Making tracks on the Picketwire

We all know the Great Plains for their wide and open spaces. With little to hinder the eye – no peaks, no forests, only rolling hills and sometimes not even that — we can see far and deep. Thunderstorms a county or two over boil up before us by day, stars are seen horizon to horizon at night.

We are all Einsteinians, and so know that when we look deep into space we are looking deep into time, as space and time are woven together into a seamless continuum. That’s obviously true of the sky, where light from the nearest stars was emitted years ago.

But the plains are a place where time reveals itself to us in Earthly forms as well. With no place to hide, the signs of our predecessors are all around. Some segments of the Great Plains Trail take us through time as well as space.

The canyon of the Purgatoire – or as it is more commonly known in Colorado, the Picketwire — is one of these places. The Picketwire itself rises on the Raton Mesa at the NM-CO border, and flows some 120 miles northeast to its junction with the Arkansas at Las Animas.

Along the way it cuts a canyon a few hundred feet deep. Although not as scenic or spectacular as Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle, it harbors its own hidden treasures which are revealed in a pleasant walk up or down the canyon.

The Canyon of the Purgatoire

From the car campground at Withers Canyon Trailhead, you drop 250 feet and begin your walk up the canyon. A couple of miles of easy walking brings you to the remains of an outbuilding of the Rourke Ranch, in operation from 1871 to 1971.IMG_1118

Another mile or so of walking takes us back considerably farther in time to 1,500 year old petroglyphs etched into the rocks at the base of a river bluff.

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Water symbols?

Ancient magic

Definitely a shaman. The tail creeps me out.

 

A bit more walking takes you to the ruins of an old church and its graveyard. Judging from the names and dates, this was a Hispanic settlement that must have existed at least since the first half of the 19th century.

Ruined church, Picketwire CanyonGraves

These settlers would have been cut off from the main Spanish settlements in the Rio Grande Valley by several mountain ranges. They probably had only Bent’s Fort as their link to the outside world, and were otherwise utterly isolated, vulnerable to raids, drought and disease with no outside assistance. It had to be an incredibly harsh life.

A couple more miles and you are at the dinosaur trackway, the longest and most extensive set of tracks in North America. Set on a mudstone shelf, these tracks take you all the way back to the Late Jurassic Era 150 million years ago. Over 1300 footprints have been tallied, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to see therapods and brachiopods loping and lumbering across the valley.

The trackway site

The mudstone shelf on the far side of the Picketwire holds most of the dinosaur tracks

Dinosaur Trackway, Picketwire Canyon CO

A Jurassic therapod

An ancient therapod passed this way

Dinosaur trackway, Picketwire Canyon

These tracks are in soft stone and are completely open to the weather. Chunks of the shelf are constantly breaking off and tumbling into the river. My advice: come take this hike while the tracks are still here. They are never going to get any better, and a flood could wipe them all away at any time.

If you are car camping, it is time now to turn back for a delicious dinner…

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… followed by a beautiful Great Plains sunset

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The Picketwire Canyon, despite being a delightful hike, is currently a side trip on the Great Plains Trail. It is our goal to someday route the main trail through this canyon. How can I make this happen, you ask? A donation to the GPTA will help us do the work of contacting landowners and obtaining easements that will move the trail off of country roads and into the wild. Click here and give generously.

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The Far End of the Trail

Hikers exploring the southern terminus of the Great Plains Trail are in for something of a jolt.  Rising some 3000 feet above the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert, 8749-foot Guadalupe Peak is the highest peak in Texas and the high point of the GPT.  It is an uplifted reef stabbing into the sky above the ancient Permian Sea bed that engulfs it. And it contains some of the most rugged country and challenging hiking to be found in the lower 48.

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Guadalupe Peak from the Tejas Trail

Guadalupe Peak is enclosed within the 135-square mile Guadalupe Mountains National Park, one of the least visited parks in the system. This park, like so many of the lands crossed by the GPT, is lonely country: fewer than 5000 people inhabit the 8000 square miles surrounding it.

