Carlsbad Caverns and Camping

Monday, April 29: Roswell to Carlsbad to Lincoln National Forest

Soundtrack: “I Will Follow You into the Dark” Death Cab for Cutie

The shades on the van do a surprisingly good job on keeping out the bright sun. From my time living in Nevada in college, I remember how cool it gets in the desert overnight, and how quickly it heats up when the sun rises. Kurt makes us an amazing breakfast–egg and sausage burritos with green and red peppers, onions, and hot sauce. We eat at the picnic table, soaking in the sunshine now, because we’ll be spending most of this day underground. Back on the road, the landscape gets more and more desert-y. Tumbleweeds! Pronghorn! We see two roadrunners dart across the pavement.

In Carlsbad, we stop at a coffee shop to meet up with a friend (Hi Zane!). It’s nice to chat with a familiar face who is also a local, and she gives us lots of great restaurant recommendations for our trip, as well as shares some of her personal stories of the Caverns. I’ve barely been inside any cave systems besides a smallish one in southeastern Wisconsin, back in high school. I tend to get claustrophobic, but I know that the Carlsbad Caverns are gigantic, nothing like the midwestern cave where I had to crawl on my belly to get through some of the narrow passageways.

The drive to the National Park’s visitor’s center takes us through miles of sprawling desert hillside. It’s now hot outside, about 90 degrees, but we know it will be a cool, clammy 50 inside the caverns, so I bring my fleece jacket to throw on over my Captain America tank top (worn to boost my bravery points). To take the natural cave entrance, we leave the visitor’s center and walk back outside down a trail which eventually descends into a dark, gaping hole in the ground. The trail snakes into switchbacks for a gradual decline. As we reach the mouth of the craggy rock, dozens (hundreds?) of tiny swallows whoosh in and out over our heads. I try to get a good look in case they are bats, even though I know it’s the wrong time of day for them. I love bats; they are like goth mammal-birds. The chirping of the swallows echoes through the mouth of the cave, and we go past the last rays of sunshines that disappear into the caverns, then we are enveloped in cool darkness.

“Oh, you think the darkness is your ally, you merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it.”

The entrance chamber is gigantic, and as we descend deeper into the cave, I make a lot of Bane references.  Finally, we reach the point where we can no longer see the opening, and if all of the lights went out, we’d be in complete and total darkness. The park system has strategically placed lights throughout the caverns to highlight interesting rock formations and guide visitors along the trail, but it’s still quite dim and Kurt is just a shadow in front of me. It’s a Monday in late April, so there aren’t many other visitors, and at times it feels like Kurt and I are the only ones in the cave with no other people in sight.

It takes 2-3 hours to walk the entire trail. Many of the features were named by a teenager, Jim White, who first explored the caves in 1898, and they have ominous, descriptive names: the Boneyard, Witch’s Finger, and the Bottomless Pit (seriously, why are so many things Bottomless in New Mexico? I am acrophobic and it freaks me out).

The Queen’s Chamber, Carlsbad Caverns

We weave through the caverns on the trail past limestone formations that look like Cthulhu, and stalagmites twice as tall as we are. 250 million years ago, this area was an inland sea. It is a bit mind-blowing to be in a place like this, somewhere untouched by the progress of humanity while paradoxically created by the passage of centuries. It feels primal and eerie, and I half expect some sort of prehistoric creature to emerge from the cracks and drag me screaming into the bottomless pits. I get nervous and hang onto Kurt’s arm to ground me. The deep crevasses make me think of Superman II when Zod falls to his death.

We eventually reach the Big Room, the largest chamber in the caverns, nearly 4,000 feet long and 255 feet high. It’s impossible to capture the immensity, depth, and otherworldliness in a photo. I feel like we could emerge from this place and return to an Earth full of dinosaurs. But then we reach the underground gift shop, because of course there is, so we take a break and eat a snack while sitting on a bench. Imagine being the cashier at this concession stand, taking an elevator 800 feet down into the ground to get to work every day.

underground concession stand

When we finish exploring, we take the elevator back to the visitors center, to 90-degree temperatures and blazing sunlight. It’s time to find a campsite for the night, and we have lots of ground to cover to keep on schedule. We drive for nearly 3 hours to Lincoln National Forest. The terrain changes, and rolling hills morph into tree-covered mountains. Grassy valleys are dotted with white and brown cattle; BLM land alternates with private ranches. We turn off onto a forestry road, using a pdf map on our iPad. After rambling along rough gravel, we find a turn-off into a clearing that makes for a perfect campsite. There’s a previously used fire ring and enough trees to give us some privacy from the road. The air smells like Ponderosa pine and sagebrush.

