Our stay at the Carlsbad KOA was supposed to be coming to an end but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that we weren’t going to be visiting Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We were only 75 miles away and it felt wrong to be that close to a National Park and miss out on it. We decided to squish two days together further along in our itinerary and stay an extra day at the KOA, thereby making the day trip to Guadalupe a reality!
We drove the hour and twenty minutes to the national park. Jack had fallen asleep on the way and I had been pouring over our National Geographic guidebook to National Parks. We read of the multiple areas of interest in the park as well as possible day hikes. As Jack was snoozing we decided to drive past the visitor center to the southern terminus and take in the view of the impressive El Capitan mountain.
There were several pull-offs along the road to take in the various views of the boundaries of the park. We flipped, a possibly illegal, u-turn and headed north and back to the visitor center. We decided to drive through the park’s campground, Pine Spring Campground, to see what it was like. The RV “campground” was actually just a small, cramped parking lot with 19 sites. There are no hookups of any kind and it just felt like an odd tailgating party. The tent campground was far more desirable with 20 scattered sites that required short walks in. No fires of any kind are allowed in the campground. There were privies in the tent area and a building with flush toilets, but no showers, in the RV section.
We stopped in at the visitor center with a pretty good idea of where we wanted to hike for the day but thinking that a chat with a ranger could help us choose the best possible hike for the day. The visitor center of this little-known park was tiny. A small display of taxidermized animals with information about the native plant and animal life took up most of the space. A small bookshelf where the center’s “store” should have stood was empty as they were in the midst of a struggle with their vendor. A ranger and a volunteer sat behind a desk. A couple, looking to summit Guadalupe Mountain, the tallest point in Texas, chatted with the ranger, leaving us with the volunteer. A retired gentleman from Iowa who looked for volunteer positions in the winter so as to escape the midwest winter. Sadly, he wasn’t very well versed in the trails of the park and we had a fairly unhelpful conversation with him. We decided to stick with the trail we had chosen which meant getting back in the car and retracing our path north for about 5 miles to the McKittrick Canyon trailhead. There are flush toilets, a water tap, and a seasonal ranger station here. The bathrooms and ranger station were closed but temporary privies had been placed near the parking area and the water tap was on. We filled our dromedary bags (hint: past the building there’s a spigot on the trail, don’t use the slow drinking fountain) and filled out the information necessary at the self-registration box. A day-use fee is required unless you have a annual pass (i.e. America the Beautiful Pass). When filling out the self-registration form you will need to know the number on your season pass as well as the expiration date. Bobby took a picture of ours so we had easy access to it along the trip whenever it was necessary.
The canyon trail extends 7.6 miles in with 2,600 feet of elevation gain to the end point, McKittrick Ridge Campground. Our aspirations weren’t that lofty and we figured we would play the day by ear. We knew we wanted to reach Pratt Cabin, 2.6 miles in, but we decided to leave our plans open-ended. It was still early in the day but the heat was already intense. We slathered on sunscreen and secured Jack in his Osprey Poco Premium kid-carrier with the sun shade up.
The trail begins in a scrubby desert and criss-crosses over a dry creek bed multiple times. The volunteer at the visitor center had warned us that these dry creek crossings could be tricky to follow. We couldn’t have disagreed more. At no point did we ever wonder where the trail went. Often times somebody had lined the trail across the creek entirely or partially with rocks and the trail on the opposite side was generally blatantly obvious.
This turned out to be a pretty magical trail as we wove in and out of small grottos of beautiful trees that gave us a great reprieve from the blazing sun.
Jack asked to walk early on and as we had all day and the trail was flat and easily walked upon we heeded his request. Sadly this turned into an epic tantrum when he wanted to walk with a trekking pole. Normally, he walks great with one in hand, but on this particular day when he had them he stopped walking completely and just sat and played with the pole. After we took it away things got a little rough but we worked through the tantrum and were soon on the move again.
We came to a creek crossing and were pleased to see tiny fish swimming in the crystal clear waters.
We were very close to the cabin now but it was past lunchtime and our smallest hiker was getting a bit hangry. Thankfully, he happily munched on snacks while riding the last half mile or so to the cabin.
The cabin had been perfectly situated in a beautiful grove of ponderosa pine trees with stunning mountain views on all sides. It was easy to see why Wallace Pratt chose this site for his home back in 1921. The home and location had us dreaming of our own oasis in the woods.
The home is now a museum and is occasionally open for tours. Several of the shutters had been opened so we were able to peek in and marvel at the beautiful architecture and surprising amenities (like a clawfoot tub!) held within. There was a picnic table in the area between the home and the garage where we had lunch! Jack had his first taste of trail mix and definitely approved of the raisins!
There is also a privy near the house that was closed while we were there. We poked around and enjoyed the view from the front porch of the cabin before we decided to turn around and return the way we had come. We were tempted by the possibility of continuing along the trail and entering a new wilderness area but didn’t think Jack could hold up to a 7 mile day on the trail, and neither could we…
Jack wanted to hike out himself and Bobby’s back was more then happy to enjoy the half mile Jack walked!
As always, hiking with a toddler can be a ridiculously slow pace. We stopped regularly for Jack to play with the rocks and explore the world around him. Watching him discover is always well worth the added time and patience!
He soon tired and wanted to get back in the pack. We made short work of the remainder of the trail and were soon back at the car. We saw only a handful of other groups along the trail and were so grateful we had added an extra day to explore this beautiful park. It would be our last night at the KOA and the following day meant moving on to a new adventure in another area of southeastern New Mexico.