Monday, August 30, 2021

Guadalupe Peak! I made it!

(Above:  At sunrise along the Guadalupe Peak Trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  I took two selfies: one with the "bright" light and one with the "red"/night vision.  I actually used the bright, white light for hiking, but the other photo turned out better! Click on any image to enlarge.)

I made it!  Guadalupe Peak stands at 8751' and is the highest elevation in the entire state of Texas.  The trailhead starts at around 5500' and climbs over a diverse landscape.  I think the only way I managed this was by starting at 5:30 AM, an hour before dawn.  Fortunately, I happened to have the right, lighted head gear in my cargo van.  Why?  Well, it came on a table lot from Bill Mishoe's auction.  (I don't remember what I wanted on that table lot ... certainly not the headlamp ... but it was among the other stuff I got!)  Knowing that I'd otherwise forget having the thing when I might use it, I stuck it in the van's glove compartment so that it would be ready wherever I might be.  What luck!  It really seems like divine intervention!  Why start so early?  Well, August afternoons in Texas are HOT, HOT, HOT.  It is better to start out early in order to complete the 6 - 8 hour hike before the temperatures are scorching.  (6 - 8 hours are listed on the National Park's day hike brochure.  I made it in seven hours and ten minutes including time on the summit.)

(Above:  Dawn along the Guadalupe Peak Trail.)

At least a half hour before dawn, one doesn't really need a headlamp, but for my first half hour, I couldn't have managed the steep rock steps or the loose gravel without one.  By dawn, I was already high enough to look back towards the parking lot, Visitor Center, and out over the oil fields of Texas.

(Above:  Guadalupe Peak Trail.)

Early morning light is amazing.   Shadows are long and the air is clear.  The trail winds up and around the mountain, across a canyon, and ...

(Above:  A view from Guadalupe Peak Trail to the Tejas Trail.)

... to views of other trails on other parts of the mountain chain.  It was great to look over and see the many switchbacks on the Tejas Trail.  Two days earlier, I hiked this trail.  It ascends to 8000' where it intersects with the Bowl Trail and the Bush Mountain Trail.  Not only have I hiked this trail, but I've hiked up to 8000' on the Bear Canyon Trail (on the opposite side of the mountain).  Each time, I've seen different views.  On one part of the Tejas Trail, I could look down into the canyon and see where Devils Staircase was located ... but not Devils Hall.  On the Guadalupe Peak Trail, I couldn't see the Staircase but had no problem picking out the crevice of the Hall.

(Above:  Guadalupe Peak from along the trail leading to it.)

The trail has plenty of switchbacks.  The path is mostly loose gravel on a hard surface.  Yet, there are areas of solid rock too. More than halfway up, the peak looms ahead.  There's a lot more trees in this higher elevation.

(Above:  One of the few, obvious, man-made parts of the trail.)

The trail is well defined and only has a few places that are obviously man-made conveniences.  Otherwise, hiking was very much over a natural setting. 

(Above:  View to the salt basin.)

As I neared the top, the view looks down on El Capitan, the 10th highest peak in Texas.  From the highway, this exposed mountain's cliff face has become an iconic image for area travelers and for the National Park.  It is part of the exposed, Permian Reef (think geologically ... 260 - 270 million year ago and then uplifted during the Cretaceous period).  Beyond is the salt basin ... and a view to where the park's sand dunes are located.  El Capitan seemed almost dwarfed from the high Guadalupe Peak Trail.  I could also see the Salt Basin Overlook Loop Trail which I hiked last week.  It, too, was "way down there".   

(Above:  Me on the top of Guadalupe Peak!)

Thankfully, there were a few other early hikers including a nice couple from Houston.  We took photos of one another with the summit marker.  From this point, the view was 360 degrees.  I brought plenty of water and sat down with some snacks.  Then, I hiked down.  Yes, the last two miles were in the open sun.  It was hot but I was happy to have made it up and back!

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Sand Dunes at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

(Above:  Panorama of the Sand Dunes at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in western Texas.  Click on any image to enlarge.)

On Sunday morning I was up and in my cargo van before 6:00 AM.  My destination was the sand dunes.  The sand dunes are obviously still within Guadalupe Mountains National Park, but the access road was some forty miles away!  This National Park is GIGANTIC.  The drive was gorgeous because sunrise was occurring just beyond the mountain range itself.  Of course I had to stop for a photo!

(Above:  Looking back to the Guadalupe Mountains from the road leading to the National Park's sand dunes.)

The drive was gorgeous because sunrise was occurring just beyond the mountain range itself.  Of course I had to stop for a photo!

(Above:  Looking back toward the National Park's parking area and further down Williams Road.)

Off the highway, Williams Road leads straight ... and I mean absolutely straight and very, very bumpy ... for about ten miles to the sand dunes' parking area.  Yes ... that's my white cargo van back there in the photo above.  From the parking area, it is another mile or so to the northern edge of the sand dunes.

(Above:  The north edge of the sand dunes.)