We settle into our usual routine; Kurt gathers firewood while I get assemble our folding chairs and travel table. At the edge of the clearing, Kurt finds a hunk of animal fur and a few cleaned bones that look like they were once a small deer. I begin thinking about what predators live here, maybe mountain lions or black bears. We make tacos for dinner, and watch the sun set behind the tree line.

Lincoln National Forest

Winter Adventurers

“You know what’s happening this weekend, right? You’ve seen the weather forecast?” the park ranger asked the first of our friends to arrive at the campgrounds early on Friday afternoon.

“We know,” they replied.

“Are you here for the start of hunting season?”

“No, just here to camp.”

The ranger shook his head in disbelief. A winter storm was rolling into the area, expected to drop up to 10 inches on much of the Midwest. And we were driving up north, headed the opposite direction of the geese flying south for the winter overhead, to spend the weekend outdoors.
IMG_6684Winter camping is one of my favorites. Though the days are short and our beer freezes overnight, there’s something about the quiet stillness that makes the forest otherworldly. The world hibernates around us, but in our small circle around the campfire, we stay warm and pass the whiskey. Overhead, stark branches criss-cross against the silver sky. The snow falls steadily, piling up on our tents, our boxes of beer (no need for a cooler), our fur-trimmed hoods pulled up over our heads. Beyond the circle, whiteness obliterates the landscape; we could be in Wisconsin or Westeros. Coyotes yip in the night. Or direwolves.

We’ve camped in snow before. We’ve camped in 1-degree temperatures before. But this was our first time camping in a legitimate winter storm, one big enough to get a name: Bella. We were undaunted by this news; we are not the type to be scared off, especially by a storm named after a damn Twilight character. We may be crazy, but we’re tough, and this wasn’t our first rodeo. There’s a Norwegian saying that goes “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.” We were prepared with insulated sleeping pads, bags rated for 15 degrees, waterproof layers, a coat and Musher’s Secret for our dog.

IMG_6714We arrived, car by car, at our large group site. As Friday slipped into Saturday, the snow fell. It melted onto our coats, warmed by the fire. It piled onto our tents, causing rainflies to droop under its wintry weight. It buried bottles left out on picnic tables, turning them into ambiguous white blobs. It blanketed us from the rest of the world, silencing the sounds of civilization, leaving only our laughter, our breath as we blew into our mittens, the crackle of the fire.

On Saturday morning, the snow still fell. We stayed in our warm sleeping bags, our tents transformed into igloos. Finally lured out by the promises of coffee, campfire, and Bloody Marys, we emerged from our brief hibernation. Before we could eat or drink, we had to shovel inches of snow off the tables. The dogs frolicked in the fresh powder, losing tennis balls and frisbees. We posted photos to social media with Winter Storm Bella hashtags, declaring ourselves Team Jacob. Our friends back home called us crazy.

The snow eventually stopped; blue sky peeked out through the bare tree branches. We began to cook our Thanksgiving meal. Potatoes boiled over the campfire. Vegetarian curry stewed on a camp stove. A turducken dripped savory juices in the smoker. Just before sunset, we set up our spread over the picnic table, salivating before our feast.

“I wish the ranger would come by and see this,” my friend said. We ate our meal together, friends bonded by our breaking of bread under the most snowy extreme circumstances. Call us crazy; we don’t mind. We’re adventurers.

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Emigrant Diaries: Hiking, then Relaxing at Buck Lakes

Sept. 27, 2015: From Gem Lake to Buck Lakes

Mileage: 9.38 miles

In the morning, I checked the area around the tent to see if I could spot the tracks of our nighttime visitor. There was a possible big cat print, but it was hard to tell in the light layer of dirt and gravel on top of the rocks. By now, we had our morning routine down: I rolled up the sleeping bags and pads and broke down the tent, while Kurt filtered water and cooked breakfast, then took care of the dishes. Once our bags were reassembled, we got back on the trail.

We blew past Jewelry Lake, our sights set on Buck Lakes, a chain of lakes and ponds that some hikers we had met had highly recommended. We had planned to set up a base camp for the next day, so it sounded like the perfect place to explore a little more deeply.

21781251400_9aae209c6d_oOnce we arrived at Upper Buck Lake, we made our way down and across the narrow strip of land and rocks at the top of Lower Buck, finding a good campsite just off the trail with a view of the water.  We set up our tent, washed up and laid out wet clothes to dry in the sun, then relaxed by reading and journaling (me) and fishing (Kurt). There were a lot of nibbles, and finally, he reeled in a rainbow trout big enough to eat!

