Side of the Road: Chihuahua Desert

I’ve decided to add a new category of post: Side of the Road. These posts will be for those micro-adventures that can often be found right off the beaten path; the interesting structure or a trail you hadn’t noticed before, a sign that points you down a road you would normally bypass. We wanderlusts like to find adventure where ever we can, and when we can’t afford to drive or fly somewhere, we find things to explore right down the road.

Of course, this Side of the Road is a pretty epic one, but there has to be some kind of catalyst for spawning a new category of post.

A couple of my friends and I were attended a conference in Austin, Texas and took a few vacation days after to do some hiking in Texas. We hiked Guadalupe Peak, El Capitan and Devil’s Hall in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. While driving west on route 180 just after the Guadalupe Mountains we crossed the the Chihuahua Desert. We pulled over to the side of the road so we could check out the salt flats and nab some photos of ourselves in the desert. The salt flats are all that remains of a giant lake that once stood at the same location 1.8 billion years ago, it it was definitely worth a stopping to check it out.

Me in the Chihuahua salt flats

Me in the Chihuahua salt flats, Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan in the background

Surprisingly, the flats were mud just under the salt crust and we had to walk gingerly as to not slip. We were just starting to head back to the highway, a few hundred feet away, when we heard the sound of an airplane approaching. I looked to the east and saw a single prop plane that appeared to be coming in for a landing directly at me. I ran to catch up with the others and get out of the plane’s path. When I felt I was a safe distance away I pulled out my phone and caught some video of the plane. Rather than land, it pulled up as it passed us, not 20 feet above the desert, and dipped its wing. I didn’t catch it, but apparently the pilot was smiling and flashing the peace sign as he passed.

video-icon Video of plane

We assumed that the highway was patrolled by police in airplanes and upon seeing us out in the desert they flew close to investigate. My heartbeat raced for a few minutes afterward, but in all it was a fun experience. When I got back to Maine, 22 hours later, I still had mud and salt stuck to my shoes and the cuffs of my pants. I made sure to scrape some off into my yard.

Water, water, water… There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount…
—Edward Abbey

References:
El Paso Salt War.” nps.gov. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 19 April 2014.

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Hike: Devil’s Hall

Hike date: 14 March 2014

When Mike, John and I hiked Guadalupe Peak, one thing that stood out to us at the beginning of the hike was the canyon that ran next to the campground, Pine Spring Canyon. From the Guadalupe Peak trail we could see down into the canyon and decided that the following day we would try to hike into the canyon, whether or not there was a trail, before heading to El Paso and leaving Texas. Upon returning to our camp that evening we consulted our maps and decided that the Devil’s Hall trail must traverse the canyon’s floor.

Once we had packed up camp in the morning we headed out for Devil’s Hall. The trail was the perfect follow up to the rugged hiking and bushwhacking we had endured the previous day. There was very little elevation gain and the scenery was a stark contrast. Rather than distant peaks and long desert views we were surrounded by sloping valleys, overshadowed by staggering peaks and walking among the cacti, yucca and madrone trees.

About a mile into the hike the trail left the canyon’s rim and entered the canyon itself. From there on the trail followed the dry river bed. The river bed was scattered with large boulders, the most efficient route marked by small cairns. We gradually made our way up the canyon, taking our time investigating the rock formations and pointing out the abundant lizards.

After a bend in the river bed and making our way through a gap cut through a small ridge (later investigation revealed that the gap was called Devil’s Gate), we came upon Hiker’s Staircase. There was a pool-shaped indention cut into the rock on the river bed backed by a steep, natural staircase. I couldn’t help but imagine what the pool would look like with a torrent of muddy water ripping through after a flash thunderstorm. Mike wouldn’t have standed a chance basking in the bottom of the pool, as if laying on a pool float.

