Monday, March 28, 2016

2016-03-26: More Hiking and Geocaching in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Hello again and welcome back to another one of our Geocaching adventures. After last weeks exhausting hike up Guadalupe Peak, today was supposed to be one of those driving from cache to cache days. However, one of Candy's co-workers heard about our hike and saw the photos and she wanted to go hiking with us. She is also in the Marine Reserves and was leaving soon, so a change of plans and back to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

This time we decided on hiking through the McKittrick Canyon trail. That trail had an earthcache (GC1WAPB) near the trailhead and visitors center, as well as two virtual Geocaches out on the trail. When we arrived at this visitors center, a few miles east of last weeks visitor center for the peak trail, we found that the restrooms were out of order. So we drove back to the main road and the nearby rest area. While there, we found the two quick LPC Geocaches also.

Now back at the visitors center, we gathered our backpacks and headed onto the trail. It was a little bit later a start than last week as it was now close to noon. I also came prepared this time for the "day use fee" and did not have to search for loose change.

This hike was definitely easier than last week being mostly flat in the beginning. The McKittrick Canyon trail follows along the mostly dry stream bed, crossing through it several times as the trail and stream wind through the canyon. It was another clear blue sky day which made for some excellent views of the mountains on both sides of our hike. I'll let you enjoy a few pictures before I continue writing.

The next few pictures show the dry stream bed. For the first mile or so, there isn't any water flowing at all. From the looks of the erosion and the smoothness of some of the rock, it appears as though they get a whole lot of water flowing through here at times. But since we've been to West Texas, it hasn't rained that much.

After about a mile and a half down the trail we began to see a small clear stream flowing within the bed. It had a pretty decent flow rate going so it was a little puzzling. It seemed as though it may have been coming from a spring and then disappearing into the rock again. The way the trail weaved in and out, we never did see the beginning or the end of the water flow to know from where it came or where it went to. I figured on the way back, maybe we'll follow the stream bed instead of the trail to see how and where it originated.

About this time we encountered the park ranger hiking up the trail. I slowed a bit to let him catch up to me while the girls continued their pace. After a few minutes I asked him about the stream. He didn't really say it was a spring, but just that it began and ended.

He told me the story that the once land owner, Wallace Pratt (I'll get to him shortly), said the stream flowed constantly back in the 1920's and 30's through the canyon until it exited into the desert and dried up. Then in the late 30's and early 40's there were two floods. Mr. Pratt said that after the second flood, the stream just sank into the ground. And from then on it just flows on a few segments for a short distance.

So I still don't know how it originates or where it ends. But we will have to return again for another hike. Maybe we'll follow the stream bed then to find out.

So now for the next half mile or so, we're still hiking along with the park ranger and I notice on my GPS that we're getting closer to our first virtual Geocache (GC3A26). At about 300' away from the cache pointing to the right, the park ranger also says he has arrived at his destination. It seems we were going to the same place. Although he didn't know anything about Geocaching because I was explaining it to him along the way and that it was the main reason that had us hiking this trail.

We left the trail at these two stone pillars which led up to this old stone. The Wallace Pratt Lodge was the summer residence of Wallace Pratt (1885-1981), the principal donor of the lands that would become Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Pratt was a petroleum geologist employed by the Humble Oil Company, scouting for oilfield leases in west Texas. Pratt visited the Guadalupe Mountains in 1921, and taking a liking to the place, he bought a quarter share of the McCombs Ranch. There was at one time a road that led down into the canyon to the house. But the park service had it torn up and removed long ago.

In 1929 Pratt bought out his partners, ending up owning a large portion of the canyon, which featured waterfalls flowing over travertine dams, a lush, quiet place in the high desert. In the winter of 1931-1932 Pratt started construction of a house in the canyon, designed by Houston architect Joseph Staub. The cabin was built by Staub's former employee Vance Phenix and Vance's brother Dean, a carpenter, with stonemason Adolph May. The cabin was built of local limestone and heart pine. There was even a separate two car garage for their "his and hers" Mecedes-Benz's.The Pratt family spent summers at the cabin, which they called the Stone Cabin, and briefly lived at the cabin during Wallace Pratt's early retirement, while they built their final retirement home, the Ship On The Desert, outside of the canyon. The cabin accommodated the Ship on the Desert's architect during its construction. After the family moved to Tucson, Arizona, they donated the cabin, new house and surrounding lands of more than 5,000 acres (2,000 ha) to the National Park Service, the nucleus of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The cabin was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 26, 1975.

So after touring through the old house, we thanked him and continued further up the trail. Now here's where it gets really interesting...

