Thanksgiving Trip 2017

Nathan and I did our second annual Thanksgiving Trip, here's some highlights.

Austin Burnett

8 minute read

Since the holiday season is behind us, I wanted to do a bit of a trip report on Nathan and I’s adventure to White Sands National Monument, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

We set out on Tuesday, November 21 for White Sands. Our decision to go there first was largely based on wanting to knock out the longest drive first and work our way back closer to Austin. The drive consisted of conversation, 80s hits, and the drone of the tires on the road. Last year (Big Bend National Park) taught us that much of West Texas is flat. Albeit a boring ride, once you hit the western edge of the state, mountains crop up such that you can see entire ranges from base to crest. This year we were gifted with tumbleweed! At ~80mph across narrow roads, we were unable to capture it, but I reckon we saw it on at least 3 occasions.

As soon as we reached New Mexico, we began to climb into the mountains. We went through Cloudcroft, NM - a small, lively mountain town in the Lincoln National Forest. As we came down into Alamogordo, NM we spotted White Sands in the distance.


Upon arriving at White Sands, we discovered that all backpacking sites had been taken. With disappointment, we traveled to the back of the park to catch the sunset. As we walked the backpacking trail I was overwhelmed by the silence and the contrast in temperature between the warm desert air and cool sand. Standing still, you’d hear nothing but the wind rushing over your ears. As we saw other people on distant dunes, you could hear their infrequent chatter and the shutter of their camera.

As the sun began to set, the sand looked more and more like snow. It’s hard to put in words the differences between what you’re seeing and feeling. What began as a disgruntled journey ended in amazement. The desert colors you’ve heard of and have seen are more breathtaking in person. Blue, purple, pink, orange, black, yellow. So many colors in one landscape.

White Sands Sunset

As we made our way out, the temperature of the sand seemed to plummet. Trying to retrace our steps and spot trail markers, our feet turned to icy stubs as we returned to the car. Time to go find camp.

White Sands Trail Marker

We stayed at a free campsite in the Lincoln National Park not too far from the road. Other than waking up to a frost-lined tent, it was an easy in-out site just outside Cloudcroft on our way to the Guadalupe Mountains.

On Day 2, we made our way to the Guadalupe Mountains. Having experienced Big Bend last year, I was a bit nervous about getting a site at Guadalupe. While busy, there were plenty of sites available. Running a little short on time, we asked the ranger what our best bet might be for a backcountry site and settled on Pine Top about 4.5 miles from the trailhead. Racing against the sun, we had a steep climb reminiscent of our trip to Big Bend a year ago. Tired and avoiding hiking in the dark at all costs we failed to take a picture of the sunset on the way up, but it may have been the best of the entire trip from what I recall.

We spent Thanksgiving morning catching the sun rise at Hunter Peak. Weirdly enough, we both had excellent service here and used the opportunity to phone friends and family to wish them a happy Thanksgiving.

Hunter Peak Sunrise
Nathan won the sunrise picture contest.

We made our way down the Bear Canyon Trail, which I can only assume is named for the deep cuts in the rock that would make seemingly perfect bear dens. We reserved a campsite at the Visitor’s Center and made our way to El Capitan. As we made our way around and up to the rock formation, we were constantly presented with new perspectives of the formation, each as amazing as the next. Despite capturing every angle, none quite does the size and scale justice.


Valleys protrude from the base of El Capitan, most of which are terminated by large boulders. We surmised that these massive boulders must have fallen from the formation leaving their path behind them. You can somewhat see this in the above picture - notice the grooves at the base of the rock.

As we made it back to camp, I couldn’t unsee Devil’s Hall from the pictures I noticed in the Visitor’s Center. It was a relatively short hike, so we decided to race the sun once again. Having seen it the first day from above, its prominence left me wanting to see its base. From above it looks like a set of doors amidst a dry riverbed that cuts through the base of the mountains. The hike takes you up this dried bed and to the base of these “doors”.

Devil's Hall

The next day we set out for an intense, long climb to McKittrick Ridge. The first section takes you along a riverbed which this time of the year has water, albeit very low. The first stop along our route was at Pratt Cabin. Wallace Pratt is who we have to thank for Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Pratt Cabin is where he lived. The cabin exterior is composed almost entirely by stone. Looking into the details, there is some incredible craftsmanship. Across from the cabin is what appears to be a two car garage. After joking with the ranger at the cabin, I learned that was actually an original structure and it is rumored Mr. Pratt drove his Mercedes back to the cabin.


From there, we pressed on to the Grotto. Not really knowing what to expect, we got somewhat of a preview of what was to come at Carlsbad Caverns.


The arduous journey continued through some Fall scenery that’s difficult to find in Texas. Each switchback resulted in a better view and compounding fatigue as we climbed. Without access to water, we were required to pack it in. While you lose the weight as you go, we had hydrated that morning to reserve as much water as possible. Carrying a gallon and a half up a mountain is a lot easier said than done.

The step through The Notch was euphoric. You’re tired, hungry, wondering when this all might come to an end when you step through to reveal a deep valley facing a massive rock wall. We sat for a good half hour trying to take in all there was to offer. Pictures really don’t do it justice. On our ride back Nathan actually looked up McKittrick Canyon and it turns out we’re not alone. Backpacking forums shower it with praise and compare the views to some of those more often captured out West.


Pressing on from The Notch we continued to climb. Of note on the trail to the ridge was hiking across the spline of South McKittrick Canyon. The winds rushing up the canyon were fierce and brisk. In general, our afternoon was filled with strong winds. We ended up reaching the ridge at mid-afternoon. We found a site, setup camp, and did some exploring along the ridge. We found spruce, agave, Pinyon and Ponderosa pine. Seeing all of this in one place truly made it a Western Thanksgiving.


That night I tried my hand at some nighttime photography which mostly came out blurry. I don’t know that we ever really determined what we were looking at, but as the sun began to go down we could see headlights and eventually town lights in the distance.


The next morning was calm and clear - great hiking conditions. We made our way down slowly but surely, taking in the last views at The Notch, visiting Pratt Cabin once more, and constantly looking back to realize what we had conquered and what we were leaving behind. Upon our return to the parking lot we took sink showers, filled up on water, and pushed on to Carlsbad Caverns.

I didn’t know what to expect at Carlsbad, but my assumptions were proven true. Packed parking lot, people everywhere, a single path to explore the caverns (or an elevator if you like). While I enjoyed the park and the beauty of the caverns, it felt synthetic. It lacked the element of discovery that keeps me hiking and camping. While you’re out there it’s a must-visit as you can do the grand tour in about 2-3 hours.

I’ve really been in one other cave that I can remember, but what shocked be about Carlsbad was how vast and open it was. There’s a couple tight squeezes but a majority of the tour is through massive rooms of solid rock. There are features of all types for the seasoned cave explorer.


All in all, another epic adventure in West Texas/New Mexico. Just wish it wasn’t so darn far away…