Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Backpacking Day Three, McKittrick Ridge to McKittrick Canyon

Mezcal and Ponderosa Pine on McKittrick Ridge

Happy Birthday to me!

The morning of my fortieth birthday, November 12, 2018, dawned cold. Very cold. Single-digit cold. Sean’s and my plan was to complete our third and final day in the backcountry with a 7.6-mile hike down from McKittrick Ridge into McKittrick Canyon and then out to the trailhead at the McKittrick Canyon Contact Station, where Adam, Phil, and Sylvan would pick us up.

I woke up around sunrise at 6:30, but the diffused light around the tent made it difficult to tell what time it was. So I lay in my sleeping bag and waited for it to hopefully warm up a little bit.

When we originally bought our backpacking gear in 2011 for Isle Royale, we went for three-season options because that was the recommendation for the island. At the time, standing in the REI in Chicago, Sean declared that we didn’t need winter gear because he was unwilling to go backpacking in winter. Since then, we’ve had many trips that have been colder than we expected (but not colder than we were prepared for). Each time the temperature plunged to a new record low while we were camping, we’d declare that that was certainly the coldest we’d ever do. Twenty-seven at Theodore Roosevelt. Nineteen at Death Valley. And now up on McKittrick Ridge at Guadalupe Mountains at least ten degrees colder than that.

But, we were prepared, and shortly I built up my courage and climbed out of my sleeping back. Oh look, a little bit of snow/frost on the edge of the tent’s perimeter.

I climbed out of the tent, after shoving my feet into my cold, stiff boots, into a world grayed by thick, low cloud cover.

Ponderosa Pine

Then I noticed the rime on the trees. Rime is a type of frost that forms in foggy (or in our case that morning, cloudy) conditions. It is similar to hoar frost in that both are caused by the freezing of water vapor on free-standing surfaces (like pine needles), but hoar frost occurs in clear air while rime forms from the freezing of fog or clouds. In other words, the low clouds on and around McKittrick Ridge were depositing water vapor on the plants, which then froze to create a dramatic frost, rime.

Ponderosa Pine

Ponderosa Pine

Rime on Ponderosa Pine needles almost looks fake, like your grandmother’s Christmas decorations.

What the photos don’t capture is that the clouds were moving, sometimes thickening around our campsite and other times thinning. Generally, though, the sun was not dispersing them. In fact, over the course of the morning, the clouds got thicker and lower.

What was nice, though (besides the beauty of it all), was that there was no wind. So even though it was very cold, it wasn’t unbearable.

Happy Birthday to me!

Alligator Juniper

Although we had plenty of time, we knew it would take some time to strike camp, if only because it was so cold. So we started breakfast. First step: thaw our frozen water supply for coffee.

The drinking tubes on the water bladders in our packs were frozen. We checked the slushy water in our bladders. I knew mine was quite low, but Sean didn’t realize how low his was. We each had half a liter. The leak in the dromedary from two days earlier was coming back to bite us in the butt. We’d just have to be judicious with hydration on the way down.

We had a birthday breakfast of breakfast skillet cooked all but in the tent. The camp stove was safely beyond the edge of the tent vestibule, but I was still wrapped in my sleeping bag while doing preparations.

After breakfast, we finished striking camp. Once the tent was down, we hurried because the cold was making our toes numb in our boots. We needed to start hiking to keep warm.

At 8:35am, we drank the end of our shared water, shouldered our packs, and started out.

It was sort of snowing even though we were in the clouds.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Happy Birthday to me!

Although we were 7.6 miles from our destination, we’d be on the canyon floor in only 4.1 miles of almost exclusive descent.

Shortly after leaving the backcountry campground proper, the trail reached the first saddle on the descent.

There was little visibility, but also little wind. The rime-covered trees loomed out of the fog-like clouds.

Oak

Here it was more open than it had been near camp, so the shrubs and grasses were also covered with rime.

Ponderosa Pine

Cold as it was, it was absolutely magical. It was like being in an old-timey Christmas card.

Sotol

The red dirt of the trail provided the only real color in a muted, wintergreen world.

Image: Sean M. Santos

To our right, lost in the clouds, was the chasm of South McKittrick Canyon.

The magical saddle was broad, still, and quiet.

Mezcal

Oak

Texas Madrone

Ponderosa Pine

Texas Madrone. Image: Sean M. Santos

Beyond the broad saddle, the trail reentered forest and traversed a slope.

Alligator Juniper

We passed some discarded clothing. Wonder what happened there.