Hiker's Staircase near Devil's Hallway

Hiker’s Staircase near Devil’s Hall

A short distance after Hiker’s Staircase we came upon a large cliff aswarm with swallows nesting on its face. I attempted to take some video of their activity but they seemed to have stage fright and stopped their frantic fluttering every time I attempted to capture it.

Around a small bend after the cliff was the slot canyon itself, Devil’s Hall. It was my first slot canyon and was rather impressive. It may have been 100 feet high at its tallest and at most a dozen feet wide.

Devil's Hall

Devil’s Hall

The shade and wind that funneled through the slot canyon was a nice break from the Texas sun. We stopped for some photos and an older couple offered to take our photo and we reciprocated. They were the second great coincidence on the trip to Texas. John noticed the man’s Maine accent and Bar Harbor t-shirt. It turned out they were from Eastport. There we were, two groups of people in a slot canyon, miles from the closest road, way out in the deserts of western Texas, and we were all from Maine.

Looking up

Looking up

After taking a break for some water and trail food we made our way back out of Devil’s Hall and Pine Spring Canyon. It was definitely a worthwhile hike and a good way to mix up the scenery and terrain after spending the previous day up in the mountains. After four days of car traveling, camping and hiking we were pretty rank. We “showered” with some wet wipes that John scored at the conference we attended earlier in the week and then we headed across the Chihuahua Desert to El Paso for our red eye flight back to the northeast.

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.
—Edward Abbey

Map of Hike

Map of Hike

Stats:
Elevation: 6400′
Elevation Gain: 400′
Distance: 4.2 miles
Book Time: 2:30
Actual Time: 3:00
Temperature: 74° F
Wind: minimal
Weather: mostly sunny

References:
Devil’s Hall Trail.” nps.gov. National Park Services, U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 15 April 2014.

Hike: El Capitan Bushwhack

Hike date: 13 March 2014

I stood with John and Mike on the Top of Texas, Guadalupe Peak, and stared at the peak to the south. El Capitan was truly spectacular to behold. Three sides of the mountain a cliff that dropped 1000′ to the slopes below which dropped another 2000′ to the Chihuahua Desert. The fourth side of the mountain a 500′ slope that angled at about 30 degrees so the western side was much higher than the eastern side. It was one of those peaks that you looked at and thought: “I have to climb that.”

Internally, I struggled with some concerns about being able to accomplish the bushwhack without running out of water, of getting back to the campsite before nightfall, and of course the risk of being bit by a rattlesnake while trudging through the underbrush. I voiced my concerns to John whose response sealed the deal for me, “You only live once.”

While my hike mates explored the Guadalupe Peak and packed up, I did some research on bushwhacking to El Capitan. I found a SummitPost.org post that seemed to have the most details on the hike. I read it while looking down at El Capitan for some context. The resulting plan was to hike down the Guadalupe Peak Trail to a point where it was close to a small ridge that lead down to the ravine between the two mountains. Once we got off the trail we would ditch our packs in order to lighten our load, just bringing water and food. There was a large tree on the ridge that would be visible from anywhere on the hike that we could use as a reference point as to which ridge to climb back up. We would try to cross the ravine as high up as possible as the further we went down into it, the higher we would have to climb back up. On the other side of the ravine there seemed to be some animal trails or washes that we would follow to the summit, we would try to stay parallel to the cliff edge to minimize the total vertical to the summit. We would also return the same route.

The Plan

The Plan

With the plan shared and agreed upon by everyone, we hiked down to the spot where we would start our bushwhack. When I started hiking several years back and heard the term bushwhack I pictured people hiking through the jungle, chopping all vegetation out of their way with a machete. In the context of hiking in Maine and New Hampshire I thought it was a very disrespectful behavior for the protected land that I loved to hike. I thought bushwhacking should not be allowed as it completely went against the concept of land conservation, the principle that all of the state and national parks that I enjoyed were formed upon. Soon after I realized that it was just a term that meant hiking off trail.

Silly me.

