Took a trip out to Guadalupe Mountains National Park last week. I’d reserved Sunday and Monday nights at Pine Spring, Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday nights at Dog Canyon. I intended on climbing Guadalupe Peak again Monday, then I was planning on a backcountry stay on Wednesday night, possibly at Blue Ridge (as discussed here; https://bigbendchat.com/tentative-plan-for-one-night-backpack-dog-canyon-b-t18146.html).
I’d been getting in pretty good shape over the past six months, doing cardio, hiking, and most recently hiking with a pack to start conditioning myself for backpacking. But I had an unexpected trip to take my 89-year old mother to California to meet her new great-granddaughter from New Zealand who was visiting family in Berkeley…but I digress. Bottom line is I was out for a week, then home for only a couple of days before leaving on my trip.
I left Austin around 4 pm arriving Ozona around 8 pm. I began this habit of breaking up the drive to GUMO a few years ago; gives me plenty of time to pack, take care of chores, and hardly feels like any time at all for the first day. And then it’s nice to get to my campsite early enough to where I don’t have to rush to beat sundown (especially in Winter). I got to GUMO just before 1:00–oops, Noon Mountain time; went to the visitor center to make sure I didn’t have to check in or anything (got that Senior Pass heh heh, and had already booked the camping) and wanted to confirm I could get my Wednesday night backcountry permit here on Tuesday morning as I left (I could).
Site 16 at Pine Springs–you know, I think it’s “Pine Springs” Visitor center, but “Pine Spring” Canyon (no “s”)–I think is one of the better car-camping spots. It has a large footprint, split-level. It may have been an accessible one at some point.The upper area (where I put my tent) is surrounded by shrubs so there is some privacy. And most important to me, sufficient screening against the plague of over-bright lighting that infests modern campgrounds. I put the tent fly on, probably didn’t need it–weather was absolutely perfect.
I’ve been coming here since 1985 and have seen many changes; new paved road and fancy new visitor center, new outhouse at end of campground road, water faucets that have come and gone, different regulations vis-a-vis fires. I think the site has burned badly two times.
Here’s another person/s who didn’t make it down before sunset.
Speaking of sunset: I can’t say enough about PeakFinder. It tells you exactly when and where the sun will rise/set based on exactly where you are and the surrounding mountains. To wit:
Anyway I got going on the trail up Guad Peak around 8:00 AM. I packed 3 liters of water, probably too much but I kind of wanted to see how I’d hold up, especially my joints, and also wanted to get ready for a backpack Wednesday. This was my fourth time up; 1985, 1997, 2000 (an overnight trip) preceded it. So it had been twenty years since my last climb up.
It was familiar in a lot of ways, and a lot of elements were just as I remembered–the last few switchbacks on the northeast facing start, some cut straight out of what seems solid limestone (“Lead animals here”) and then the abrupt turn “around the bend” which takes you out of the limestone and into a shaded forest on the north-facing slope for a while. The wooden bridge was familiar, although I recall the wood being pretty new in 1985. And of course the metal pyramid at the summit, placed there in 1958 (my birth year).
One notable difference–there was no summit register!
The famous, fierce Guadalupe Pass winds had laid down for the day and the conditions were perfect. The clear sky had been obscured for a while by a high overcast as soon as I reached the summit, but I wasn’t much concerned with aesthetics as I’d been up several times before. The ascent took me about 3:42. I chatted a while with those who shared the summit; a young Polish couple, a couple from Austin, two more individual hikers. I stayed on the summit maybe 45 minutes, an hour, then started down. Not much significant to report–I paused to enjoy the views a bit more on the way down, and about a mile from the finish my hydration bladder ran out of water so I filled it from my reserve.
That night at the camp site, a couple of things struck me. First, chucklehead in a site across the way had a light of some sort that burned with the light of ten thousand suns and illuminated half of the mountain. Then I noticed the horizon which had formerly been black, then more recently had begun to show lights from oilfield activity, was now fully illuminated.
When I got back to site 16 I made dinner, cracked a cold one and began to ruminate on the hike that day and my plans for my upcoming overnight. I was a little disappointed in my speed; it took me over seven hours. I see now it was closer to 6:30 actual moving time, but still that’s a lot slower than I used to do it in. The part that slows me down the most is what I call “steps,” that is, big steps–foot, foot and a half–up (or down). I used to spring up them on the way up, and hop down them on the way down. But over the years I’ve learned I have to do them in a very particular way or I’ll get severe pain. I have to step up only with my left foot first; on descents I have to step down first with my right foot. Also, on descents, if I hop down too many times over the course of a couple of hours I’ll get excruciating pain in my foot. (Of course these are exacerbated with a heavier pack.)
