Saturday, 30 April 2011

McKittrick Canyon: Easter Weekend 2011 Part III

Easter Sunday we woke up in our tent to pleasant temperatures. The only discomfort was that our air mattress was a wee bit too small, it was made to fit in the bed of my truck where you can lay up against the sides of the bed. We packed up and broke camp then departed Pine Springs Campground to do some light Geocaching and one last trail hike in McKittrick Canyon.

The previous evening we had been stargazing and seen some smoke coming over the Guads, today that smoke was much more ominous so I asked in the Visitor Center about it and was told it was called the Last Chance Fire and was likely started by hikers making a campfire. (Why are people so ignorant sometimes?) After a brief chat with the Rangers about a lost campground host that had been found Friday night before we arrived we departed Pine Springs. The McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center is an unusual one as there are no Rangers stationed here, and the displays are outdoors in a covered pavilion. We looked these over a bit, and from the pictures I've decided we will likely return in the fall to see the trees change. I wanted to get the McKittrick Canyon Nature Loop Earthcache but there were signs the trail was a bit steep in places and both of our legs were Jell-O from our hike to Guadalupe Peak the previous day. So I made a quick backwards loop on the trail to gather the needed information while Steph filled water bottles and packed some snacks. Then we hit the trail to Pratt Cabin.

The cabin was built by Pratt as a getaway in his own private oasis in the desert. He had all the supplies brought in by horse and mule to prevent needing to harvest the trees and stone in the canyon and wreck the natural beauty. It is extra-unusual as the whole cabin is made of stone including the roof!

The trail there is about 2 miles (4 round trip) and is mostly flat so we made the trip in just a couple hours although it was still pretty painful to be honest. But to sit on the back porch of the cabin and feel the breeze blowing through the trees is an experience that is hard to duplicate. We made it back to the car just as the wind really started to kick up and then began the drive back to Midland. Overall, it was one of the best getaway weekends we've had in a long time, maybe since we left Colorado and I look forward to a return trip. (Probably in the Fall).

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Guadalupe Peak: Easter Weekend 2011 Part II

If you haven't read Part I of our trip, start here. After leaving Rattlesnake Springs we made a side-trip out to Sitting Bull Falls which I had heard was a great little hike and a work of the CCC-era park building program. After an hour or so of driving we found two regrettable things, it was $5 a car to enter, and it closed in 30 minutes. We opted to leave it to another day. I regret this deeply now because the Last Chance Fire that started Saturday is said to have greatly impacted the area and it may never be the same as it was on last Friday when we were there. But we left, and returned to Carlsbad for the night where we ate a fantastic dinner at Danny's BBQ and stayed at the brand new Fairfield Inn.

Saturday we woke up around 6AM and made our way down National Parks Hwy to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We first went to the Visitor Center and stamped our passport to mark our 60th official National Park visited and got some information from the Rangers about camping options. We went to the Pine Springs Campground and chose a site, fixed some water and lunch for the hike and began our trek at approximately 10AM. The trail to Guadalupe Peak is mostly gravel and crushed rock with many switchbacks that slowly gain elevation until you transition from from the alluvial slopes into the bedrock of the Guads which happens to be a limestone reef composed not of coral like modern reefs but sponges, algae mats, brachipods, crinoids, and other manner of critters with preserved carbonate skeletons. El Capitan is the best known and most prominent outcrop of this reef, but it creates a horseshoe shaped atoll that the Guadalupe Mountains are but a small portion of.

After a mile or so the trail loses a lot of its steepness and the flora transitions from the desert scrub brush into pinon pine in what is known as a "floating island forest." The shade and extra breeze was wonderful and with temperatures in the high 70s I can't imagine much better weather for the hike. Even though the grade of the trail wasn't as steep we really started to feel the hike at this point, and even the sight of the Guadalupe Peak Campground almost wasn't enough to spur us on. We took a lot of breaks along the way, sometimes we snacked on granola and such, but mostly we drank water and Gatorade. The NPS suggests one Gallon of water per person per day on this trail. I drank 5 liters+ and Steph drank 2 liters+ during the course of our journey there and back again. Rounding the corner of the meadow the campground resides in we finally saw our goal before us. It bolstered our spirits but also dampened them just a bit because it was still a long ways up. We crossed the "highest bridge in Texas" which actually made us walk downhill into a saddle.