It was here, standing among small bushes worrying about snakes, scorpions and other things which bite and sting that I realized from where the term probably came. Mike lead the way, whacking bushes and logs with his trekking pole in order startle any creature that was hiding under. I followed his footsteps with the confidence that he already proved them safe. It was not behavior that I would ever have practiced in New England, so the term never had any context to me. We were literally whacking bushes.

We got to a point 30 or 40 feet below the Guadalupe Peak Trail where there were a few boulders. We ditched our packs behind one so they could not be seen from above. As well as food and water, I pocketed my compass, a map, a knife and some rescue line and of course my phone. John and Mike also brought a trekking pole each. One of the great coincidences of our trip to Texas occurred here. Upon stashing his pack, John found a Bar Harbor Bike Shop hat in the bushes. What was the chance of a couple of Mainers finding a hat from Maine off trail in the mountains in western Texas? Pure craziness.

Mike continued to lead the way down the ravine. The going was slow as we got used to the whole bushwhacking procedure and stopped to discuss the best route down to the ravine. For the most part we stuck to the ridge line and tried to stay out of areas of think underbrush. As we fell away from the Guadalupe Peak trail, the voices of hikers fell away as well. Looking back we could see that traffic on the trail had picked up as mid day approached. We imagined the trail stompers above noticing us below, way off the trail, wonder what the hell we were doing.

The rocks we climbed were amazingly rough and dry. When I grabbed a boulder for support it felt like pumice stone and I could literally feel it chew away the soles of my shoes. The further we got into the ravine the hotter it got. We no longer had a gentle breeze that had blessed the peak and high trail above, the air was still and quiet. I worked hard at not sucking down all of my water at once. We got low enough in the ravine to find a good place to cross the wash and begin our ascent of El Capitan. On the other side of the wash there were indeed trails of stone through the underbrush that seemed to be from animals.

We made it up the first, steep slope and began to follow the cliff’s edge. To our right was The Horn, a sub peak of El Capitan that jutted out over the desert below like the prow of a boat. From reading hiking posts, many people climbed it first, but we decided to bypass it because it added quite a bit of ups and downs.

I’ve always been one to enjoy the view over a cliff or from the top of a tall building. The fear of height crawls up my spine the same as everyone, but I usually suppressed it well enough to bask in the view. We inched our way to the edge of the cliff and looked down, and it scared the shit out of me. A thousand foot drop is a massive drop. I stayed long enough to snap a photo, but the whole time I could imagine the ground I was standing on calving off and falling for several seconds to the still desert below, taking me with it.

1000 foot drop

1000 foot drop

We followed the cliff’s edge up to the peak, I for one stayed well away from it so I could pretend it wasn’t there. The mountain rose and fell in waves, and in places it was technical enough that we had to move further in away from the cliff or closer to the edge to continue on. We went over the north peak (which some people claim seems higher in elevation than the south peak, but I disagree) and got a view of the summit.

View of the summit from before the north peak

View of the summit from before the north peak

Between the north and south peaks was a forest of small pine trees. We had to pick our way through the trees, weaving in and around the low branches. We saw scat from the animals that made the game trails lower on the mountain and joked that it was probably mountain lion. The trees were thick enough that we could barely see the sky over the edge of the cliff and had no sense of how close to the peak we were. We abruptly exited the trees and had a great view of the desert to the south of El Capitan. Beside us were a few boulders and the ammo canister marking the summit.

Mike and me on the El Capitan summit

Mike and me on the El Capitan summit

The summit was one of the most solitary places I had ever visited. If it wasn’t for the ammo canister, my hiking mates and the road through the Chihuahua Desert there would have been no sign of humanity around. The copse of tree behind us sheltered any sound or sight of the hikers on Guadalupe Mountain and the highway to the south was too far away and below us for the sound to travel up. We slapped each other high-five with massive grins on our faces. It was one of the most rewarding moments in my hiking career.

