Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Guadalupe Mountains

In my recent trip to west Texas, we had extremely hot weather--daytime highs of over 110° F, so the hikes I would have liked to do at Palo Duro or Caprock Canyons were deemed out of the question.  Wrong season.

We did however, get to go to Carlsbad Caverns.  The "hikes"--if you want to call them that (and why not?) inside the caves themselves were easily doable, because the temperature is an even 54° F or so once you're well and inside the caves.

We took simply the self-guided hike through the so-called Natural Entrance, down a set of switchbacks into the caves.  There's a good 45 minute or so walk to get to the elevators.  My kids, at this point, were thinking that we were heading back up, but of course, we had just entered the cave; we still had the entire "Big Room" to explore.

The rangers told me that an entrance through the Natural Entrance followed by a walk around the Big Room trail is a little over three miles.  The totality of the entrance is an often steep descent.  We did not decide to hike back up the Natural Entrance (by that time, the caves would have been a little busier as well, and we'd have been going against the flow of traffic.  Plus; a long hike uphill to see the exact same sights we'd just seen didn't really appeal to anyone with a handy elevator right there.)

When I came to Carsbad as a kid in the 80s, the self-guided tour was longer, and included walking through the Queen's Palace, the King's Chamber and the Papoose Room, but a ranger also told me that in 1993 they closed those to self-guided tours and made them ranger-guided tours only after some formations were damaged by either careless or malicious visitors.  While I kinda missed it, I have to admit that the self-guided tour that we did do was long enough, and had so many speleothems to see, that I was starting to lose some of its excitement.  The views were starting to become routine, if that can be imagined.

Then again, views of cave formations, cool as they are, are not really my first love.  I can't look at flowstone draperies or bizarre stalagmite for hours like I can a dramatic mountain landscape.  Plus, it's not like in the cave you can stop, set up a seat in a nice meadow and relax.  So, after a few hours, we'd had enough anyway, even without the views of the ranger-guided chambers.

Actually, what I found more interesting was the terrain above which the caves rest, which is classic Chihuahuan desert mountain.  The more dramatic mountain/desert scenery is actually in neighboring Guadalupe Mountains national park, which we could see from the parking area (we would have been able to see Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan quite well, except the air was very hazy from brushfires from 50-60 miles away--again, according to a ranger I asked about it.)  Even with the haze, we could still see them, although I don't know how well my pictures of El Capitan between the heads of the kids turned out.

Again, with temps of over 110° F, we didn't really hike here, but I did take a scenic Jeep trail (in a minivan, no less, so I rode kinda slow.)  The rangers told me that a fire about two or three years ago had cleared a great deal of the brush, so I saw a few blackened branches, and then a bunch of spiky grasses, yucca and cacti.

I'd love to come back with about two weeks in a November or perhaps February/early March time frame and really explore the trails of these two neighboring parks, which combined make up most of the terrain to be seen in the Guadalupe Mountains anyway.  Even on the short scenic loop drive that we took, I saw two interesting trailheads, including one with the evocative name of Rattlesnake Canyon.

While I enjoyed the caves, I have to say that overall, I'm quite disappointed with the trip as an outdoors destination, which I had hoped for.  The weather really didn't cooperate, and even I had to admit, perhaps reluctantly, but still, that hiking in the desert at well over 100° sounded miserable and would likely lead to dehydration related headaches and possibly heat exhaustion or even heat stroke.  Even if I were in better shape than I am, I can't imagine that the Chihuahuan desert in the summer is ever a serious hiking destination.

A few other possibilities are looming.  My sister and at least one of my brothers is making another trip to Big Bend in next few months and invited me to tag along.  I might consider that.  I was also kinda sorta invited by (the wife of) a friend of mine who's going to do the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho next summer.  Also, next summer we have planned a big tour of some of the west, including parts of Utah--I'd probably get to do plenty of day-hiking in the Moab area, and summit Mount Timpanogos.

Still not quite the backpacking experience I'm really looking for, but with the entire family (plus the gear I have today) it's a nice start.