“We don’t normally issue a permit for McKittrick Ridge one night and Wilderness Ridge the next.” The Ranger looked at us dubiously. But, we explained, we’ve been to McKittrick Ridge Camp before, from the other way, and hiked down into McKittrick Canyon. We know will be steep going up, but we’d just like to try. And since we have to return to the parking to get to the Permian Reef (to Wilderness Ridge) trailhead, we can take just one day of water and food at a time. She objected that we’d have come down nearly 8 miles and we’d still have 4 miles and 2,000 feet to go back up again at the end of the day. We pointed out that we could always give it up in the middle if we were too tired, and she acquiesced and wrote out the permit, including a note that we had been warned.
To all y’all long-haul Sierra hikers, 2,400 feet up in the last 4 miles from McKittrick Canyon to McKittrick Ridge would doubtless be piece of cake, especially with honed UL kits. But most of our trips have been with beginning teenagers, and being from central Texas we don’t get to practice mountains that much. McKittrick Canyon, with its relict ice-age maples, is famous for spectacular fall colors. We’d been up in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park backcountry in spring (sometime I’ll write about the day with the most kinds of weather) and in the summer, and the landscape is awesome--different, all steep and craggy like an old Chinese painting--at any time. Robert and I had decided to leave our 16- and 26-year old sons in charge of the home front, and abscond for a few Fall days. Guadalupe Mts. is about a day’s drive from Austin; we left on a Monday evening, stayed over at a state park, and arrived just after lunch on Tuesday. After wrangling our permit and setting up camp at the Pine Spring car campground, we took the afternoon to see Devil’s Hall, always skipped on previous trips. This is a 4-mile round trip, an in-and-back day hike of the deep, cool rocky canyon between Guadalupe Peak and The Bowl. A German couple we met in there had seen desert bighorns earlier up on the slopes, but we did not see them. (Bighorns look a lot like limestone boulders, so they blend in well on Guadalupe slopes, until they surprise you and move.) Flaming red maples, bright yellows, golden browns, evergreen oaks and junipers, smooth white Madrone trunks with peeling red bark--all these colors unfolded as we picked our way along the desert slopes and into the cool forested canyon. A narrow place is like a hall with sheer walls of layered ancient sea floor and terraces like steps.
Wednesday morning early we tossed everything back in the car and drove the 15 or so miles around to McKittrick Visitor Center, where we staged a big gear-sort on the parking lot. Robert, still skeptical about this business of paring down one’s kit, had more extra clothes and toiletry items than I had recommended, and insisted we’d need the 5 lb. Half Dome tent because of the potential for high winds common at Guadalupe. I agreed to carry the tent if he’ll shoulder most of the 2 gallons of water. We snapped our send-off picture at the trailhead, quipped “Here goes nothin’!” and set off up the canyon, first across desert and then gradually into the cool of the forest. The creek runs in places and disappears under the rocks in places. Leaf color splashed in, gorgeous although more muted than Devil’s Hall. This is a level, popular day-hiker’s trail for the first 3.5 miles to The Grotto, where we lunched. There we visited with two other couples out for the day. An elderly man asked about our gear, particularly my pack, a ULA Catalyst, and asked if we’d run across that neat “Backpacking Light” web site.
Now the time had come. We resolved to take it slowly, one step at a time. The densely switchbacked trail climbs straight up above a bend in the canyon, rising very soon to views through the sparse trees all the way out to the desert plains. Steep sheltered drainages across the canyon harbored colorful leaves hidden from below. This trail was, as anticipated, hard work for us, but we reminded ourselves that we had all afternoon, and the unfolding scenery helped a lot. Mid-afternoon we met a couple of guys coming down from a day hike to “the notch” which is about halfway up. They told us it was “almost to the top” and we were surprised and encouraged, but then reasoned that those guys couldn’t be right, and they weren’t. Much closer to the top, we reached what we like to call the “sky bridge,” a narrow trip maybe 200 yards along a roughly 8 foot wide knife-edge with steep drops at either elbow, one of our favorite spots. The afternoon was waning, there were still a lot of switchbacks ahead, and we were tired, but by this point we knew we would make it. We took one-another’s smiling portraits at McKittrick Ridge Camp, way up on top in the forest behind a sheltering rock outcrop, about a half hour before dusk. Even prepackaged beef stroganoff and too-sweet freeze-dried cobbler tasted great! The wind was just enough to send me behind the shelter of the half-open tent vestibule with the caldera cone stove.
We slept well indeed! And a bit later than planned, deep inside the tent, with a long day ahead. We set up a photo at the overlook above the canyon before starting down. I hiked this hike with trekking poles, mainly for stability on the rough, rocky trail. Robert continued to leave his strapped to the back of his pack. We eased our way back down the mountain. The way back down is faster, of course, but somehow a return hike always seems longer. Back out on the valley floor, we passed The Grotto and picnicked at the Pratt Lodge before emerging onto the desert and the parking at around 2:00 p.m., an hour later than planned, and pretty tired. Would we have time to make it back up the Permian Reef Geology Trail? We emptied our packs. Once again I recommended Robert ditch some extra gear, but he demurred. I did declare that the Half Dome was not going back up the mountain--we would take only the SilWing this time, wind or no wind. Although my boots (Raichle Spirit IV’s) were helpful on the rocky roughness of the McKittrick Canyon trail, I switched to my trail runners (Vasque Blur) for this part, because my feet were tired of those boots.
