Pandemic Road Trip: Winter Edition

Jan 21st, 2021 in Adventure

My New Years Day move to Tucson came with an odd quirk courtesy of COVID. I could only drop my stuff off and then had to immediately vacate while the unit was cleaned and repainted. With those terms and an expectation of two weeks, I decided to head to see New Mexico and West Texas in the deep Winter, in particular the remote borderlands of Big Bend National Park.

It took me a day to make it to Big Bend, a 10 hour drive from my new home city. I made a brief stop in at Cochise Stronghold to camp in the dusk of New Years Day and then made it out all the way to the curious artist’s haven of Marfa, Texas, where I camped at a ‘ghost lights’ viewing area with a lot of other random travelers and RVs that is a sanctuary spot and a ‘short’ drive to Big Bend proper (still two hours).

The zero degree sleeping bag I purchased for the Arizona Trail was put to good use on this trip, with most nights being at or below freezing, and me being in relative comfort. Both my tent (netting zippers compromised) and sleeping pad (microleaks), AT veterans each, might be on the way out, but they will each have served me well if so.

Big Bend’s popularity in Winter gave me a brief window to make camping reservations, and I was only able to resolve two nights. Fortunately, I was able to get a nice spot in the backcountry of the Chisos Mountains, which are the center of the park. An ice storm that walloped the area when I started the trip still had park roads closed where I intended to hike from. Thankfully, I was able to park on a far roadside and take an alternative trail up, a wash that wasn’t a wash, if you will.

Up top in the Chisos, I saw few as most folks who made reservations bailed. At exposed portions of the rim that defines the mountains southern end, there was a foot of snow. A few brave souls (or just stubborn campers) had already trafficked the way and saved me any post-holing. 7,000 ft elevation even at such a southerly latitude stays pretty chilly in Winter! The aforementioned rim is quite a sought after view, by the way, that and Emory Peak, the park highpoint a thousand feet up, were both wonderful rewards for the schlep up.

I didn’t check out much of the Western end of the park or the Rio Grande, save from my frontcountry campground, a quick paddle across from Boquillas in Mexico. I know there’s a lot more to do in Big Bend, for a distant next time. Instead, I next made my way up to the Guadalupe Mountains for the true high point of Texas, Guadalupe Peak, at 9,000 ft, and some more rugged backcountry camping. The scenic views on the way up through the unfortunately named Davis Mountains (yes, that Davis) were an extra bonus. I got there to the park just before closing and cobbled together a three night itinerary. This park’s backcountry is free, a quite rare distinction that I was happy to take advantage of. My perspicacity in wanting to do more than 10 miles in a day earned me a ‘Trip Not Advised’ admonishment on my permit.

The Guadalupes are a Permian Reef, part of a prehistoric sea that sank below the mountains. As a result, many of the rocks have cool fossil patterns of various organisms in patterns that mirror what you might see in abstract art or a shower curtain. Now, the mountain range, which is relatively small, just towering over a hundred miles, offering a distinct wooded ecosystem above the fairly barren desert. Water is extremely scarce, though, at least along its developed trails there are no places to draw any, with the except of Dog Canyon, a developed (& utterly deserted) campground at the other side of the mountains, approximately 10 miles distance.

So, my itinerary took me through and over and back over three days, hitting three significant peaks on the way, most notably Guadalupe Peak as the finale, which is the Texas highpoint. Water carries in winter weren’t bad, 2.5-3L was sufficient. The trails were a bit overgrown and the park struggles with funding, which was a bit disheartening, because I thought the area was some fantastic backpacking with a very compelling ecology.

Unfortunately, as I was embarking into the Guadalupes, jubilant over the Democratic wins in the senate in Georgia, the day took a dark turn with the onset of the Capitol riots. I dropped out of service as the action started, with deep anxiety among my peers on Discord, and it wasn’t until I dropped in at the Dog Canyon Campground a day later that I was able to get a full accounting of the mayhem. The camp host, in relative isolation, was as eager to talk to someone about it as I was. I’m still thinking about what all that means, and the horror of it has served as a mighty force of distraction towards focusing on publishing this article in a timely manner.

Anyway, upon exiting the Guadalupes, I only had to venture next door for a true wonder at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. What a sight for the senses to walk in this enormous underground with spotlights illuminating these otherworldly formations. Training my ears, I could hear each drop filtering from above. By the end of it, you’ve walked four miles and gone nearly a kilometer deep, before returning to the surface in an elevator. Everyone should make a pilgrimage to see Carlsbad, and I hope to be back not only to see the swarms of bats that define Summer evenings, but also for guided tours deeper inside it.

At this point in my trip, my landlord contacted me to let me know the place was available earlier than expected, the Winter camping was wearing on me, and snow was forecast, so I shelved Colorado & Palo Duro Canyon, and went to Santa Fe for some rest and relaxation at the hostel there which has become my favorite in the land. A couple days of wandering the city, looking at empty art galleries and bookstores, before making my way to Flagstaff to pick up some left behind loot for my new home and then Tucson.

On the way to Flag, I made an overdue stop-in at Petrified Forest National Park for the final destination on this journey. Right off I-40, it’s an easy enough place to get to, and full of mysterious petrified logs, prehistoric trees that became crystalized in beautiful patterns litter the park. There’s not much else going on here besides that, but it’s worth walking the few trails to see these natural oddities.

I’ve now been in Tucson a week, and am rapidly building up a home here. Definitely looking forward to more short-term adventures this year under a blazing sun.