Bill on the Guadalupe Peak trail: nice hiking conditions for March.
6 West Texas (March 2013)

Just An Idea….
If you are one of the many Pacific NW residents that either travels to Hawaii or dreams of traveling to Hawaii for a break from the wet, cold winter weather at home, think instead about going to the far-SW next winter or early spring, especially if you are a hiker. The southern-most band of New Mexico and west Texas delighted us with a series of challenging hikes under blue skies in March. We of course reached the trailheads from the campgrounds but unusually, all of our hikes had nearby lodging that would make them easy to access for non-campers. Most of these trailheads are at 5,000-6,000' so "pumpkin rollers" like us that normally live at sea level will get a little extra exertion challenge from the starting altitude alone. And of course, you could find plenty of routes that emphasize going 'out' instead of 'up' if you longed to be outdoors but weren't interested in the big CV workouts or wanted time to acclimate.

Bill recommends flying into El Paso for the Texas venues and renting a car there. My advise is to bring multiple layers of clothing regardless of where you go. We had no rain in March and the rainy season is in the summer, but the temperatures were all over the map at each area. During Portland winters, it's common to have as little as a 5 degree temperature fluctuation in 24 hours whereas in these reaches of the SW, the overnight lows can vary 20 degrees from one night to the next. Wicked winds are common and my REI hiking pants rated to 25 mph were a delightful solution to the daily "What to wear? dilemma. Also, bring ALL of your favorite trail food because in this region (except Albuquerque, NM) you''ll consider yourself lucky when you can shop at Walmart.

Below are 3 destination suggestions, with each addressed in more detail below or in the next journal. Do your own careful research into weather averages so you'll know what to expect. March is Spring Break for many of the SW states, so call the National Park nearest to your destination to get the dates for their surge in students and their families, especially at Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns (phone numbers are included). You could select a tentative destination from the 3 below and book a flight into El Paso, then make your final decision choice based on the actual weather closer to your departure date. Smokin' hot in Big Bend? Then you might want to go to higher and farther-north Albuquerque instead. The "Texas-New Mexico Cluster" destinations are intermediate weather-wise and give more day-to-day options to choose from within a single 400 mile loop.

Big Bend: the motel-styled lodge (with an associated restaurant) at the Chisos Basin area of the park would be a perfect base for a number of day hikes. There are 2 obvious all-day routes right out your room door and others could be crafted if you were wanting to "go out & thrash yourself " some more. There are a number of shorter options there and elsewhere in the park as well. This is the only place in or near the park with an indoor lodging option and with it's higher elevation than Rio Grande Village, it would probably be too cold for comfort in December and January. The general area of Rio Grande Village however would be a good option on harsh-weather days at the Basin because temperatures there can run 20-25 degrees higher than in the Basin.

Texas-New Mexico Cluster
One could fill a week or 2 with hiking by stringing together several of locations in a 400 mile or less driving loop around the border between Texas and New Mexico. The Guadalupe Mountains, TX have several long hikes and lodging is available nearby at White's City, NM. Not much in the way of markets there, but there are restaurants. After exhausting yourself for several days on Guadalupe's trails, you could take a rest day at Carlsbad Caverns, NM (or spend a "high winds" day there). Book tours ahead if you can, pack a lunch, get there early, and plan on spending the whole day at the Caverns which you could easily access from lodging at White's City.

The 5 mile loop walk in the gypsum dunes was a kick--really.
When you've wrapped up your visit to Carlsbad and Guadalupe, you could drive over the 8,700' pass at Cloudcroft to Alamogordo (buzz by Artesia because of the air pollution issues). If there is no snow on the ground, you could make several hikes from Cloudcroft though we only stopped for lunch. Food and lodging are available at this pass. Then continue over the pass and down to Alamogordo at 4,330'. There is a huge Walmart in Alamogordo plus other stores and loads of lodging. Park your bags at Alamogordo for several nights. A 15 mile drive from Alamogordo will land you at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park where you can tour the small visitor's center and do the 3,800' elevation gain hike on Trail #106 (they say it's 3,100'). Allow all day for this 11 mile round trip hike which we did in 7 hours, with Bill dragging from the effects of a cold, though it's posted as an 8-10 hour hike.

