Dog Canyon

It takes precisely two hours and seventeen minutes to hike from Pine Springs trailhead to the Pine Top campsite carrying a full load of water and gear for two nights in the Guadalupe Mountains backcountry. I know this because I had written that time on my map from a trip there three years ago, and that is exactly how long it took me this year as well. I do not believe in coincidences.

Pine Top is the first designated backcountry campsite after you’ve made it up Tejas Trail, only a 4 mile hike but a 2,300 foot elevation gain up a very rocky trail. Carrying all that water, you are happy to stop. As usual at Guadalupe Mountains National Park (GMNP), I had the place to myself–and by this I mean the entire 86,000 acre backcountry.

My plan was to go from Pine Top to McKittrick Ridge for the second night, then backtrack the ridge and come down and resupply with water at Dog Canyon Ranger Station on the isolated New Mexico side of the mountains. From there I could complete a loop of the Park on the west side, necessitating another 2,000-plus foot climb and two more nights. When I told the permitting Ranger that I needed permits for four nights, she professionally assessed me as possibly an idiot, but warmed up to me once I explained my plan and she realized how charming I am. Mostly, it was the plan.

On a side note here, on a GMNP trip I made a couple of autumns ago I was stopped by a Ranger on the trail who said I had an “ambitious itinerary” after he’d checked my permit ( At the time, I was pretty proud that a Ranger thought I was doing something “ambitious” in the backcountry, but I noticed this time that “ambitious itinerary” was actually written on my permit. I don’t know if this is some kind of NPS official terminology for potential fools or if I started something, but–again–I don’t believe in coincidences.

Although Ranger LeAnn was reassured that there was at least a minimal chance that I knew what I was doing, she was clearly extremely worried about fire in the Park. “You’ve been here before, so you can see how incredibly dry it is this year. We’ve had fires almost every week, and we’re just waiting for the big one to come roaring down the canyon and wipe everything out. Have a nice trip!”

That first night up in Pine Top, I awoke at 2 a.m. in a lightning storm. Curiously, in my little tent up high on a ridge, with white-bright flashes and instantaneous crashes of thunder seemingly just the other side of my thin fabric shelter, it didn’t register with me to be afraid. I was tired, and I just lay there thinking “this is so cool.” You feel close to something.

Coming into McKittrick Canyon through the back door.

I was up early the next day and made the eight mile hike to McKittrick Ridge fairly easily; you are already on top, so although there is some up-and-down you do not really gain much altitude. I had come in to McKittrick two falls ago from the other end, and that is one of the most beautiful hikes in the Park, something I definitely recommend. After I set up my tent I had time to kill, and so hiked further down the ridge overlooking McKittrick Canyon. On my return I could hear a small plane buzzing circles back toward Pine Springs Canyon, and sure enough the lightning storm the night before had started a large fire near the trail I had come up–and needed to go back down to return to my car in three days.

That night I went to sleep worried about my route out, but I was already deep in the Park and really couldn’t do anything but go to sleep and take it a day at a time. A light rain began around 3 a.m., relieving my fire worries a bit, but shortly afterward I heard two small explosions not far away and instantly thought “what idiot is shooting fireworks out here?,” followed by “that’s the stupidest thought you’ve had in a long time.”

In the clouds

The next morning I stumbled out of my tent to find that the ridgetop was now in the clouds, and the rain was simply the moisture in the clouds accumulating on all the trees and precipitating out. My morning ritual is pretty much just sitting quietly stunned and staring into space as I wait for that first cup of coffee to reconnect me to the world, so the gradual realization that there was a very large tree lying across the trail in front of my tent that hadn’t been there the night before was consternating, but explained the explosions I’d heard. I suppose all that moisture and the drop in temperature finally sent the burned-out snag down. I have always thought that a tree coming down on your tent in the middle of the night was one of the stupidest ways to die in the backcountry (this is not as rare an occurrence as you would think), so I took the miss as a positive sign. Life is better when you look at a tree that could have randomly killed you but didn’t and think “well, that’s a good sign.”

The moisture accumulated on every surface. The brush along the trail soaked my pants in minutes.

The third day’s goal was to descend to Dog Canyon and fill my water bladders, take a short break, then head off to the Marcus campsite for the night. This section of trail would be the longest day of the trip, but I’d done it before and knew it wasn’t all that hard. I had just gotten past Lost Peak when I looked up and found a horse and rider blocking my path. But behind the wrangler in front were two mounted Rangers behind.

You know you’re in deep West Texas when you are having a conversation with a real working cowboy on his horse while you stand to the side to let him get on with his work–Dennis the wrangler, who would later offer to transport me in his truck to get me back to my car on the other side of the Park. “You’d drive me all the way to Pine Springs?” I asked, and he just looked at me and said “I don’t see what else we can do.”

