Ten youth and five adults from the Austin Camp Fire Backpacking Club , Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico, June 28-July 4, 2012. This year we drew an especially enthusiastic group. For most, it was their first backpacking trip longer than a weekend. We had a mix of older (ages 15-16) and younger (ages 12-13, with one 10-year-old) kids. Six girls and four boys. The two different age groups were skeptical of each other at first--they all knew each other from weekend trips but hadn’t bonded. We needn’t have worried--all the kids reached “across the aisle” quickly; consequently this group was probably the most congenial we’ve had. We departed from Austin early on a Thursday morning, after a fun swimming party and gear-check the night before. Two minivans and one car. It takes until suppertime to get all the way across Texas to Camp Monakiwa, a Camp Fire camp in the foothills near Las Vegas, NM, where we always spend the night on this trip. After supper, we have the Big Gear and Food Rummage. How to find space for all the food and gear in the packs, without making anyone’s too heavy? The kids were responsible for calculating and purchasing their food assignments, but parents (bless their hearts) just can’t help adding more. We are always still learning what to bring and what can safely be left behind.
Friday morning, first stop Pecos National Historical Park. Gives us another half day for elevation gain, fun spot to stop and explore, kids always like the restored kivas.
Then up, up the Pecos River valley to Jacks Creek trailhead. After filling water bottles and one more pack rummage and weighing on the hanging scale, we were off, up the switchbacks two miles to the Fun Rock Pile. With most of our previous groups, this stretch results in frequent rest stops, much moaning and groaning, and a backpacking reality check. Our 10-year-old was a bit tentative and stuck close to her father. One of the adults has health challenges, so she and her husband (parents of one of the kids) hiked as their own separate unit. But all the others, especially the girls, were up and at ‘em. (Not stereotypical behavior.) Cool! At the top, after setting up camp, everyone explored the rocks, with the help of a trip leader’s ukulele and a fine sunset. We were able to see East Pecos Baldy, our destination, to the north, from the top of the rocks.
Saturday on this route is six miles and nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain, no really steep parts but climbing steadily all the way. We don’t do high mileages on these trips because for so many of the kids it is their first mountain trip, plus kids like to mess around in camp and explore, morning and afternoon. A bit of a sprinkle in early afternoon, but mostly the weather was cool (compared to Austin anyway) and partly sunny. We crossed grassy hillsides, lunched at the Jacks Creek crossing, and made it through the forest up to Pecos Baldy Lake by mid-afternoon.
After lunch, one kid, a 13-year-old boy, reacted to the altitude; for a little bit he seemed to be feeling bad enough that we were wondering if we might have to take him down, but he rallied and wanted to go on. To be cautious, we had one of the faster adults shuttle his pack up, and he walked with the parents who were taking it more slowly. By suppertime he felt a lot better, and even took his cooking shift as planned. We camped in the hollow just to the south of where the Skyline Trail passes by the lake. There’s a good stream coming down the hillside there, easy to get water without going to the lake. Lots of singing and passing the ukulele around, games and horsing around. Hardly any snow this year, and the lake level was low.
Sunday was our layover day. Morning excursion--a day hike up to the top of East Pecos Baldy (12,529 ft.) and back. The trail switches back through the woods above camp to a saddle, then a side trail from there up the mountain to the top, all walking, no scrambling required. Six girls, one boy, and four adults started out. Two of the other three boys had been up in previous years, and the fourth boy was our altitude kid, who wisely chose not to push it. After starting out, our youngest girl changed her mind, so she and her father returned to camp. One more girl got a sinus headache part way up the switchbacks, and she and her father turned around too. (Always helps to have a few extra adults on a youth trip!) We found a mound of snow in the woods, and stopped to play in it--a treat for kids from central Texas.
