Guadalupe Mountains National Park is located in Texas, just south of the New Mexico border. Most visitors enter from the Texas side at the Pine Springs campground to hike the eight mile round trip to Texas’ highest peak and back. From our resting spot in Lincoln National Forest we were closer to the northern entrance at the Dog Canyon campground on the New Mexico border. Planning our backpacking route was complicated by entering the park so far from Guadalupe peak. We wanted an itinerary that would allow us to take our time, not be rushed and get into camp early. I presented John with two options: 1) a one-night trip over Texas’s second highest peak, Bush Mountain, hiking an eight mile day and a twelve mile day, carrying two days worth of water with us (the small amount of water available from backcountry springs are prohibited from human use because they are so vital for the wildlife) or 2) a three-nighter of 8-9 mile days over to Guadalupe Peak, stopping at Pine Springs for water each day. To my surprise, John chose the three night option. [ John here: Not sure why Heidi is always surprised when I choose the longer hikes. Typically these 2-3 day hikes cover less miles per day and I enjoy having the time to stop, take photos, and just enjoy the wildlife along the trail. Typically day hikes seem to be more about covering miles. Heidi *loves* to see as much as possible by taking what I like to call “bonus trails” whenever possible. This means taking an extra “short” trail to see more, it typically also means we end up being rushed later in the day to get back to camp. I’ve learned this after hiking hundreds of miles together. I’ll take the longer, more relaxed multi-day hikes most of the time. ]
We arrived at the Dog Canyon ranger station around 9:00 am to register for our required (but free) backpacking permit. When I told the ranger which campsite we wanted for our first night, she was surprised that we would want to go so far. The campsite was only 8.2 miles from the trailhead, which is probably the least mileage we’ve ever covered in a day! I assured the ranger that we were experienced and that 8.2 miles is no problem, even with a couple thousand feet elevation gain and 30 pound packs. We were able to register for the itinerary we planned with no modifications.
By 10:00 am we were on the trail, rising out of Dog Canyon toward the “Lost Peak”. The mountainside was thick with vegetation, primarily dry, tan grass, dotted with many century plant stalks and baby trees; very few full-sized trees stand on this side of the mountain. I later learned that a large fire had burned throughout the canyon a few years ago, explaining the abundance of baby trees but dearth of full-size ones. The fire was caused by lightening and is part of the natural cycle of the ecosystem.
After a couple hours of hiking on the hot, exposed hillside, we crested a ridge then dropped back down into a gap. At this higher elevation in the north face shade we encountered a scene we did not expect in the desert landscape: a conifer forest with a snow-covered ground!
The trail led up out of the winter conifer scene, through a grove of alligator junipers to a pine-covered plateau named “Pine Top” where our first campsite was located. Eight sites are available at the Pine Top Backcountry Campground, but we had the place all to ourselves. We arrived at camp at 4:00 pm, with plenty of time to set up camp and eat dinner before sunset. Good thing, since the temperature plummeted as soon as the sun dropped down and it was too cold to be outside of our 20 degree down sleeping bags. We did not hang our food in a tree as we are accustomed, because the ranger had told us we did not need to worry at all about bears. Bears do live in the park, but keep their distance from people and have not learned to associate campsites with dinner. Not hanging the food was odd; I wouldn’t go so far as to keep it in the tent with us, so we hung it on a low branch just to keep it out of reach of rodents.
[ John here: I tease Heidi all the time about this bowl. It’s truly a great piece of equipment. It’s super easy to clean, flexible, and insulates the hot temperature from my hands. I tell Heidi I almost love the bowl as much her. 🙂 ][ Heidi here: John is afraid to tell you that he teases me by saying that he loves the bowl more than me, but I know he doesn’t mean it! ]
At night we left the rain fly off the tent so we could see the night sky. It was so cold that it took two hours to warm up our sleeping bags enough to get to sleep. Shortly after, the moon rose – it was so bright that I needed a mask to sleep! I used the headband I wear hiking for a make-shift sleep mask to block out the moonlight and slept well, cozy in my sleeping bag.