Sunday, 6 November 2022, Carlsbad NM
Time to end this 'Halfway Tour' (having seen 31½ of the 63 National Parks) on a high note!
So far, so good - the car made it 60 miles back to the main park area (and later, back to 'home') with no hints of yesterday's problem. Now I could relax and focus on the Devil's Hall trail. Knowing that this weekend draws peak crowds to the park - and that biological clocks may not yet have acclimated to the clocks changing today - I made sure to arrive by 9:00. Not a second too soon, it turned out - the trailhead parking lot had only two spots left. (Later arrivals would have to park at the Visitor Center up the road.)
Park information describes the 4.2 mile (round-trip) trail thusly:
After the first mile the trail leads to a rocky wash which takes hikers to an impressive natural rock staircase leading to a 'hallway' formed by steep canyon walls. The wash portion of the route requires the hiker to scramble over large boulders and other debris...
Difficulty: Strenuous, with rock scrambling and loose rock surfaces.
CAUTION: ... Devil's Hall trail in the wash is covered in loose rocks, boulders, and other debris. Visitors should exercise caution, use proper footwear, and trekking poles... Some visitors struggle to find the trail after dark or if they are unprepared.
Okay, expect some rocky scrambles. But how bad could one of the three most notable hikes in the park be?
As expected, the first mile wandered through a dusky landscape (much like McKittrick three days earlier) with only a few splashes of color.
The trail, though distinct, stayed narrow enough to make people to hike single-file. After 25-30 minutes, I reached the wash, just in time to see people ahead of disappear into the boulders.
Really? THAT'S the trail?
I tried to delude myself that the trail only started with a challenge before moderating. Oh, no, what I saw is what I got for the next mile-plus.
At least the oranges and yellows helped to distract from the relentless effort to pick a route through the wash.
Make me work for my colors, why don't you!
It took another good hour to reach the Staircase.
I thought I'd reached the end, but another hiker said, "No, the Hall is a bit further." Above this obstacle. To get there, I scoped out an approach, first looking at the left side - but the narrow ledges scared me off. Finally I took the straight ahead approach, nervous with every step.
I now had an easy stroll through the narrowing canyon - no boulders! - to reach Devil's Hall. In the shade of the slot canyon, a tiny pool of water lingered, and a swarm of butterflies flitted about that oasis.
The hike down-wash had gotten no easier. I lingered at the staircase area, watching other people struggle with that unimproved feature.
Finally, I moved along, enjoying the last splashes of color. Numerous nooks and crannies had collected the leaves already shed.
However, I never truly relaxed, staying on edge as I remained alert, making sure that I didn't miss the spindly trail as it left the wash. Each time I passed another outbound hiker, I knew I hadn't gotten lost yet.
Though not glaringly marked, the exit trail did eventually catch my attention, and I made it back to the car about 1:00.
As I'd worked my way down the trail, a question had arisen in my mind. This curiosity pushed me back to the Visitor Center, where I got the attention of a ranger. "I've got to ask. I just hiked to Devil's Hall - that's quite a trail. Given the precarious footing with the loose rocks and gravel, it must be easy to turn an ankle, or even break a bone. How do you rescue a person in that situation? I can't imagine getting carried out on a stretcher!"
She nodded knowingly. "It's hard. Rescue crews can wheel a gurney up about half the trail [which I found difficult to imagine, given how narrow it is], but then they've got to scramble up to the person just like you did today. They can fireman-carry them down to the waiting gurney, or maybe use webbing for a stretcher - something lightweight."
"How often does that happen?" I asked.
"For the rest of the park, we average about one rescue a year, but for that trail, it's about once a month. Or more."
As I thought about that challenge, she continued. "If someone had an accident above the staircase, we couldn't get them down that way; we'd have to call for a helicopter evacuation." She looked wistful for a moment. "Actually, that staircase area is becoming a problem. It didn't used to be that bad, but we had a flood down that wash a year ago, and that made it a lot worse. In fact, the whole trail got more difficult, as the flood washed more boulders into the wash. But for the staircase, the superintendent is looking at a few solutions. He doesn't want to close off Devil's Hall, but maybe if they cut a trail that climbed above the creek, and allowed a overview of Devil's Hall without letting people into it..."