I signed the log book while Mike and John called their families (we weren’t so separated from society that we didn’t have a cell signal). I wolfed down a Clif Bar, finished off my water and texted my wife to update her on our progress (I’m not a phone person).

There’s a funny thing about summits. You make plans and anticipate a particular summit for so long that when you finally get there it’s over and there’s nothing left to do but return.  There’s nothing really special about a summit. The view really isn’t much better than 20, or 50 or 100 feet before the summit. If you stopped 200 feet sooner and turned around it wouldn’t really take away from the massive journey that you endured to get to that point. The ending is subjective after all. For many people that day the ending was Guadalupe Peak. For us, that was just where the real adventure began. So often I get caught up in the target, that I don’t realize that it is the trip that is important. It reminds me of what Yvon Chouinard said in 180° South: “You get to the top … there’s nothing up there. Lionel Terray, the great French climber called it ‘The conquistadors of the useless.'”

After 15 or 20 minutes of trying to take in the moment and make it a memory I began to get anxious for the return trip. I knew we had a tiring hike ahead and it was closing in on 3:00pm; my northern clock was telling me that daylight was running out. We began hiking down the route we took to the summit and discussed whether it was better to follow the cliff’s edge again or cut lower on El Capitan’s angled face. Those who wanted to cut lower won out and in the end I think it saved us some time and PUDs (pointless ups and downs). We made it off the face of El Capitan and back into the ravine at roughly the same place we ascended.

Once in the ravine the temperature rose again and any sign of breeze disappeared. From the research I did, there was always a strong breeze on El Capitan (and the summit register reflected that). I guess we got lucky that there was no wind, but at that point I could have used some. The hike up the ridge to the Guadalupe Peak trail was a difficult one filled with many breaks looking back at El Capitan. It was unbelievable to look at it and consider that we just hiked it.

El Capitan from just above the ravine

El Capitan from just above the ravine

We continued to bushwhack our way back up Guadalupe, but the anxiousness of hidden snakes was gone for me. I trudged between the shrubs too beaten down by the sun and temperature to worry about snake bites. We even stopped for a 10 minute break and stretched out on the ground under our reference tree.

A short reprieve from the sun

A short reprieve from the sun

We got back to the Guadalupe Peak trail about four hours after we left Guadalupe Peak. The total distance and elevation gain was not huge, but given the difficult terrain, hot temperature and sun and the fact that it had begun after a 4 mile, 3000′ hike to Guadalupe Peak I think we made pretty good time. This was my first time bushwhacking and I certainly will not forget it any time soon. Bushwhacking in the northeast will present its own difficulties I’m sure, but we chose a pretty epic route for our first attempt.

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Map of Bushwhack

Map of Bushwhack

Stats:
Elevation: 8065′
Elevation Gain: 1325′
Distance:  1.9 miles
Book Time: none
Actual Time: 4:00
Temperature: hot
Wind: 0 mph
Weather: sunny

References:
180° South.” 180south.com. 180° South LLC. Web. 6 April 2014.
Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop.” barharborbike.com. The Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop. Web. 6 April 2014.
Company Info: Our History.” patagonia.com. Patagonia, inc. Web. 6 April 2014.
El Capitan Bushwack from Guadalupe Peak Trail.” summitpost.org. SummitPost.org. Web. 30 March 2014.

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Hike: Guadalupe Peak

Hike date: 13 March 2014

When an opportunity arises, you must seize it. That was the idea when a few friends of mine (John and Mike) and I realized that the highest point in Texas was not too far away from a conference we were scheduled to attend. “Not too far” is probably a relative term as most people wouldn’t be willing to tack on an eight hour drive to the end of a crazy week and a half of conferences. Yet that is exactly what we did.

When our conference ended, rather than flying directly back to Maine we rented a car and drove from Austin to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, stopping at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area,  Orla (a ghost town in western Texas), and Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, on the way. I had done a bunch of research prior to our trip (many thanks to the Redditors on /r/campingandhiking) and discovered that Guadalupe is one of the least visited national parks and its peak season is in October when the leaves change colors. The weather was supposed to be wonderful in March, as long as the wind holds out, and the park would be pretty empty.