We lamented that we were going the wrong way, but passed a couple of hikers coming down from the summit that gave us words of encouragement that spurred us on. Many of these hikers had passed us on the way up; I never claimed to be athletic. The last mile is almost as bad as the first mile, there are maybe half as many switchbacks and the grade isn't as steep, but the trail is loose limestone chunks that are hard on the ankles. We summited the peak at about 3PM, five hours after we began!

The trail is a little over 4 miles long, 8 miles round trip so we didn't set any land-speed records but that was never our goal either. The important thing is we did it and the views we received were indescribable. If you are going to truly visit Guadalupe Mountains NP this is the hike you must do. We signed the mountain register, ate a small lunch, then crashed on a ledge for a while. The return hike was uneventful, we met a Ranger that had found a camera on the trail and was looking for the owner and a chatty Irishman that talked to himself in another language. (Presumably Irish?) We returned to the trail head at 7PM, a 9 hour hike! There isn't much else to say, we washed up and cooked some quick dinner before hitting the air mattress.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Where have we been?

When I mention National Parks as a hobby the first question I usually get is "How many have you been to?" Well I wasn't sure, and as you will see in a minute I am still not totally sure. Part of the reason is that the NPS is peculiar in how they list the properties they administrate, part is because there are a lot of affiliated parks that get some funding from the NPS but are not in the NPS, and lastly there are many NPS trails that are not counted as parks. All that said and after consulting the ever-knowing Wikipedia, I calculate we have visited 60 of the 394 National Parks Units.

Horseshoe Bend NMP
Little River Canyon NP
Russell Cave NM
Fort Smith
Hot Springs NP
Bent's Old Fort NHS
Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP
Colorado NM
Curecanti NRA
Florissant Fossil Beds NM
Great Sand Dunes NP & NP *(Counts as two parks)
Hovenweep NM
Mesa Verde NP
Rocky Mountains NP
Yucca House NM
Gulf Islands NS
Chickamauga & Chattanooga NMP
Brown vs Board of Education NHS
Jean Lafitte NHP & Preserve* (Many locations but one park)
New Orleans Jazz NHP
Natchez Trace Parkway
Natchez trace National Scenic Trail
Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (St. Louis Arch)
Ulysses S. Grant NHS
Bighorn Canyon NRA
Agate Fossil Beds NM
Scotts bluff NM
New Mexico
Aztec Ruins Nm
Bandelier NM
Capulin Volcano NM
Carlsbad Caverns NP
Chaco Culture NHP
El Malpais NM
El Morro NM
Fort Union NM
Gila Cliff Dwellings NM
Pecos NHP
Petroglyph NM
North Carolina
Carl Sandburg Home NHS
OKC Memorial *(No longer NPS but I still count it)
Puerto Rico
San Juan NHS
South Dakota
Badlands NP
Jewel Cave NM
Minuteman Missle NHS
Mount Rushmore NM
Wind Cave NP
Appalachian Trail
Blue Ridge Parkway
Great Smokey Mountains NP
Guadalupe Mountains NP *(#60 visited!)
San Antonio Missions NHP
Virgin Islands
Virgin Islands NP
Virgin Islands Coral Reef NM
Devils Tower NM
Fort Laramie NHS
Fossil Butte NM
Grand Teton NP
John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway
Yellowstone NP

Monday, 25 April 2011

Carlsbad Caverns: Easter Weekend 2011 Part I

Outside the Carlsbad Caverns VCFriday we left out of Midland around 9AM, the drive is pretty dull, much like Kansas back when we drove from Colorado to Alabama during Grad School. I stopped a few times to grab caches in Andrews and Lea Counties for the Permian Basin County Challenge (GC2MX53). We arrived around lunch to find the Visitor Center very active which wasn't unexpected. It was National Parks weekend, which meant no entry fees were collected in any of the National Parks. Several bus loads of elementary school children were there along with hundreds of other tourists. We opted for the Natural Entrance hike to get the full cave experience so we got our free tickets and out we went.

