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.
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.
It was a fair question coming from a 60ish guy in Pine Springs Visitor Center of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in far West Texas. He was on a six-week road trip in the southwest and had just received his backcountry permit from the very pleasant Ranger Michael. The fellow’s hike was the reverse route of what Sean and I had completed a couple days earlier, and we were chatting about the route.
“You’re from Chicago and you decided to spend your 40th birthday here? Why?”
It was Wednesday morning, November 13, and it was time to go home, but still we wanted to get in one more short hike before driving back to El Paso for our flight. We drank some hotel room coffee while we loaded the car with the gear we had packed the night before. The visibility was better, but still not great.
Our destination that morning was Grapevine Hills and its famous balanced rock. In my mind I was already calculating: if we arrive at the trailhead by such time and on average it takes us so long to do a hike of said length then we should be starting the drive to El Paso by that time which makes it possible to catch our flight and so forth.
The store and visitor center are visible across the parking lot from the door of our room at the Chisos Mountains Lodge. The formation behind them is visible too. The wall of mountains behind that, which forms the north wall of the Basin, is not.
It was Tuesday afternoon, November 12, our final afternoon at Big Bend National Park. We were back in Chisos Basin earlier than we had planned, driven from the high mountains by the mist and clouds. We ate through some of our remaining bars and food for lunch, but not before I had consulted “Butterflies of the Big Bend Country” in the store to determine the species of our butterfly companion: Lyside Sulphur.
We would be spending our final night at the park in the Chisos Mountains Lodge here in the Basin. We inquired about early check-in, but our room wasn’t ready. While we were in the lobby, we overheard staff talking about possible road closures, which made us a little nervous. The visibility was still horrible, and we wanted to drive down out of the mountains (in the hope that visibility was better in the desert below) and see a few more sights this final afternoon.
We went into the visitor center and consulted with the ranger. He said that when he’d last had a report, the visibility at park headquarters at Panther Junction in the desert below was about the same as it was here in the Basin. But he said there was no reason or even remotest possibility that the road into the Chisos would close. He told us that this weather, unusual for the time of year, had happened often in the preceding weeks, and that some occurrences were worse than this. He also said that this time of slow seeping rain/drizzle was excellent for the desert because it would soak into the land, as opposed to sudden torrential storms that just wash over the surface.
On Monday afternoon, November 11, not long after we began my big birthday backpack into the High Chisos Mountains Complex, we were switchbacking up Laguna Meadow Trail, still within sight of the lodge buildings, when Sean, who had been in front but was now behind since I’d requested a slower pace, said:
“There’s an insect on your backpack.”
“What kind of insect?” I asked.
“A butterfly,” he replied.
“Take a photo.”
We stopped. He snapped a few photos of the yellow-green butterfly. And we continued on, assuming like most times that a curious dragonfly or a shy moth landed on us during a hike, that it would soon fly away. Some forty-five minutes later, he mentioned that the insect was still there.
In the growing light before dawn, we were awakened by a soft rain. We made sure that our gear was covered, and climbed back into our sleeping bags to doze for another hour or so. At 7:30, I woke up in earnest. Outside our tent it had stopped raining, but the mist had rolled in, making the world chilly and moody and destroying any visibility. It was my 35th birthday, Tuesday, November 12.
After a morning spent exploring Burro Mesa and striking our camp at Cottonwood, we drove to the heart of Big Bend National Park: Chisos Basin. We had reserved our backcountry campsite the day before and planned to hike into the mountains for an overnight backpack trip. I wanted to wake up the following morning, Tuesday, November 12, on my 35th birthday in the Chisos Mountains.
Monday, November 11, Sean and I had the morning to spend exploring the southwestern portion of Big Bend before we broke camp at Cottonwood and hiked into the Chisos in the afternoon. There were still many things to see in this part of the park, but it was time to pick just one or two.
We grabbed our day packs, water, and snacks and headed toward Burro Mesa.
After our day of exploring three canyons, visiting hot springs, and lunching in Mexico, it was time to head back to our campsite at Cottonwood Campground. The sun was setting in earnest as we passed back around the great bulk of the Chisos Mountains at the center of the park. On the western slopes, the dramatic light of the setting sun caused us to pull over and take in the vista.
Perhaps the most striking elements of the western face of the Chisos range are the lines of igneous rock that cut like huge, ancient stone walls across the slopes. These are lines of magma that pushed up and cooled beneath the earth. The hard igneous rock that forms them was left standing when the softer sedimentary deposits eroded away. In the light of the setting sun, they were particularly striking.