But for GPT hikers, this desolation is a feature, not a bug. We like empty spaces, big skies, unimpeded views and the sort of stillness that lets us hear the voices of animals, birds — and the past.

looking-at-a-whole-lot-of-empty

Looking out at a whole lot of empty

The Guadalupes are a reef that began building over 400 million years ago, when much of West Texas was covered by the warm shallow Permian Sea. Unlike the reefs of today, which are built mainly by corals, these reefs were built from giant sponges and Foraminifera – single-celled protists with shells that can reach several inches in length.  From 400 to 250 million years ago, uncounted numbers of these creatures lived, grew and died, all long before there were any dinosaurs. The reef built, layer by layer, the pressure of the shells above turning the ones below into limestone.

And then it stopped. The Permian Extinction, the biggest extinction event the world has experienced (so far) wiped out 96% of these creatures, bringing reef-building to a halt. The reefs were covered by mud and lay silent and hidden while the dinosaurs appeared and then disappeared. An uplift event 20 million years ago brought them to light once more, driving the reef upward to form the sky island that we see today.

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Looking over the bowl of the Guadalupe sky island

Most hikers will want to launch their journeys from the Pine Springs campground. From there you can make the 3000-foot climb to Guadalupe Peak as a day hike, and return to saddle up and water up before proceeding north.

strider-begins-his-quest

Strider begins his quest

The Tejas trail will take you on a 2400 foot climb up to the rim of the sky island, where you will enjoy hundred-mile views and easy walking through a mixed forest of pines and junipers.  The GPT follows McKittrick Ridge to the east, then turns north to drop into and climb out of McKittrick Canyon and up on to Wilderness Ridge. It then heads northwest, following the Ridge, entering New Mexico and leaving the park on its way to The Rim in Lincoln National Forest, which provides great views of this lonely country and is a prime spot for sunset watching.

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Sunset from Five Points

The route follows a network of Forest Service roads through pinyon and juniper country as it works its way north to Sitting Bull Falls. You’ll want to have some water cached along one of these roads, as the first reliable water sources are at the Guadalupe Administrative Center (a one-mile detour) or Sitting Bull Springs three miles farther.  A couple of miles of pleasant walking along the spring-fed creek brings you to spectacular Sitting Bull Falls and its surrounding Recreational Area.

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The oasis of Sitting Bull Falls

The walk down the canyon from the falls marks the end of the mountain start of the GPT and the beginning of the true plains walk as it heads north up the Pecos Valley.

The Guadalupes are a challenging introduction to the GPT. But they embody many of its best features: solitude, wildness, history, and a trove of hidden gems still unknown to much of the hiking community. It is a place that commands respect but also deserves some appreciation.

For Strider’s account of his 2016 thru-hike of the GPT, see his Facebook page

For my account of a three-day loop hike through the Guadalupes, check out TrailGroove magazine here

But first – don’t forget to help us make the GPT a reality

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The GPT – A Destination Trail

Great Plains Trail in Nebraska - 112World’s Newest Destination Trail

The Great Plains Trail is destined to become one of the greatest destination trails in the world. Once that happens, it will join such venerable long distance paths as:

 

Great Plains Trail in Nebraska - 010Active Travelers’ Paradise

Destination Trails are those that active travelers deem as being worthy of planning an entire vacation around. Some features of destination trails include:

  • They are usually fairly lengthy trails. (Over 20 miles and often over 100 miles long)
  • They are scenic trails.
  • They are accessible, usually by train, plane or automobile.
  • They feature some type of attraction(s) that could be historical, cultural or recreational.
  • They offer a safe route for human-powered transportation.

 

unspecified-7What Makes The Great Plains Trail a Destination Trail?

The Great Plains Trail will eventually become a premier destination trail once it is fully developed. As with most long distance trails, it can be tackled in its entirety or in smaller segments. At over 2,000 miles, it definitely meets the length criteria. In fact, it would be one of the longest destination trails in the world.

 

unspecified-9Scenic Trail

As you can see by the pictures on this website, it definitely meets the scenic criteria. In fact, most people will be surprised at the beauty they find in America’ s Great Plains. Despite popular belief, the Great Plains offer incredible opportunities for amazing landscapes and hidden treasures.

 

unspecified-12Trail Attractions

The Great Plains Trail offers numerous attractions from five state high points to local museums, geological wonders, historic landmarks and stunning flora and fauna. Since the Great Plains is often overlooked as a tourist destination, travelers will often have these amazing scenic offerings to themselves for unmatched solitude and tranquility.

