Guadalupe Mountains, Roswell, Carlsbad, and the Sand Dunes – and bad food – Part 2

After last week’s trip to the Big Bend area, this week, being spring break for my two girls, found me heading west again, this time with the whole family in tow, to the Guadalupe Mountains. These ancient mountains are a long way from my Texas Hill Country home -~ 8 hours – and if you’ve ever visited the Salt Basin on the southwest side of the park, you know what a remote area it is. After a forty mile drive from Hwy 54 around the south and west sides of the basin, including a 7 mile finish on a white clay road that is impassable when it rains we finally arrived… and saw nary another person en route. After this hour drive off the main road, we still had to cover another mile on foot (according to the park map). However, our total round trip was ~3.5 miles in a trail comprised primarily of very loose sand.

At first the dunes don’t seem like much, but if you head to the right – up and over the steep scrub-filled sand slope -you’ll find a sea of white amazing sand. As you traverse the dunes, avoid any vegetation as this is an ecologically sensitive area.

From the tops of the dunes, the views of the Guadalupe Mountains, including the iconic El Capitan and the tallest peak in Texas – Guadalupe Peak -were amazing.

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Guadalupe Mountains – Salt Basin Dunes at Sunset 1 : Prints Available

Like saves of sand, the textures and curves of the salt basin dunes on the southeast side of the Guadalupe Mountains make a stunning foreground for these ancient mountains. In this image, the mountains rise in the spring air as the sun sets in the opposite sky. Guadalupe Peak, the tallest point in Texas, rises 8,751’, and the iconic El Capitan is just south of the summit.
To reach these dunes requires a bit of an effort. A 50 mile drive around the park from the Pine Spring Visitor Center, including 7.5 miles on a caliche road that is impassable after a rain, brings you to the trailhead. After that, a dirt and sandy path leads another 1.5 miles to the dunes (the park maps says 1 mile, but it is longer). The round trip hike on this evening was just under 3.5 miles – all worth the amazing scenery in this national park.

After some time exploring the dunes and having the sand all to ourselves, the sun settled in the east behind us and we raced the 1.5 miles back to the car to avoid being locked in the park overnight (the gates are locked 30 minutes after sunset). I’m not sure how strict the park service is on this rule, but I did not want to take a chance on sleeping in the car – in the remote Chihuahuan Desert – with three angry females. We made it out safely, then drove the 2.5 hours to Artesia, New Mexico, for the night.

The next day we drove another 45 minutes hours north and visited the UFO museum in Roswell, New Mexico. Before the museum visit, we had lunch at the Cowboy Cafe. This dive was ranked highly on Yelp and TripAdvisor, bit I’m assuming the competition wasn’t great. Still, little did we realize at the time we should be happy with “average.”

Later, at the International UFO Museum, we enjoyed life sized aliens and plenty of affidavits from important people concerning the reality of aliens and the alleged government coverup. The small presentation was surprisingly well done, and my girls were sufficiently freaked out by the aliens but still had a good time.

Heading back south and just north of the the Texas border is Carlsbad Caverns, our next stop on the trip. The caverns were amazing and the rock formations nothing like I’ve seen before. We took the self-guided tour that led us through the dark underground and along the 1.25 mile trail and the Big Room. If I was a spelunker or geologist, I imagine I’d have been in heaven.

Carlsbad Caverns
Fairyland in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
But I prefer above ground landscapes. As we left, we noticed the large crowds and lines already gathered for entrance. We had arrived early and were glad we did. The crowds were thick as we left, which would have detracted from the quiet spaces of our walk.

Next, we headed south through Van Horn and onto Fort Stockton. First, though, we stopped at a place to eat. Many years ago I watched Chet Garner, host of the DayTripper, eat at Chuys, a Tex-mex joint in Van Horn – NOT affiliated with the well-known Tex-mex chain. I’d wanted to eat here for a while, so we stopped in. I’m sad to say our experience was not good. So be warned… the service was terrible. The guy serving us seemed uninterested in working. Please know we are very low-maintenance. After a 20 minute wait just to take our order, we waited another 30 for the meals. My wife and two girls finally received their food, then the waiter asked if I had ordered the fajitas. Yes… and 20 minutes later my wife and kids had finished their food before mine arrived! But no explanation nor apologies were offered. To top off the experience, the beef was full of fat and very chewy -the worst fajitas I’ve ever had. We paid and got the heck out of there…never again.

