In the Footsteps of the Ancients

Thursday, September 30, 2010

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As mentioned a couple of days ago, while at Bandelier National Monument, we hiked a second trail located in a detached unit of the park known as Tsankawi (roughly 11 miles north of the main entrance).

Some of the highlights of the 1.5-mile Tsankawi Loop along the high mesa top are the cavates (small rooms) and numerous petroglyphs left behind by the Ancestral Pueblos.

The people who lived here during the 15th and 16th centuries built homes out of the soft volcanic tuft (compacted volcanic ash) and used the canyons below to grow crops. Here’s looking out from one of the cavates:

Generations of use have carved trails into the tuft:

Along the route there are three ladders hikers will use to move between the upper and lower cliffs:

Although classified as “rock art”, petroglyphs have a deeper meaning, some known to modern Pueblos, but others now forgotten. Here are a few examples:

Trail: Tsankawi Loop Trail
RT Distance: 1.5 miles
Elevation Gain: minimal
Max Elevation: 6,600 feet

Jeff Detailed trail information for the Great Smoky Mountains; trail descriptions, key features, pictures, maps, elevation profiles, news, books and more.
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Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to reopen Saturday

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

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If all goes as planned, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail just outside of Gatlinburg will reopen to visitors on Saturday.

The road has been closed since February as crews resurfaced the road, parking areas, trailheads and roadside pullouts. They also paved gravel pullouts, made other road repairs, and rehabilitated/reconstructed stone masonry structures along the one-way road.

Several trailheads that were impacted by the project will now reopen as well. They include the Baskins Creek Trail, Grapeyard Ridge Trail and the Grotto Falls entrance of the Trillium Gap Trail.

By the way, Roaring Fork usually closes for the season on or around December 1st.

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Viva La Vega

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The Santa Fe National Forest in Northern New Mexico is a gigantic 1.6 million-acre playground that offers hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers more than 1000 miles of trails.

With so many hiking choices, we decided upon one of the local favorites, a destination known as La Vega, or “The Meadow”. The hike starts from the Winsor Trail (254) trailhead near the Santa Fe Ski Basin roughly 15 miles east of downtown Santa Fe.

After climbing a relatively steep 550 feet over the course of the first 0.75 miles, there’s a slight downhill all the way to La Vega - making the rest of the trail a very easy and pleasant hike.

Upon reaching the top of the climb we passed through a gate and entered the 224,000-acre Pecos Wilderness Area. The first sections of our hike passed through a predominantly spruce-fir forest, which was also characterized by an abundance of Old Man's Beard hanging from the branches. This is always a welcome sign because it usually indicates that you’re in the midst of some very clean air. Old Man's Beard, a type of lichen, tends to not grow in polluted air, especially if sulfur dioxide is present.

About a third of the way into our hike we meet a professor from a local community college who was out inspecting this years’ mushroom crop with a couple of students. He described mushrooms to us as falling into three different categories: illin’, killin’ and thrillin’ (nothing about edibles though.…grillin??).

Roughly half-way to our destination the conifers gave way to the largest and thickest aspen forest I’ve ever walked through. Although popular in the summer, this would also make for an excellent hike in the fall when the aspen leaves turn to brilliant shades of orange and yellow.

One interesting factoid about aspens is that they grow in colonies. One large grove of aspens could be the result of just one single seedling that spreads by means of its root system. Each individual tree within a colony can live for 40–150 years above ground, but the root system of the colony can live for extended periods. One such example is the aspen colony in Utah known as “Pando”, which covers more than 100 acres and is thought is to be 80,000 years old!

Roughly 2.5 miles into the hike we turned left (northbound) onto the Upper Nambe Trail (101), and hiked another half-mile. Immediately after crossing the Rio Nambe River we then turned westbound (left) on the Rio Nambe Trail (160). La Vega was just another quarter-mile away (see map below).

La Vega, as you might suspect from its’ name, is a large grassy meadow. It offers views of 12,622-foot Santa Fe Baldy. During the summer, from mid-June until mid-August, the meadow is filled with wildflowers, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful meadows in the region.

