Monday, November 29, 2010

Guadalupe Loop

our site at Guadalupe Mountains NP Pine Springs Campground

Tucked in west Texas and southeastern New Mexico is the Guadalupe Mountain range. The range includes the highest summit in Texas, Guadalupe Peak (8,749 ft) and the "signature peak" of west Texas, El Capitan, both located within Guadalupe Mountains National Park as well as Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
From Las Cruces we stuck to I-10 until just north of El Paso. Highway 375 bypassed the bulk of El Paso and took us through the heart of the Fort Bliss Military Reservation. "Fort Bliss" - now there's an oxymoron. Once east of El Paso the scenery was pretty flat and uninspiring until we intersected with the Butterfield Trail highway which retraced part of the historic Overland Stage Coach Trail and lead up to Guadalupe Mountains NP.

El Capitan, Guadalupe Mountains NP

RV parking choices were limited in this part of Texas. Friends had suggested we try Carlsbad, NM as a base for exploration. Other friends raved about staying in the park. Since the park was closer and on our route we elected to stop there first to check what they had to offer. No hookups (we would be dry camping) but the rate was only $4/day with a senior discount. RV sites were lined up on a large parking lot but the view was nothing short of spectacular. Fortunately we had arrived early enough in the day to snare one of the few remaining spots (there weren't many to begin with!) in the Pine Springs campground. Later we discovered that parking further north in Carlsbad would not have offered nearly as much and would have made for much further drives to and from areas we wanted to see.

Spotted Owl

We had intended to stay just two nights but after finding out there were many more things we wanted to see we opted to stay an extra day. Our first full day included a hike up Devil's Hall Trail. The larger draw to the park for most hikers was the Guadalupe Peak Trail, a 6 to 8 hour hike up to the "Top of Texas", the highest point in the state. Since we wanted to include other stops during the day, the 4.2 mile round trip to Devil's Hall was more to our liking.
The trail followed the Pine Springs stream bed through maples, Ponderosa pine and now familiar plant varieties of the Chihuahuan desert biota. During the course of our walk we decided to bypass a section of imposing rock outcropping in favor of what appeared to be an easier route around a huge boulder. As we skirted the obstacle Carol pointed and  whispered, "Look! An Owl". Would you believe it? A Spotted Owl was perched on a low branch just over our heads. After all our searching in AZ, we had just stumbled upon that which had eluded us. Kind of the way birding goes sometimes.

outdoor amphitheater in front of Carlsbad's "natural" entrance

After we completed our hike we stopped at the visitor center to report our owl finding then headed north into New Mexico to Carlsbad Caverns NP. Our only other "big cave" experience had been Wind Cave in South Dakota. Based on that we were a bit hesitant about Carlsbad. Boy Howdy, what a difference!

red circle indicates where two people are standing
in a section of the "Big Room"

early means to explore the cave; much less visitor friendly

First, a stop at the visitor center seemed best. The huge gift shop delayed our progress for a bit but we eventually sorted out the best way to see the cave. One could take an elevator straight down to the Great Room section, or, enter through the "natural" entrance. Both options included self-guided tours. Ranger-guided tours were an option however they required advance reservations and in any case were already full. The natural entrance lead to a mile-long steep and winding paved trail that dropped 750 feet. It followed what was considered the traditional early explorer's route through a trunk called the "Main Corridor". Somewhat tough on the knees going down; we wouldn't want to have to climb back up using this route!

Adjacent to the entrance was an outdoor amphitheater where visitors gathered at dusk to watch seasonal evening flights of bats exiting the caves. Now, during the day, the cave's entrance swarmed with Cave Swallows, their nests located just inside the cave's entrance. As we descended the Main Corridor trail we passed through numerous and notable spots including the Bat Cave (bats no longer roosted there; they were in other caves not accessible to the public), the Devil's Spring, and the Green Lake Overlook.
Dropping further we realized the depth and scale of Carlsbad far exceeded Wind Cave. Once at the bottom we found a mile-long self-guided tour of the Big Room, a large cave chamber of natural limestone almost 4,000 feet long by 625 feet wide. By now the average temperature was a cool and damp 56-degrees. Located at the bottom was a large cafeteria and gift shop and the most popular stop: restrooms. The second tour was on a more level paved trail and took us through and past the Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, and the Painted Grotto. Artificial lighting greatly enhanced the colors and patterns of rock formations. The size and scope of the Big Room was impossible to capture in a single photo. Like many natural wonders you had to be there in person to fully appreciate the magnitude. Boyhood memories of reading Tom Sawyer came to mind but we failed to find neither Tom or Becky or Injun Joe. Then again, we were in the wrong caves.
We had been warned that the main elevators were being reconditioned and the wait for the smaller service elevators would be lengthy. It was nearly an hour before we were whisked to the surface in under three minutes.
We had heard about and witnessed filmed coverage of the massive dusk bat exodus at Carlsbad over the years and here we were, less than an hour away from showtime. Although hunger pains nagged us, we manged to put them aside. We were not disappointed for the inconvenience. We found seating in the amphitheater after asking a ranger where we might have the best view. Another ranger gave a short talk and fielded questions from the few hundred people that had gathered. Initially small groups of bats appeared but eventually a constant and steady stream of Mexican free-tailed bats flooded out of the cave's entrance. The largestest volume of bats, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, occurred over a 45-minute time span. Unfortunately, use of cameras and camcorders were banned. Signals from electronic devices had been known to disorient the bats which rely heavily on their radar. At times the smell of bats waffed over when bats flew close. Quite a spectacle!

trail to Smith Spring, Smith Spring, and trail back down

The next morning we had hoped to use the Guadalupe park visitor center's free wi-fi but awoke to discover hundreds of members from a regional hiking club had flooded the park. Wow - were we glad we had gotten our hike in the day before! We instead headed out of the campground for Smith Springs and a National Register of Historic Site listing, the Frijole Ranch. Constructed in 1876, it was originally lit by candles and kerosene lanterns and later a carbide lamp system which produced acetylene gas piped through the house. Another bird surprise at the ranch - Scott's Orioles! We thought we were going to miss them this late in the season. Short of seeing Spot-breasted Orioles (we would have had to have been in South Florida!) we now had seen seven of the eight oriole species possible in the ABA count area.

Wolf Spider

one of the "lubbers", giant grasshoppers up to 2 1/2 inches in length

view along lower section of Smith Spring trail

An osasis in the otherwise dry edge of the lower slopes of the Guadalupe escarpment, there are no less than five natural springs that occur within a 3-mile radius of the ranch. We hiked the 2.3 mile loop trail to and from the Smith Spring. Rated easy at the beginning it became moderately difficult as it took us to a shaded grove of trees that included maples, choke cherry, chinkapin oaks, Texas madrones and ponderosa pines. The spring was rimmed with ferns and sedges.
We returned to the visitor center which by early afternoon was less crowded and used the free wi-fi. After lunch we drove a short distance to McKittrick Canyon. Again there were many options for lengthy, strenuous hikes but given the time of day we stuck to the .9 mile McKittrick Canyon Nature Trail loop which lead through massive displays of flowering plants and views of the distant canyon walls.
We surely could have more spent more time at Guadalupe but we also needed to start thinking about our need to get to our winter site in Texas. Our original plan was to spend four months and arrive December 1. However when we accepted an invitation to be volunteer hosts at a lodge in northern Ecuador for three months, we had moved our arrival time up to November 1. It was now October 11 and we were about 700 miles out from Mission, Texas. We had been on the road four straight months and had begun to yearn to stay put in one place for a while.

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