But the sand dunes of Monahans Sandhills State Park awaited, and our mood quickly improved. I’d photographed this small sandy park at sunrise just a week before, but now was returning because I knew my kids would love the sand… and I could shoot at sunset. This image was converted to black and white for the contrast in curves and shadows:

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Sand Dunes Evening 1 black and white : Prints Available

The lines in the sand at Monahans Sandhills State Park can be mesmorizing. Here in the late afternoon, soft shadows enhance the curves and texture as the winds create ever changing patterns.

We arrived a few hours before dusk, and my girls immediately took off, heading to the tallest dune, then sliding down and laughing the entire time. It was a good way to end our trip – sunset was beautiful, everyone was happy at the same time (which is rare), and laughter filled the still air as we traversed the sand back to the parking lot. It was hometime the next morning, and I always become a bit sentimental when family time ends. I know my kids won’t stay young, and I value each day I have with them.

Vaya con Dios, my friends,

Images from Texas

Hamilton Pool in the Texas Hill Country

I’ve seen Hamilton Pool listed in a publication as one of the top locations to see in the United States. While I don’t know if I’d put it in my top ten national sites, it is close to home and does offer an afternoon of fun.

Just 23 miles west of Austin, Texas, this natural pool in the Texas Hill Country was created after the collapse of an underground river. In the aftermath, a beautiful emerald green pool was formed complete with a nice waterfall. The entire complex covers about 232 acres. The stroll from the parking lot to the pool is an easy one-fourth of a mile walk.

I have a friend who grew up in the area that remembers walking to the top of the falls and spending many evenings along the river before it was a preserve. She tells some great tales of youthful exuberance and fun – those glory days we all remember fondly from our youth. But these days the folks that manage the site charge $15 per car to enter the park, and the lines to enter can be quite lengthy on summer days.

Prior to our modern day version of Hamilton Pool, Indian tribes – the Tonkawa and Lipan Apaches – called this area home. Morgan Hamilton, brother of Andrew Hamilton, owned the land in the 1860s, and later sold it to the Reimer family (also known for Reimer’s Ranch just a mile down the road). While the Reimers bought the land for ranching purposes, they soon changed their minds and opened it to the public as a recreational area. As Hamilton Pool became more popular, the amount of folks visiting the area took its toll on the fragile environment. An aggressive restoration plan and limiting access has nearly returned Hamilton Pool to its original state.

As a photographic area, this sanctuary offers some unique compositions as well as challenges. When photographing from the back of the grotto, the difference in light is considerable, and you’ll need to shoot several bracketed images in order to create a balance of what you actually see. Otherwise, either the foreground and rock will be underexposed or the outside will be overexposed. To encompass the entire scene, you’ll also need to shoot with a super-wide-angle lens or take several images and stitch them together. I like to do both. The image below is a stitch and composite of 14 individual photographs.

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Hamilton Pool Hill Country Panorama 1 : Prints Available

From the back of the grotto at Hamilton Pool, this panorama shows the entire area on a blue sky Autumn afternoon. Nestled in the Texas Hill Country, this location is very popular on hot summer days. If you don’t get there early, you may not get in at all, especially on weekends. I was the first person down the easy quarter mile walk to the pool on this morning. Within about two minutes the crowds were filing in and the pool resembled more a public pool than a nature preserve. From the back of the grotto at Hamilton Pool, this panorama shows the entire area on a blue sky Autumn afternoon. Nestled in the Texas Hill Country, this location is very popular on hot summer days. If you don’t get there early, you may not get in at all, especially on weekends. I was the first person down the easy quarter mile walk to the pool on this morning. Within about two minutes the crowds were filing in and the pool resembled more a public pool than a nature preserve.

After this perspective, you can start working different angles, including the stairway on one side of the falls, the waterfall itself, and other views of the emerald grotto. If you like filters, you could shoot with a high density filter to create a ribbon like effect with the waterfall. You could also capture a starburst as the sun moves across the cliff in the morning. I much prefer wide angle lenses for this location – anywhere from 11mm-35mm. In November, the trees change to their Autumn shades, and these colors can really add to the images. Unfortunately, Hamilton Pool management restricts public access from 9am-530pm, which really doesn’t allow shooting during the best times of day.

All in all, it is a great place to explore. Go in the morning or on a day where swimming is not permitted if you are solely interested in photography. Otherwise, you’ll find crowds. This location is only 10 minutes from my house, and I’d visit more if they didn’t charge so much for each visit.

Happy Travels!

~ Rob
Images from Texas
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