Thursday, August 22, 2013

Guadalupe Mountains National Park - Dog Canyon, Bush Mountain and Marcus Trails by Drew Stuart

Bush Mountain Trail beyond Manzanita Ridge
by Drew Stuart

Here's another blog entry from one of our Texas Mountain Trail board members, Drew Stuart, of Salt Flat.  Drew is also the Editor of the Hudspeth County Herald and Dell Valley Review

From Drew:

Adventures in the Guadalupes – Dog Canyon, the Bush Mountain and Marcus trails

This is the eighth installment in a series on hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Other stories in the series can be found on the website, by searching "Adventures in the Guadalupes."

A few weeks ago, at a campground in Big Bend NationalPark, I found myself listening to a Dutch artist telling me about a trip he had taken across the West, a trip that had included visits to various national parks and wilderness areas. He was struck, he said, by the fact that pieces of land had been set aside, not primarily, as he saw it, for the land itself or its non-human inhabitants, but for people. At the time I didn’t have the language ready at hand, but I did recall that providing for human recreation was only half of the two-fold mission of the National Park Service. (The mission, specified in the legislation that created it, is to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wild life therein” and to “provide for the enjoyment of the same” by the people. He was talking pretty fast anyways.) I did remember the phrase “outstanding opportunities for solitude”; he said he was stunned that such a notion could play a part in national legislation or public policy, as it did in the Wilderness Act of 1964. (While we were talking, I thought he found this fact merely fascinating, but looking back I suspect he thought it was perverse, part of an American mania for individualism.)

Horned Lizard by Drew Stuart
Yes, at some point, a persuasive, or at least influential, segment of the population, as well as Congress and the president of the United States, agreed that the opportunity to be deeply lonesome, isolated in an environment that “retain(s) its primeval character and influence,” was a precious thing, an opportunity that needed to be preserved for Americans in perpetuity.

Solitude in land where “man and his own works” are dwarfed by “the earth and its community of life.” However fraught and contradictory the Wilderness Act and its application, the intuition that access to that kind of solitude is valuable, even needful, is certainly not confined to ardent backpackers or environmental activists. Though the intuition may be, as my Dutch conversationalist in Big Bend suggested, a conspicuously American one.


Guadalupe Mountains National Park couldn’t ever be described as heavily trafficked – annually, Big Bend National Park sees 10 times as many visitors, and Yosemite and Yellowstone each handle 100 times as many people as the Guadalupes every year. Even in busier periods at the park, you can find yourself isolated pretty quickly. (Though, of course, you can also gaze down from parts of this “wild country” on to the traffic on Hwy. 62/180.) But Dog Canyon, where I traveled Saturday (June 8) to continue my project of hiking the trails in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, is even more out-of-the-way, less visited than the other parts of this seldom-visited park. Designated as wilderness like much of the park, in terms of solitude, Dog Canyon fits the description.

It may be “wilderness,” but signs of “man and his works” endure here – signs of millenia of pre-European Native activity, most in evidence around the canyon’s seep springs, and signs of ranching. And it’s no wonder. As I follow the Bush Mountain Trail out of Dog Canyon, beginning what will be a 16- or 17-mile loop, the trail follows a golden stream bed and then leads up into open mountains, an ocean of yellow grass, the yellow broken here and there by the dark green of an isolated pinon or juniper. Ponderosas below me in the draw. Scrub oak adds green to the slopes, and the country stretched out below and before the trail looks like a park or lawn. At couple is hiking the Tejas Trail from Dog Canyon to Lost Peak, but I have this vast section of the park to myself.

Bountiful Valley at Sunset
by Drew Stuart
Cresting Manzanita Ridge, 1,000 feet above the trailhead, I look down at the valley of West Dog Canyon and see a bounteous and graceful place. Perhaps once, not that long ago, water flowed perennially, or at least regularly, in the draws here. Between the sea of burned desert and the ridges and stony slopes of the Guadalupes at their height, this canyon offers itself as the image of abundance – promising fat livestock, a small paradise, where a person, a family could grow fat and happy.

I’ve never traveled to the Mediterranean, but I understand there’s limestone there; looking at the stately outcroppings of exposed rock that ornament the broad plain and the slopes, I half expect to see primordial herdsmen, a la ancient Greece or Italy.

Marcus Trail by Drew Stuart
I arrive at my destination for the night, the Marcus campground, more than an hour before sunset, about three hours after setting out. I make camp, surprisingly drained from the 3.75-mile hike. Night is gathering, and as I lay in my tent there’s a lot of communication going on outside – a bird working through a wild variety of sounds, the ambient hum and drone of cicadas and, to the west, predictably, the howl and answering yaps of coyotes, though more robust, less wary, than I hear them at home.


It would have been nicer to have stayed here for the weekend, at the Marcus campground, in the bountiful valley, in the shade. But I’m not that smart, and before 7 a.m. I drive myself out of this bucolic site.
Out, and on to the long, hard climb from the Marcus campground, at about 6,300 feet, to the intersection of the Bush Mountain and Blue Ridge trails, at about 8,200 feet.

Several hours later, sopping, I crest the trail, reach the threshold of the small, circumscribed forest-mountain world. Certainly there is a light here, a certain light. I allow myself to sit quietly and appreciate this wooded place for a time, before I push on eastward, on the Blue Ridge Trail. (Surprisingly, I find the trail not the same as I remember, from my mid-March walk – there are vistas that I recall, but  it’s as if I’m seeing other parts of the trail for the first time. A reminder that hiking all the trails in the park only will only take me so far.)

McKittrick in mists by Drew Stuart
Looking out at the Bowl. Clouds are reaching in fingers over the eastern front of the Guadalupes, mists swirl in McKittrick Canyon, and puffs of cloud slip over the top of Bear Canyon, dance and evaporate there. Then I’m descending again, and reach the Blue Ridge Trail’s junction with the Marcus Trail, which will take me back to West Dog Canyon. Not far from the junction I pause to each lunch.

The Marcus Trail seems to go down forever. I can’t believe I’ve walked up this far. (Though I suspect that I will feel the ground I’ve covered when I make the final 1,000-foot ascent over Manzanita Ridge back to the trailhead.) From the woods, soon I’m walking again on high golden ridges. Though the alpine model – Swiss chalets, postcards from Colorado – may set a popular standard of natural beauty, I prefer, today, these open, grassy slopes, with a single pine or the deep red of an agave’s blooms – the “desert candle” – interrupting the expanse of yellow, fresh and bright.

I’m back at my campsite a little after 1. Everything is where I left it, and I pack up for the final 4 miles to the trailhead.

Back up the ridge, in the heat of the afternoon, is indeed a bit brutal. There are two or three trees along the trail, and I have to lay down beneath one of them and take a short nap. When I’m almost at the point of exasperation, I reach the top of the ridge, thankful my upward labors are over. I’m back at the trailhead and parking lot, visiting with Rusty the park ranger, 24 hours after I set out.
One could travel for 50 miles in any direction from Dog Canyon and encounter opportunities for solitude equally as outstanding as those within the park. I value them no less – indeed the signs of “man and his works” often make these places more impressive and appealing. The boundary can seem absurd, even comical – an official sign thrown up arbitrarily in a sea of solitude. Still, I am grateful to my elders that they saw fit to give this immoderate, perhaps fanatical obsession of mine – to be alone in rough, open places – a place in the canon of national life.

– Andrew Stuart

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