About another mile down the trail we catch up to another couple who left the Pratt House just before us. They were at a fork in the trail. There was a sign there pointing to the "Grotto" to the left and continuing the McKittrick Trail to the right. They asked us if we had been on the trail before, but this was the first time for us all. They were looking for the trail that took them to higher elevation to view the canyon. We wanted the correct trail that led to the virtual cache! They remembered something the park ranger had told them about the Grotto, but didn't remember if that meant to follow that trail. Our GPS was leaning 3.4 miles slightly right. But that doesn't mean much winding around through the mountains. So they went left and we went right.

About a 100' further and we began climbing. Now up to this point and for the last 3 miles to the visitors center, we ONLY had a 200' elevation increase! Now we were starting to climb. I think this was the way the other couple needed to go also.

Even though the elevation was increasing more dramatically, it was still a fairly easy trail for a moderate rating. Then we encounter the rocks!!! The trail went from a smooth incline to an extremely rocky, big boulder steep incline! This was more like rock climbing than a hiking trail. Even the severe rated trail for the peak wasn't this rough. But we're adventurers, so we continue on. Perhaps it's just a short rough section that gets back to normal just around the next boulder. And according to the GPS, we're still heading in the right direction.

Continuing to climb, up another 100', then another 100', just when you think that if you climb over this spot and around that corner, there we'd find the normal trail again. Somewhere around the 400'-500' mark, it looked like a split so I quickly went ahead to the left to see if there was a way through. Nope that was a dead end. So I yelled back to have them head the other way.
I went ahead quickly up that side as well and saw no end in sight. It was just more large rocks and steep climbing. Finally I suggested we call it quits and head back down. It looked like we were getting closer to the top, but I'd hate to have climbed another 200'-300' only to encounter and dead end cliff wall.

So we all agreed and headed back down the rocks. Finally we get back down to the normal looking trail when suddenly there's a fork in the trail. WHAT? We don't remember that! Where did THAT come from? I zoom in on the GPS and noticed that we had came from the left. NO WAY!!! The TRAIL actually switched back to continue up the other direction! We didn't even notice that. So in reality, we were NOT climbing up the trail but just a rock wash.

The two pictures above don't do justice, but kinda give you a sample of what we climbed. We didn't take many pictures in that area as we kept our phones in our pockets to keep our hands free for climbing! In the photo below, you see the thick trees at the bottom? Down in there is where we missed the switchback on the trail. Now from there follow the crevice up the left to that large shaded area. That's about where we climbed to before turning back down.

So while we were at the switchback, three hikers came through and we asked if they had been on this trail before. Nope, it was their first time as well on this trail but said they hiked a lot. It showed as they walked fairly quickly. After debating a brief moment, we decided to continue forward on the correct trail to see where if we could make it to the other virtual Geocache, still more than three miles away. But that was a straight line distance, not the actual trail distance.

We caught up with the three hikers after a couple of switchbacks as they were seated and grabbing a snack. One of them began asking us what our plan was and if we had a car parked at the visitors center. He informed us that the front gate would be locked at 6:00 pm and we should be back at the visitors center by 5:30 in order to make the drive out the gate in time. By now it was 2:30 and there was no way to make it to the virtual cache AND still have time to make it back. So we decided to turn around and head back.

Just about that time, the couple we met by the Pratt House and later at the fork to the Grotto came walking down the trail from further up. They were puzzled at how they had passed us when I explained about our misfortune of making the wrong turn and we hiked up the rocks. They said the Grotto wasn't that far down their trail which they took. After looking at it, they doubled back and followed the trail we took. They however made the switchback and passed us while we were rock climbing.

The walk back was brisk, yet seemed to take forever. Especially that last mile! I kept watch on the GPS and it wouldn't move for long stretches as we rounded the base of a mountain along the trail. It just kept pointing to the mountain as we had to round the base to the other side. Then the compass would point straight and we'd start closing in on the car. But the needle would start to veer off to the side again as we rounded another corner. Our total hiking distance according to the GPS was 9.19 miles.

It was another great Geocaching adventure and a fun hike. Not as sore this time as last week. Even with our wrong turn climbing up the rocks, we still had a good day. Candy's co-worker also enjoyed her day hiking and learning about Geocaching. It's too bad she's being transferred in a couple weeks. Maybe we'll be able to get one more hike in before that.

That's it for now. See you back again next time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

2016-03-20: Hiking Guadalupe Peak at 8749 Feet The Highest Point in Texas

Back in Florida, Candy and I went on some pretty challenging hikes with our Geocaching friends. Remember BoonieMan Springs and The Quest for the Apocalypse? Well today was one of the toughest hikes we've done so far.  Even last month at Palo Duro Canyon seemed like a stroll in the park in comparison. Today we set out to climb Guadalupe Peak (GC4EEF).

