Near the beginning of the trip, as April and I are bandaging Jennifer’s feet, I start to comprehend just what I’ve gotten myself into.
It seemed like such a simple plan when I first saw the maps. A high, north-south ridgeline crossed the Texas Panhandle-New Mexico border, spanning a 50-mile gap between Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks. The topography hinted at a spectacular weeklong trip, but I knew little about the region other than the fact that Guadalupe Ridge was the petrified remnant of a prehistoric sea floor structure called Capitan Reef.
Then I met April Weitlauf, a Carlsbad, New Mexico, resident who had once attempted this trip but dropped out because of shoulder and back problems. The Capitan Reef is her home turf, having spent years as a ranger, trail foreman, and caver in the area. She raved about the cool pine forests and cave-riddled bluffs of the high ridgeline. She’d also scouted out the best spots to cache water, a key point that would make traversing this arid range much simpler.
But my newfound hiking partner brought certain, uh, complications along with her insider information and ample experience. Blonde-haired, freckle-faced, and geen-eyed, mutual friends nicknamed her “The Guaddess.” A classic Earth Mother beauty. All of which raised an eyebrow with my new wife, Jennifer, the one with the blisters. Hands on her hips, Jen informed me back home that I would not be disappearing unchaperoned into the woods with any Guaddesses.
So here we are, 4 miles and 2,500 feet straight up the Tejas Trail, and there’s a blister, a delay, and the women-who’ve just met-comparing notes. April learns this is Jen’s first backpack (funny, I thought I’d mentioned that). Jen learns the trip won’t be 55 miles long as promised, but 62, roughly. While Jen digests the new statistics, April launches into a polished, enthusiastic ex-ranger description of fascinating desert inhabitants like scorpions, the five local varieties of rattlesnake, and the “cute” tarantulas that “can really jump if they’re agitated.” During stunned pauses in the conversation, the two cast judgmental glances my way. I focus on the tape job and gaze studiously at the surrounding scenery.
Ahead, the arrow-straight mound of Capitan Reef rolls out of sight to the north like a tidal wave breaking over the Trans-Pecos plains. From my current perspective, the escarpment looks huge, endless, and far more challenging than I imagined when figuring my new wife into the itinerary.
Jen’s blister successfully patched, I concentrate on setting a slow pace, while the two women turn their attention to bonding-shouting amiably back and forth over the frigid, howling May winds. At least they’re getting along well.
Perhaps too much so. They’ve rapidly identified me as a scapegoat for all things male, so they gang up and gleefully torment me. Being relatively secure in my manhood, I can accept the cruel biological fact that I’m always wrong. But I’m also learning that trekking with “the ladies” will be a more verbal-if abusive-experience than accompanying the morose, semiliterate troglodytes I number among my male companions.
As a distraction from the lung-busting climb, and a defense against my tormentors, I let my thoughts wander across the spectacular geology unfolding before us. Some 135 million years ago, these mountain rocks were polyps, and tube worms were busily building a giant reef in the milky waters of a primal sea. As the South American plate jammed against what is now East Texas, the land farther north swelled upward to become the Rockies, while the reef was buried under a delta of sediments running down off the growing mountains. During the ensuing eons, the smothered corals transformed into tough, erosion-resistant limestone. When the softer surroundings were washed away, the petrified reef was left isolated and omnipotent, towering nearly a vertical mile above the arid Trans-Pecos as the Guadalupe Ridge.
While dinosaurs were still just a gleam in the creator’s eye, Guadalupe Ridge was already in its rough present form: a conifer-covered mesa jutting high into the cooling jet stream. The evergreens and boreal animals April had raved about are remnants of this wetter, cooler past.
We climb through the switchbacks and cliff bands at a pace befitting such creeping changes, until the sun threatens to set, and the last false summit succumbs to persistence.
Thud! Jen’s pack hits the dust and she dances around like a pony that just tossed its saddle. “Woo hoo!” April cries in her ebullient trademark holler. “We’re at camp!”