My proposed backpack trip on Wednesday would have been: leave Dog Canyon, ascend Marcus overlook descend to Marcus backcountry site, continue on a gentle ascent but where the trail becomes difficult to find, then on to a steep ascent where the trail is difficult to find, rarely used, and in the most remote corner of the park before setting up camp. Now, one thing I felt was that the hike up Guad Peak had been more difficult than I remembered from 2000 and a helluva lot more difficult than in 1985. So, anyway, on Tuesday morning as I got my permit for Wednesday night I decided on only going to Marcus backcountry site and back. It would still be terra incognita for me, to a new part of the park.
Trip Report GUMO 3/1/22
Dog Canyon-Marcus Backcountry
The helpful young woman at the visitor center with whom I’d spoken on Sunday was also the person who gave me my wilderness permit on Tuesday morning. As I was explaining why I’d decided only to do Marcus and eliminate the long loop to Blue Ridge, she mentioned something I thought incorrect but because the Center was still under Covid protocols and limiting people inside, I didn’t want to get into a discussion. I just smiled and took the permit for one night at Marcus from Dog Canyon. She’d said, regarding a Blue Ridge trek, “At least when you get to Dog Canyon you’ll have most of your elevation gained.” As shown below, this is not the case. The route to BR would include quite a bit of elevation; taking the route counter-clockwise, it would have put me at the southwest-most point on the trail, where the trail is hardest to find, where the final elevation gain is the greatest, at the end of a long day with a pack full of water. Hence the decision to only go as far as Marcus.
The purple lowercase sigma-looking track was my original plan.
You guys probably know I much prefer to stay at Dog Canyon campground rather than Pine Springs. Before last year, when online reservations for Dog Canyon became available, I often had the entire campground to myself. I’d have considered it “crowded” if three sites were full. The newer system has, so far, not only changed the quantity of campers but in my experience the quality as well. Previously, it seemed that folks who camped there were respectful of the solitude, quiet, and dark environment. My recent stay in October had given me a taste of camping neighbors who were not respectful of those characteristics at all. Apprehensive, I would pleasantly surprised over the next few days. All my camping companions were stellar folks. About six or seven of the tent sites were taken and there were a couple or three campers up by the corrals.
Since I was no longer doing the long hike, I didn’t have to leave a daybreak Wednesday. I had my backpack mostly packed Tuesday, went over it again in the morning and included 7 liters of water, which I knew would be too much, but I didn’t want a rerun of what had happened to me on my Shumard backpack (here: https://bigbendchat.com/tr-shumard-canyon-backcountry-site-nov-2017-t15420.html) where I ran out of water. Split the water between 3L in the Gregory hydration bladder and 4L in three separate bottles, not wanting a potential single point of failure. I did other things to try to lighten the load: I didn’t bring any redundant clothing, no shell, only a Marmot Quasar down jacket for evening top and heavy poly bottoms for same. I splurged on a new Thermarest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad. Also my Helinox Chair Zero, and (crazily enough) Crazy Creek seat/pad—the CrazyCreek was maybe excessive but I wanted to try it again. Lightweight poly top, long sleeve hiking shirt and long pants, socks and lightweight hiking shoes (that need to be replaced), balaclava and mitten/gloves, and of course my floppy sun hat which is mandatory in lieu of natural head covering. Sleep system was OR Advanced Bivy, TNF Superlight long bag, and groundsheet. MSR PocketRocket and cookset, and a few more odds and ends.
All in all, the pack felt fairly light. I left Dog Canyon CG about 9 AM and ascended to the Marcus overlook, a hike I’d taken a dozen times before. I felt strong, pace was good—the rest day after Guad Peak had definitely helped. Took about 2:15 to get to the overlook, with one rest break. The rest of the hike was mostly descent off of that ridge, until the last half-mile up to Marcus BC. The trail down was—diverse, let’s say. Sometimes it was a well built and engineered trail, with boulders building it up to make it fairly level as it skirted the mountainside. But other places, especially the mile or so before getting to the bottom of West Dog Canyon, it’s just a straight chute cut out of the hillside, through dirt, boulders and large rocks, and to my mind a bit too steep, I would have preferred a longer trek with switchbacks. I found that stretch exhausting, constantly having to brake myself and sometimes step around the ‘chutes.’
