Sunday, June 25, 2017

Water is Life: A National Park Odyssey Day 8

Carlsbad to Tucson via Guadalupe Mountains National Park

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Park #4 - Guadalupe Mountains - is one of the more obscure national parks.

Water is life, and never is this more evident than in the desert on a hot day.  We planned to get a relatively early start so that we could hike in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park before the heat got too bad and then start our long drive to Tucson.  But our morning started later than we’d planned since the air-conditioned comfort of the Marriott Town Suites convinced us to sleep in and then enjoy the included hot breakfast.

Josh had initially wanted to get an earlier start and do a 6.8 mile hike, but I put the kibosh on that. So instead, we chose to do the 2.3-mile Smith Springs Trail.  We pulled into the parking area at about 9:45, and Josh filled out the honor-system registration form that was to be displayed in our front dashboard.  There was a $5 per person fee for visitors 16 and older, but we had bought a National Parks Pass for $80 at Big Bend which we can use for the rest of the summer to get in to all the parks for free.  There was a spot on the form to write in your pass number, and adding this savings to the Carlsbad fee of $30 and Big Bend’s $25 fee meant that we were only $10 away from paying for the pass in savings.  And we still had 19 parks to go!

We slathered ourselves in sunscreen, put on our wide-brimmed hats, and took off down the trail.  The Frijole Ranch was positioned at the trailhead, and two lonely-looking rangers stood up and looked at us expectantly as we walked up.  We hadn’t planned to stop to tour the little museum at the ranch, but the rangers looked like little lost puppies hoping for some attention so we reluctantly wandered over to check it out. 
The ranger was happy to take a family picture for us in front of the farmhouse, parts of which date from the 1870s.

The rangers were super sweet and told us the history of the ranch including the gurgling spring that bubbled up from the earth right there in the front yard.  The rock house dated to the 1870s, and a one-room schoolhouse was also on the property.  Standing under the towering shaded trees – a complete anomaly in the stark desert – I could finally understand why someone would want to live out there.  It was peaceful and cool and beautiful.  The little stone house had a nice cross breeze, and the spring house was big enough to store lots of food for the family.  No wonder this spring had been attracting animals and people for centuries.  It was life-giving and idyllic.  
Inside the little schoolhouse out back

We pulled ourselves away and started on the loop trail, more aware of the wonder of water as we walked the rocky footpath toward another of the six area springs, Smith Spring.  We had picked up a trail guide at the ranch that gave us information about the surrounding landscape including Nipple Hill.  (You can imagine the conversation as we passed this, I’m sure.)  We continued down into a dry riverbed, climbing out and then ascending the hills of the Guadalupe Mountains, eventually coming to the welcoming shade of the natural spring. 
Inside the farmhouse were trail guides that provided information about the path we'd be walking.  I stopped to read a part of it aloud to the group.  Nipple Hill (chuckle,chuckle) is in the background.

It was cool and beautiful, more like something you’d see in the Smokies than what you’d expect in a west Texas desert.  A placard reminded us to stay behind a railing and to leave the pool on the other side for the wildlife to enjoy.  A little stream flowed out of the pool, under the railing, and down the hill, so I took off my sock and boots and put my feet in the cold, cold water.  We rested for 20 minutes or so and then continued on the loop back toward the ranch feeling much more lively than we had before.
The cold water on my feet quickly cooled me off.

Knox and Josh soak their hats before hitting the trail again.

Soon we came to a vista with a low plateau on our left where Apaches had camped year after year until they were forced elsewhere by pioneers, and later the path became crusted with flat, green stones that were the remnants of prehistoric volcanic ash.  It took us about 2 hours to do the trail and another 45 minutes to go through the museum at the ranch, and I’d highly recommend the experience.
Josh and Knox with the Apache camp area in the background

We left the ranch and went to the visitors’ center to let the kids finish their Junior Ranger badges.  From there we took off for Tucson which ended up taking far longer than it should have because of a sandstorm that closed I-10 and required us to take a 30-mile detour on Arizona back roads.  As a result, we didn’t get to Tucson until 10:15 when we checked into the JW Marriott, a different kid of oasis in the desert but one no less welcoming than the ones we’d found in the Guadalupe Mountains earlier that day.  It was still 100 degrees in Tucson, even at that hour, but just standing on our balcony gazing at the lazy river and fountains below reminded me once again - water is life.


  1. What a cool experience, this seems like a little gem of an underrated National Park!

    1. I wouldn't make a special trip to visit it, but if you're going to Carlsbad anyway, it's super close.