That means it’s party time. It’s April’s 32nd birthday, and Jen’s celebrating “the first-time-I-ever-hauled-a-pack-up-a-freakin’-cliff-like-THAT.” Reasons enough to proceed with a bacchanalia of wine and pack-smashed Twinkies adorned with trick candles. The Nalgene-flavored vintage leads April to muse about her rematch with the Guadalupe-to-Carlsbad trek, a journey all the sweeter because she’s doing it to commemorate a friend who died not long after completing the trip himself. In the darkness, I lean back against a rock and find myself pondering how a trail, just a rut in the dirt, can make such human connections.
This is a land of fossils, with endless petrified patterns of long-dead tube worms and trilobites that once grubbed through primeval waters. The skeletons sweep beneath my feet in untold millions as we hike up the Permian Reef Trail, climbing from McKittrick Canyon toward the distant rim of Wilderness Ridge. Toiling up the sun-drenched incline, we stride across the ghosts of entire vanished species, laid down in the black depths of an ancient ocean.
It’s the third day out and our longest leg yet, but to my relief, Jen’s doing fine, “even though you guys lied and didn’t tell me it was uphill the entire way.” The hiking doesn’t faze her, though she says she’d rather “walk all night than sleep on the cold ground and wake up to frozen toothpaste.”
Being court jester to the Guaddesses, I’m finding, is a small price to pay for watching my wife enjoy this beautiful but challenging epic.
Slowly, the temperatures warm as we continue northward, descending gradually from Guadalupe Mountains National Park to the Lincoln National Forest. Trails among the cliffs turn to jeep roads through pi?on-juniper, but the sky stays the bluest I’ve ever seen. Always there are vultures soaring effortlessly against the turquoise backdrop, swaying on dihedral wings, relaxed and fluid, consummate flyers in harmony with the trade winds. On the ground, however, the scenery dulls and I fall into the hot boredom of an afternoon desert slog.
The women, meanwhile, talk about men-first men, last men, worst men, best men, creeps, hunks, losers-and their endearing habits and irritating flaws. I am occasionally consulted for my perspective, but more often used as illustration. Fortunately, I’m rescued when a red pickup and dune buggy appear through a cloud of dust. We’re in multiple-use country, so I make a conscious effort to be friendly as the mustachioed buggy driver idles up, smiling broadly.
“Well, speak of the devil,” he chuckles.
After a moment of confusion, I realize these are April’s friends who were going to rendezvous with us at the Dark Canyon fire tower, the most identifiable landmark on our route. Jen and I meet lanky, laid-back Mike Rutherford (in the truck) and rowdy, rough-edged Willis Walker (in the buggy), both native Carlsbaders. Backpacks hit the dirt. Cold beverages appear from nowhere like mirages. An amiable haze quickly descends. Eventually I look around to find where I dropped my pack. Willis notices my searching.
“Lookin’ for airheads?” he drawls.
“Huh?” I respond.
“Airheads?” Willis repeats, a little more clearly. “Follow me.” We walk 10 yards into the brush and he points to the ground. Flint chips, the remnants of arrowheads, are everywhere, and there’s a deep pit ringed by stones. “The Apaches and Mogollon Indians were all over here,” he explains. “That pit’s where they roasted mescal, the century plant, one o’ their big staple foods. Tastes kinda’ like a yam. When they’d migrate back and forth between here and Mexico, summer to winter, they’d just reuse these sites like a KOA campground. Roasting pits already dug, rocks for their wickiups, they were good to go.”
The history lesson over, the boys offer to drive our packs on to Dark Canyon, 7 miles distant. After a brief flicker of guilt, all three sacks launch into the truckbed. Loadless, we stroll quickly along atop a maze of broad ridges, their squat scrub-covered sides banded with small limestone ledges. The fire tower slowly grows on the distant horizon, and when we’re within about 100 yards, we smell barbecue.