La Vega can be incorporated into a variety of day loop hikes and backpacking trips. In fact, there’s a very nice backcountry campsite on the far end of the meadow under a copse of trees with a very small stream running nearby.

I’d like to tell you about the rest of our adventure at “The Meadow”, but, what happens in La Vega stays in La Vega....

Trail: Winsor 254 / Upper Nambe 101/ Rio Nambe 160
RT Distance: 6.5 miles
Elevation Gain: Roughly 1400 feet
Max Elevation: Roughly 10,850 feet

Jeff Detailed trail information for the Great Smoky Mountains; trail descriptions, key features, pictures, maps, elevation profiles, news, books and more.
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Chimneys Picnic Area to close on Thursday

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

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The Great Smokies has a blurb on their website stating that the Chimneys Picnic Area will be closed on September 30 due to the installation of a new vault toilet.

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Star Gazing Program in Cades Cove

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park will offer a 2-hour stargazing program in Cades Cove on Saturday, October 2, beginning at 7:30 p.m. in cooperation with the Smoky Mountains Astronomical Society. Experienced astronomers and numerous telescopes will be on hand to provide a discovery of the autumn sky’s position of stars, galaxies, and constellations, including the Milky Way. In case of rain or cloud cover where night skies are not visible, the program will be cancelled.

According to Park Ranger Mike Maslona, “It’s a great opportunity to gaze at the star-studded sky without the obstruction of artificial light as seen in developed areas outside the Park. People will be amazed at the vast depths of this planetary world and all that they can see in the complete darkness. This program mixes astronomy, legends, and the beauty of the stars to create a worthwhile exploration into the wonders of the heavens.”

Participants for the program should park near the exhibit shelter at the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop Road where a ranger will be to escort the group about one-third of a mile to a nearby field. Those planning to attend should dress warmly, and bring a flashlight and a lawn chair or blanket to sit on. It's also suggested to bring binoculars which can be used for stargazing.

For further information, call (865) 448-4104; or if there is any uncertainty about whether the event will occur because of weather conditions, call the day of the event for its status.

Although still several days away, the National Weather Service is forecasting mostly clear skies, with a low of around 47 degrees for Townsend on Saturday Night.

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Santa Fe: The City of Holy Faith

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Over the centuries the history and culture of the city of Santa Fe has been profoundly influenced by the Catholic faith. Embedded in that history are the Spanish missions and churches in the old town plaza and surrounding region.

Below are a few photos and short explanations of the historical significance of the most important churches in Santa Fe.

San Miguel Mission:

The San Miguel Mission is considered to be the country's oldest church. It was built by Tlaxcala Indians between 1610 and 1628. It’s estimated that roughly 300 Tlaxcalan Indians are buried under the floor near the church alter. They chose this burial spot in belief that they would be forever remembered in the prayers of those who attended Mass.

Behind the alter is a carved wooden statue of St. Michael brought from Mexico in 1709, and on the wall hangs a buffalo hide painting of Christ from the 1630s.

Although 400 years old, Mass is still celebrated at San Miguel each week.

Loretto Chapel:

The Loretto Chapel was built for the Sisters of Loretto (from Kentucky) between 1873 and 1878. The chapel is the first Gothic-Revival style church west of the Mississippi, and is modeled after King Louis IX's Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

The chapel is best known for its choir loft staircase, which is considered to be miraculous due to its two complete spirals without center or side supports, thus defying engineering logic.

Today the church is a private museum and a popular site for weddings.

Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi:

The Saint Francis Cathedral was built between 1869 and 1886, and was designed in the French Romanesque Revival style.

The now attached La Conquistadora Chapel was built in 1714 in honor of La Conquistadora, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that was originally brought to Santa Fe in 1626. The statue was named “Our Lady of the Conquest” in 1693 after Spanish settlers were allowed to peacefully return to the city after the Indian revolt of 1680. Afterwards, the name came to represent how she was able to conquer hearts after her intercession allowed the Indians and Spanish colonists to reconcile their differences. The statue is thought to have been made in the 14th Century - or possibly even earlier.