The Natural Entrance is thiiiis big!The trail into the cave is pretty steep but it is all down hill so as long as you have good shoes (and knees) it isn't too strenuous. There are bats and cave swallows that inhabit the sunlit zone of the cave so there is some smell of guano at first but this quickly goes away. We took our time and let the quicker visitors scoot past. Once you leave the Bat Cave and enter the Twilight Zone the cave temperature drops to the mid-50s with 95% humidity which feels great after leaving the desert above where it was in the high 80s. We didn't get to watch the bat flight today but that is something I would love to see on another trip! There are so many things to see in the cave, limestone is just amazing stuff when it comes to building these natural works of architecture. I like the way the path meanders with the natural flow of the cave and there are few places you see direct tunneling (dynamite drill hole scars).

Along this path you will see several lighted informational signs that give you the answers to this Earthcache (GC1HGBP).There are even places where the old wooden scaffolding can be seen from the 1920s when the caves were explored and the park was developed. Once we reached the bottom of the cave we walked the entire Great Room with even more formations to see. There is a Virtual Cache to be logged here if you follow the Great Room path accessible from either the Natural Entrance or the Elevator (GC8F21)

Finally we reached the elevator shaft that serves as the only exit to the cave, which descends more than 750 ft. We were disappointed to find that they seem to no longer serve Cave Burgers in the underground concession as the old weathered billboards on the way in to Carlsbad advertised, but we found them in the Visitor Center back at the surface and they were tasty after almost 3 miles of walking! We left the main part of the park and visited the much more serene Rattlesnake Springs. Despite the name it is an oasis in the desert that was bought by the Park Service to provide water for the Carlsbad Caverns VC which can be seen about 6 miles away on a ridge line. The lake here is full of minnows and we saw several Birders walking along the road when we drove back to it to get this Virtual cache (GC6D5C). Well worth the short drive from the busy main part of the park, it would be a great place for a picnic lunch.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

New Blog!

I have tried writing blogs before but I always seem to lose interest after a few entries. I'm not sure exactly why that is, I mean, I love the trips we take. Also, we have a lot of family (RE: all our family) out of town that would love to see what we do in our free time. I guess I just enjoy being in the moment more than recounting those moments. Take for example the cruise we took in 2007, the footage is still on our camcorder despite my best attempts to make it into a DVD. But this isn't a very good introduction to a blog is it? Let me start over...

My name is John and my wife, Stephanie, and I have been living in Midland, TX since the beginning of this year (2011). I am a Geologist in the Oil Industry, and was relocated here after five years in Lafayette, Louisiana. We are both from Tuscaloosa, Alabama and have lived in all of the previously mentioned states, plus Colorful Colorado (Fort Collins, oh how we miss it).

I have a few hobbies (my wife would say a few too many) that occupy my free time. The first of which is Geocaching. Geocaching is an outdoor adventure game that uses GPS receivers to find items hidden by other 'cachers' all over the world. There are millions of these 'caches' all over the place. My handle on is ZSandmann and since June of 2005 I have found over 4,200 caches in many states plus The US Virgin Islands.

My second hobby, and the one my wife actually enjoys, is visiting National Parks. I need to sit down and calculate how many we have been too, but I can guess at 30+ with pretty good confidence. There are over 392 units in the National Park Service currently. We love these treasures of our country, whether it is the active geology of Yellowstone, the temperate vistas of the Smokey Mountains, or a single Cold War era nuclear bunker like Minuteman Missile. Combine this with geocaching and there are bound to be some adventures. I've created this blog just in time for a planned Easter excursion to Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks this weekend. So stay tuned.