Mike already has the potatoes chopped, the salad made, and the charcoal ready for the steaks he brought. That night, we lie in the unaccustomed lap of backcountry luxury, listening as Mike spins Guadalupe tales of mail-order brides who fled when confronted by the lonely Chihuahuan desert, of black “buffalo soldier” cavalry regiments, and the Mescalero Apaches they pursued through this, one of the last Indian strongholds.
During the night, I dream a scene from one of Mike’s stories, about how his friends once found a long-abandoned cache of Indian pottery lying exposed on the vast alkali flats of the Pecos, all of it tragically shattered by the intense hailstorms common here.
But pottery shards and petroglyphs are just the beginning of this mountain range’s less obvious attractions. More than 300 known caves riddle the ancient limestone, and after a languid morning sunning around the fire tower, we rouse ourselves to spend the remainder of our fifth day exploring the massive eerie entry cavern of nearby Cottonwood Cave.
We step through the shade line into blessed coolness. As our eyes adjust, colossal columns rise into the darkness overhead, and intricate curtains of hanging stalactites flow over the cavern walls like dripped wax. Cave swallows, swifts, and the occasional bat flutter between mineralized soda straws that hang from the flat ceiling. Deep in the bowels of Earth, with tons of stone overhead and ancient musty scents in my nostrils, it’s easy to imagine the surging seawater, then the dark and silence, the slow drip of eons, and the enormous faulting pressures that built the ridge we hike along.
The next day takes us farther than linear miles can convey from Cottonwood’s cooling depths and the windy chill of the high pine forests. Now we’re descending toward the Chihuahuan desert lowlands, baking in the stultifying sun and hot wind. The sun-drenched hills are carpeted with tufts of beargrass and yuccalike clusters of spikey sotol. April is euphoric to be back in her beloved desert,
while Jen, more accustomed to classic mountain scenery, finds it “kinda drab and ugly, unless you look closer.”
Fat blue agaves grow beside the trail like overgrown artichokes. Vermillion
Indian paintbrush, yellow daisies, and sky-blue forget-me-nots tremble in the wind. Small miracles in a big, arid land.
After nearly a week on the Capitan Reef, I’ve begun to identify the area’s scenic themes. Always there are the green and blonde hills, interwoven ridgelines banded with narrow ledges of limestone. Always there is wind, and vultures that float silently above the ridgetops. This evening, like most, the trade winds throw mare’s tales across a wash of higher clouds. We make camp on an open saddle with a 360-degree view. The whole desert seems to sigh gratefully as the sun sets. Bird calls crescendo into a chorus of hoots and whirrs as a peaceful glow falls over the landscape.
Tomorrow, we’ll make a last 14-mile forced march to Carlsbad’s scenic loop road and the strange, platform feel of asphalt after a cobble-strewn week. It’s our last night out, and a time for thoughtful reflection. I’m incredibly proud of my tough spouse who, typically, downplays her accomplishment, claiming I crammed her pack “with sleeping bags and marshmallows, so there wasn’t room for anything heavy.” April is happy to have had an injury-free rematch with Guadalupe Ridge, thanks mostly to slower companions who kept her from power-hiking into a stress fracture. Having honored
her friend, she can now move on to a new home in Tennessee. But I suspect the Guaddess will return soon, because she’s far too in love with the desert Southwest.
Over the stoney, foot-pounding miles, I’ve also been deeply struck by the lonely immensity and deep blue skies of Guadalupe Ridge. For the most part, it’s a hard-bitten land, with a beauty more subtle than the monumental Sierras or Canyonlands. Here, there are a thousand hidden wonders for those who look closely and a feeling of great antiquity, dry bones, and the crumbling dust of ages. Like the Valley of the Kings in Pharonic Egypt, the Reef is alive with ghosts and long-gone inhabitants, all those countless lives swept away on the currents of time. Ancient lives, new friends, and fresh challenges-reasons enough for celebrating life with a journey through the geologic wonder of Capitan Reef.