We made a warm fire, and Kurt took care of cleaning and gutting the fish. He cooked it over the fire, and we had instant mashed potatoes as a side dish. There was a lunar eclipse that evening, but the clouds threatened to prevent us from seeing it. As the sun set, the sky grew darker than it had been for our entire trip. Finally, the clouds dispersed enough for us to see the moon partially covered in the shadow of the earth.

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Sept. 28, 2015: day hiking around Buck Lakes

Mileage: 7.37miles

21348202843_1014cdaecc_oSince we were taking an easy day of base camping/day hiking, we slept in until just before 9 a.m. We had a nice lazy breakfast with coffee and tea, hanging out on the rocks in our nano-puffs waiting for the sun to warm up the rocks. Kurt set out to explore for a bit and climbed the high rock ledge near our camp to get a view of the entire chain of lakes.

For our day hike, we used the tiny backpack that attached to Kurt’s larger bag to carry some Clif bars, trail mix, water, a camera, and our maps.  We followed the trail that wound back on the other side of the lakes up to Upper Buck, then went off-trail for a bit to explore Buck Meadow. The grass was tall and dry; we still weren’t sure if the dried brown state of every meadow we’d seen was typical for this time of year or a result of California’s epic drought. Kurt pointed ahead and I saw an animal leaping through the grass. A coyote!

We circled back around the other side of Upper Buck and had our lunch in a wooded area, listening to the bright blue kingfishers and brown chickorees chirping in the trees above us, alerting the rest of the forest to our presence. Kurt laughed to himself for a moment. “One of those birds has a call where the first two notes sound like the beginning of ‘We wear short shorts.'” Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it.

After finishing our snacks, we continued along until we reached the end of Lower Buck, circling the entire chain of lakes. From there, we found a fantastic spot to enjoy the view while eating our baggies of goldfish crackers.

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The day-hike had been just what I needed to reenergize. That morning, I had felt myself hitting a bit of a wall where I was tired and missed things like non-dehydrated/rehydrated food, deodorant, and toilets. Going for a scenic walk without a 40-lb bag in a gorgeous place was the perfect boost to my spirits. I could look around and search for wildlife or enjoy the views without worrying about watching my step and turning an ankle under the weight of a pack. I was refreshed and looking forward to another night by a warm fire under the moonlight.

Emigrant Wilderness Diaries: Bobcat Litterbox

Sept. 26, 2015: Bear Lake to Gem Lake

Mileage: 12.65 miles

On our second day in Emigrant, the differences between the national park and wilderness area became more apparent. In Hetch Hetchy, people seemed to be really good about following Leave No Trace. In Emigrant, however, we started to notice trash left behind by previous campers, especially at the lakes closest to the trailheads: pieces of rope still attached to trees, used toilet paper poking up from the ground, an empty liquor bottle, a pile of pistachio shells.

Another difference was the trail markers, or lack of them. At times it became difficult to keep track of which was the correct route; little side paths would split off from the main trail with no signage to indicate which was the correct way. More than a few times, we would  explore another route for a bit before backtracking or questioning our choice, or pull out the map to confirm where exactly we were.

21781269390_b2034f7ff8_oWhen we reached our destination, Gem Lake, we saw a tent already set up on the near side of the water. In search of more privacy, we continued hiking around the lake to the other side and found a nice, solitary spot. We did, however, run into one of the campers, who had circled the lake looking for a good fishing spot. The guy was pretty cool so we chatted with him for a bit; he was traveling from San Francisco with his dad and sister. One thing we noticed when we talked to other hikers in Emigrant is that everyone we met was from California. It seemed to be the locals’ choice for a weekend getaway.

After camp was all set up, Kurt wandered around the area and made a few interesting discoveries. First, after peeking behind a rock, he found what seemed to be a bobcat litterbox (a giant pile of big cat turds). Then later while hanging out at his fishing, he spotted an empty BB gun.

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Since we had done a lot of hiking that day, we both needed a shower. We climbed down the rock to the water and immediately gasped once our feet dipped into the cold water. Sucking it up, I dunked my head underneath to rinse the sweat out of my hair. “I love swimming at 8,200 feet!” Kurt exclaimed after immersing himself. Shivering but refreshed, we bundled up in our warm clothes. The nano-puff jacket I had barely used in Yosemite was becoming a regular nightly staple in Emigrant.