A relative-rest day the next day could be a visit to White Sands National Monument which is about 15 miles away from Alamogordo on another road. Plan a half day+ there to see the small exhibit area and take in either the very interesting 1.25 mile Nature Trail or the 5 mile Alkali Flat Trail or both. By all means, go barefoot: the gypsum sand is cool and soft. Skip the long walk if the winds are forecast for much over 12 mph because visibility issues could make it unsafe.

And if you have a fascination with early rocket development, nuclear bomb testing, or the exploration of space, you'll find a number of museums and sights to choose from in this general area, including Alamogordo and White Sands, and a bit farther north at Roswell and Los Alamos. A New Mexico road map would be a good place to start for the available options and distances.

New Mexico
Farther north from the above circuit, Albuquerque, NM has an abundance of great hikes and it could easily fill a week or 2 hiking vacation with clean air and blue skies. For this our 2nd visit, Bill parked us at the east end of Albuquerque at the base of the Sandia's. One trail head (3 Guns Springs Tr.) was an easy 10-15 minute drive away and there were several great hikes to do from one parking area. There are other places to go from Albuquerque besides the Sandia's but why bother: stay at 1 place in the city your entire visit and keep the driving to a minimum by going to various Sandia's trailheads. When planning your trip, keep your eyes open for rest or wind day activities. More in the next journal, #7, about these destinations in New Mexico.

Rules, rules, rules…..at a Texas roadside rest stop.
By the Numbers
I was all-eyes on this, our first visit to Texas, wondering how different it would feel from the other SW desert states we'd been to the last 2 years. Our coaching on "numbers" in Texas began before we arrived with some friendly advise from a trail companion in Borrego Springs, California. She relayed that they had been pulled over by the Texan police for driving at the speed limit, but not over it. There was no citation but a friendly warning that it isn't possible to drive at the speed limit without going over it, so being on the mark was essentially a violation. We thanked her for her tip and started practicing the next day. A friend's recent experience, perhaps in Arizona, of being cited for speeding when she was coasting down to the decreased speed limit already had us practicing being at the posted number when we crossed the imaginary line and now we'd refine the target to just below the posted speed.

In El Paso when Bill asked if 'right on red' was legal in Texas, the young RV park clerk replied with "Yes, but…." He instructed Bill to come to a complete stop, then count to 3, then proceed with his turn. OK.... Texas was also the first state on our itinerary that posted minimum speeds on the freeway--fair enough--but it did underscore this emerging theme of 'numbers' in Texas.

Driving in Texas had a little different flair, which made us wonder if the driving style was the origin of the 'numbers' focus. Driving through El Paso quickly educated us to it being a fast and tight game on the freeways. Pleasantly, the locals were more into using turn signals than we'd experienced in the previous month. But unfortunately punitive horn-honking was also popular. We were stunned in Arizona that a driver's blunder never triggered a honk, even if a high-speed accident was narrowly averted. But it seemed that in El Paso's traffic that any sense of having been wronged by another driver warranted a honk.

My joke about our monster truck fitting-in in Texas triggered a reply from a friend who had lived there saying that we'd need to accessorize with a big metal tool box and a gun rack to hold our own. And we'd noticed that Texan trucks we'd seen before arriving in the state sported significantly more chrome than our homely Blue had. It made me wish I'd at least looked at the tricking-out options when the dealer offered them instead of brushing the whole subject aside. Though I'd guess some of the big tubular chrome grill work and tailgate substitutes we'd seen on the road in Texas weren't available from our NW dealer.

But as expected, being in Texas wasn't much of a culture shock because the majority of our time was spent in RV parks and National Parks, both of which attract hoards of travelers from all over the US and Canada. I was especially surprised by the number of retired Oregonians we encountered doing seasonal work at the RV parks in Texas--down right homey. Our biggest surprise with Texans was how genuinely polite, pleasant, and congenial the Texan college kids were. We were there during their spring break so encountered many Texan students on the trails and at the dishwashing sink in one campground and they were friendly and outgoing and, heaven forbid, would actually hold a conversation with old people like us. They were a cheery and uplifting crowd to be around.

El Capitan at Big Bend was a stunning reference point.
Big Bend National Park, TX (432-477-2251)
Our Introduction
Big Bend National Park, named for the big bend in the Rio Grande River that forms the border between Mexico and the US in the region, was the arbitrary destination for our travels this winter and spring. It's in the Chihuahuan Desert, the 4th of North America's 4 deserts we'd visited (the others being: the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran). The Chihuahuan Desert is the 2nd largest desert in North America, though much of it is in Mexico. It receives from 10-20" rain depending on the year and the area. Neither Big Bend nor the Chihuahuan Desert triggered a string of accolades from us but they've got just enough going to make one want to linger…and return.

