Thursday, April 23, 2015

Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks

April 14 - 20, 2015:

Another travel day, this time it's 110 miles northeast to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Salt Flat, Texas.  The drive takes us along route 62/180 which starts off going through acres and acres of junk yards.  It then goes into great wide open ranch country as far as the eye can see with no fuel, no food - just barren country.  Approaching the Guadalupe Mountains it gets prettier and prettier with lots of wild flowers along the highway.  The highway passes through a salt flat area that was a source of conflict years ago called the Salt Wars.  As you are driving across this flat basin area, for miles in the distance you see a prominent mountain ahead, called EL Capitan. This has been a landmark for early travelers for centuries as it leads you through the Guadalupe Pass.  The highway today climbs up and over this same pass, still the easiest way over, and in a couple of miles you arrive at the Guadalupe National Park.

Highway view coming up to El Capitan Pass
The Park is first come, first served (no reservations) and fairly small (39 parking spots) with no hookups and no dump station.  There is a bathroom and a water spigot.  It is beautiful, however, with trails right from the parking lot.  Also very inexpensive at $4 a day with the senior park pass. We intended to only stay a couple of nights, but the place is so beautiful, the hiking superb, and we ended up staying 5 days.

View from the campground

The Guadalupe Mountains were under a huge sea 260-270 million years ago and were part of the 400 mile long Capitan Reef.  Eventually the sea evaporated and the reef was buried under sediments and mineral salts. After millions of years a mountain-building uplift occurred which exposed parts of the reef again.  It is considered one of the best examples of an ancient marine fossil reef in the world.  This was not a coral reef but rather a reef made up of sponges, algae and other lime-secreting marine organisms.  Guadalupe Peak, at 8,749 foot elevation, is the highest point in Texas.

The ruins of a mid 1800's Butterfield Stage station called the Pinery is adjacent to the Park visitors center.  There wasn't much left to see at the ruins, but the short nature trail to it was really great.  The story of the Butterfield Stage is incredible.  John Butterfield was a farm boy born in Bern, New York, who in 1801 who saved his money and started a livery business.  In 1857 Congress authorized a contract to Butterfield for $600,000 to deliver mail daily from St. Louis to San Francisco in 25 days.  Butterfield convinced Henry Wells and William Fargo (Wells and Fargo) to consolidate their express company with his to form the American Express Company which he then directed. The route traveled some 2,000 miles through rugged country with 200 way stations where fresh horses or mules, water, food and spare wagons were available.  The wagons traveled 24 hours a day at an average speed of 5 MPH.  Passengers were also taken on the wagons which had a fold down sleeper bed.   It was a very rough grueling ride!  It was a huge undertaking and successful but only lasted about two years until the transcontinental railroad came into being.

Remains of one of the stage buildings

There are many hiking trails here with the most popular being the Guadalupe Peak Trail which is also a very strenuous 8.4 mile hike.  We didn't feel up to that challenge so instead we did the easier, but longer El Capitan Trail.  It goes through beautiful country around El Capitan Peak which is 8,085 feet in elevation.  Lots of wildflowers were in bloom and the geology was interesting.  We turned back before the end but ended up doing about 9 1/2 miles; it was plenty for us.  I had my first rattlesnake encounter this year when I wandered off the trail a few feet to look at some interesting rocks.  A nice big healthy rattler was nice enough to let me know I was entering his space.

These were in full bloom all over

Trail view of El Capitan

He was not happy!

Ominous clouds rolled in on the way back

Guadalupe Mountain National Park is about 35 miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park so it is a good spot to base camp at for both National Parks.  On Thursday we took a break from hiking and we went to Carlsbad Caverns.  We did the self-guided natural entrance and the Big Room loop trail which were about 2 miles long.  Walking in from the natural entrance takes you down about 800 feet on a steep paved walkway with lots of switchbacks. It was cool, they say the cavern stays at 56 degrees year round with 90% humidity and there is water dripping in places.  It is truly amazing to me how the early explorers made their way down into the cave with only primitive ropes, ladders and lights.   Also how they lowered people down into the cave in the early days from above in guano buckets.  Another amazing fact is that they took 100,000 tons of guano out of the cave to be used for fertilizer. The early cave explorer was actually a local cowboy by the name of James White who was attracted to the cave when he saw the clouds of bats come out at dusk. He went on to explore and promote the wonders of the cave his entire life, culminating in it becoming a National Monument in 1923 and a National Park in 1930.

