Thursday, September 06, 2012

Smith Spring Trail

by Drew Stuart
Editor, Hudspeth County Herald and Dell Valley Review
Texas Mountain Trail Board Member|

Photos by Stephanie Smith

This is the third installment in a series on hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The park celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and the Herald editor plans to hike all the park's trails by the end of 2012 and to share something from each of the hikes with Herald readers.

Sunday, Aug. 5, I made my third hike in three weeks in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, to Smith Spring. I was joined on the hike by Amy Muise of Crow Flat, her children Rhiannon and Emmett and Amy's sister, Stephanie Smith. Stephanie was visiting and hoped to take a hike in the park – Amy suggested Smith Spring, which was still on my list, as a good short hike. I appreciated the company. Apart from McKittrick Canyon, which I expect to leave for the fall, the trails that remain will be long treks – mostly into the high country of the mountains – and it seems likely they'll be made alone.

A 2.3-mile loop, the Smith Spring Trail begins and ends at the historic Frijole Ranch compound and, like other day hikes on the park's east side, passes from grasslands marked by cacti and desert shrubs into wooded canyons and limestone cliffs.

Determined to beat the heat, we planned a daybreak start for our hike. I arrived at dawn, before my companions and in enough time to watch the sun rise over the hills and flats to the northeast. Unlike the sunset display Dell Citians and Salt Flatters can take in each afternoon – the two-, three- or four-hour light show on the mountain's western escarpment – sunrise on the other side of the mountain was a shorter and sharper affair – the sun rose, and the limestone cliffs capping the mountains lit up briefly and intensely, looking, for that moment, like a golden crown. I had some time to walk around the old ranch house and splash cold water from Frijole Ranch Spring on my face.

The group arrived, and we organized and hit the trail. At Rhiannon's prompting, we reviewed how we would respond to an encounter with a mountain lion or bear – always a good thing to consider – though the only the big fauna we see are three mule deer, enjoying the ample forage of the slopes.

The ascent offers views of the bluffs and canyon above, a dense jumble of white rock. It is a gentle and pleasant climb, and one broken up, this day, by occasional breaks to sit down on the trail.

Near the spring, the trail passes into a clutch of woods, a mini-forest. Rhiannon and I are in the lead, and as we enter the woods we hear the thud of wings and watch a buzzard lift itself from a tree limb and fly down the canyon. Then we catch the smell of something dead – confirming the claim of the park's interpretive signage that Smith Spring is a “place of life and death.” The trail crosses live water flowing over the rocks, and we come to the springs themselves, draped with maidenhair fern and surrounded by oaks and pines. A big madrone stands above the water, the red peels of its bark scattered on the ground below, like piece of fancy stationary.

The rock of the Guadalupes is an ancient marine reef, formed 250 million years ago, when a vast inland sea covered much of what's now Texas and New Mexico, geologists tell us. Rock made of algae, the skeletons of small sea creatures and lime that precipitated from the ocean itself. The sea came and went before mammals even existed; a dizzying thing to consider, however much you've tried to think about geologic time. The stone formed hundreds of millions of years before the volcanic activity that thrust up many of the other mountains of Far West Texas and Southern New Mexico. 

The limestone in the mountains is layered with other rock – including sandstone, through which water can pass. Smith Spring – at 5,955 feet, one of the highest springs in Texas – flows from Bell Canyon sandstone; rainfall in the mountains percolates through the joints in the sandstone and limestone to emerge here and at the series of springs downhill.

Back down the trail, now on the north side of the canyon, to the grasslands. Grass that, if not lush, would still gladden the heart of ranchers on the other side of the mountain, Amy points out.

Nearing the ranch house, Smith Spring's water rises to the surface again, at Manzanita Spring, surrounded by reeds and trees, including at least one walnut. A sign here says that Manzanita and Smith springs and Frijole Spring at the ranch house are among “five springs in a three-mile radius” – a pretty remarkable concentration of water in this desert.

I sit on a picnic table back at the trailhead, with the mountains behind me, chalky-looking mounds casting their cool white light as the midday approaches. After the third walk in three weeks in the eastern canyons and flanks of the Guadalupes, I feel the beginnings of a new comfort, feel newly at home with this side of the mountains.

We eat lunch at a picnic table outside the ranch house, where the heat is tempered by the presence of flowing water. Walking around the ranch buildings, we meet up with a rattlesnake, just outside the ranch house door – Rhiannon displays some impressive instincts and reflexes in jumping away from the snake, which doesn't rattle. On our way out, we inform Eric, the park muleskinner, about the snake, and he tells us he'd removed a snake from that location recently – likely the same one. He can't blame the snake for coming back, he says, as “this is the honeypot of the whole park,” which seems like a good description for the wettest corner of the Guadalupes.
Our heartiest thanks to Drew and Stephanie!   ---Texas Mountain Trail

The Smith Spring Trail is part of the Peak Fitness Challenge....sign up, hike the trail yourself and compete for prizes!  The Peak Fitness Challenge is a cooperative program of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Franklin Mountains State Park, and Texas Mountain Trail!

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