To be honest, I wasn't much impressed at this point.  The dunes sort of looked like any other coastal dune.  I live in South Carolina.  It's not like I haven't seen a sand dune before.  I was sort of hoping for something like the sand dunes I've been to in Oregon or the ones near Kitty Hawk in North Carolina.  Nevertheless, I climbed up to take a look.

Well ... the scenery unfolded perfectly!  Sand dunes!  Lots of them!  I was really shocked at just how fabulous this beautiful, isolated place really is. Plus, in the slanted early morning light, it looked like I had the entire, wonderful place to myself ... but ...

... I didn't.  There were signs of life everywhere.  I saw fox and/or coyote tracks, rabbit tracks, and lots and lots of tracks made by various beetles.  It was fun walking beside some of the tracks made during the night.

It was also fun to watch the beetles who occasionally fell, rolled down the sand for a way, and started up again.  Their tracks were everywhere!

I loved walking along the rim of the dunes.  It sort of felt like walking down a sleeping giant's backbone.

The sun turned the rims into the most elegant sculptures.  I took dozens and dozens of photos, especially ones that really looked like abstract compositions. 

If there are people who think abstraction doesn't exist in nature ... well ... they haven't been here!

It was easy to get great shots with high contrast and easy to capture sweeping views of this isolated place.  I spent about an hour-and-a-half just walking up and down the dunes.  Then, I headed back to my provided, artist-in-residence studio apartment.

(Above:  Looking over the salt beds toward the Guadalupe Mountains on my return trip from the National Park's sand dunes.) 

The drive went by the the salt basin with its salt beds.  I hadn't seen them before dawn.  Amazingly, the color was brilliant turquoise, just the water surrounding Key West.  It's because of the sand!  All the other colors from the sun's spectrum are absorbed in the water.  The turquoise, however, reflects back off the white, white sand.  It was a great day!

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Devils Hall at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

(Above:  Me at the end of Devils Hall trail.  Click on any image to enlarge.)

Recent monsoon rains sent rocks and even boulders down the canyon that doubles as the last mile of Devils Hall trail here in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  The trail is now rated as "strenuous" because "scrambling" is required.  What's "scrambling"?  Just what comes to mind!  I had to use both hands to pull myself up and over the boulders. The park's hiking brochure says that two-and-half to three hours is needed for the 4.2 round trip, but that was when the trail was rated "moderate".  It took me nearly four hours ... but ... I made it!  It was SO WORTH IT!


(Above:  Daylight coming over the trail.)

So ... let me share the experience!  Because I'm intentionally staying on Eastern Standard Time, I am easily able to get out of bed before dawn and hit the trails very early.  This provides several advantages.  First, I am always the only one there.  Second, the lighting is fabulous. Third, and most importantly, it isn't that hot.  Western Texas in August is otherwise HOT, HOT, HOT.  The first mile of Devils Hall Trail is through a landscape of brush, cactus, and the occasional tree.  I hardly noticed the upward slope because I was watching the sunlight hit the mountain tops.

(Above:  The trail sign reading:  Devils Hall Follow Wash.)

After a little over a mile, I came to the expected sign:  Devils Hall Follows Wash.  The wash is the mountain crevice of gravel, rocks, and boulders that get "washed" down the mountain when it rains so hard that the parched earth can't absorb it fast enough.  Recently, the rains sent lots more stone down the wash. From here, hikers just "scramble" up the wash.

 (Above:  The start of the trail-in-the-wash.)

From the sign, I looked up the wash.  It didn't look too strenuous.  Quickly, I learned that it is more difficult than it looked.  Gravel and small rocks tend to move underfoot ... a lot!

Boulders are, in a sense, easier to handle ... as long as one uses both hands! LOL!  I went slowly and carefully, scrambling up the next mile. 

(Above: Devils Staircase.)
Devils Staircase was SO WORTH IT!  I sat right down, drank some water, and just admired the view for several minutes.  Thankfully, a young dentist from Oregon arrived then.  We snapped photos of one another.
(Above:  Me in front of Devils Staircase.  Photo by a nice, young dentist from Oregon.)
The dentist, twenty-five years younger than me, went on ahead and then passed me on his return.  I took it easy.  After all, the way over this "staircase" meant sidling the widest ledge to the next area that leads to Devils Hall. 

(Above:  A pool of water just beyond Devils Staircase.)
The layers of rock, the texture of stone, and the undulating strata representing centuries from millions of years ago was overwhelmingly magnificent.  Beyond the pool of water, the trail turns to the right ...

  .... where even the floor is exotic!

(Above:  The trail or "floor" in the Devils Hall area.)

One more turn ...

... and the view is down through Devils Hall.  I took dozens of detail photos.  It felt like walking through a magical kingdom.  I have no idea why "devil" is part of name for this breath-taking place.  To me, it seemed straight from heaven!  I thought about all the prehistoric life that once lived in this shallow, inland sea.  There are plenty of fossils in this park.  I know I must have been looking at some of them.  I just don't recognize them.

(Above:  Detail of one of the stones on the trail.)

I am pretty sure that this one isn't a duck fossil! LOL!

(Above:  Detail of Devils Hall.)