In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI officially elevated the church to the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.

The backdrops you see behind the alters in many of the churches in this region are known as “reredos”, or alter screens. They’re essentially Spanish murals that reflect carvings, statues and paintings of religious icons.

San Francisco de Asis Church:

The San Francisco de Asis Church, about four miles southwest of Taos in Ranchos de Taos, was made famous through the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe and the photographs by Ansel Adams.

O'Keeffe described it as, "one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards."

Construction on the church began around 1772 and was completed in 1815 by Franciscan Fathers, whose patron is Saint Francis of Assisi. The church is best known for the graceful adobe buttresses and the four-foot thick adobe walls.

San Francisco de Asís was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, a World Heritage church in 1992, and is one of the most painted and photographed churches in the world.

The church, which still holds Mass each week, does not allow photographs of the interior, but visitors are still welcome to step inside.

Across the short alley from the church is the Ranchos Plaza Grill. This is a not-to-miss restaurant if you’re anywhere in the area. You can dine on the Northern New Mexican fare in a beautiful Al fresco setting, or step inside the historic building which was built around the same time as the church.

Two other historically important missions to check out in the region are at Pecos National Historical Park, and the Chapel of San Geronimo at Taos Pueblo.

Jeff Detailed trail information for the Great Smoky Mountains; trail descriptions, key features, pictures, maps, elevation profiles, news, books and more.
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MST to dedicate 25 new miles

Monday, September 27, 2010

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The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail will be dedicating 25 brand new miles this Saturday, October 2nd.

The 25-mile section, located in Ashe, Watauga, and Wilkes counties, will be officially dedicated at a ceremony at E.B. Jeffress Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway (near Deep Gap, NC at milepost 272).

After the ceremony there will be a lunch, followed by hikes to explore the new section of trail.

Once completed, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail will stretch 1,000 miles from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks.

For more information on the event, and to RSVP, please click here. For more information on the MST, please click here.

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The Ghost Ranch

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Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.

-- Georgia O'Keeffe

In the early-to-mid Twentieth Century, the Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu was used as a summer home by Georgia O'Keeffe, an artist best known for her paintings of flowers, rocks, shells, animal bones, and landscapes, in particular, those of Northern New Mexico and the Ghost Ranch.

The name "Ghost Ranch," or the local name, "El Rancho de los Brujos," was derived from the many tales of ghosts and legends of cattle rustler hangings in the Ranch's long history.

Located 65 miles northwest of Santa Fe, the Ghost Ranch today is a retreat and education center run by the Presbyterian Church. The 21,000-acre ranch includes several hiking trails that are open to the public - at no cost.

During our visit we hiked the three-mile (round-trip) trail to Chimney Rock, one of the most popular destinations on the ranch. Except for a couple of short steep sections, the hike was fairly easy.

Less than half-way up the ridge we saw the first views of Chimney Rock. The trail ends on a mesa just behind Chimney Rock, and provides an up-close, birds-eye view of the towering monolith. You’ll also have commanding 360-degree views of the ranch, the Piedra Lumbre basin and the surrounding mountains.

With the abundance of red rock, the gold and yellow hues of the mesas and odd rock formations, and just the general beauty of the area, it’s easy to see why O'Keeffe was so easily inspired by these landscapes.

Trail: Chimney Rock
RT Distance: 3 miles
Elevation Gain: 600 feet
Max Elevation: 7,100 feet

Jeff Detailed trail information for the Great Smoky Mountains; trail descriptions, key features, pictures, maps, elevation profiles, news, books and more.
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The Cerro Grande Route

Sunday, September 26, 2010

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Roughly 45 miles northwest of Santa Fe are the ancient ruins and deep canyons of Bandelier National Monument. Designated as a national monument in 1916, Bandelier preserves the homes of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Archeological surveys show that the Ancestral Pueblos began building permanent settlements in Bandelier by 1150, but had moved to new homes along the Rio Grande by 1550.

