24/59 | Guadalupe Mountains National Park | 02.13-16.18

Guadalupe Mountains was one of those parks that I didn’t have any serious expectations of. It doesn’t have any famous defining features like Santa Elena Canyon or, you know, being a huge cave. But I think, like with my non-existent expectations for Petrified Forest, that was great. We rolled into the park around 6pm (or was it 5pm? It’s right on the edge of the time zone change and is in mountain time, but cell phones mark it as being in central due to the placement of the cell towers), and picked a campsite. I have to say, I really like how this campground is set up. I have mixed feelings about the surge in RV campers, but the two are completely separate in the Pine Springs campground in Guadalupe. Most of the RV sites are admittedly a little lame as it’s essentially just a parking lot, but the tent sites are excellent (albeit a bit far from the bathrooms for most of the sites). Most of them are a short walk from their parking spots, which makes for a secluded feel that also doesn’t result in blinding lights flashing into the tent when someone pulls into the campground late at night.

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We piled on the blankets this trip- we definitely need to invest in some warmer sleeping bags! I think we would backpack a lot more if we had some serious bags that could keep us comfortable in lower temperatures. This trip wasn’t bad, but it would’ve been pretty miserable without the blankets we borrowed from my friend Kat (who lives in Las Cruces).

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The next morning dawned fairly windy, but sunny. Apparently the wind is essentially omnipresent in Guadalupe Mountains, but the thing we were a little less than thrilled about were the strong gusts. We had originally intended (an oft-repeated phrase, I suppose, but I’m okay with it) to hike Guadalupe Peak, “The Top of Texas,” but decided to postpone it due to the gusty wind and the slightly ominous clouds in the sky. Call me a weenie, but I’m what you might call a “slight” individual, and have been known to get pushed around by strong gusts of wind. The last thing either of us wanted was for me to get gusted straight off the top of an 8700 foot mountain to my death. It probably sounds dramatic, but Brady is an overly cautious person (not a bad thing), and to be honest, hiking in the wind is not really all that fun. So we opted for Devil’s Hall instead, after a quick trip to the Visitor Center.

While browsing through the exhibit in the visitor center, I overheard a lady asking for junior ranger packets for her sons, and the ranger asked, “Would you like a senior ranger packet for yourself as well?” And you know when, in cartoons, something happens that catches a character’s attention and they suddenly appear right next to the people having the conversation? Well, that was me. My head popped up so fast I almost got whiplash and I zipped over to the desk and said, “did you say SENIOR RANGER?” The ranger laughed, said yes, and handed me a packet. I felt like a leprechaun finding a pot of gold, I was so giddy. I of course immediately did all of the activities in the visitor center, and to my mild surprise, I actually learned something! Did you know that baby hares are born fully furred with eyes open, ready to take on the world, while baby rabbits are mostly hairless with eyes closed? This is one of the main differences between hares and rabbits (which, second fun fact, “jackrabbits” are actually hares… and snowshoe hares are actually rabbits) and I had never even heard about it. Just more proof that even national park veterans like me can always learn something new. I can’t believe I never even thought to ask if adults could do the junior ranger program (several parks have senior ranger programs, or more ‘grown up’ versions of the junior ranger program), and now I’m feeling super ashamed and sad that this is the first park I’ve done it in. But, better late than never! After doing all of the activities and watching the slideshow (which the ranger apologetically explained was “not a movie” because park movies cost a lot of money, and I have never wished more in my life that I were a billionaire and could just say, “Can I cut you a check?” than when we emphatically assured him that we pass no judgment, and we’ll still love it), we headed out for Devil’s Hall.

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We decided to take our sign photo that morning before going to the visitor center. I’m super glad we did, as most of our other opportunities had bad lighting, or were rainy. One thing I suppose I’ve learned over the years is to never squander a sign photo opportunity, because another (or better) one might not come along.

It was a super fun little hike! You spend a lot of your time hiking through a wash, with the mountains soaring high above you in both directions, and a little bit out of the wind. I have to admit, it was super weird to be hiking in the mountains in mid-February in Chacos and light leggings/shorts.

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These trees (Texas madrone) are so interesting. They stay green year-round, and the bark color varies from white to red. We saw some with really beautiful red bark!

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Aforementioned ominous clouds.
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Here you can see pretty clearly the split between blue sky and clouds. It was interesting to watch.
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Like Big Bend, this was very seasonally confusing for me. In spite of the intense wind, a huge portion of these trees still clung to their leaves, despite them being sapped of chlorophyll and dead. Quite a change from the completely barren trees we get in Utah winters.