I thanked her for the discussion, and headed back to the car. The ranger's words vindicated my fears of climbing the Tilted Tiles (my name for the staircase), hearing that the park staff had serious concerns with the formation. As I pondered it further, it dawned on me: perhaps 'raw' served as a theme for this park! Don't improve a trail to Devil's Hall. Don't grade the road to Salt Basin or mark the trails. Leave Dog Canyon unadorned. It's as if the park lands called out to visitors: "We're not Disneyland! We're nature. Take us as we come."
Following my picnic lunch (this time, I had opened the can of deviled ham before I left the AirBNB), I headed over to Frijole Ranch, an early homestead now converted to a museum.
A spring had provided a verdant setting for the Rader brothers to put down roots in 1876. Eventually John Thomas Smith filed to take over the vacant land. Besides raising cattle, pigs, and chickens, they farmed apples, peaches, apricots, plums, pears, berries and more. To sell their wares, they would load wagons with fruits, cover them with wet paper and linen to protect them from the heat, and take a two-day trip to Van Horn 65 miles to the south (the town I'd hit after the Prada store!). Fun fact: according to NPS info, until the early 1900s, over 15,000 varieties of apples were grown in the U.S. Today, orchards only host 1400 varieties - and four varieties account for 90% of all sales. A quick internet search narrows that down to Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, and Fuji.
The Frijole Ranch complex included a spring house to protect the spring, a one-room schoolhouse, and a post office and community center. The main house has exhibits and period furniture, inviting people to stroll through and look around.
After boning up on the area history, I headed for the 2.3-mile Springs Trail, a round trip route that went from Frijole Spring, past Manzanita Spring, to Smith Spring.
Once away from Frijole Spring, the terrain reverted to scrubby, arid land.
The trail stayed paved up to Manzanita Spring, then reverting to the typical dirt-and-rock. I trekked onward for over a half hour, with few if any trees to interrupt the views, wondering if this trail would offer a reward - or whether I had wandered off-trail again as the path worked its way up the hillside. And then...
I recall researching the park a year ago, and coming across a review that said, "When fall colors bloom, this is the most beautiful spot in Texas." Now I knew: They were talking about Smith Spring! In a bend of the trail, a steady trickle of water flowed forth, sustaining a shady oasis filled with trees.
The stream trickled over miniature falls, filling a series of leaf-covered pools. The trees fluttered in the breeze. The colors danced as eye candy.
Due to challenging lighting, photographs could not capture the intense beauty of the scene. My eyes, though, could fully appreciate it, and I spent time basking in the desert Eden before wandering back down the hillside. A true jewel to finish off this parks adventure.
An encore was not in the offing. Yesterday, after returning to town, I had marveled at a magnificent sunset painted across the clouds. I'd envisioned ending the trip with spectacular sunset photography in the park this evening... but nature didn't behave. Instead of clouds on which to paint glorious colors, the sky stayed 100% blue, nothing to reflect the sun's dying embers. Oh, well. Instead, I finished my photos with a shot of these bright yellow flowers on the way back to the car.
Monday, 7 November 2022, Midland Space Port
The car got me back to the terminal with no issues, though I did tell Hertz to give it a full checkup. Now I'm waiting for my flight, in a gate area with no working drinking fountains. Hmmm... maybe they have non-stop spaceflights to Tatooine (the desert planet in Star Wars), and figured they'd get people primed for it...
I'm on parks hiatus right now, focused on the holidays - and my next BIG adventure package in late January. Trying to schedule my cold-weather sojourn - fretting about winter air travel - is proving to be a massive effort. The planned itinerary: start with mushing the dog sled into Denali, followed by snowshoeing in Kenai Fjords, then winging it to Wyoming to drive a snowmobile into Yellowstone and cross-country ski in Grand Teton. Until then, check back here for more Inspigraphs and maybe some writings from my archives.