The Rangers were wonderful, a credit to our already amazing National Park Service. “Have you heard about the fire?” the one who looked like a reformed biker asked, long braided beard and tatted up including “Live Free” on the knuckles of his left hand. I knew what was coming. “They’re asking everyone to exit the backcountry,” which I knew meant specifically me. We talked for a while, thought about me going back up to McKittrick and exiting at McKittrick Canyon, which would still put me 10 miles or so from my car. “You could try hitchhiking,” said the lady Ranger, who I was slowly falling in love with, long braid in back, those incredibly white and straight outdoorswoman teeth, up there on her horse wearing that hat. She was just totally rocking that Smokey Bear hat. But I laughed at the idea of someone picking me up out there in the middle of nowhere, and she laughed too, so we just left it at me needing to resupply with water at Dog Canyon and I’d figure it out from there.

There is not much to do in Dog Canyon, except resupply with water. It’s a nice place, but I wouldn’t want to stay there; I did not want to stay there. There was not a cloud in the sky, but I could see the clouds spilling over the tops of the mountains like waves over a seawall, all that moisture I had come through in the morning trapped on the side of the mountains with the fire, and I was pretty sure the Rangers would tell me in the evening when they got back that I could continue on.

The clouds spilling down the mountains.

But of course I was dealing with a governmental agency, and so that evening I got the bad news from rough people, who nonetheless repeatedly thanked me for my “understanding and patience.” I just said “it’s not your fault, you didn’t start the fire,” but went to bed with a plan.

I figured that the fire was probably fairly drenched by all that moisture in the air on the other side of the mountains. I also figured that I could skirt whatever fire there was by following my planned route well west of Tejas, and would only have to pay close attention for that last section from the mountaintops down to my car at the trailhead. And I especially figured that I needed to get up early and pack my gear so I could sneak out of Dog Canyon before those Rangers showed up to work.

But Rangers and cowboys start work early. Dennis was there first, to take care of the horses. Then the other two starting work before anyone I know clocks in, driving up and pretending not to notice that my pack was completely packed and I was obviously getting ready to hit the trail. “Well, the entire Park backcountry is closed,” tattoos said evenly. “Let’s find out what can be done.”

From then on it was just an exercise in remembering how wonderful people can be. Dennis wouldn’t be able to drive me out until they’d finished their day of work upcountry clearing trail and fighting fires, but he was happy to help me when he came down. But the Park Host volunteer, Kevin (who is the only nice person named “Kevin” I have ever met), said he’d take me to Pine Springs. We had an incredible hour and a half drive across the New Mexico and Texas high desert, passing herds of elk and old mining roads while talking about retirement, and beer, how Jeff Bezos destroyed the West Texas cowboy economy, what truly matters, and many, many other things. You could do worse in a fire.

8 thoughts on “Dog Canyon

  1. Wonderful. Whenever you’ve been out hiking I wait impatiently for the blog post.

    I am doing well and plan to spend next week getting some actual rest, taking Dozer to the vet (needs his teeth cleaned and a couple of benign growths removed). And finally buying a car. And hopefully be done completely with work stuff.

    Jennifer ________________________________

    • Roguebotanist I thought of you because of the fire: “maybe they’ll send him to fight the fire and he can give me a ride back to my car.” But yes, GMNP can be pretty awesome, but water is an issue, and a lot of it is burned out. I would avoid spending too much time in the middle (Tejas, Mescalero, Blue Ridge triangle) and focus on the views. McKittrick coming in from the TH is nice, especially in the fall, Bush Mountain to Pine Top is good too. I liked very much the rolling prairie between Dog Canyon and Marcus, and am sorry I didn’t get to see the Bush Mountain trail between Marcus and Blue Ridge. Going up Guadalupe Peak is cool, although that’s all there is up that trail unless you want to go off-trail once you’re up there and do El Capitan too. Tons of people weekends on that one. Give me a holler as your visit approaches, as I am full of free advice, generally worth every penny!

  2. Ed Mahoney, when you drive to GMNP north from Van Horn, you will drive for miles along a 2-lane highway that fronts a single enormous ranch, the Figure 2 Ranch (worth looking up) which was bought by Jeff Bezos in 2006 or so. When I first saw this enormous stretch of uninterrupted, unscarred, undeveloped range land fronting the Sierra Diablo Mountains, I thought “well, that’s a good thing. A single private owner keeps this from being subdivided and developed. It’s like a privately owned National Park that nobody else gets to visit.” But later I met a actual cowboy who had worked the land for years, generations. He said he was all for private ownership of land, but when Bezos bought that land he stopped raising cattle on it, which meant there was no yearly round-up requiring dozens of cowboys, which meant feed stores had no one to sell feed to, livestock transporters, processors, the whole chain involved in getting a cow to market was out of work. It is important to understand the scale we are talking about in West Texas: in more fertile country, ranchers consider how many head they can raise per acre based on feed, grass cover, water, etc. But in West Texas they measure the land’s ability to support livestock in “sections,” which is one square mile or 640 acres. A rancher I spoke with told me that this past year he had estimated that he could support THREE cows on one section, and that this roundup they had to find 24 calves. That is an enormous amount of land, employing (temporarily) many people there who live off of that land. Bezos, on the other hand, is going to launch rockets there.

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