Our 2 week stay in Big Bend got off to a very rough start. The first setback was needing to abruptly stop everything to deal with unexpected family matters. Next, it was the 8 hour wind storm that ripped into our sleep and delayed our first day's hike until the afternoon. Then there was the matter of unwittingly having bumped into Spring Break for literally all of the schools in Texas. Our planned and provisioned-for 2 week stay in the Park could only be 1 week and the promise of a campsite for 7 nights was trimmed back to 5 without explanation when we arrived. Our extended hiking holiday became a reconnaissance trip for next year but we still managed to take 4 good hikes.

Big Bend protects a huge expanse of desert and but water is available at only 4 points in the park. All of its visitors gravitate to those points daily or, for the backcountry campers, every few days. (The Rio Grande River water is not considered to be treatable for drinking water.) Here we learned we are "front country campers," the one's who hang around the water hole like the smart mammals we are. We stayed at the lower elevation 'front country' trailer village at Rio Grande Village which was at about 1,850' and drove twice to trailheads at the 5,400' elevation Chisos Basin campground. There are no hook-ups at "the Basin" but that's where we'll park for our next visit because of the superior hiking opportunities. Camping at Chisos Basin would eliminate the almost 2 hours of roundtrip driving overhead from the trailer park. Hiking from Chisos Basin gave us access to Emory Peak at 7,800', which added to the diversity of flora and fauna as well as to the athletic challenges and views.

The US/Mexican border at the Rio Grande near Trailer Village.
Our travels are decidedly more about touring than connecting but this season we did more direct and indirect connecting than usual. We spent a day with my nephew and his wife at Point Reyes, north of San Francisco. We missed a chance to visit with friends near Sacramento because they were on an international trip but spent a night with our friend Iva in Phoenix. Outside of Tucson, we toured the Titan Missile Museum, which gave me a chance to sample the time in my brother's life when he too was a silo-sitter with a finger on the button. Big Bend turned out to be a trip on behalf of my mother who always wanted to visit the Park but never made the journey.

The retired 'birder' in my mother was delighted when she heard we were going to Big Bend and once there we learned why. Big Bend is an absolute must-do for any birder who hopes to see all the types of birds available to be seen in the US. Over 450 different bird species have been spotted in Big Bend, including the Colima warbler which can only be found in the US in the Chisos Mountains within the Park. Mother wasn't in that league when she was birding, but knew of it nonetheless. Big Bend is on a migratory route for birds traveling from South, Central, and North America as well as an intersection point for western and eastern species.

We definitely aren't birders but have been trying our hand at the popular snowbird hobby from time to time. We headed out on our first hike in Big Bend armed with a small monocular and the iBird app Bill had loaded on to my iPhone5 and his iPad. But our first outing was a bust for birds, we only netted birdwatchers: a yellow-bellied meadow walker and a green-striped chair-sitter. The next day in the mountains we were spotted by the handsome Mexican jays that were clearly accustomed to posing for treats or stealing them if not offered. The day after that, down along the cottonwood meadow near our campground, we saw and heard a vermilion flycatcher. Not a very good 'take' in Mom's honor, but it didn't seem to be a high-yield time for the more serious birders either.

Finally, a good look at some javelinas.
Other Trophies
Our bird sightings at Big Bend were puny but we were delighted to spot the pig-like javelina that we learned about last year at McDowell State Park outside of Phoenix. There we became proficient at spotting their bedding spots under trees but never saw one on the hoof. In addition, we scared up 1 mule deer, which could be National Park Service mascots in the West. We saw several lizards which to us, are a heads-up that the snakes are or will be coming out soon. Fortunately we saw no snakes but learned that we'd traveled far enough east to both be in the Central Time zone for the first time and in the range of the venomous copperheads. I'm not at all fond of snakes but the picture we saw of Big Bend's Trans-Pecos copperhead that is covered with orange and yellow splotches was almost pretty. We also learned of 2 more yucca-like plants, the sotol and lechaguilla, as well as noted a couple of new cacti, which all contributed to improving our credentials as SW snowbirds.