 

Great Plains Trail in Nebraska - 064Trail Users

It is the human-powered transportation option that is likely to set the Great Plains Trail apart from the rest. Most of current long-distance trails are accessible for hikers. Some of them offer bicycling opportunities for at least portions of their route. But the Great Plains Trail may be the most versatile and inclusive of all the great destination trails. In addition to hiking and backpacking, it is likely that the Great Plains Trail may also include options for mountain bikers and equestrians for part or all of the trail. This would provide a more inclusive trail experience for active travelers and outdoor enthusiasts.

 

The new route was a success!

Be a Part of the Great Plains Trail

Stay tuned for more information about the Great Plains Trail. Become part of this historic trail building experience while it is still in its infancy.

 

Guest post by GPTA Board Member Kevin Purdy

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Giving Tuesday

ABE1Tomorrow, November 29th is known as “Giving Tuesday.”  It follows in the tradition of “Black Friday,” and more recently, “Cyber Monday.”  The goal of Giving Tuesday is for as many people as possible to give time and/or money to the charities of their choice.

This year for Giving Tuesday, please consider a gift to Great Plains Trail Alliance.  With the successful completion of the first ever thru hike of the GPT in 2016, we feel more confident than ever that the Great Plains Trail can become a reality, and continue to inspire and enrich more and more lives in this overlooked, but beautiful part of the country.

Great Plains Trail Alliance is a 501c3 nonprofit organization and all donations are fully tax deductible.  For more information, go to www.greatplainstrail.org  

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Great Plains Trail Map

The map is finally here!!!!  I know what you’re thinking – what took you so long?! Never mind that.  It’s here!  I’ve posted it to the website, and here is a copy of that page with the link to the map below.  Please let me know in the comments section what you think, and what issues there may be with it.  (ps  I know about the gap near Santa Rosa, NM and I’m working to fix it).

 

Welcome to the Great Plains Trail Map! (Follow the link below to see the map).

This map represents the best routing to date for the entire length of the trail. That said, the route and the map will likely remain “works in progress” for quite some time to come. As the trail continues to grow and develop, there will be places where new routes will replace old ones. These new routes may serve to shorten distances, increase scenic value, reduce road travel, or create more trail.

 

If you’re planning a trip to the Great Plains Trail, whether for shorter section hikes, or especially for a longer thru hike, here are some things you’ll need to consider:

 

The Route: The Great Plains Trail is in most places, not an actual trail like most hikers are familiar with. It follows some sections of actual trail, but for a lot of reasons, must connect those sections with roads. Great care has been taken to use lightly traveled back roads as opposed to major highways. In some cases, larger highways are used because they are the only reasonable option in that area.

 

There are also some splits and spurs to be aware of. The GPT splits to follow either the Centennial Trail or the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills of South Dakota. There are “connectors” to these two trails near the southern and northern ends. The GPT also splits at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. The best current route is to go through North Dakota as opposed to Montana due to the availability of towns and other amenities in North Dakota as opposed to the longer stretches between towns in Montana. It is the future goal of the GPT to connect to American Prairie Reserve in Montana, but for now, the route should be considered to be in North Dakota.

 

There are several spur trails on the GPT, all of them connect to state high points: Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. It should be noted that no foot or bike traffic is allowed in going to the Nebraska High Point because it’s on private land, and there is a bison herd nearby.

 

Usage: The GPT is open to hikers and bikers and horses except where bikes are not allowed such as wilderness areas and national parks.

 

Hazards: The list of things to watch out for is long. Some of the things to be aware of include, but are not limited to:

 

Wildlife (large): Bears, bison, elk, deer, pronghorn, coyotes, and more can be found at various points along the trail.

 

Wildlife (small): Snakes, spiders, ticks, and other insects are present across the length of the trail. Some species, such as the rattlesnake, can be dangerous.

 

Animals (domesticated): Cattle in open range can pose a significant hazard and care should be taken when walking through a herd of cows. In particular, bulls can be unpredictable and possibly aggressive. Dogs are present along many of the road sections and are unpredictable and possibly aggressive. Care should be exercised.

 

Plants: Some species of plants along the trail could cause allergic reactions.

 

Weather: Great Plains weather is well known to be highly changeable, and can turn deadly. Be sure to keep track of weather forecasts as much as possible.

