Just as we were preparing to pull out of Monahans Sandhills State Park, one of the local park rangers stopped by to see where we were headed next. When we told him that we were headed towards Carlsbad, he made me grab the map so he could show us a safer route on a better road. It would take us a little out of our way, but he said that it would be better for everyone and everything, including our camper. Our helpful ranger not only gave us better directions, but then spent another ten to fifteen minutes just striking up conversation.
We’ve always liked the Texas State Park rangers.
It was the shortest travel day of our vacation, so far, and we pulled into Brantley Lake State Park with plenty of sunlight and time to spare. We easily parked our camper and then explored around the park, confused by the unmanned visitors center and unsure how to proceed with our check-in. We felt like we were back in Kentucky when Jeff and I camped at a state park for several days while doing the Bourbon Tour, or back in Wisconsin, like last summer, when we never saw a park ranger in the three nights that we stayed in a state park right along the Mississippi River.
We contemplated heading to Carlsbad Caverns to find out about tours over the next two days, but Google informed us that the Ranger desks would be closed by the time we got there. We turned and returned to the state park, driving around to see what was available to do and then settling in at the camper. The kids played games while Jeff and I sat outside and read, enjoying the shade and the ability to just relax. In the end, our first night in New Mexico was a simple one. We read, kids played games, we all ate dinner, kids played at the playground, we rode our bikes to the overlook, and we walked the dogs.
Since I couldn’t get tickets for a tour at Carlsbad Caverns until our third day in New Mexico, the plan for our second day in the state was to drive south and return to Texas for a couple hours so that we could tour Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Our daughter had been begging to visit the national park since our Christmas Break trip to Davis Mountains State Park. A combination of fourth grade Texas state history and learning about islands in the sky from a park ranger in Davis Mountains convinced her that seeing the tallest point in Texas needed to be on her wish list for the immediate future. I had also driven through the park when I was in high school while on a youth ministry travel team. At the time all we had done is drive through and take a group picture in front of El Capitan, so I was eager to actually see what the park had to offer.
When both kids were finally awake and eating breakfast while reading the books they had brought along, I announced my plans to fill up all of our water bottles so that we were ready for a drive down south. Our son revolted.
“But I don’t want to get in the truck and drive. We’re camping. I just want to stay here.”
“But this was one of our planned stops on our trip, honey. And your sister has wanted to go there for months. That’s what we’re doing today.”
He continued to grumble as he started looking at the stickers we had yet to add to our camping map.
“Why can’t we go to the Grand Canyon?”
Was he kidding? Here he was complaining about driving a couple hours today so we could see the mountains and he wanted to add another week to our vacation with a trip to the Grand Canyon?
I ignored the attitude, kept packing lunches and filling water bottles, and finally got all of the humans into the truck so that we could start our National Park tour. We started listening to The
Worst Best Christmas Pageant Ever and by the time we arrived at the Pine Springs Visitor Center, he was singing a different tune. We spent at least two hours at the visitor center, both kids looking through the displays and completing enough activities in the Junior Ranger book to get sworn in and earn both a badge and a patch (a rarity in National Parks that we’ve visited). We hiked the Piney Trail, a short nature trail just behind the visitor center, stopping to visit the preserved ruins of a Butterfield Trail stagecoach station; the Butterfield stagecoaches began carrying mail through the mountains on the nation’s first transcontinental mail route in the late 1800s. By the time we returned to the visitor center to buy a couple of magnets, a t-shirt, and to make sure that we had our passport stamps, we were all ready for a picnic lunch.
We drove a couple of miles down the road to the second picnic area, which the rangers had recommended if we wanted a good view of El Capitan, Guadalupe Peak (the highest point in Texas at 8751 feet) right behind it. Energized by a food break that was cut short by an annoying swarm of flies, we headed back north towards the Frijole Ranch Trailhead with plans to hike the moderate 2.3-mile Smith Spring Trail so we could see a small waterfall in the middle of the desert.
At least, that was the plan.
Everything started out the way it was supposed to. Everyone had a filled water bottle, hat, sunglasses, and we all took a bathroom break before I signed the trail register and we started on our way. We passed the splits to the Foothills Trail and Frijole Trail and continued on our way. It was hot (probably around 95 degrees by the time we started) and both kids were excitedly rushing ahead of us. Then everything went completely off of the rails.
The Smith Springs Trail crosses a rocky creek bed which is not marked on the map. When we got to the creek bed, we didn’t pay attention to the trail that clearly continued on the other side. Instead, we looked to our left in what appeared to be a clearly marked rocky trail and headed up. For the next thirty minutes, we climbed, ducked under branches, and looked for the clearest route on a rocky path that would clearly be a dangerous place to be if it were to ever rain while we were hiking.
Eventually, we got to what appeared to be the top (climbing I don’t know how many vertical feet in the process), I climbed out of the creek bed to see if there were any other visible trails, and we decided it was time to turn around. When we finally got back to the path we had originally followed, we looked to the right (the path we had left) and to the left (the path we were supposed to take) and felt a little more than silly about the whole situation. We chose to continue on the path, but about ten minutes in (and pretty close to the original halfway point) our daughter understandably complained of being thirsty with a headache (she had drained her bigger water bottle) and so we turned around and headed back to the truck.
We were all sad that we never made it to the spring and the waterfall, but none of us felt that it was wasted time. We were never really lost, our daughter had finally had the opportunity to do some unplanned rock climbing, and we returned safely without any unfortunate encounters with some of the more deadly desert wildlife (my biggest fear as we climbed through the rocks was finding a rattlesnake or being found by a mountain lion).
We poured our water reserves into our water bottles (I had also filled a half-gallon jug and gallon jug with extra water), rehydrated ourselves, and found necessary snacks to keep us going as we headed back towards Carlsbad. The day may not have gone exactly as we had planned it, but it was still a worthwhile trip, something the entire family could agree on.
It was only a four hour visit, but we fully appreciated what one of Texas’s national parks had to offer. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a beautiful, relatively untouched park. Most of it cannot be reached by vehicle, which makes exploration a little more difficult, but we discovered that is part of the charm. It isn’t nearly as developed for comfort as even Big Bend several hundred miles south. Instead, the rangers have chosen to preserve the wilderness for those who are willing to brave the trails and backcountry camping.