The trail junction with Marcus Trail (off of Bush Mountain Trail) is at the bottom of West Dog Canyon, and you can see the sign for a good ways when you approach from the East. There was also a lot more dirt than rock down there. I’d noticed since the overlook all the other footprints I’d been seeing had dropped off and looked like only one person had been on the trail for at least a few days. I proceeded on straight, (Marcus BC site is on Bush Mountain trail, not the Marcus Trail). At this point the trail went through very tall and very dry grass; but a wide swath had been cut through it and no cairns, although visible, were necessary. At this point, past the old Cox Tank, one finds the remains of ranch structures; all that’s now left is some corrugated metal blown around, and some charred vertical posts.
After a few more tenths of a mile, you come to the Marcus BC sign and turn left up into some woods. The trail goes up a fairly deep dry wash and ends at Marcus sites 1 and 2. I got there just before 1 pm MST. I could clearly see a single set of bootprints there; looked like someone had walked up through #1 to #2, looked around, then left. Didn’t seem to be a trace of a camp. There were clearly prints of a small animal strolling through #1, too. I chose to set up in site 2; I was pretty sure nobody else would be coming in that day, so the close proximity of the next site didn’t bother me. Although the site is sort of surrounded by mountains, I chose #2 which gave me something close to a view; I feel claustrophobic when I camp where I can’t see some distance.
I set up camp; including my Chair Zero along the perimeter which let me put my feet down about a foot below tent-pad level and made it very easy to get out of the chair. (My only complaint about this incredibly lightweight chair is that it can be hard to emerge from.) Had a good snack PRO TIP: Do NOT store trail mix with chocolate in your top backpack pocket even if the ambient temps are in the 50s. Greenhouse effect melted it all. I hung my food from a nearby tree as per NPS suggestion, for protection from smaller critters, so only elevated it about five feet.
Since PeakFinder showed the sun going behind the SW mountain at 6:15 I had plenty of time to hang out, explore, do nothing. I did all of those. I wandered over to the west and looked down on the wash which Bush Mountain Trail continued on up. I explored the site, found sites #3 and #4, and oh hey, way over there #5. Only a couple had numbers, and several were getting pretty overgrown with grass. I waited until the sun went below the mountain, made my dinner (classic Beef Stroganoff) and went to bed. I only sleep about six to seven hours a night, so winter nights in the backcountry can get a little boring. I listened to a couple of podcasts I’d recorded before leaving, dozed off after a while. I’d hoped to relieve the boredom by watching the night sky full of stars; I woke up around 1:00 AM but was disappointed to find only the “normal” amount of stars. Apparently a thin, high overcast had crept in. I finally fell back to sleep and awoke around 5:00.
The weather continued to be perfect (aside from the star blocking high clouds). Probably in the 40s-50s overnight, and little to no wind. In the morning I got up, fixed breakfast, packed up and left. I know my pack was lighter due to water and food depletion but also I felt really strong, I guess conditioning starting to kick in as well as getting used to the altitude. I felt really strong on the whole return hike; well, maybe except that section going up the “chute” from around trail junction for a half-mile or so. There was one real downer along the way, though. I discovered a fairly recent fire ring right off the trail. I had my head down climbing up the trail through grassland and noticed a patch where the grass had been flattened. I was wondering what animals had been there when I saw a fire ring at the edge of the patch of flattened grass. Ugh.
Oh well, I continued on back to Dog Canyon and got there before noon. I hiked faster than I had the day before, and faster still than I had on the Guad Peak hike.
Conclusions: Very enjoyable, although not very long, overnight hike. Could I have made Blue Ridge? Very likely, but it may have been difficult—and maybe miserable— at the end. I still plan on taking that swing around the NW corner of the park. The location of those sites is kind of awkward for me, one’s too close, one’s maybe too far.
The NeoAir is fantastic—some people complain about the rustling noise it makes but it didn’t bother me. I got the normal width as I use it in my bivy, but could see how people might roll off of it, especially if unconstrained.
The Chair Zero was also a big hit; I can not sit on the ground, so having such a lightweight option really makes all the difference.
I used the Crazy Creek chair back because I knew I’d have a few hours wide awake in bed and wanted to have a variety of reclining options. It was not fantastic, but not bad either. One of the first luxuries I’d toss in the future, depending on situation.