With another two gallons of water, another supper and breakfast, and a lot of snacks, we set out again, this time across unforested south- and west-facing desert slopes in the latter part of a warm (in the 80’s F) afternoon. The Permian Reef Geology Trail was built by the National Park Service and some university and corporate geology programs to demonstrate the structure, formations, and fossils of the ancient marine reef that forms these mountains. There are 30 trail stops marked, and an accompanying book full of fascinating photos and mostly incomprehensible (to us) geological explanations. Since we were short of time going up, we decided to save the trail stops and the book for the return hike in the morning. The trail crossed the gravel creek bed and a hillside paved with shale-like rock almost as smooth as a sidewalk. We met a geology class coming down from a day-hike, and wished for--but did not take--time to relax in the cool shade of a rock crevice about a mile up. This trail climbs steadily across the slope rather than switching back. It was a long, hot, slow tramp across, as we gradually rose out of McKittrick Canyon and looked down on the wide bend in the creek below. Finally the trail switched and went around the east end of the ridge, into shadow on the side of the next canyon, where it wrapped across the heads of one small drainage after another, coming out a level higher each time. It was actually starting to get chilly in the shade--at first that was a welcome relief, but soon we found ourselves chasing the lowering sunshine always around the next bend. Robert cautioned me not to say anything even remotely negative at this point. We were certainly getting tired, and he didn’t want to get discouraged as well. For me the view down the mountain and over the rolling desert below so made up for that fatigue! Then we were out on the rolling, sparsely wooded tableland on top, in a desert garden dotted with oaks and pinions. There is no water in the high country in Guadalupe--it rains up there, but all the water runs immediately into cracks in the ancient reef, to come out eventually in springs all around the base. Wilderness Ridge Camp was farther along the cliff top than the map made it appear, so we had time to begin worrying that perhaps we’d missed it and were heading off towards Lincoln National Forest and New Mexico, when the little sign finally appeared around a bend. It was already dusk, and getting breezy and chilly, and we didn’t even explore much, but set to work on the tarp. We tried to find a softer spot than the compacted tent pad, that would still allow a tarp orientation to block the wind at least from its current direction, but soon gave up being creative and set up on the tent pad, which at least had some logs and a tree next to it. Once again hunger made the best seasoning, and freeze-dried chicken and mashed potatoes only remotely resembling food, and too-sweet cobbler, hit the spot.
The trouble with the SilWing is that the edges are curved, which makes for a nice tight roof but easily admits the wind around the lower edges even when it is staked all the way to the ground. We used the packs for breaks on the windward side. The night came on chilly (for us) again, probably 40’s, and with my 35 degree bag I was wearing most of my clothing. This arrangement deprived me both of most of my pillow and of my prop for tired feet, normally my emptied pack. Then during the night of course the wind changed direction anyway. Robert slept soundly, I fitfully. Still, since in the mountains we go to bed, and more or less to sleep, at dark or soon thereafter, by morning’s light even I was reasonably rested. We were glad we had decided to bring the makings for hot breakfast and fresh coffee. We even took a little time to explore before leaving, and dawdled along the tableland on the way back across. On the way down we really did stop at all the marked geology stops, found many of the described rocks and fossils, learned a lot about the reef and the ocean floor above and below it, took a lot of pictures, and generally had a swell time. We lunched and lazed around in that shady crevice. Even though we had a long, long drive ahead , and had dawdled our way to a late arrival at the car (we didn’t get home until after midnight), we still stopped off at the Pine Spring Visitor Center to crow “We did it!” for the benefit of the skeptical ranger and her Visitor Center companions. They were appropriately appreciative.
Some notes on gear:
Both of us are new to trekking poles. Robert carried his on his pack except for some of the rougher parts of the McKittrick descent. I used mine most of the time. They tended to hang up in the vegetation along the frequently narrow trails, but were useful for keeping my balance sometimes. I’m still not sure it’s worth having something in my hands.
Caldera Cone stove with Snow Peak 900 worked great for two people on the trail. At Pine Spring the wind was so strong it burned out before our stew was hot, and I had to hunker down beneath the table with it to get supper done. Even with the cone it really needs a lot of shelter from the wind.
Yes I can handle nighttime temperatures in the 40’s with the Kilo Flash 35 degree sleeping bag, Smartwool long underwear, and a Ridgerest. This is good news for me, a cold-sensitive type.
The recommended 1 gallon per day of water worked out just about right. We didn’t wash much, and drank almost all of it.
My feet were much happier in the trail runners.
At the end of the trip, Robert finally agreed that probably he didn’t need that whole bar of soap in his kit.