I sat at the end of the trail just to admire the world around me.  The selfie I took (first photo in this blog post) was from there.  Then, it was time to turn around and "scramble" back down the trail. 

By the time I returned to the trailhead parking lot, it was over 80 degrees and groups of people were just starting out.  I'm glad I went early.  I felt one with nature.  It was a great day!

Thursday, August 19, 2021

I've arrived! Guadalupe Mountains National Park

(Above: Selfie along the Smith Spring Trail at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas.  Click on any image to enlarge.)

I actually made it!  After two or three COVID-19 postponements and two-and-half days of driving nearly the entire length of I-20, I arrived at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas!  47,000 acres of this park are officially designated a "wilderness area" ... which means it has the highest level of park system preservation.  It's a good thing!  The pristine beauty of this place was immediately obvious.

(Above:  My government housing studio apartment.)

But before hitting the trails, there were official "volunteer" papers to sign and a process to check into the provided studio apartment.  The place is very well furnished, and there is a recreation building directly beside my unit with a laundry room, television, games, and more.  I fiddled around with the Internet connectivity and finally checked my email too!  Then ...

... nature called!  Of course it did!  All the park rangers said that the recent abundance of rain turned the landscape green.  Some cactus were even blooming.  Frijole Ranch and the Smith Spring loop trail were recommended.

(Above:  Frijole Ranch)

Frijole Ranch is absolutely lovely.  Stepping into the fenced yard is like stepping back in time.  Local stone was used for most of the structures ... the house, a double outhouse, a tiny one room schoolhouse,  a shed, a bunkhouse, and a spring house.  This is where I'll be over Labor Day weekend conducting my Clothesline Project as a public park activity!  10 - 3 on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday!  Right now, the ranch house is closed for maintenance but a ranger might open it on those activity days!

(Above: Manzanita Spring)

One of the reasons for early pioneers to settle in this area was that there are six springs within a three mile radius.  The Frijole Ranch has one of them.  Nearby, the family living in the ranch house during the early 20th century dammed up Manzanita spring to irrigate their crops and orchard.

(Above: Smith Spring trail.)

From Manzanita Spring, the trail winds up the gentle slope.  It's a 2.3 mile loop.  At the highest point is the shady, picnic area around Smith Springs.

(Above: Smith Spring.)

The water was so inviting but I resisted stepping in. (Visitors are not supposed to do this!  Water is a precious resource in this area and isn't to be disturbed any more than the plant and animal life!) I was told that male tarantulas have been spotted here due to the recent rains.  They are searching for females.  Unfortunately, I didn't see one ... but ...

... I saw several black bees ...

... and a lubber grasshopper ...
... and a rainbow grasshopper.
Well ... that was yesterday!  Today I received radio training.  Yes!  I'm officially a radio carrying NPS volunteer who is required to call in when hiking and call back when "out of service"!  Then, I went back outdoors ... to McKittrick Canyon where the recent monsoon season rains had a stream of cold water flowing.
(Above: Pools of water flowing down McKittrick Canyon.)
There were several times that I had to step from stone to stone over fast moving currents.  Yes, I fell off a few stones but the crystal clear water was refreshingly cold.  The trail to Pratt Cabin (or, as Wallace Pratt called it, "lodge") was 2.4 miles up the gentle slope.
(Above: Pratt's cabin/lodge.)
Built in 1931-32, this stone and wood, cabin had four beds, a table for twelve, and several rocking chairs on the porch.  It was a summer retreat for the Pratt Family.  Wallace Pratt was a geologist who came to the area searching for oil for Humble Oil and Refinery.  He knew, however, that this land was special. Over the years, he acquire more of McKittrick Canyon and eventually donated over 5000 acres to the National Park Service.  The building was locked, but I got a couple photos through the windows!
(Above:  One of the bedrooms at Pratt's cabin/lodge.)
(Above:  The main living area inside Pratt's cabin/lodge ... with lots of evidence that this building was often open in pre-COVID-19 days.)
I sat on one of the rocking chairs for a while, had a protein bar, and drank some of my water while considering the additional distance to "the grotto".  Now, what is more enticing than a "grotto"?  From childhood visits to King Ludwig II of Bavaria's Linderhof Palace (same king that built Neuschwanstein Castle which inspired Disney), a grotto will always be for me a fairy-tale place of exotic scenery.  After all, the Venus grotto at Linderhof (an entirely artificially built enclosure) was built as a set for the first act of Wagner's operatic Tannhauser. How could I possibly resist a mile or so of hiking further up the McKittrick Trail?
(Above:  The Grotto along the McKittrick Trail at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.)
The grotto did not disappoint!  I even went a little further to the Hunter Line cabin before heading back.  

I took a selfie at the grotto just to prove that I was really there ... and that I'm wearing my new hiking hat!  I also have new hiking boots ... because I totally destroyed the old ones last fall while at Great Basin National Park.  I generally don't like selfies but they do serve a purpose, and I know how to stand still ... unlike the little 8 - 9 inch snake that didn't pose for me ...

... but this skink was cooperative!