Chihuahuan Desert Trip - Part I
Lincoln NF - Captain Mountains, NM
Guadalupe Mountains, TX
Carlsbad Caverns NP, NM
White Sands NM, NM
Lower Gila Box, NM
Gila NF - Gila Cliff Dwelling NM, NM
San Lorenzo Canyon Recreation Area, NM
After a rough first few months in 2008, this trip was a very well deserved and welcomed vacation. My work had been disruptive to both our lives, with frequent last-minute trips down to the San Francisco Bay Area for weeks at a time. Once that was out of the way, I was all too happy to get away from it all. The added bonus to our vacation was escaping the unusual weather the Puget Sound received. The day before our flight we got 3-4 inches of snow! In mid-April! (3-4 inches of snow in January is unusual in our area!)
I have never been to New Mexico (at least not in my adult life) and didn’t know much about the Chihuahuan Desert so I was pretty excited for a new adventure.
April 20th, Sunday
After a somewhat rough flight on the recently bankrupt Frontier Airlines, we arrived in Albuquerque mid-day. We went to the Budget lot to get the pickup truck we had rented. It turned out to be a full-loaded, mega-big, gas-guzzling, penis-compensating Ford F150 super-duper duty. I pretty much hated the car the entire trip. At least with our Mojave Desert trips, the rental trucks turn out to be more reasonably sized. Something in Arizona and New Mexico compels rental cars places to super-size.
After loading up on supplies and food, we headed down the I-25 toward Soccoro. It was a pretty desolate drive the first of many on the trip. We cut over on hwy-380. The scenery grew a little more interesting as we drove up in elevation to ponderosa pines and open grasslands. We spotted a few pronghorn grazing along the side of the road and groups of Chihuahuan Ravens flew over the landscape. We stopped at the Valley of Fire Recreation Area, an interesting area set aside by the BLM. We walked the paved loop trail among the lava rock and got a good introduction to the plants of the Chihuahuan Desert.
We continued toward Lincoln National Forest where we’d be staying the night as a stop over point. We drove up to Baca Campground, which was situated at the base of the Captain Mountains and among many private in-holdings. So there were quite a few cows on the road leading to the campground. The campground itself was actually pretty clean except for the fact that there were roads going every which way through the junipers and pines. The saving grace was that it was empty. We set up camp and tuck in to our sleeping bags in the back of the truck as the coyotes began to howl in the cool night’s air.
April 21st, Monday
The next morning we strolled around the campground and up some cow trails that paralleled the fenced off in-holdings. We saw and heard the desert wildlife a Greater Roadrunner in the distance, a Desert Cottontail scurrying off beneath sagebrush, pairs of Juniper Titmice chattering in the junipers (where else?). It was a pleasant way to start the day.
Mid-morning we headed out and stopped at Roswell just for shits and grins (or something like that). We went to the “UFO Research Center and Museum” (I think that’s what it was called). It was a little museum that actually charged people to get in. We just went to the gift shop, which was pathetically stocked with alien-themed trinkets (the reason we stopped at Roswell).
After lunch at an “authentic” Mexican restaurant (“red or green?”), we continued our drive to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. It was a boring drive seems like all flat stretches between mountain ranges weren’t interesting and just consisted of scrub and grass. It reminded me of those Scooby-Doo cartoons where the characters are running and running but the background keeps looping. So the background kept looping for us until we neared Carlsbad Caverns. We passed the caverns and over the border to the Guadalupe Mountain visitor center.
We got some hiking information from the very helpful park ranger and picked out a campsite at the Pine Creek campground, which was right next to the visitor center. The campground was actually fairly busy (surprisingly). Tents campers and RV were separated so that was nice. Still there were a number of tent campers, who I assume were going to climb up to El Captain and Guadalupe Peak (the tallest mountain in Texas). The trailhead started at the campground.
When we finished setting up our tent, we hiked to the Devil’s Hall. It was a nice hike along the ridge of a wash through the desert spoonplants, agave, Texas madrona, etc. The trail dropped down into the wash, where I noticed a Black-and-White Warbler gleaning the mesquite scrubs. We watched its nuthatch-like feeding behavior, while catching glimpses of its dramatic patterning. We continued up the rocky wash until we finally reached the Devil’s Staircase. The “stairs” were a little uneven and small (guess the devil has small feet). Past the stairs was the Devil’s Hall - a narrow passage in the canyon walled in by vertical-layered rocks. It’s amazing what nature can create.