Image: Sean M. Santos

The slope the trail traversed got extremely steep as we rounded the end of the ridge. The view from this spot must have been insane, but we couldn’t see it. What we were missing in scenery, we more than made up for in mysteriousness. That and this steep drop off blind right turn probably would have freaked me out had I been able to see.

The trail began to drop along a more gentle slope, and I began to convince myself that the wide saddle with all the rime had been the scary saddle I knew we had to cross.

Then up ahead, I saw the trail heading toward another ridge.

Oh maybe this is the scary saddle.

But nope, it wasn’t.

The trail dropped dramatically in some tight switch-backs.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Then it swept east along a canyon wall. We were emerging from beneath the clouds, and now the depths of South McKittrick Canyon were resolving into view over 1,200 feet below us.

We stopped and took a break where the trail widened a bit against the wall, while all around us a flock of American Robins chittered away flitting from shrub to shrub. In stopping, I actually began to get more nervous and felt a touch of the panic of acrophobia. So after a sip of water, we continued on.

We’d been on the trail for fifty minutes, and I had all but convinced myself that the wide saddle we’d crossed was the saddle I was nervous about. I thought we were farther down than we were.

And then I realized that the ridge looming out of the clouds was the narrow saddle.

Our path led out across the saddle, around the peak, and then down into the canyon below. At the time, I thought this was “The Notch.” Even though it doesn’t have a name, I had been thinking for years about what crossing this saddle would be like. Now on the morning of my fortieth birthday, I was about to find out.

Sean asked if I wanted him to go first, and I said no, that I’d rather go slowly with him behind me.

The southwesterly view from the saddle

I started out. We were just at the bottom edge of the clouds, so although we could see down to the canyon depths on either side, we couldn’t see distant vistas.

The northwesterly view from the saddle

An inability to see too far in the distance helped ease my mind. And perhaps best of all, there was no wind, which had been my biggest concern…for years…in imagining this hike.

Image: Sean M. Santos

From the saddle, we had our first glimpse of McKittrick Creek off in the distance at the canyon bottom.

At the far side of the saddle, the trail rose steeply up toward the summit.

Made it! In the end, it wasn’t actually as scary as I’d anticipated for so long.

We looked back. The saddle appeared even narrower than it was from this angle.

Above the saddle, we passed through a notch (not The Notch) with drop offs on either side.

Then we rounded the northeastern side of the peak before coming around the opposite side from the saddle.

Here we had come to the end of the trail on McKittrick Ridge. The southern wall of McKittrick Canyon loomed in the clouds across from us. We had nowhere to go but down. Dramatically.

We dropped quickly in a series of tight switchbacks. The only thing that set my mind at ease was the knowledge that beneath each seemingly sheer drop off was another switchback.

Down below the clouds, it was snowing. There was no accumulation, but there was a steady, light snowfall the whole way down.

The trail swung out to the north and the slope became more forested. Then it proceeded on a long traverse back to the south.

Then it switchbacked down along a ridge.

BIgtooth Maple

We stopped for water, emptying the remainder of my bladder into a Nalgene and splitting it between us. Shortly thereafter we ran into another hiker, a fit, handsome man with piercing blue eyes probably a decade younger than us, making his way up the trail. We chatted briefly. He said that there had been no other cars in the parking area at the trailhead when he set out that morning.

After twenty-seven hours of solitude, it was almost jarring to encounter another human being.

We wished him a good hike, and he continued up the trail.

Wilderness Ridge

Down, down, down we went, eventually passing through The Notch, which we barely registered. I imagine it’s much more impactful on the way up since it provides the first good view of South McKittrick Canyon for those starting at the trailhead.

The Notch

High above us, we could see that the trees on the upper parts of the canyon walls were visibly covered in rime.

Texas Madrone

After The Notch, the trail switchbacked along the lower section of the wall within McKittrick Canyon proper. The trees got taller, the fall color returned, and the trail was as steep as ever.

Bigtooth Maple

The trail was so steep, in fact, that one part of it was hewn in steps cut into the rock.

The handsome hiker we’d encountered passed us again, this time headed down the trail. He had made it up to the saddle and turned around.

Sotol and Bigtooth Maple

Bigtooth Maple

Some sunshine peeked through in the distance, dramatically illuminating other parts of the canyon and its walls.

Bigtooth Maple

Fineleaf Fournerved Daisy

Although it was still snowing, we stopped beneath an overhang and dropped our packs in order to remove some of our layers. We were both sweating and felt a bit overheated.

Then we pressed on, down the final few long switchbacks to the bottom.

Suddenly we were there, 4.1 miles from the campground, where the trail intersected with a short spur trail to the Grotto, where water percolates from limestone creating stalagmites and stalactites.

