Friday, September 07, 2012

Adventures in the Guadalupes, Hiking the El Capitan Trail

Guadalupe Peak, the highest in Texas
by Andrew Stuart
Editor, Hudspeth County Herald and Dell Valley Review
Texas Mountain Trail Board Member

This fourth installment in a series on hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park focuses on the El Capitan and Salt Basin Overlook trails, a 21.5-mile loop, from Pine Springs to Williams Ranch, at the base of the western escarpment, and back. I took this trail as an overnight trip, hiking out from the Pine Springs trailhead at 8 a.m. Saturday morning and reaching the Shumard Canyon campsite, 9 and a half miles later, at about 3 p.m. I returned the next day via the longer, Salt Basin Overlook portion of the loop.

The trail passes from the grassy foothills of the eastern slopes to the stony defiles below Capitan's tower, to the crest of the Salt Basin Overlook, at the southern foot of El Capitan; from the overlook, the trail winds through sharp and exposed terrain along the western face of the mountains, above vertiginous heights and below the 2,000-foot cliffs of the escarpment, to the head of Shumard Canyon. The path then drops down through the canyon's gorge to the historic Williams Ranch House, built in 1908. On the return, the Salt Basin Overlook Trail winds along the ledge below El Capitan, through a wonderland of boulders. The trails can be taken as a shorter, 11.5-mile day hike, excluding the leg from Shumard Canyon and back.
I carried, among other things, a sleeping bag, a tent, a light-weight camping stove, some dishware and two gallons of water. A package of powdered, just-add-water food. Early in the hike, feeling the weight of the water on my back, it occurred to me it would be nice if someone would invent powdered water. I guess, you know, you'd just add water.
View from the east

Around the base of El Capitan, coming to the Salt Basin Overlook, and a sudden view of much of Hudspeth County: the Patterson Hills, the flats and dunes, Round Mountain – a little blemish on the flats, casting a tiny shadow; the Cornudas – San Antonio, Chatfield, Wind mountains, Cerro Alto in the far distance, at the El Paso County line; and, hazy in the southwest, Sierra Blanca, Little Blanca and Round Top mountains.

I spent a day and a half out in the wilderness, in the park, I sweated and labored around boulder and cliff, with the broken rocks below and before me, over pass and then pass again, circling, twisting about the colossus of El Capitan. Oh, I sweated and labored, at home Sunday evening my shirt collar is starched and blackened with sweat and dirt. I sweated and labored, and, 37-year-old that I am, no spring chicken, at one, or two, moments, I despaired: on a gray helmet of rock, a beautiful place, overlooking the chasm of Shumard Canyon, I saw the trail's end far below me – 1,000, 1,200 feet? – and balked at the thought of having to retrace my path, back up the canyon, the next morning. And again in the shaded slopes, the lea of the El Capitan Trail, on my return journey, just past the junction of the Salt Basin Overlook trail, at the foot my last serious climb. Now those points seem dear to me, especially the second, the cool, blue place, where I thought perhaps I should just lay down and die.

From the park's information:

“The most striking feature of GuadalupeMountains National Park is the thousand-foot high El Capitan, which can be seen from miles around. Early settlers used it as a landmark on the route through Guadalupe Pass.

El Capitan is composed of Capitan Limestone, which is the Permian-aged limestone reef deposit. A reef is a submerged resistant mound or ridge formed by the accumulation of plant and animal skeletons. The Capitan Limestone is a massive, fine-grained fossiliferous limestone that formed by growth and accumulation of invertebrate skeleton of algae, sponges, and tiny colonial animals called bryozoans. These skeletons were stabilized by encrusting organisms that grew over and cemented the solid reef rock, unlike modern reefs built by mainly a rigid framework of corals.

Below this massive cliff of Capitan Limestone you can see a prominent sandstone ledge of the Brushy Canyon sandstone which formed when the off-shore basin began to slowly subside.

View from the West
Because of the Capitan's greater resistance to erosion, it forms this cliff which looms majestically above the horizon for us all to see.”

I steered myself by that colossus. I gloried in it, at the overlook, its full sentinel form above, wind sweeping east on the outward journey and west on the return, or I despaired, when it was high above, above slopes strewn with boulders, giant stones, from the age of titans. From the low points, the burned desert, then again up, to within one mad scramble to the foot of the escarpment. The honey-colored heights of the escarpment in mid-morning. I walked across the charred ground where the El Capitan Fire burned, in May, and saw the folds and that bare face of the mountain, which my neighbor and myself see each day. I saw its dark places, its intimate folds. I cannot report, or I can only report a part, of what I saw – its ugly secrets and its satin slipper, its golden slumber.

The Salt Basin trail is part of the Peak Fitness Challenge, a project of the Texas Mountain Trail, GeoBetty, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Franklin Mountains State Park.  Here's the Challenge's page for the trail....join the Challenge today!

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