Expedition Planner: Guadalupe Ridge Trail
You won’t find the Guadalupe Ridge Trail on a map. What you will find is a route made up of named trails and jeep roads that runs south to north for roughly 62 miles, descending gradually from high points of around 8,000 feet to lows of 4,500 feet along a broad ridgeline. You’ll travel from the rugged switchbacks of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas, along the arid, winding ridgetops of New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest, and down into the hot, gravelly, cactus desert of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Getting there: Guadalupe Ridge sits astride the border between the Texas Panhandle and southeastern New Mexico. The closest major airport is El Paso, Texas, about 3 hours south on U.S. Highway 180/82 from Carlsbad, New Mexico. Carlsbad is the main town for supplies, lodging, shuttles, and permits.
Cautions: Aside from two water taps in McKittrick Canyon (at Pratt Cabin and the visitor center at the start of the Permian Reef Trail) there are no reliable water sources along the route. Water caches can be left at points along the graveled Klondike Gap Road and County Road 412. Access these two-wheel-drive roads by driving west from Carlsbad on NM 137 and taking the Wilderness Ridge Loop that turns south off NM 137 just West of Queen, New Mexico. Use collapsible plastic jugs that you carry for the remainder of the trail. Cache more water than you think you’ll need-if hot weather descends, you’ll need it. This desert trail is remote and home to cougars, rattlesnakes, spiders, scorpions, and skunks. Go well prepared; help is days away.
Weather: The exposed ridgetops of the Guadalupes are famous for hurricane-force winds and intense, pounding thunderstorms. Come prepared to batten down against rare but potentially cataclysmic weather, particularly in spring. Camp in protected locations to guard against sudden storms. On higher portions of the ridge, snow can fall in spring and autumn. In summer, the lower elevations are prohibitively hot.
Contacts: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, HC 60, Box 400, Salt Flat, TX 79847-9400; (915) 828-3251; fax: (915) 828-3296; www.nps.gov./gumo/ gumo. The park has no entry or backcountry fees, but requires camping at specified sites. Mandatory backcountry permits are available on a first come, first served basis and can be reserved 24 hours in advance by phone or in person.
Guadalupe Ranger District, Lincoln National Forest, Federal Bldg., Room 159, Carlsbad, NM 88220; (505) 885-4181; www.fs.fed.us/cgi-bin/select-forest. No overnight permits are required for camping on the 285,000-acre Guadalupe Ranger District. Fire restrictions are often in effect. Free permits provide access to all of the more than 120 known caves and are available on a first come, first served basis, with a maximum party size of six. Reservations may be made during weekday business hours in person or by phone up to three months in advance.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM 88220; (505) 785-2232; www.nps.gov/cave/. Most famous for its namesake developed cave, Carlsbad Park offers 46,775 acres of desert canyon wilderness and 50 miles of backcountry trail. Free overnight permits are required for all backcountry camping. The caverns walking tour is spectacular and a good way to wind down after a week in the woods. A few of Carlsbad’s 80 known backcountry caves can be visited only by special permit; contact the Cave Resource Office, (505) 785-2104.
Leave No Trace: Collecting any natural or human artifacts, including fossils, arrowheads, or pottery shards, is prohibited. Look, admire, leave it. Caves are fragile and easily damaged by human contact. Look but don’t touch, and be respectful of bats that may be clinging to the walls or ceilings. Lincoln National Forest relies heavily on volunteers to help maintain caves. Folks wishing to help can call the number below.
Maps: The best map for getting to and around the region is the DeLorme New Mexico Atlas & Gazeteer (DeLorme Mapping, 2 DeLorme Dr., P.O. Box 298, Yarmouth, ME 04096; 800-452-5931; www.delorme.com; $16.95). The best backcountry maps for this trip are the six USGS 7.5-minute topographic quads Guadalupe Peak, TX; El Paso Gap, NM-TX; Gunsight Canyon, NM-TX; Queen, NM; Serpentine Bends, NM; and Carlsbad Caverns, NM (USGS Information Services, P.O. Box 25286, Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225; 800-435-7627; http://mapping.usgs.gov/esic/to_order.html).