The mountaintop is way high above the lake; from up there you can see really far. We took the big map and our compasses so we could identify various landmarks. We could almost see the Rock Pile back the way we came but not quite. (No binoculars--they all got weeded out.) The kids said next time we come out to Pecos it would be fun to try going up to Truchas Peaks, another five miles north. If they still want to do that come trip-planning time next spring, we’ll figure out a route to do it.
We made it back to camp just in time for lunch and a two-hour rainstorm, good for naps. The rest of the afternoon was for exploring around the lake and in the woods, hanging out in camp, and more games and music. The area was still under a burn ban, so no camp fires in the chill of the evening. The kids came up with what they called a “penguin huddle” as a substitute--all sitting back to back in a circle, to stay warm. In a penguin huddle, you are facing out so you still have room to sing, play the ukulele, tell stories, make up jokes, and draw and write in each other’s journals, all while staying toasty.
Monday morning it was time to pack up, climb those switchbacks to the saddle again but this time loaded, and cut down Rito Perro, across the hillside to Panchuela Creek, and up and over to Horsethief Meadow, about five miles. Those who did not go up East Pecos Baldy yesterday were worried about the climb to the saddle with packs on, but everyone made it just fine. Our sinus headache girl (now fully recovered) and her dad, and one of the veteran boys wanted to climb the mountain after all, and there was time, so I took them up. We only had a couple of minutes on top this time, because weather was closing in fast, but they had a good time and I was glad they go to go after all.
We made it back to the saddle just as the rain started.
The trail takes a gentle downhill through open forest and along Rito Perro--we lunched on a huge boulder by the creek--through some damp meadows of tall grass, not as many flowers this year, probably because of the drought, and down to the Panchuela Creek crossing. From here the Skyline Trail goes steeply up the side of a ridge; it looks like it was built before modern switchback practices. Altitude boy, the 10-year-old, and the mom with health challenges were all seriously flagging, so one of the trip leaders (the other one, not me) and two of the older teen boys shuttled their packs to the top, and those two boys decided to carry the extra two packs along with their own (front to back) the rest of the way into Horsethief Meadow! (Good thing we had lightened them up.) They kind of wore themselves out doing it, but were justifiably proud of themselves. The rain returned on the way down to camp, along with thunder and lightning. Some of the kids had actually listened to their lessons about avoiding being out in the open during lightning, and hesitated to cross the meadows, but since we were on lower slopes partway down the stream valley and not out on ridgetops, they acquiesced to simply hurrying across. We arrived in camp damp and chilly, put up shelters in a hurry, took a rest, and then the trip leaders fixed up some hot water and took chocolate and tea around. One of the older teens on this trip was the boy mentioned in last spring’s article (see the link at the beginning of this report), who has been sleeping in an old generic bivy sack on every trip. Well, that old bivy finally failed him that evening at Horsethief Meadow, letting the rain in on his sleeping bag, and he had to retreat into one of the other boys’ tent. We promised to tell his parents that he has definitely earned a brand new fancy bivy for his holiday present this year.
The next morning, our last morning on the trail, we had clear sunshine over Horsethief Meadow.
The rest of the way from there is about four miles, up and over into the Cave Creek drainage, and down the creek to Panchuela Campground, with a lunch stopoff at the Caves about a mile before the end. Our geologist friend, a mom who came along on the 2010 trip, has previously explained that these small caves are “real” caves, not just cracks in the bluff. Part of the creek plunges through them, and it is fun to go in and explore. After lunch we did just that, and emerged right in time for the rain to start again, and follow us the rest of the way down.
Here we are crossing Panchuela Creek.
And here's our "we did it!" picture at Panchuela Campground.
We shuttled the cars from Jacks Creek, lit out across the New Mexico desert, and stopped for the night at Sumner Lake State Park under a bright full moon. One of the girls was showing one of the boys some swing dancing steps she’d learned; the parent couple in the group turned out to be experienced swing dancers, and showed them some more, and pretty soon the whole group of kids, with voices for the beat, was swing dancing on the desert in the moonlight.
See you on the trail!