Capitan and mezcal again…
The trail crossed a wash incised surprisingly steeply into the gradual slope of the foothills. Adam definitely had to carry Sylvan through this section.
After about an hour, Sylvan (and Adam) were ready for a rest. I volunteered to go ahead over the next low ridge and see if the scenery changed much while the other four rested and had a snack.
Up over the ridge, the views weren’t much different, and I could see that the trail was going to start climbing a bit. It was probably a good place to turn around with the baby.
I grabbed a quick 360-degree video, and retraced my steps over the low ridge to the others.
On the way back, Sylvan consistently pointed out the Prickly Pear Cactus as we passed clusters of it. It had clearly become his favorite example of Chihuahuan Desert flora.
In all, we did a very pleasant 2.4-mile out and back over two hours, an impressive portion of which Sylvan walked himself.
Back in camp, Sean and Sylvan caught up on their screen time while we had a lunch of peanut butter and jelly and ham and cheese sandwiches.
After lunch, Sylvan and Phil climbed into their tent for a well-earned nap. Sean and Adam and I wondered where to go next.
Perhaps the Permian Reef Geology Trail?