Border Patrol
The US's porous border with Mexico isn't just porous at Big Bend, it is profoundly open. Mexican Nationals freely wade across the shallow, narrow Rio Grande several times a day to do a bit of very standardized souvenir hawking on the nearby Park trails. We were startled to see them, occasionally under the watchful eye of a park ranger, because elsewhere in the Park we were buzzed by Border Patrol aircraft. On 2 different occasions the small, white Border Patrol planes swooped down to get a closer look at us. We were puzzled by the contradiction: why were we getting buzzed and not the Mexican peddlers? A park ranger confirmed our suspicion that there is a lot of illegal day-tripping across the border but little trafficking of humans or drugs because of the remoteness of the region. Since we weren't in the souvenir trader's area when hiking, we warranted a second look by the Patrol.

What a delight to be among the few that actually enjoyed hiking to the top.
Big Bend is a 100 miles from the nearest village in Mexico and even it lacks electricity. Marathon, TX with its 8,200 people is 150 miles to the north of the Rio Grande with El Paso another 350 miles away being the first real city. In addition to the lack of urban centers, there just aren't many roads criss-crossing this part of southern Texas and the few roads are peppered with Border Patrol inspection points. Arizonan and Texan cities on the border with Mexico have trafficking trade but not Big Bend.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas (on the border with New Mexico; 915-828-3251)
Dazzling Geology
"There's not much here except hiking trails" was the comment from the endlessly chatty volunteer camp host patrolling the RV overnight parking lot when we arrived. He was from North Carolina and had been there 12 of the last 15 years as a guest, so the area clearly had a strong pull for some. Over the course of our broken-up week's stay there, we learned that the park with a small campground and few roads drew people for very specific and very diverse reasons.

"It's the geology, stupid" would be an apt reply from some visitors as to why they come. Guadalupe Mountains National Park draws geologists from all over the world for the opportunity to see and touch the largest exposed ancient reef in the world. And local oil companies send their junior geologists into the Park to see and touch the layers that are uplifted in the Park but that are hidden deep underground where their crews are drilling on the valley floor. Weekend warriors come to bag the highest peak in Texas though sadly, few were enjoying themselves. Most were woefully out of shape and ill suited for being there at all and hence, few were smiling. And finally we understood why a number of folks, especially those in enormous rigs, would arrive at dusk and leave at daybreak when the hiking and the geology were so grand: it's the only place to camp with an RV for miles around; it's near Carlsbad Caverns; and the spare facilities only cost $8 per night.

These mats of fusilinids at the peak were amazing.
For us, the pull of the unfamiliar park was sampling some of the 85 miles of hiking trails but the Permian period geology quickly became a bonus feature. We blasted up to the 8,750' top of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, and next did what we always do, which was find an auspicious place for our picnic lunch. While lounging on 260 million year old reef rock, we were shocked to notice tiny fossils all around us on our promontory. There were thousands of little bits and pieces of sponges, algae, and what we later learned were fusilinids. We were stunned. We are experienced reef-sitters, having spent hours sitting and hiking on the ancient coral reefs of the Italian Dolomites, but we hadn't ever seen any fossils in the Dolomite uplifted reefs.

Until that moment, we had thought that all of the cool fossil finds were at the far, northeastern end of the Park on the Permian Reef Geology Trail which we wouldn't be visiting this year. We couldn't get over the abundance of the strange looking fossils on the peak and assumed that they were only visible at the summit where we spotted them. The crowds on the trail going up and down on that Spring Break weekend had our attention focused on our shared footing, not the rocks.

An even better look at the structure of the single-celled fusilinids.
On our second long hike at Guadalupe, which was up to the "Bowl," the fossils were evident for the last several hours of our hike during our descent down Bear Canyon. (We later learned that the rangers try to only ever go up, not down, Bear Canyon because it is such a 'bear' to do.) During that descent the lights came on and we began to more fully understand why geologists come from afar to study this mountain that is literally built from "suitable for framing" fossil specimens--specimens that are constantly under foot. We happily spent hours staring at the rock while walking down the difficult trail because there was so much to see along the way once we knew what to look for.

And my, but were we surprised and embarrassed by our previous inattentiveness the second time we walked to the top of Guadalupe Peak and discovered that the fossils so evident at the summit were intermittently visible the entire length of the trail. The fossils on the upper portions of the route must be part of the 750' thick reef itself whereas those lower down surely were in the huge blocks of living reef that were constantly shed during ancient times. In some areas the fossils were obscured by the heavy weathering of the limestone and in other areas the ancient rock was buried by dirt and rubble but occasionally there were large slabs of trophy specimens positioned on the trail for fossil-calibrated eyes to readily see (slabs we'd missed the first time through).