Just as we arrived at the trailhead, a woman approached from the Grotto. We chatted briefly with her before she continued down the trail in the same direction we were headed. She was going to let us go ahead because she assumed we would be faster hikers, but we assured her that with heavy packs after three days out, we were moving slowly.

“Three days!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been out here for three hours and I’m done.”

After she disappeared, we dropped our packs and had a snack. It was not about 11:45am. The guys were expecting us at 1pm. We had an hour and change to hike the final 3.5 miles. Happily, the rest of the trail was smooth and basically flat. If anything, it had a slight downward grade to the mouth of the canyon.

As we munched our bars, we poured the contents of Sean’s water bladder into a Nalgene and split our final half liter of water. Ok. We were out of water, but we were now merely a day’s stroll from the trailhead.

Image: Sean M. Santos

We shouldered our packs and set out at a quick clip, definitely faster than we usually hike. We didn’t want to be too late for the guys who, after all, had just driven down all the way from Detroit.

As we hiked along beautiful McKittrick Canyon, I said that we would have to come back and take our time. We didn’t even go to the Grotto! I determined to suggest to the guys that we return on Thursday after striking camp and before heading on to Carlsbad. We’d have to kill the afternoon before our 4pm check-in at the AirB&B anyway.

We ran into an older couple who were out for a hike at one of their favorite places. We chatted a bit and told them about some of our adventures over the previous few days.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Bigtooth Maple

After 1.1 miles, we passed the path to Pratt Cabin, but we didn’t have time to stop. It was now 12:23pm. We were actually making pretty good time.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Sean asked for a story. It was a good idea to keep our minds busy as we sped along, so I readily complied. I made up the tale of Princess Sean who lived at Pratt Cabin and couldn’t decide which of his three suitors to marry: big boy Thad, sticky sweet Steven, or lithe dancer Wyatt. It was quite a little story.

Image: Sean M. Santos

McKittrick Canyon widened and so did the trail, which was now a broad gravel path.

The path crossed McKittrick Creek multiple times. And at times it was a bit confusing to figure out how to get across.

Eventually near the canyon’s mouth, the creek dried up entirely, and the path crossed and recrossed the dry bed. It occurred to me that the rocks in the creek bed were probably ultimately washed down from the fossilized coral reef in the mountains. It made sense with the white limestone creek bed, which seemed like bleached coral.

At ten minutes after 1pm, we hiked over a small rise and saw the contact station.

Day three’s hike was a total of 7.5 miles and took us four hours and twenty-eight minutes. We ascended 847 feet, which surprises me because I don’t remember going up all that much, perhaps because we descended 3,470 feet, mostly in the first four miles. The highest elevation was at 7,728 feet just above and outside McKittrick Ridge Campground, the lowest elevation was the final creek crossing before the trailhead, 5,009 feet.

Visual track of our third day’s hike

Hypsometry of our third day’s hike

Our total backpack over three days covered 20.2 miles in fourteen hours and nine minutes of trail time. We ascended a total of 6,103 feet and descended a total of 6,941 feet. The highest point was Pine Top Campground at 8,040 feet, and the lowest point was crossing the bed of McKittrick Creek at 5,009 feet.

Happy Birthday to me!

And so it was 1:13pm, and there we were in the parking lot hugging Adam and Phil. It was great to see them. We hadn’t seen them since that year’s Annual Midwest Sandhill Crane Count back in April. And it was phenomenally special to have them with us to celebrate my birthday trip.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Little Sylvan was sleeping in the back of the car. He was chewing on giraffe and unconcerned whether or not Sean made it out of the mountains.

The guys were relieved to see us. They had been waiting quite a long time, both because cell service around the Park is weird and their phones were still in Central time not Mountain time. So according to their phones, we were over an hour late. Also, Adam had forgotten that we’d switched the pickup time from noon to 1pm, so to the guys we were over two hours late. They had actually been about to leave and alert the rangers at the visitor center that we were very late.

There was no water at the contact station, but the guys had water in the car, which Sean and I drank thirstily.

Then we drove back to Pine Springs, where they had set up camp in site 16, semiprivate and adjacent to parking. It was also a bit higher in elevation than the other sites, so we had slightly better views of the surrounding landscape and the lowlands beyond the Guadalupes.

We began to unpack, and Sean said that he had a Stockholm Syndrome for his pack. I used several “dude wipes” to clean up a bit since there’s no shower facility at Pine Springs.