After nightfall, we went into the tent to read by headlamp. I woke up shortly after falling asleep, around 11 pm. There was the soft sound of something walking around outside our tent. I admit that when I’m camping in the backcountry I often hear “animals” that turn out to be noises coming from the large mammal in the sleeping bag to my right. This time, however, I could hear distinct footsteps and something sniffing at our tent. I froze, wondering if I should shout to scare it away, or shine my headlamp at the wall. I didn’t need to do either; the animal suddenly ran off on its own. From the thudding of its paws, it sounded larger than our 40-lb dog. I sighed, closed my eyes, and wondered how I’d get back to sleep after that.

Yosemite Diaries: From Bears to Beers in Yosemite Valley

Sept. 23. 2015: Hetch Hetchy to Yosemite Valley

Mileage: 15.59 miles
‘Floors’: 90

IMG_5972One of the great things about camping trips is that it’s easy to change your plans around, “Choose Your Own Adventure” style. After 4 days of hiking in the Hetch Hetchy area, Kurt and I decided to check out Yosemite Valley. It would be an hour-to-90-minute drive from where we left our car at the backpacker campground, so we woke up bright and early at 6:30 am to get an early start to the day. We had trail mix for breakfast instead of cooking a hot meal to make packing up easier.

P1070114The trail back to the trailhead took us past Rancheria Falls, which was already dry for the season. Someday, it would be awesome to go back to Yosemite earlier in the year to see all of the big waterfalls gushing at full volume. The high season means more crowds and harder-to-get trailhead permits, so it’s always a toss-up when picking what time of year to travel. The last 5 miles of trail wrapped around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Back at a lower altitude, we were quickly reminded how HOT it was outside. It was close to 90 degrees, and the sun was unrelenting on the unshaded trail. Once we were close enough to see O’Shaughnessy Dam, we became eager to finish. All I could think of was ice-cold Gatorade from the nearest gas station. We ran into a couple out on a day hike who was surprised to hear that we had been camping for the last 4 days, and offered to give us a beer from their cooler. We told them that since we were coming out of the backcountry, there was a 6-pack apiece with our names on them in the near future.

IMG_6031We got off the trail in the mid-afternoon, and drove straight down to the valley, stopping at a visitor’s center to inquire about a place to spend the night. All of the campgrounds in the valley were full, but we found a vacancy in the tent cabins in Curry Village. As we drove into valley, El Capitan suddenly appeared before us, with Half Dome looming in the distance. “It’s our screensaver in real life!” I saved. “It’s our whole Mac operating system in real life!” Kurt replied. We pulled over, joining the clusters of cars and tourists on the side of the road getting their first pictures in.

Upon checkin, we stuffed our food and bear cans into the bear vaults (a bit redundant, but we couldn’t bring the cans into our soft-sided tent) and ran straight for the showers. I attempted to hand-wash our nastiest clothes in the shower with me, which we hung dry on a rope strung across the top of our tent, pure camp-style.

Once we were feeling fresh and clean for the first time in days, we walked into Curry Village and ordered a giant pizza with beers, which we ate outside on the patio. There was a wi-fi lounge across the way with a wraparound porch full of rocking chairs, so we picked up a 6-pack of beers from the gift shop, grabbed some seats, and spent the rest of the evening Instagramming (me) and catching up on Packers news (Kurt). That night, we went to sleep in a real bed, listening to drunk tourists stumbling to their cabins instead of the hooting of owls.

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Yosemite Diaries: All Downhill From Here

Sept. 22, 2015: Lake Vernon to Tiltill Valley

Mileage: 11.51 miles
‘Floors’ ascended/descended: 74

In the morning, I went to filter some water at the edge of the lake.  A loud whooshing noise approached, like a swiftly moving plane or train. I looked up into the sky; three birds in formation, their wings steady in a V,  swooped down over the lake at an incredibly high speed. In seconds, they were gone. “What was that?” Kurt called from inside the tent where he was rolling up our sleeping bags. “It sounded like a car driving right at us.”

21939545792_2814d294ea_oAs we finished packing up, we spotted a bear across the lake near the water, our fourth sighting in 24 hours. It was time to hit the trail again, and it was a 750-foot climb to get over the ridge surrounding the lake. It didn’t feel as hard as I thought it would be; as they say, you get in shape on the trail. As we climbed higher, we got a great view of Lake Vernon, including a bear walking along the water (probably the same one I saw earlier continuing his stroll).