Located within Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the Guadalupe Peak is the highest point within the entire state of Texas. Towering at 8,749 feet, it is a 3000' climb from the trailhead at the parking lot! I think that's what got to us right from the start. Checking the GPS when we got back, we were already at 5839'. And for us "sea-level folks," we were at a disadvantage and just breathing was a challenge. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We tried to get an early start, having packed some snacks in Candy's backpack and I had 2 cold bottles and 4 frozen bottles of water in mine. Leaving Monahans around 7:30 this morning, it was just over a 2-hour drive to the Parks visitors center. Heading west on I-20 turning north on US-285 in Pecos. While in Pecos, we gassed up the car and got some breakfast snacks and drinks since we haven't eaten yet. I also grabbed a Gatorade because I figured I'd get tired of drinking water.

A distant view of the Guadalupe Mountains from Hwy 652.After turning west on Hwy 652 in Orla, TX, it was long before we began seeing the mountains rising up from the horizon. This was a nice change because for months now Texas has either been mostly flat or canyons. Now, even 30-40 miles away, we begin to see the mountains. And we couldn't have picked a better day with clear blue skies and morning temperatures in the 40's.

After following Hwy 652 across and reaching the TX/NM state line, we turned southwest on US-62/US-180 which runs along the edge of the mountain range leading into the National Park. Now we can get a good look at the terrain of the mountains driving past the Frijole Ridge.
A section of the Guadalupe Mountains.

A section of the Guadalupe Mountains.

We finally arrived at the Pine Springs Visitor Center, the SE entrance to the park and over 80 miles of trails throughout the wilderness. There was also displays of the different wildlife and plants we might encounter on our hike. Though with the exception of many species of birds, we didn't see any other wildlife. Other than of the human variety. This was also the last chance for the next 8.4 miles and 5 hours to use the facilities!

Now it was time to get started. We left the visitor center and drove the half mile down to the trail head parking. Gathering up the backpacks, GPS, cell phones, keys, hiking stick, and making sure we had everything possible we were going to need, we walk over to the trailhead. And what do you think I see? A self-pay station. I figured they would have a charge to get into the national park. But I was expecting an entry gate or even being able to pay at the visitors center. Then we could use our credit/debit cards to pay the $5 each entry fee. I wasn't expecting to put cash in the envelope like most smaller parks and therefore didn't think to make sure we had plenty of cash on us. Digging in my pocket, I had $6, Candy had $1, and I managed to find $3 in change in the car! Completing the form on the envelope and placing the tear-off on the dashboard, FINALLY we are ready to begin hiking.

Looking back at the trailhead parking for the Guadalupe Mountains.After just a couple hundred yards, we quickly realized that elevation makes a big difference! Our lungs had a hard time getting the required amount of oxygen required for hiking up this mountain. The trail quickly began with many switchbacks climbing higher and higher. After ascending about 500', I noticed something that sounded like a rhythmic drum. Almost as if there were Indian war drums sounding off in the far distance. After a few seconds, I realized that I'm hearing my own heart beating trying to distribute the needed fuel to my leg muscles! After almost an hour we started getting acclimated to the altitude and our breathing, though still elevated, became more normal. It was definitely a great cardio workout! 

Looking back at the switchbacks of the Guadalupe Mountain Peak from 1000 feet.
Looking back at the parking and trail switchbacks from almost 1000' up.
Hiking along the Guadalupe Peak trail.

Along the way up we were passed by about a dozen hikers, I think all were younger. Finally at about the 6700' mark, we caught up to two guys taking a break. My first question to them: "Are you also sea-level folks?" YEP! One was from Houston and the other from the valley. (not sure where "the valley" was) But this was their first hike. We chatted for a few moments, they took our picture for us, and we passed through.

Taking a break at the 1000' mark along the Guadalupe Peak Trail.

A view from the Guadalupe Mountain Peak trail.By now our breathing and heartbeat rate was more normal for hiking as we became used to the altitude and we could enjoy the views more as well. The temperature was probably in the 50's now and felt good in the sun. The next 1000' wasn't as steep as the first. There were longer, more gradual stretches of trail and fewer switchbacks on the second mountain we had to pass around on our way to Guadalupe Peak.

There were also more trees and shade on this section. And with the increasing wind gusts, consistent breeze, and higher altitude, it got cold enough for Candy to put her jacket back on.

We saw a lot of different variety of birds, though we couldn't get any good photos of them. This one bird flew by so fast it was like watching a fighter jet. It flew up, did a half loop and away, twice within about 20 seconds.