The main portion of the park, in Frijoles Canyon, contains a number of ancestral homes and dwellings, kivas (circular, half-buried ceremonial structures), rock paintings and petroglyphs.

The last time we visited Bandelier we spent most of our time in Frijoles Canyon. This time we decided to hike the Cerro Grande Route, a trail located in the fairly isolated northwestern corner of the park. This “Route” offers a much different experience as compared to the rest of Bandelier. Instead of canyons and deserts, the trail explores the subalpine and montane forests of the Jemez Mountains.

Destination for the “Route” is the top of Cerro Grande Peak, Spanish for “Big Mountain”, which at 10,199 feet in elevation is the highest point in the park. The path alternates through open meadows, aspen groves and pine forests. Even in mid-September we still saw a wide variety of wildflowers.

Through the first sections of trail we noticed a fair amount of evidence of the Cerro Grande Fire that burned 48,000 acres in 2000. The fire started as a controlled burn by the Forest Service, but got out of control as a result of high winds and eventually destroyed 235 homes in the Los Alamos area. By no means, however, does the fading damage detract from the sublime beauty of this hike.

Be sure to look for elk, in addition to the mule deer and pikas we saw along the way.

Most of the climbing comes in the last three quarters-of-a-mile or so. The hike ends at a fairly open meadow at the summit of the peak – it would be called a bald if it were in the Southern Appalachians. From the top you can see the Valles Caldera, the Sangro de Cristo Mountains and the Sandia Mountains. Actually, the views are much better just a couple hundred feet below the summit.

Cerro Grande Peak forms part of the rim of the Valles Caldera, a twelve-mile-wide crater that formed when the earth collapsed after a catastrophic volcanic eruption took place here roughly 1.2 million years ago – very similar to how Yellowstone was created.

The prominent valley that dominates the view from the top is known as the Valle Grande. In the center of the caldera, and on the far end of the Valle Grande, is Redondo Peak, which, geologically speaking, is a volcanic resurgent dome. Although no longer active, it was formed roughly 70,000 years after the main caldera-forming eruptions occurred.

Several movies have been shot in and around the Valles Caldera, including The Gambler, Buffalo Girls, Last Stand at Saber River, The Missing and most recently, Seraphim Falls, which starred Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan.

In a couple of days I’ll be posting a report from our Tsankawi Loop hike, which is located in a separated section of Bandelier that took us up close to several cave dwellings and petroglyphs.

Trail: Cerro Grande Route
RT Distance: 4 miles
Elevation Gain: 1300 feet
Max Elevation: 10,199 feet
TH Location: 11.6 miles past the entrance to the Visitors Center

Jeff Detailed trail information for the Great Smoky Mountains; trail descriptions, key features, pictures, maps, elevation profiles, news, books and more.
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Santa Fe: “The City Different”

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Although we seldom travel to urban areas as a vacation destination - simply because we prefer the great outdoors - Santa Fe is a notable exception. Being a history buff, a bit of a foodie, and an obvious outdoor lover, Santa Fe is ground zero for all three pursuits. It’s from among these qualities that earned the city its nickname; “The City Different”.

The 2010 TripAdvisor Travelers' Choice Awards rated Santa Fe as the #2 U.S. destination in the Relaxation & Spa category, #9 for Great Food & Wine, and #10 for Culture and Sightseeing. Also, a recent poll conducted by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine rated Santa Fe as the third most popular travel destination in the U.S.

Founded between 1607 and 1610, Santa Fe is the second oldest city in America. Sitting at 7,000 feet in the foothills of the southern Rocky Mountains, it’s also the highest and oldest state capital in the United States.

For almost 400 years the heart of downtown Santa Fe has been the Plaza where the rich history of American Indian and Spanish culture blends together. The Plaza was also the final destination for wagon trains making the 800-mile journey from Independence, Missouri via the Old Santa Fe Trail.

The Palace of the Governors on the Plaza was built by the Spanish as a government building in 1610, and remains the nation's oldest continuously used public building. Inside is an art and history museum, and under its historic portal Native American artists sell authentic art, crafts and jewelry, as they have been on an almost daily basis since 1939.