21763764508_4e6c0d6bed_oAt the top of the ridge, the trail flattened out and we found ourselves in an alpine forest. “It’s the forest moon of Endor!” Kurt said. In the fresh mud, we saw a bear print and what could possibly be a mountain lion paw print. The trail meandered through a high meadow, and as we entered the deep brush we heard a crash to our right; we had startled a mule deer. It hopped away from us about 25 yards, then looked back to check us out, hanging around to nibble on grass while keeping an eye on us.

somebody got got :(

somebody got got 😦

When we reached the far end of the ridge, we started a long climb down (1800 feet, to be exact). The switchbacks took us back and forth through thorny bushes that made me wish I had left the legs on my convertible pants. At the bottom of the steep descent, we reached Tiltill Valley, our destination. However, in the search for a perfect campsite, we continued another .75 or so of a mile to see if we could find a scenic view on the other side of the valley. It turned out there wasn’t a decent water source, so we backtracked closer to the trail marker, where we ended up finding a pretty cool well-hidden spot across the river and over a large rock. Tucked away from the word, we set up camp then took a dip in the bubbling creek to clean up. The rocks created a small pool, our own personal spa (that happened to have freezing water).

While climbing up the rock to our ‘kitchen’ area where we cooked dinner/kept our bear cans away from the tent, I heard Kurt exclaim “Snake!” I ran over to check it out; he had found a Sierra Mountain kingsnake, which is very colorful but not poisonous. After the sun set, we went into the tent (we were now at too low an elevation to legally have a campfire) for a “tent party,” which basically meant that I journaled by headlamp while Kurt went over our maps, and then we both read our books until falling asleep while listening to the hooting of owls.

 

 

Yosemite Diaries: All the Bears

Sept. 21: Laurel Lake to Lake Vernon

Mileage: 7 miles
‘Floors’ climbed: 69

In the morning, I peeked out of the tent door to check on our bear canisters like a kid on Christmas Day, wondering if they’d be knocked out of place in with fresh claw marks on the side. But they were just as we left them the night before. We made a breakfast of powdered eggs, dehydrated hashbrowns, coffee, and tea, then packed up our tents and packs.

The route to Lake Vernon traveled out of the grassy meadows and onto the granite rocks that Yosemite is famous for. We quickly learned that the trail, when traveling over rocks, was much harder to follow. Looking ahead for cairns quickly became a habit. The hot sun bounced off the white rocks onto our arms and faces. After we crossed over the peak, the rest of the trail snaked downhill towards the lake. We followed the trail halfway around the lake, looking for a spot where it got close to the water; we needed a good entry point where we could filter clean drinking water. After going a bit off trail, we found a grassy spot where Kurt could crawl out onto a log and dip the gravity filter bag into the lake. We took a lunch break while filtering 3 Nalgene’s worth of drinking water, then came up with a game plan to backtrack and continue along the trail to an area on the opposite shore that looked like a small sandy beach.

As we bushwacked back to the trail, Kurt pause in front of me. “It’s a bear,” he said. About 25 yards away, I saw the furry rounded back behind a bush. The bear briefly lifted its head, looked at us, then returned to its bear business. “HEY BEAR!” we shouted, waving our arms to look bigger, following the ranger’s advice. Slowly, we backed away, keeping an eye on him while continuing to wave our arms and make noise. He showed zero signs of wanting to follow us, or any interest in us whatsoever, so as soon as we reached the trail we walked away like normal humans (with pounding hearts).

IMG_5954On the other side of the lake we found an ideal campsite–a sandy beach with easy access to the water, and a primitive trail leading into a wooded area with a fire ring and enough space to pitch our tent. We set up camp and relaxed; Kurt fished while I read my trashy time travel romance novel. At one point while sitting on the beach, I heard the padded footsteps of something behind me. I spun around; a young bear had spotted us and ran away. I remembered the ranger’s words: “they’re afraid of us.”

At dinnertime, we took our Jetboil and baggie of dehydrated mac and cheese and hiked partway up the ridge to watch the sunset. No picture can capture the beauty of a Yosemite sunset. The tops of the granite bluffs took on a rose hue as the sky darkened, reflecting its mirror image into the glassy lake. Further up the ridge and in the distance, we spotted the shape of a black bear rambling along the rocks. As the last remaining light waned, we walked back down to camp. Kurt noticed a fresh pile of bear scat by our fire ring.

We made a toasty fire and laid out the socks that we had rinsed and wrung out earlier on the rocks to dry (camping laundry). With the moon behind the ridge, the stars began to come out. I caught a glimpse of a shooting star. When we turned off our headlamps, the nighttime view was breathtaking; the white rocks glowed in the moonlight, creating an otherworldly vision of another planet. In the warmth of the fire, we reflected on the views, the stars, the stillness. This was everything we came to the backcountry to experience.

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