Thursday, November 15 was our day of transition from Guadalupe Mountains National Park to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. With the backpacking trip as part one, car camping with Phil, Adam, and Sylvan as part two, we were now going to embark on part three and be joined by John, Catherine, and Mariana down from Chicago. But we wouldn’t be checking into our AirB&B in Carlsbad, New Mexico until the evening, so we still had much of the day to see a few more wonders in the Guadalupe Mountains.
The cold front that had joined us in the Park since the beginning had started to move on. At dawn, it was already forty degrees, much warmer than it had been at that time any other morning of the trip. It was so warm, in fact, that Sean and I had tossed off many of the blankets and comforters that covered us in the tent.
While we waited for water to boil for the morning’s first cups of coffee, we noticed that the birds in the campground were much more active than they’d been on previous mornings.
Once the coffee was ready, I suggested that we drive over to Frijole Ranch as we had the previous evening to see if there was any morning wildlife about, particularly Javelina.
Over at the ranch, we didn’t see any Javelina.
But we did spot a couple of Acorn Woodpeckers. Neat!
We returned to camp and began striking our tent and gear while we waited for Adam and Phil and Sylvan.
When the guys showed up, they arrived with pigs in blankets from the bakery in Carlsbad. Yum!
We discussed final plans for the day. We couldn’t check into the house until 4pm. And we absolutely wanted to go and see the sand dunes out on the western side of the Park. We decided to forego a return to McKittrick Canyon. Our previous day’s trek to Devil’s Hall had approximated the autumn-colored canyon experience of McKittrick. Instead, we’d do a shorter hike to Smith Spring.
We made short work of striking camp and then headed over to the visitor center to make our final purchases.
Ranger Michael turned on the orientation video for us. (Despite the photo above, Sean did not deliver a lecture.) The video was ok. But we really didn’t learn anything particularly new that we hadn’t already learned from the exhibitions, signage, and books we’d already seen.
Afterward, we thanked Ranger Michael for all his help over the past few days and headed back over to Frijole Ranch.
The historic ranch buildings are arranged around Frijole Spring, one of six springs within a three-mile radius of the buildings. Water at Frijole Spring seeps from the ground at the rate of six gallons per minute. This spring and the others nearby made ranch life possible in the early twentieth century. Then and now, all the water attracts wildlife, particularly birds taking advantage of the trees and shrubs watered by the springs.
John T. Smith founded the ranch in 1906, gradually adding buildings.
The museum in the main ranch house is only open on weekends, so we contented ourselves with exploring the grounds.
When we’d had our fill of the ranch grounds, we started our loop hike to Smith Spring. The trail is a 2.3-mile loop through the foothills of Frijole Ridge to the oasis of Smith Spring hidden in a shallow canyon. We decided to hike it counter-clockwise at the advice of the hiking guide.
We hadn’t gone far when we encountered a Phainopepla, the first I’d ever seen. A resident of central Mexico and Baja California that breeds in three of the four deserts (the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave) in the southwestern United States, it’s like a sooty cardinal with a striking red eye. I’d have to tell John later that evening!
The Phainopepla was followed almost immediately by a striking Mountain Bluebird.
We reached Manzanita Spring, which was a small pond. The signage with a photo of the Smith family captured Sean’s fancy, and he began to invent stories about the teenage son and how he would often invite the farmhands up to the house for lemonade and pie. To add to the daffiness, which would follow us on the whole hike, Sean’s accent for this Texas teenager from the first decades of the twentieth century sounded a lot like Katharine Hepburn and her invented mid-Atlantic accent of Hollywood films.
After Manzanita Spring, the trail, which had been paved, shifted to a standard dirt and rock trail for the duration.
The elevation gain wasn’t particularly challenging, but we were rising as we approached the mountains. Behind us, Nipple Hill stood near the highway at the Park’s boundary.
Meanwhile, Sean’s teenager from long ago was prattling on to the the ranch hands about cod and chowder. Clearly the Katharine Hepburn accent was taking over.
“How on earth do they have fresh cod and chowder in West Texas in 1914?” I asked.
Sylvan continued to point out Prickly Pear. By this point in the trip, Adam had decided to add the species to their little conservatory back home.
In the distance, a cluster of canopy was evidence of water flowing at our destination.
We dropped into a ravine as we approached the shallow canyon.
Beyond the ravine, the desert shrub grew thicker and we began to pass scraggly Ponderosa Pines.
Looking back, we were surprised at how far we’d actually come.
Then after 1.1 miles of hiking, we reached the lovely oasis of Smith Spring. We had started hiking around 11:30am, and it had taken us about forty-five minutes to get to the spring (which included some sections of the hike at Sylvan’s pace when he preferred to walk).
I remarked to Adam that this really must have been a nice piece of property for a small ranch one hundred years ago.
“Sometimes I come here with the ranch hands,” remarked Sean, still in the mid-Atlantic accent of the long-ago teenager.
Sean and I lingered at the spring after the guys continued on, partly to give them a bit of a head start, and partly because it was just such a warm and lovely autumn day there at the spring.
But soon we too continued on the trail as it looped down from the foothills back toward Frijole Ranch.
Out in the distance beyond the Park, the noonday sun glinted off the low buildings of an oil operation.
(Can you spot Phil and Adam and Sylvan in the photo above?)
Our hike back was quick, barely half an hour, and by a few minutes after one, we were pulling supplies from the cars for a picnic lunch. In all it was a lovely little 2.3-mile hike that took us an hour and a half.
While we lunched, Sylvan called “Down! Down!” to the Ravens lingering in the junipers nearby. He wanted them to come closer and converse with him.
After lunch, we were ready for our final Guadalupe Mountains National Park adventure, a visit to the Gypsum Dunes.
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