Just south of the Plaza on East De Vargas Street is purported to be the oldest house in the U.S. Although it was built around 1646, there are two other homes in the Northeast that claim to be older.

Our most recent visit happened to occur during the 298th annual Fiesta de Santa Fe, which celebrates the peaceful resettlement of the “City of Holy Faith” in 1692. The Fiesta includes ceremonies, parades, processions, entertainment, Masses, as well as the burning of Zozobra, or "Old Man Gloom", a 50-foot tall marionette that symbolizes the hardships and despair of the past year. Mariachi bands are also an important aspect of the four-month long celebration. We happened upon one at an outdoor café on Burro Alley one day as they sang a beautiful song in Spanish. Although neither of us understood the words or the meaning, there was a woman sitting near the band that began to weep.

Santa Fe is, without a doubt, a gastronomical Mecca. In fact, I was looking forward to the food almost as much as I did the hiking. While in town we ate at the Guadalupe Café, The Shed, the Blue Corn Café and the Santa Fe Brewing Company. Although each restaurant fulfilled our lofty expectations, The Shed was just outstanding. If you ever have the opportunity to visit here, be sure to try the green chili stew.

The Blue Corn Café and the Santa Fe Brewing Company are both local brewpubs offering great Northern New Mexican cuisine and tasty brews, but the beer at the Marble Brewery Tap Room was the clear winner among the three. Both times we visited the Tap Room we watched the crowds attending the Fiesta while sipping oatmeal stouts and amber ales from the second story balcony that overlooks the Plaza. The brewery also serves pizzas from an adjacent restaurant, but we didn’t try any.

There were a couple of other restaurants that we had on our radar, such as Tia Sophia’s and Santa Luna, but we just didn’t have enough time or space in our stomachs.

The big question that’s asked at many restaurants in this part of the country is whether you prefer red or green chile. If heat intensity is an issue, note that green is generally hotter, but red is a little earthy or pungent tasting and usually not as hot. If you’re undecided you can always just go Christmas, meaning you would like both on your dish.

Within close proximity to Santa Fe are many outdoor opportunities; including cycling, rafting, horseback riding, fishing, as well as skiing at several nearby resorts. Numerous hiking opportunities also abound in the Santa Fe National Forest, Bandelier National Monument, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, as well as the 1.5 million-acre Carson National Forest which includes the highest point in New Mexico – the 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak.

If you’ve never been there, Santa Fe is an awesome destination for many reasons. You could easily spend several days to more than a week there and never do anything more than once.

Over the next several days I’ll be sharing trip reports from several hikes we did around the Santa Fe area.

Jeff Detailed trail information for the Great Smoky Mountains; trail descriptions, key features, pictures, maps, elevation profiles, news, books and more.
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New Rules announced for NC National Forests

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On Thursday of this week the USDA Forest Service for National Forests in North Carolina announced new rules that will impact the Nantahala, Pisgah, Croatan and Uwharrie National Forests.

Oddly, it states that the rules went into effect this past April, but are scheduled to be in place until April of 2015.

The first new rule states that it's now illegal to store geocaching equipment, or any equipment not being used in conjunction with a current visit, in any NC National Forest without a permit.

The second new rule states that use or possesion of any type of metal detector is prohibited in NC National Forests.

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Smokies Rangers take control on the Spur

Friday, September 24, 2010

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Here's a report published today on the NPS Digest about the recent law enforcement operation on the Gatlinburg Spur leading into the Park:

Each April and September, the city of Pigeon Forge hosts a car show know as the Rod Run. This traditionally has increased the volume of traffic into the park, specifically on a section of US 441 commonly referred to as the Spur.

In past years, rangers have seen an increase in the number of alcohol, drug, DUI, reckless driving, simple assault and other disorderly conduct offenses during these events. Rangers have accordingly taken a proactive approach to decreasing these incidents, employing sobriety checkpoints, focused patrols, and deliberate traffic management plans. These enforcement efforts are aimed at increasing visitor safety and public awareness.