On the entrance road I spotted these mountain
sheep in a cave in the side of a hillside

The chief explorer 

Guano Happens

These are called soda straws

I took a solo hike on Friday from the campground through a huge wash connecting to the Devil's Hall Trail.  It was only 4.2 miles roundtrip but involved lots of rocks and boulders and is considered strenuous.  The trail terminates at a natural rock staircase between canyon walls with a basin filled with water.  I could then understand how the trail got it's name, but I would prefer the name Devil's Bathtub.  The trail is mostly a wash that obviously turns into the raging torrent from hell by the looks of the erosion and the huge boulders strewn around.  There was a storm last fall that really flooded the area.  The bright white reef rocks were sort of blinding and the reflected sun was overpowered my sunscreen.

Tough walking

You wouldn't want to be here during a storm

That's the staircase at Devil's Hall

Nice little bathtub

Trail side view on the return

Saturday's hike with Twinkles was the McKittrick Canyon Trail to the Grotto.  It was a 6.8 mile moderate hike with very little elevation change to the Pratt Cabin and then another mile to the Grotto.  The Pratt cabin was built by Wallace Pratt who was a oil company geologist who visited the area, fell in love with it and built a very substantial vacation cabin there in 1932.  He eventually bought up a large tract of the surrounding land that was donated to the National Park in 1959.  The Grotto is a unusual geologic rock formation that seems to have been a cave many years ago with stalactites and such now exposed.

Water flowing in places in the canyon

Very impressive Agave plant seed spike

Equally impressive yucca flower head
getting ready to open

The Pratt cabin

The Grotto
On the return to the campground we stopped at the Frijole Ranch House museum.  The museum was closed but we were able to walk around the house.  It was originally built in 1876, changed hands several times and was expanded during the 1930's. It is considered the best remaining ranch house in the area and is now on the National Register of Historic Sites. It is of stone construction with a good spring, a spring house for cold storage, a barn, a school house, a generator for gas lights and even a stone outhouse surrounded by large shade trees. They built their own school house, hired a teacher at $30 a month plus room and board and a horse for the schooling of 8 children.  It's still amazing to me, I can't get over it, how young the history is here.  My grandfather could have been a pioneer here.

Frijole Ranch
April 19th found us on the move again for 75 miles north to Brantley Lake State Park about 12 miles north of Carlsbad, New Mexico.  It's a very nicely laid out campground with access to Brantley Lake which is a dam and recreation area.  Half of the campsites are 1st come, 1st served and we were there before noon to pretty much have our pick of sites.  We got a site with water and electric with a wonderful view of the Lake.  We mostly relaxed and got cleaned up here for a couple of days.

Carlsbad was established in 1888 and originally named Eddy after a prominent early settler.  There were mineral springs here with medicinal value which resulted in the name change to Carlsbad after the famed European spa "Karlsbad".  The discovery of the Carlsbad Caverns then made it a tourism destination.  What happened to the mineral springs ?

Carlsbad has a historic downtown with many nice shops and businesses, in particular the great Eddy County Court House and a beautifully restored 1st National Bank building.  There is the usual sprawl of cookie cutter chain stores, fast food restaurants, gas stations, etc. around it all.  I stopped at McDonalds for a senior coffee and to use the WiFi and it was like most other McDonalds in the AM, many old guys drinking senior coffee, gossiping and solving the world's problems.  The Pecos River runs right through town with a bridge dedicated to local veterans of Bataan during the WWII.  There is also a small dam, a lake and some sort of a recreation area.  After seeing the sign, I settled on a lunch stop at the "No Whiner Diner best food this side of the Pecos".  I'm not agreeing to the best food claim, but it was interesting and I liked the Albert Einstein quote near the restroom.

Lunch at the "No Whiner Diner"

Beautiful Bullock's Oriole in tree above RV

View of the Dam

The Eddy County Courthouse

1st National Bank

Mural on Carlsbad museum

Pecos River in Carlsbad
The man had a way with words 

Next stop is Lubbock, Texas,
Twinkles and Slick

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