Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Devil's Hall

Devil's Hall
by Andrew Stuart
Editor, Hudspeth County Herald and Dell Valley Review
Texas Mountain Trail Board Member

                The following is the second installment in a series on hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The park is celebrating its 40th birthday this year, and the author intends to hike all 85 miles of trail in the park before year’s end. This week’s installment focuses on the Devil’s Hall Trail, a 4.2-mile round trip that begins and ends at the Pine Springs Campground and leads the hiker along Pine Spring Canyon, back into the wooded folds of the mountains.

                The Devil’s Hall Trail is a beautiful hike, which, in two-and-a-quarter miles, passes from the shrub and grasslands at the trailhead into hanging gardens, limestone cliffs draped in vines, and a forest of pines and maples, and to the threshold of the mountain wilderness. Coming and going, you feel that you’ve gotten deep with the Guadalupes.

                Though the trail is not long, it is identified as “moderately strenuous.” The loose rocks of the dry arroyo, and the effort involved in climbing over and around the arroyo’s boulders, add difficulty to the relatively level path. The bigtooth maples that line Pine Spring Canyon make this trail – like McKittrick Canyon – one of the park’s featured destinations for fall colors, but it’s hard to imagine that, at any time of year, there is a better way to get a sense of these mountains in the space of a few short hours.

                From the trailhead, the path parallels the drainage of Pine Spring Canyon, incised in the wider valley. There are flowers in bloom now in the meadows – blue, orange and pink. Red madrone trees. At points, the trail abuts the arroyo, the creek bottom 20 or 30 feet below the trail. A limestone butte, in the shape of a hat or box, extends from the mass of the mountains to the north, and draws the hiker on. Shadows gather beyond the butte, where the trail winds back into the mountains.

                A few minutes walk from the trailhead and, on this Sunday morning, there is stillness and the rush of wind from above, upcanyon, and in the mountains. In my four-hour journey, I’ll encounter only one other hiker.

                At a fork in the trail, from which one path leads to Guadalupe Peak, the Devil’s Hall Trail drops down into the wash itself, and ceases to be a maintained trail. You follow the wash, sweating a bit through the small loose stones of the arroyo bottom. Soon, to the south, massive limestone flatirons signal the base of Texas’ highest peak. The trail becomes shaded and cool. Scraps of bright cloud gather and trail without cease off the peaks and ridges above.

                Onward, and soon the path has me negotiating small boulders, squeezing and pulling myself over and among the rocks. I arrive at a gate, a doorway, between two pillars of honey-colored limestone. Passing through this opening, I come to the “Hiker’s Staircase,” a short slope of tiered rock. After this little scramble, I arrive at the Devil’s Hall itself.

                Here Pine Spring Canyon narrows to a slot, hardly 10 feet cross, a smooth notch bounded by high, vertical walls. The sound of my footfall bounces off the limestone, an underwater sound.

                A metal “End of Trail” sign stands at the far side of Devil’s Hall, but I’ll continue up the wash a ways. Other than in McKittrick Canyon, a hiker is free to roam over any ground he or she chooses in this park – free to get tangled in the brush or get dehydrated on a high ridge.
Devil's Hall

                This is where the trail really gets interesting. The forest becomes denser, with more and taller maples and pines. I climb out of the wash, over slopes piled in dead leaves, and lean against a ponderosa, drinking water and sifting the black earth in my hands. The breeze rustles a little maple below me.

                As I continue working my way up the wash, pressing back toward the source, the path is choked with boulders and bracken. I stop, at a point of confluence, where two tributaries of the canyon come together, with a slight feeling of fear and apprehension, an apprehension appropriate to entering wilder spaces. The washes are littered and piled high with boulders and thick debris – a glimpse of that earth, as the poet said, that is “made out of Chaos and Old Night.” It is as if I am at the doorstep or floor of a great workshop – the massive chunks of limestone look like they’ve been hewed and thrown off in the first broad strokes of a sculpture. Part of the fear or apprehension – a superstition, perhaps – is the sense that I might come upon the sculptor still at his work.

                Descending the canyon, I take the chance to consider the many hues and tones of limestone – white and metallic gray, and here and there warmer tones, rock the color of clay or sand, like a soft, exposed underbelly. Throughout this walk I hear the echoing trill of canyon wrens – a beautiful sound.

                Soon, the exit, the egress. Sunlight! Blinking, I seem to have different eyes. The sign of a true desert habitue, a hopeless drylander: after a brief interlude in the woods, I had grown nostalgic for arid light and space. As I walk, I look down the mouth of Pine Canyon to the eastern flats beyond, and feel a tender love for the bleak, desiccated waste.

                The mountains above, the northern peaks and crests, the spires and battlements shine with a sharp-edged light. I can’t help but see them as cathedral-like, the carved and intricate forms. And like a cathedral, they offer an opportunity to contemplate eternity. Bounding along the path, I soon reach the trailhead.

                Back to the inferno. Hardly more than an hour from the canyon, I’m driving down through Guadalupe Pass, my ears popping, to the hardpan where we live. From the canyon reverie, I’m happy enough to see the dependable desert. Less is happening here. The land – the dunes notwithstanding – will not be seen in the act of shifting; it’s settled. As opposed to the cloud factory of the mountains, the clouds here are high above in loose formations, languidly sailing south. Down in the greasewood, you know where you stand. Headed home, it’s 100 degrees, and there’s not a spot of shade for 30 miles in any direction. This is a place for a body to live, not those mountain wilds.

 – Andrew Stuart

Want to hike this trail?  Devil's Hall is part of the Peak Fitness Challenge.  Join the Challenge's Facebook community and check out the website...hike trails in Far West Texas, and compete for prizes!  Join in the fun!

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