Ghost Town

Orla, a ghost town on the drive west

Unfortunately, the week we were in Texas was spring break for seemingly the entire state. When we arrived at Pine Spring Campground, the campground nearest the Guadalupe Peak trailehead, we found it full. We talked to the ranger on duty and he informed us that our only available option was the BLM camping. His instructions were straight out of an episode of Breaking Bad:

Drive north on the highway until you hit the New Mexico border. At mile marker 5 you will see a dirt road on the right, pay attention or you’ll miss it. Take this road and pay attention to which way the wind is blowing. You can camp anywhere off the road but you don’t want the dust from the road falling on your tents as trucks will be using the road all night.

By trucks I think he meant RV meth labs.

Luck was in our favor as a nearby camper heard our plight and offered up his site. The night was cold for him and he would rather just sleep in his car. I think he heard that we were from Maine and figured that the winter night in Texas would be no colder than summer nights way up in Maine. He was mostly right. We set up camp, cooked some dinner, passed around some beer and wine and looked at the stars and moon with binoculars. We hit the sack a hour or so after dark, excited for the next morning.

Pine Springs

Our campsite at Pine Springs

We awoke to sunrise over the Chihuahuan desert and the howl of coyotes. It was the stuff of dreams. Except, that it was colder than most dreams. While filling water bottles, spilled water was freezing to the metal picnic table. It was a frosty cold morning, but not too cold for a bunch of Mainers.

Sunrise

Sunrise and coyote howls

video-icon Video of coyotes at sunrise

We got packed up for the hike and headed to the trailhead. On the way I noticed water was dripping from Mike’s backpack. We stopped so he could check his bladder and realized that the cover was no longer holding its seal. He headed back to the campsite to fill a couple of spare bottles. It is so dry in the desert that it is suggested that you carry at least 1 gallon of water per day. That is twice what I would normally carry for a dayhike, but it proved to be appropriate.

Starting the hike

Heading to the trailhead

Even though I did a bunch of winter hikes in February, I quickly realized how out of shape I was. These were not New England trails, they didn’t shoot straight to the summit following a ridge. The trails were nicely packed dirt and they switchbacked the entire way to the summit. The elevation gain was about 750′ per mile, but I was still out of breath pretty quickly.

I soon shed my fleece and sweatshirt as the temperature quickly rose out of the 30s. Even though the hike had just begun, the views were already incredible. Without the deep forests of the north and with the surrounding desert and prairies, there was little to obscure the view besides other mountains.

Posing on a precarious perch

Posing on a precarious perch

About a mile and half into the hike we had switchbacked up a face of the mountain and cut north of a ridge line. At that point we entered a small bowl on the northern face of the ridge and the trail dove into some pinyon pine trees. Though we lost the wondrous views for a while, this was one of the more interesting stretches of the hike. All along the side of the trail were large gray stones, and searching them carefully would reveal fossils. Here we were 7000′ above sea level and there were ancient reefs with fossils embedded on the side of the mountain. It was hard to believe that the mountain we were hiking was part if a massive reef system in the Delaware Ocean 300 million years ago.

Fossils

Fossils

The trail continued to follow the ridge line toward the peak, but on the slope rather than the peak of the ridge. A few more switchback brought us around a corner where we saw a small flat peak to the right which soon proved to be the location of the Guadalupe Peak back country campground. We had considered getting up early and waiting in line at the visitor center in hopes of getting one of five available daily permits that would have allowed us to camp there that night. Instead we had opted to hit the trail early so we would have a better chance of having enough time to bushwhack to El Capitan.

After the campground a sign stood telling horseback riders to walk their horses through the next section. To the right of the path a cliff dropped several hundred feet down and up ahead there was a small bridge over a gap in the trail. We stopped to take some photos of the bridge and risk a look over the edge of the cliff.