It was dark by the time we returned to our campsite for a dinner of leftover fried chicken. I heard a rustling in the bushes nearby and turned on my headlamp to see a young Stripped Skunk! Attracted by the smell of cold fried chicken, it meandered its way closer to our table, signaling the end of dinner. I put the rest of the chicken in the car. The young skunk was persistent in wanting the chicken and walked under the table (we were away from the skunk) to pick up any crumbs we may have dropped. The bold little skunk finally scurried away when Tor threw rocks at it. It returned once more before we could convince it to at least wait until we were asleep to come back.
April 22nd, Tuesday
The morning brought very few bird calls, which was pretty disappointing, but we drove over to the Frijole Ranch where the bird activity was considerably higher. Near the old ranch many warblers, finches, orioles, and woodpeckers enjoying their morning calls and songs. We hiked the easy Smith Spring loop trail. There are two springs on the path, the Manzanita Spring and the Smith Spring, both long altered by the presence of humans, but both very much enjoyed by all wildlife. The path wandered through the scrubby desert, through a mesquite covered wash, past the maple-loving springs, along the rocky ancient reef side of the Guadalupe Mountains, and back down to the ranch. Along the path, a Pyrrhuloxia sang from a bush near the Manzanita spring and a Ladder-backed Woodpecker intensely drummed on a small dead snag.
Having enjoyed our stroll through the desert, we drove on to McKittrick Canyon also located in the Guadalupe Mountain NP. There were only two other cars in the parking lot when we arrived, so we looked forward to the quite hike. The trail took us out among the open desert before the canyon walls grew up around us. We crossed some trickling water with a few small fish darting about. The junipers and mesquite trees grew larger as we hiked into the canyon. Somewhere along the stream the water dipped underground, leaving us hiking through dry washes. Plumbeous, Cassin’s, and Warbling Vireos serenaded us as we hiked up the canyon. We reached the Pratt Lodge impressively handcrafted out of uncut stones that were brought in from 3 miles away. They fit together nicely and made a tight looking cottage. We continued up the trail where the water surfaced again and we saw some Guadalupe Columbine in bloom by a clear pool in which some introduced juvenile Rainbow Trout fed on any low flying insect.
A little over a mile from the lodge, we reached the Grotto a cave like structure in the side of the canyon rock. We had lunch, while listening to a nearby Western Tanager call from the tops of the cottonwoods. A female Summer Tanager stopped in for lunch among the cottonwoods as well. After having our fill, we walked up to the Hunter’s Cabin not quite as nice as the Lodge or at least not as maintained.
We hiked back down the canyon in an eerie silence. The canyon once filled with the songs of vireos had faded away to the sound of the wind in the trees and the scrap of hiking boots in a rocky wash. The sun’s heat had suppressed the bird activity.
At the mouth of the canyon, the silence was broken by the barking chirps and the scampering of a rock squirrel on the rocks and a Western Kingbird calling from the power lines.
We returned to the Frijole Ranch for dinner, partly to enjoy the evening’s birds and partly to avoid having a young skunk attracted to our campsite again.
April 23rd, Wednesday
We packed up our camp in the morning and left the Pine Creek Campground. We drove up to Rattlesnake Springs an identified Important Bird Area (IBA). We crossed back into New Mexico and to the day use Rattlesnake Springs of the Carlsbad Caverns NP. We were greeted by a small group of Wild Turkeys including one leucistic one (it was completely white, but I don’t think its eyes were pink).
As soon as I opened the car door, the bird calls struck my ears. Vermillion Flycatchers, Summer and Hepatic Tanagers, Say’s Phoebes, and Western Kingbirds were very active among the big cottonwoods. We walked down the road to the rangers’ house and the reservoir. I was overloaded by the bird activity: the warblers Wilson’s, Yellow-rumped, Yellow, the Red-naped Sapsuckers, the Northern Cardinals. Near the ranger’s house I caught a glimpse of a male Varied Bunting bathing in one of the ditches. In the cottonwoods above the pond, sat a sleeping Great Horned Owl.
