Guadalupe Mountains National Park is known for great hiking. For years I’ve been wanting to go explore the back country of this park, ever since Eleanor and I first happened upon it in early 2000 on a pre-Airstream road trip.
Emma was in the womb then, and at seven months pregnant Eleanor wasn’t prepared for hiking many miles (and also it was winter), so we made a note of the place and vowed to come back. Come back—yes, we did, several times, but each time one circumstance or another kept us from going on a serious hike.
Like a lot of national parks, Guadalupe isn’t convenient. It isn’t near anything, being 50 miles from Carlsbad and 120 miles from El Paso. It isn’t just off an Interstate highway, and there are no accommodations other than tent or RV for at least 20 miles. Even now, parked here in the comfort of our Airstream we have no hookups and no dump station to use when we leave. So you have to really want to come here.
Being here is only the beginning, because to see the back country you must hike up mountains that erupt steeply from a desert landscape. We pulled out all of our gear yesterday morning and got assembled for a full day of hiking, with the plan to make a circumference of some of the mountains that would run about eight miles. As always, our gear included sun hats, sunscreen, packs, snacks, trail shoes, cameras, and lots of water—although not quite enough, as we discovered quickly.
Some hiking friends of ours will read this blog, so I’ll detail that we left the campground at 9:30 a.m. and took the Foothills Trail to Frijole, then up Bear Canyon, left on Bowl (now above 8,000 feet), and followed Bowl to Tejas and back down. That makes it seem straightforward (you’ll need a map from the Visitor Center), but the really relevant part of the description is we didn’t get back until 5:45 p.m.—eight hours later.
Yes, it was a bit beyond what the parks usually describe as a “strenuous” hike. Still, none of us regretted the hike, and it had many rewards like spectacular vistas throughout and lots of little surprises in geology, plant life, and scenery. The climb up through Bear Canyon was particularly rewarding, which was crucial because this was the steepest and longest climb of the hike, taking us over two hours to complete.
Before we reached Bear Canyon Eleanor and I realized that we had drastically underestimated our water needs. I had my big 100 oz. Camelbak filled, but they did not have their Camelbaks on board the Airstream and so (on my hasty and poor advice) had only three 16 oz. water bottles each. They should have had at at least five bottles each (80 oz). We had a conference after two miles of hiking to decide whether we should continue or abort the hike.
A big part of the problem was that the air temperature at our starting altitude was already in the 80s and climbing, plus the first few miles of trail offer no shade. Eleanor and Emma consumed 1/3 of their water before the serious climbing even began. Still, we decided to proceed because I had more water than I needed and could share. I filled an extra 16 oz. bottle for each of them from my supply and we continued up.
The steep climb through Bear Canyon, with its many switchbacks, would have been psychologically demoralizing if it weren’t for the great scenery. None of us had done any serious hiking in about a year, and we also didn’t have any time to acclimate to the altitude, which atop the water concern gave us plenty of psychological challenges. The trail was rocky and hard on the feet even with hiking boots.
I knew that we would make it physically, but in situations like this the big enemy is your own brain telling you that maybe it’s time to panic because you’ll never make it, you’ll be stuck here halfway up a mountain without rescue and no water and you can’t go another step, etc. And maybe your brain is right, because running out of water plus a twisted ankle could easily equal a very bad situation.
Of course we did make it, with lots of rest stops, photo opps, happy conversation, and a few energy snacks. Atop the mountains we found a beautiful park-like glade with scattered pine trees, and sat down on a bed of needles to have lunch. This long break seemed to re-energize everyone, and of course from there on the trail was gentle and fairly easy. It wasn’t long before we were looking down from a high cliff and realizing with a slight sense of awe just how far we’d gone. The vertical ascent of this hike is claimed by the Park Service to be 2,300 feet, but I can tell you that it looks and feels like a lot more. I felt like I’d climbed the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
We predicted early on that we’d run out of water before we got back, in the last mile or two, and we did run out right on schedule. No matter, at that point we were down to nearly base camp elevation and it was an easy final stretch back to the Airstream (with plenty of motivation).
I want to point out something significant. During our entire eight hours of hiking, we did not see even one other human being. This has never happened to us before on a long hike. Such solitude is like nirvana for hikers, with the caution that this also means if something happens to you (like a twisted ankle or running out of water), you’re on your own. There’s no calling 9-1-1 out there either, so self-rescue is your only option.
Late in the hike after we’d run out of water Emma wanted to take an extended rest break, thereby handing me a wonderful parental privilege, the opportunity to say with a straight face, “Would you rather hike back to the Airstream with us and get an nice drink of cool water, or stay here and die?” —and have it be perfectly true. Too often parents have to resort to exaggerations in our attempts to motivate children, but out here the forces of nature make exaggeration unnecessary.
By the time we dragged our enervated bodies back to the campground we were bone-tired, dry inside and sticky outside, with eyes burning from drips of sunscreen and joints aching from miles of walking on uneven rocky trails. We had covered 8.5 miles. One of the great joys of such a hike comes afterward: stripping off the dusty clothes for a shower, then slowly re-entering the civilized world of Airstream living. Eleanor assembled a casual smorgasbord dinner of bread, several cheeses, cold cuts, salad, guacamole, and cottage cheese, and picked over it in our zombie-like state, then I made some popcorn and we watched a movie before collapsing into bed.
When we first came back to the campground after our hike we were struck by the lack of campers. Being Friday night we had expected that the place would fill up. After all, the weather is beautiful and I would expect this to be peak hiking season. But nobody showed up. It’s still just us and one other guy in the RV camping area. I’m amazed but I can’t complain. The campground is dead quiet most of the time (just a few day hikers driving in, or tent campers walking over to use the bathrooms), and it feels like was have the park almost to ourselves.
So we are seriously contemplating spending a third night here. It’s only $8 per night (no hookups, no dump, but there are bathrooms and a dishwashing sink to help extend your holding tanks) and the climate is far better than where we are about to go. Our solar panels are getting the batteries up to about 95% of capacity because it’s summer, so electricity isn’t an issue, and we have plenty of food.
If we do stay today, there’s another hike nearby that I’m tempted to sell the family on, called Devil’s Hall, and it’s only half the length of yesterday’s hike with a piddling 400 ft ascent. There’s also the park Visitor Center that we should visit, and if nothing else I could be happy just reading a few books and listening to the birds. At this writing, everyone else is asleep, so we’ll hold a family conference later this morning to decide.