Bridge on Guadalupe Peak Trail

Bridge on Guadalupe Peak Trail

Soon after the bridge the trail moved over to the south side of the ridge and we got our first sight of El Capitan. The slope of Guadalupe dove down nearly 1000′ to a ravine deep between the two mountains. Slides of white stone stood out starkly against the tans and greens of short vegetation. On the other side of the ravine the slope of El Capitan rose 800′. The mountain itself was queer to the eye, the western side being much higher than the eastern and both sides dropped shockingly to the desert below. We all knew at once that we must climb it.

El Capitan from Guadalupe

El Capitan from Guadalupe

We climbed the remaining half mile to the top of Texas. I don’t recall if this portion was tough or not, only that it continued the switchbacked pattern of the rest of the trail. My mind was on El Capitan.

The view from the summit was amazing. To the north and northeast was the rest of the Guadalupe Mountains range. To the east was the flat peak of the back country campground and the rest of the ridge that we climbed to get to the peak. To the south was El Capitan and to the west was the white flatness of the Chihuahua Desert.

Chihuahua Desert

Chihuahua Desert

video-icon Video of Guapalupe Peak

Despite the haze in the distance, I felt that I could see farther than I had ever before. It was truly incredible. We sat, surrounded by a dozen other people who made the trip up that morning, and cooked some lunch. We signed the summit register and had our photos taken at the stainless steel pyramid that American Airlines had installed on the summit in 1958 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. In the 1930s American Airlines received a government contract for air mail between St. Louis and San Francisco, the same route that Butterfield Overland Mail Company had serviced. One of their stops were at the stage station near what is now the Pine Springs campground.

While John and Mike explored the summit, I stood at the south side looking down at El Capitan. Man, it was a long way down and back up to the peak, and it was looking really far away. I started considering whether we would have enough daylight. Then there were the rattlesnakes that the guy at REI in Austin warned us about. They were starting to come out of hibernation in March and were more aggressive when they did. So far we had been on trail the whole way, if we bushwhacked over to El Capitan we would certainly have to step through bushes and over dead logs. I expressed my concerns to John and he replied: “You only live once.” He was right, we would probably never have the opportunity to hike that crazy looking mountain again, we better just do it. We did a little research and planned our route and then headed down the trail to the point where we would start bushwhacking toward El Capitan.

After the hike over to El Capitan we were pretty much beat and looking forward to making it back to the campsite. Luckily the path was flat and not too steep all of the way to the trailhead. We made good time and got back to our campsite before sun had set.

Sun starting to set over Guadalupe Mountains

Sun starting to set over Guadalupe Mountains

The combination of Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan is probably my favorite dayhike I have done to date. It was totally worth the eight hour drive across western Texas. I had my doubts about doing El Capitan, but my hiking mates’ enthusiasm easily outweighed my doubts. If I had done this hike solo I probably would have skipped El Capitan, so I was very thankful to have John and Mike with me to ensure that I seized the moment.

I will seize fate by the throat; it shall certainly never wholly overcome me.
—Ludwig van Beethoven

Map of Hike

Map of Hike

Stats:
Elevation: 8749′
Elevation Gain: 2927′
Distance:  8.2 miles
Book Time: 5:40
Actual Time: 5:40
Temperature: 34° F (start)
Wind: 0 mph
Weather: sunny

References:
Camping.” nps.gov. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 27 March 2014
Camping and Hiking.” reddit.com. reddit inc. Web. 27 March 2014.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park.” nps.gov. National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 29 March 2014.
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.” tpwd.state.tx.us. Texas Park and Wildlife Department. Web. 29 March 2014.
Geologic Formations.” nps.gov. National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 29 March 2014.
Guadalupe Mountains, An Administrative History.” nps.gov. National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 29 March 2014.
Viewing Guadalupe Peak.” mapmyhike.com. Map My Hike. Web. 29 March 2014.

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