After tearing myself away from this bird oasis, we headed up to the caverns (after stopping to admire four Scissor-tailed Flycatchers). I honestly didn’t know what to expect of the caverns having only been in caves of a small magnitude. I was excited to see the Cave Swallow colony at the entrance. We started our decent down the twisty path into the mouth. Within the mouth of the cave and a strong musky stench of bat and bird guano, hundreds of cave swallows circled overhead tending to their mud cup nest.
The path took us 751 feet underground. We were awestruck by the cave formations the enormity, the complexity, the intricacy. It’s hard to describe and impossible to capture on film or an SD card. By the time we reached the entrance to the ‘Big Room’ the main attraction, it was close to our cave tour time. We had signed up in advance for the Lower Cave Tour. We ate at the cafeteria in the cave (it was a little weird, the food wasn’t bad just typical) just to say we ate 750 feet underground.
We met for the Lower Cave Tour with 7 other people and geared up with lighted-helmets and gloves (for the caves protection more than ours). To enter the cave, we lowered ourselves down a slippery but not to steep slope using a knotted rope and then down 3 sets of ladders. It was a slow process because only one person could go on a section at a time. The ranger led use through a series of chambers some very interesting and amazing formations. There was even a bat within one of the caves columns. My favorite part of the cave was the pearls. Little bits of dirt, cave rocks, or stalactites would fall into these cups filled with water. Slowly over ages, the hard water moving around the bits of dirt would form pearls. It was amazing to see now, but more baffling to imagine when the pearls were first discovered and before the pearls were taken from the caves by buckets.
It was a good tour, but didn’t leave us time to view the Big Room something we’ll have to go back to see. Out of the cave, we took the Walnut Canyon Driving Tour a nice tour through the Chihuahuan Desert. After the drive, we stopped at an exhibit pullover in the park for dinner (trying to be quick about it after seeing another skunk wandering about).
We returned to the cavern entrance for the free bat flight program. Apparently it is free during the off-season months, when only migrating bats are present. A ranger was there to talk about the Mexican free-tailed Bats and answer questions. I watched the Cave Swallows circle and dive around the cave as he talked. Around 7:30 PM the microphones set to pick up bat frequency began to crackle and squeak, signifying the bats were about to exit the cave. In a clockwise circle hundreds of bats flew out of the cave like a slow wide funnel cloud of flying mammals, they circled above the entrance before streaming off together above the desert. It seemed like the winds would shift which way they would head out, but ultimately they seemed go off away from us over the open desert. The bat flight was quite the spectacle to enjoy, though only briefly, because the park kicks everyone out at 7:40 PM.
Trying to get somewhere on an open country road is fine in the daytime, in the nighttime it’s a different story. Hoping to find a new camping spot, we decided to head to the road behind the Carlsbad and Guadalupe Parks. At night the road was an obstacle course of darting cottontails and jackrabbits, clueless cows, scurrying rodents, and owls (what they were doing sitting on the road, I don’t know). After a two-hour drive in the dark, we reached Dog Canyon part of the Guadalupe Mountains NP. We were hoping to find something closer in the Lincoln National Park, but signs (and campsites) are hard to find in the dark. Thankfully the campground was empty so we quickly set up camp in the bed of the truck.
April 24th, Thursday
During the night, we awoke on a couple of occasion to a peculiar sound. We tried to determine what it was to no avail. In the morning, dozens of Turkey Vultures took to the air and we realized that last nights sounds were the sounds of their wings flapping around (still don’t know what they were doing, but at least we know what the sound was). Dog Canyon, like the rest of the Guadalupe Park was beautiful. We took a stroll through their nature trail Indian Meadows learned more about the Chihuahuan Desert. We watched a pair of Phainopeplas flirt about in the oaks. We walked down the canyon on Las Tejas trail and listened to the Gracy’s warblers who were easier to hear than see. A male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher chattered loudly as we passed by.
We headed on to our next destination unsure where we’d be spending the night. We aimed for Lincoln National Forest (there are many parts of the forest spread over the southeast corner of New Mexico) of the Sacramento Mountains. After failing to find a camping spot on a road obviously maintained and created for private in-holdings, we aimed for a cluster of campgrounds only to find them all closed. Well sort of. The gate to one of the campgrounds could be opened and technically didn’t have a “closed” sign posted. It was getting late, desperate times call for desperate measures. The campground was crappy as most public campgrounds go. There wasn’t much too it, but it was a place to stay for the night. We dropped our campground fee in the box and tucked in for the night.