In order to manage the increased law enforcement activity and other emergency incidents related to the Rod Run, the Tennessee District was managed under ICS on September 17th and 18th. An incident action plan was developed to provide clarity to the park’s management team and field staff on what was being done and how it is was to be done safely. The principles of operational leadership were incorporated into the plan and a GAR risk assessment model was developed for the event.

On Friday, rangers conducted focused patrols on the Spur from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m.; on Saturday, they set up an incident command post and managed traffic starting at 6 p.m. on the Spur at the King Branch exit.

On Friday, rangers made 36 vehicle stops and issued a total of 38 violation notices and written warnings. On Saturday, they made another 39 vehicle stops, issued a total of 43 violation notices and written warnings, arrested seven people for DUI, and arrested another three for public intoxication.

Over the course of the weekend, Tennessee rangers also responded to several MVA’s and other incidents, including a motorcycle that ended up in the Little River and a hiker who experiencing an allergic reaction in the backcountry. The park’s management efforts have been supported by locals as well as park visitors traveling through the area. Supervisory Park Ranger Bobby Fleming was IC for the incident.

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755 Feet below the ground

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At the northern end of the Guadalupe Mountains in New Mexico, and lying more than 750 feet below the surface of the ground, is Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Ansel Adams said that Carlsbad Caverns is “something that should not exist in relation to human beings. Something that is as remote as the galaxy, incomprehensible as a nightmare, and beautiful in spite of everything.”

Will Rogers called it the "Grand Canyon with a roof on it".

After taking the 75-story elevator down to the lunchroom area we began our self-guided tour of the Big Room.

A one-mile paved loop guided us around the perimeter of the natural limestone chamber. The appropriately named Big Room is roughly 8.2 acres in size, making it one of the largest chambers in the world. Put another way, you could fit almost 6.2 football fields within the chamber!

During our “hike” we encountered the most park rangers I’ve ever seen on one trail. Mainly to ensure that no one gets off course, or tries to damage or steal any part of the cave, the rangers were also there to answer any questions you might have along the way.

Even in the heat of summer you may want to take a jacket or sweater with you. The cave has a constant year-round temperature of 56 degrees.

Although the NPS did a great job on using front and back lighting to highlight the caves most interesting features and formations, I still had trouble getting good photos with my camera. Here are a couple of the better ones that turned out relatively decent:

Even Kathy, who doesn't particularly like caves, thought the tour was well worth it.

One other tidbit about the cave: More than a quarter million Mexican free-tailed bats spiral out of the Natural Entrance each evening during the warm months of the year in search of moths and insects. It’s one of the leading spectator attractions for many visitors.

By the way, if you suffer from chiroptophobia, or the fear of bats, don’t worry. Very few bats, if any, ever make it to the Big Room.

Jeff Detailed trail information for the Great Smoky Mountains; trail descriptions, key features, pictures, maps, elevation profiles, news, books and more.
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Peter Barr completes the Appalachian Trail

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Last weekend I received an email from Peter Barr, author of Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers, stating that he had recently completed his trek across the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.

Peter began his hike from Springer Mountain in Georgia on March 22nd:

Along the way he averaged about 15 miles a day - excluding rest days. He saw 10 bears, one moose, one bobcat, and one skunk - inside his pack!

Most importantly, he raised $3,124 for the restoration of the Shuckstack lookout tower in the Great Smoky Mountains, surpassing his fundraising goal by nearly $1,000.

159 days later, on August 29, he reached Mt. Katahdin in Maine. As you can tell from the two pictures, he changed quite a bit. In addition to the beard, he lost 30 pounds along the trail.

Peter will be posting journal entries and photos on his blog over the next few months.

He will also be the guest speaker at the Carolina Mountain Club's Annual Dinner on October 30th in Hendersonville, NC where he will be giving a slideshow presentation and talk about his hike.

Congrats to Peter on an awesome accomplishment!

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The Top of Texas

Thursday, September 23, 2010

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After staying in Van Horn the night before, we made the 60-mile drive north in the early morning darkness. My goal was to arrive just outside of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in order to a get a photo of El Capitan just as the sun begins to shine on the dramatic rock face of the mountain that stands at the southern terminus of the Guadalupe range.