And then there were these trees which had a strange bark to them. They almost looked like a normal tree coated with a thick orange liquid that hardened in place over it. We only saw about 5 or 6 of these trees not too far from each other. If you happen to know what these were, I hope you leave a comment below with the name of them.

Interesting tree bark from the trail of the Guadalupe Mountain trail.
interesting tree bark
Rock formation along the Guadalupe Mountain Peak trail.
How is that giant rock staying up there?
Still feeling good hiking the Guadalupe Mountain Peak trail.
Ain't she cute!
The steep trail up to the Guadalupe Mountain Peak.The rocky trail up to the Guadalupe Mountain Peak.

A photo of a nearby mountain across from Guadalupe Peak.

A view from the Guadalupe Mountain Peak trail at 7700 feet.At 7,700 feet (2,000' up from trailhead), we took another short break and encountered our first hiker coming down the mountain. He said he started out at sunrise. After that a few more hikers began trickling by on the way down the mountain. All saying the same thing; "you're almost there!" Yeah sure. Thirty minutes have passed since we first were told that and we're still can't see the silver pyramid at the peak!

The last 1000' was like the first 1000', rougher terrain and a steeper ascent. There was one section where the rock had fallen away and the trail disappeared so the park service built a short bridge to cross over along the trail.

The bridge along the Guadalupe Peak mountain trail.

There were a few times along the trail where the snow had not yet melted. Typically shaded by the trees and in the cracks of the rocks, protected from the sun and staying cold.

A photo of snow pockets in the rocks cracks of the Guadalupe Mountains.

A view from the Guadalupe Peak mountain trail.

Hiking the mountain trail up to Guadalupe Peak.
Are we there yet?
It finally got to the point where we could see the finish line. The last leg was the toughest climb. According to the GPS, we were just 0.25 miles to the peak. Yet we still had a 500' climb to the top. Several steep switchbacks and rocky narrow trails ahead. We could see the tip of the silver pyramid monument. We were almost there for real!

We made it to the top of Guadalupe Peak mountain trail!YAY! We made it to the top of Guadalupe Peak! At 8,749 feet, the highest point in the state of Texas. A difficult climb, but well worth the views. When we reached the top there were about a dozen hikers scattered about the rocks relaxing and having their lunch.

Well all but four rather rude hikers who camped out right there around the monument and started eating. One of which was standing and leaning against the monument taking pictures all around. So Candy and I sat nearby getting something to drink and snack on. Candy began assembling the selfi-stick so we could take our photo. One of the four left to walk around and take some other photos, but three were still blocking the way for not only ours but several other newly arriving hikers.

Finally I just had to get rude myself and ask them to move so we and others could take a photo by the monument without them being in our photo! The one girl who was leaning against it thought she would be fine trying to hide behind it until one of the other guys with her told here she should move out of the way.

Finally getting our chance, we stood in front for our photos. You can probably tell this was my first time using a selfi-stick! We just bought it yesterday for this hike. I gotta remember to hold it with the outside arm and away so the stick is not in the picture! It was hard to see if the blue tooth connection was working and taking pictures. We did manage to get two photos before moving away and not hogging the spot so others could get their photos.

A view of the valley from the Guadalupe Peak mountain trail.

View of the Salt Basin west of the Guadalupe Mountain Peak.
Looking towards the Salt Basin west of Guadalupe Peak.
Going down was pretty good in the beginning, but that didn't last long. Most people think that climbing is the hardest, but in reality going downhill is worse. Climbing is harder on the muscles, descending is harder on the joints because of the constant impact. Having broken her foot and ankle in the past, it wasn't long before Candy's feet, then knees and hips to begin hurting.

For the first half of the way down, we hiked along with this other couple from Oklahoma. The conversation helped with keeping out minds off the aches and pains that were beginning to build up. At one point they took a short break and not long after we took a longer break allowing them to pass. That was the last we saw of them. I guess we were slowing them down.

A view of the parking area for the Guadalupe Mountains trail heads.Once we finally had the parking lot, and more urgently needed bathroom facilities in view, our pace picked up a little. Seeing the GeoPrius never felt so good! After 8.4 miles on a strenuous rated hiking trail, a total of 6000 feet in total elevation change, taking the backpack off and sitting in the drivers seat was so nice. Even knowing we still had a 2-hour drive back home.

There are still four more virtual caches and even more traditional Geocaches within this park, but just the one along this Guadalupe Peak trail. Even though we may feel the effects of this hike in our muscles and joints for days to come, it hasn't deterred us from returning again for more punishment! Our Geocaching adventure hiking friends back in Florida would be so proud of us. Hiking all this way just for one virtual Geocache!