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I’ll admit it, I’m pretty proud of Brady- his #instagramhusband skills are moving along quite well. Granted, most of the time I’m shooting in aperture priority, so he doesn’t have to do much, but his framing has been getting so much better lately! Good job listening, beebs.

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This was kind of funny to us. What’s the point of a cairn if it’s hidey? I didn’t even see it! Granted, the route finding was easy (“trail follows wash”), so I wasn’t looking, but I still walked right past it without even noticing it.

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Don’t let looks deceive you- these “stairs” are actually really steep at the bottom.

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We enjoyed a nice lunch on the rocks here, and I’m proud of myself. We ate more than just a sandwich- I packed chips, Cuties, and oreos, which is about as close to a well-balanced meal as we get around here.

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After Devil’s Hall, we stopped by Frijole Ranch, which unfortunately wasn’t open (besides walking around outside). The ranch is staffed by volunteers, and their hours aren’t super regular or posted on the website. It was still really cool to walk around the property and learn about all of the ingenious ways they made life easier in the desert, like the stream they piped under their produce storage shed to naturally cool it before sending it to irrigate the fields, or the water tower that they pumped water into using a goat-powered pump and then had pressurized water inside the house (as the water tower, which is no longer standing, was taller than the house- thanks, gravity!), or the numerous other little things they invented.

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The teacher they staffed on the ranch was given room, board, and a horse to teach the 5-8 children on the ranch. Sounds like a pretty good gig to me!

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I have to admit, seeing trees on the top of mountains was a really strange experience for me.
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This is the Pinery, which was once a huge mail station along the Butterfield Stage Route. Not much is left, but most of the footprint of the building is intact, and it was huge!

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This little lady visited us every night!

The next morning dawned colder and windier than the day before, so we decided to stick to our original plan of going up to McKittrick Canyon and hiking around up there. It was completely worth it. In spite of the intense wind, the hiking was pleasant, and the canyon was gorgeous- and super deserted. We saw a grand total of 5 people our entire time in the canyon.

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The obligatory “Brady holds something small up to his face for closer examination” shot. We’ve been missing those lately.

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If this doesn’t show how insanely windy it was, I don’t know what would. These waters were otherwise very still.
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Checking out one of the creeks bubbling straight up from the ground. McKittrick Canyon is one of the few permanent water sources in the region.

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I cannot even imagine how gorgeous this place must be in the spring.

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Our first stop was Pratt Cabin. Built by Wallace Pratt in the early 1930s and donated to the park in the 1960s, this cabin is built entirely of wood and stone (the roof shingles are stone) and is completely unchanged from its original state. It has three fireplaces… so let’s just say it’s pretty much my dream home. During busier times of the year, volunteers run the cabin and its open to the public.

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Can’t beat a view like that.

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The trail actually got a lot easier to hike on after the Pratt Cabin. The trail leading up to the cabin was  wide, but covered in large round stones that make going a little bit slower than hard-packed dirt.

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Next stop was the Grotto! It was actually kind of a surprise, you branch off the main trail (which starts getting significantly steeper after that point) and hike down a hill, and then back up a hill, and there it is. You come upon it a bit suddenly, and it’s pretty neat.

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Shortly up the trail from the Grotto (it’s less than 500 yards) is the Hunter’s Cabin. This one had spectacular views as well, but no fireplaces.

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It was interesting to see how pink the sediment on the rock was, considering that the rock itself was much more yellow.

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McKittrick Canyon was fantastic, even if it was insanely windy. I was glad that we had a tailwind hiking out, but occasionally wished that I had some sort of parachute to carry me with each gust! We had considered going all the way to the Notch, but considering that the gate to McKittrick locks at 430pm (6pm in the summer), we didn’t want to risk getting stuck. We headed back to the visitor center, where I got my super cool Senior Ranger patch, and settled in for the evening.

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The next morning we woke up to rain (BECAUSE WE’RE CURSED), but thankfully I had actually packed rain gear for Brady (and me), and like a ninja I took our tent down entirely within the rainfly (another shout out to the Half Dome- we cannot do that in our big tent). We packed up camp and headed off for our next adventure- Carlsbad Caverns!

Our Guadalupe Mountains National Park “Must Do”:

This is a tough one! We really loved both of the hikes that we did. I think if you’re strapped for time, Devil’s Hall is a great option, but between the two I think the ‘must-do’ is McKittrick Canyon. It packs a huge variety of biomes into a reasonably short hike (the Grotto is just under 7 miles round trip), and includes a lot of neat history with the Pratt family and how the land came to be in the possession of the NPS.

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