With an elevation of 8,749 feet, Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas, and, is the 14th highest state high point. It’s also one of only four state highpoints that’s located within a national park - Denali, Mount Rainier and Clingmans Dome being the other three.

The hardest part of the hike is at the very beginning in which the trail ascends a series of switchbacks over the course of the first mile-and-a-half or so. Hikers can use the parking lot and the highway far below to gauge their progress.

During this first section the trail climbs the east face of the peak, which means hikers are fully exposed to the hot desert sun. I highly recommend starting this hike before sunrise in order to knock-out as much of this section as possible during the relative cool of the morning. It's also a good idea to start early so that you’ll have time to get off the mountain before summer afternoon thunderstorms arrive.

At roughly 7000 feet in elevation, and 1.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail skirts a relatively narrow ledge. Although not exceedingly dangerous, you'll still want to take your time through this short section of trail. Just beyond this point the switchbacks mercifully come to an end (although they'll inflict more pain on the way down). Soon the trail winds around the other side of the mountain and reaches some much appreciated shade. From here the grade became much easier and remained relatively moderate for the rest of the hike.

As we traveled upward we saw numerous Northern Harriers flying just above us. Up at the summit we also saw a few Golden Eagles and a couple of Peregrine Falcons soaring and gliding on the thermal updrafts.

At the second cliff section:

The photo above includes a young man from New Zealand and his girlfriend getting ready to cross the highest bridge in Texas. Just days before a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit near his hometown just outside of Christchurch. It took a day or two, but he finally received confirmation that his entire family was alright. He said his dad, who happens to be a building inspector, was keeping extremely busy in the aftermath of the quake. Coincidentally, the young Kiwi just happens to work as a rafting guide on the Pigeon River in Tennessee.

Just past the bridge we began the final climb to the top. Over the last quarter mile route finding became a little difficult. We made the same mistake a guy in front us made by missing the trail as it heads-off towards the right. Consequently, we took a route that required a little bit of scrambling. No big deal, it just would’ve been easier had we stayed on the main trail.

At the summit is a stainless steel memorial that was erected by American Airlines in 1958 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, a 2800-mile stagecoach route that passed on the south side of the mountain. On one side of the pyramid is the American Airlines logo. Another side displays a U.S. Postal Service tribute to the Pony Express Riders of the Butterfield Stage. The third displays a compass with the logo of the Boy Scouts of America.

From the summit we could see a line of thick high clouds extending from one end of the horizon to the other in the far off distance (they say you can see more than 100 miles away). These were likely the leading bands of Hurricane Hermine that was pummeling central and east Texas that day.

Although the hurricane had no impact on our hike, hikers should always expect high winds on the mountain – especially during the winter months when winds can exceed 80 MPH on a fairly regular basis.

Looking towards the north from the summit:

Looking down on El Capitan and Highway 62/180 far below:

The park also recommends that you take a full gallon of water. I only took about 100 ounces, thinking that would be enough given the relatively cool weather that day. I barely had enough, however. During peak summer months I would definitely take the parks’ recommendation of one full gallon.

One final note about this part of the country: After our hike we had planned to attend the Evening Star Party at the McDonald Observatory 65 miles south of Van Horn. Every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday the observatory invites the public to view the universe through 16 and 22-inch telescopes located atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes (6300-6800 feet). The observatory in the remote Davis Mountains offers some of the darkest night skies in the continental United States. Unfortunately Hurricane Hermine wasn’t going to allow that to happen that night. As the early evening progressed the clouds continued to thicken, so we decided to cancel our plans. However, we did hear a lot of great things about the program and sounds like it would be a great excursion if you’re in the area.

Trail: Guadalupe Peak Trail
RT Distance: 8.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 2927 feet
Max Elevation: 8749 feet

Jeff Detailed trail information for the Great Smoky Mountains; trail descriptions, key features, pictures, maps, elevation profiles, news, books and more.
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