We snacked and set up camp. While we worked, the guys put Sylvan down for a nap in their tent. The poor little guy had tripped on the downward sloping sidewalk along the campground road, and he had just had enough for the afternoon.

Occasionally, the sun appeared, but for the most part it continued to snow, still with no accumulation.

I flagged down a ranger driving past and asked him how we should indicate that we had a second vehicle for site 16. After resolving that, he mentioned that it was going to be very cold that night…down into the twenties. I said that we knew, and that we’d be fine. I said that two of us had been up on McKittrick Ridge the night before.

“Oh you’re the guys who were up there,” he said. “We were wondering about you.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “It was cold, but it was beautiful. And this morning everything was covered with hoar frost.”

“Really? That’s my favorite. We only get that down here a few times a year. It’s the best.”

El Capitan

We ran into the same handsome hiker we’d met on the trail. He was camping across the way from us and was headed out to see the slot canyon of Devil’s Hall.

After everything was arranged in the campsite for the next three nights and Sylvan had awakened from his nap, we all drove over to the visitor center. Although it was Monday and Sean and I had been in the Park since Friday, we had waited until November 12 to stamp our passports so that they would bear the date of my actual birthday.

Sylvan enjoyed looking at the exhibitions in the visitor center, and the Park’s artist-in-residence gave him a postcard to color.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

After the visitor center, we climbed back into the car and drove to Carlsbad. Since it was so cold, our plan was to spend the evening getting groceries and supplies before going out to dinner for my birthday.

On the drive, Sylvan noticed and pointed out the mountains, the long line of the Guadalupes stretching northeast out of Texas into New Mexico. He also pointed out the various trucks we passed.

The rest of us chatted about our favorite National Parks. Adam made a strong case for his favorite: Virgin Islands National Park.

As we approached Carlsbad, I got cell service again and began to get a flurry of text message birthday greetings. I also checked social media and, among many other birthday greetings, discovered these two gems from my husband:

Again we sat in traffic in Carlsbad. We all remarked on the town’s crazy traffic, which Adam and Phil had also noticed on their way down.

My parents had left me a voice message singing Happy Birthday, so I called them back. As lovely as it was to surprise them with a call on my birthday, it was a bit jarring to get an abrupt dose of national news from them after being cut off for four days.

“Did you hear about the wildfires in California?”

“No.”

“The whole town of Paradise is gone.”

“Oh. That’s terrible.”

“Did you hear what Trump said?”

“No.”

Finally I had to stop them. It was too much. And we turned the conversation back to nicer things like little Sylvan and the fact that Sean and I weren’t dead.

When we reached the Albertson’s parking lot, I signed off with my parents and we began to look for a parking spot, which was surprisingly difficult. Apparently Albertson’s was the place to be on a Carlsbad Monday evening.

Getting groceries was an adventure in the crowded store. We each ran a little amuck in our own way and ended up with a ton of food. Also, Sean and I went crazy over the kombucha and bought upwards of a dozen bottles.

While I finished up in Albertson’s with Phil and Adam and Sylvan, Sean ran across the street to CVS to see if he could get a couple blankets for the tent. He found a few that were actually throws, but they were soft and warm. At the checkout, the woman at the register said that she appreciated him, which made his heart swell. (We now call them the appreciation blankets, and Elsa, our cat, is asleep on them across the room as I type this.)

Image: Sean M. Santos

Also across the street from the Albertson’s was a health food store where you can get both an organic turkey and a colonic, as Sean noted.

Our first choice, Guadalupe Mountains Brewing Company, was closed that Monday evening, so we went instead to Marion’s New American Restaurant, which turned out to be really tasty. As you can see above, Sean had a wedge salad, which has been a thing since our LA adventures back in June. I had the green chili burger. And we got an order of green chili poutine for the table.

A lady at the next table, apparently confused by a table of four men and an almost-two-year-old, mentioned that it was baby’s “night out with the boys.”

While we were at the restaurant, Dale and Rick called to wish me Happy Birthday. They had been expecting my voice message and were delighted to get to unexpectedly say hello to everyone.

Sylvan got fussy as we finished eating, so Sean ordered us a piece of birthday cheesecake to go, and we started the drive back to camp.

Back in camp, the guys transferred Sylvan from car seat to tent and said goodnight. I made a couple of hot water bottles while Sean arranged his new blankets in the tent.

Snuggled in our sleeping bags, we read for a bit. We were both pretty stiff and fairly exhausted from our adventures thus far at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It was a tremendous birthday, and the trip wasn’t even yet half over!

To end my birthday well, a pack of coyotes laughed and howled and sang and carried on in the distance as we fell asleep.

Happy Birthday to me!

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