Specimens like this must be irresistible for visiting geologists.
The long and sometimes large (like the size of your forearm) sponge fossils amazed us but it was the fusilinids that riveted our attention. There were zillions of them and yet neither of us had ever heard of the species. But we learned that these little single-celled animals, often the size of a large rice grain, are stars to ancient rock observers. Fusilinids are considered an excellent 'index species' because they were around for a very specific time period--from about 381 to 250 million years ago. So when geologists are having difficulty dating rocks in an area and they spot fusilinids, they instantly know what time interval they are looking at. And apparently fusilinid sightings are enough to make petroleum geologists salivate: where ever you find fusilinids, you'll likely find economically important gas and oil reserves underneath.

The reef building at Guadalupe went on for over a million years during the Permian period, resulting in a 400 mile-long, horseshoe-shaped reef. Some time after the Permian Extinction, the reef's inland sea evaporated and the entire reef sank and was eventually buried by sediment. About 6 million years ago, mountain-building in the western US resulted in the reef being pushed up. But unlike the largely exposed reef of the Dolomites, there is still a lot of sediment on this ancient reef. Dirt, mud, and trees cover about half of the Permian reef.

If you find yourself going "Permian, Permian…that sounds familiar…" it's likely that you've heard about the Permian Extinction, one of several mass extinctions in the Earth's history. It wasn't just the fusilinids that became extinct at the end of the Permian period, this was the "mother of all mass extinctions" in which about 96% of all marine species disappeared forever. It was a major loss of biodiversity that took longer for the Earth to recover from than the more popularized mass extinction about 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs.

I can't imagine that the overloaded backpackers noticed these fine fossils.
Horrified by the Backpackers
Among the folks visiting Guadalupe that probably could have cared less about the fusilinids or the origin of the Permian Reef were the backpackers. We encountered several school groups of high school and college aged backpackers and small family groups that were out for 2 night trips at Big Bend and Guadalupe. We were absolutely horrified by the loads these kids were carrying because of the unenforced minimum water requirement of 1 gallon per day--just for drinking. Even when tired at the end of a long hike, we could do the math: at 8.8 lbs/gallon, a conservative volume of 2.5 gallons represented 22 lbs of water for each camper. My day pack with lunch and not water runs about 10 lbs, so just my day pack and their water for their outing comes to 32 lbs. When at Yosemite National Park, we'd read that 25% of one's body weight is the recommended maximum safe backpack weight to carry, which for me would be 31 lbs--a daypack and a 2 night outing's supply of water. But of course, these campers were carrying 40, 60, and 80 lb packs (including some young women lighter than me) because they also needed a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a stove, 6 more meals, and on and on. What a fright.

I've been cajoling my knees into supporting my active lifestyle since I was about 20 and Bill has been "remodeling" his back for years, so we of course kept thinking about the long term or perhaps permanent knee and spine injuries that some were incurring before our very eyes for the sake of this overnight-in-the-wilderness experience. We'd run the numbers before and crossed backpacking permanently off of our list of possible activities--just too, too hard on the body. In much of the US backpackers can get by with carrying a water filter and far less water because of the plentiful streams and lakes but not so in the desert mountains. And the only thing special these kids were getting by carrying 40-80 lb packs was the overnighter--we were covering their entire routes in 2 or 3 day trips. That's been part of the pay-off for us in upping our endurance: 'increasing our range' so we can get to more of the places people overnight but with day hikes, both in the US and in Europe. We of course miss out on some great overnight, outdoor adventures, but we aren't willing to risk the show-stopper injuries to our bodies to have them.

We were still shaking our heads in disbelief at the backpacker's loads when we left Guadalupe Mtns and Texas and crossed the state line into New Mexico. There we'd spend a delightful day at the nearby Carlsbad Caverns and then a few days later walk in the gypsum dunes of White Sands and take another great hike outside of Alamogordo. This loop from Guadalupe to Alamogordo dazzled us with the great mix of experiences, from hiking to dune walking to sedate caving and they'd make a great winter great-away even if you didn't camp along the way or are more of a stroller than a hiker.