 

Vehicles: Great care should be exercised on the road sections of the GPT where vehicles may be present.

 

Sun: Extreme exposure to sun is possible on the Great Plains Trail and proper clothing and sunscreen should be worn to protect yourself.

 

Water: There is very little potable water along the entire route of the GPT. The Great Plains is an arid place in general, and there are few (if any) natural sources of drinkable water. Water must be obtained in towns or in other developed areas.

 

Distances: Due to the difficulty of carrying water, the sometimes large distances between towns, and the lack of public lands in some areas, it is imperative that anyone planning a longer stretch of the GPT have some sort of vehicle support. (see below)

 

 

Vehicle Support: As noted above, there are a number of areas where vehicle support is strongly recommended for anyone planning a thru hike or a long section hike. These are areas where the distance between places one can legally spend the night are too far for someone to cover on foot in one day. With a few exceptions, this is the case on most of the southern half of the GPT. Vehicle support will be needed regularly in this region. The northern half generally requires less vehicle support, but it is still strongly recommended in some areas such as southern Nebraska, and northern South Dakota.   Have a solid plan in place if you’re going to be traveling in these areas.

 

 

Here’s the link to the map! Enjoy and let us know what you think.

 

Map of the Great Plains Trail

 

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Photo of the Week – August 11, 2016 — The Prairie Ecologist

I made a quick trip up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week. As always, there was a treasure trove of unexpected finds. Here are some of them. How many of you noticed the small larva in the above photo? I didn’t, until I was going through the photos on the computer the day after […]

via Photo of the Week – August 11, 2016 — The Prairie Ecologist

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Strider’s Final Journal Entry

From Guadalupe Peak to Canada, and no worse for the wear!

From Guadalupe Peak to Canada, and no worse for the wear!

I post Strider’s final journal entry in its entirety here.  It’s a fine read, and a nice closure of an epic adventure that took time, money, planning, and no small amount of gumption to execute.

Here’s to Strider!  The first ever thru hiker of the Great Plains Trail!

I’m up earlier than normal, maybe out of excitement, or disappointment that today is the last day of this journey. It’s barely light out when I get dropped off on the side of the road. It’s about 10 miles to the border from where I left off yesterday. I’m hiking along ND-8 and there’s not much traffic this morning, it makes for a nice quiet and pleasant hike. Right about halfway, I pass Northgate Dam Rec Site on my left. Just north of there I hear a vehicle approaching and it slows down and pulls alongside me. It’s a woman in a truck that saw me pass by from her kitchen window. She made me a bag lunch for the road and hands it to me now. I thank her for her kindness and she pulls off before I can get her name. Wow, what an amazing bit of magic.

A mile or so shy of the border Roxanne passes me in the car and jumps on ahead to the border station, waving as she passes by. Then it finally hits me, I’m almost done. This journey I’ve been on for the past 85 days will soon be over. I didn’t think it would happen this time around, but it does, and my eyes start to tear up. Despite my fears going into this hike it has turned out better than I ever could have hoped. As before on the NCT, meeting the people along the way has been the best part of this journey. I am still amazed how many kind people helped me along the way and were excited at the prospect of the trail. I will miss meeting people like Esther at the CO/NE line who helped me when I was in need, and people like Jerry up in the Oglalla Grasslands, when he decided to bring me dinner on the trail just to make my day better. I won’t be meeting any more people like Lynne or Lindsay, and the GPTA volunteers who took time out of their busy schedules to help me out in difficult spots, or folks like Willie with amazing life experiences to share stories with.
Every state along the Great Plains Trail also has some amazing scenery to offer and their own unique challenges, and I got to experience it all. From what I’ve seen the GPT is definitely worthy of being a National Scenic Trail if Steve and his board of directors decide that’s what they want for their trail.
Finally, as all these thoughts and memories run through my head I make it to the border and head on inside to the station. There are two officers on duty this morning, Roxanne is already inside talking to them. They ask a few basic questions about my journey and then give instructions on how to proceed to the Canadian side. I was worried that being in the middle of nowhere up here there wouldn’t be a sign at this crossing to welcome people into Canada, but there is one and we will need to cross briefly into Canada to get a photo in front of it. 
We make our way over to the other guard station. The Canadian officers are a bit more lively and seem genuinely happy for my accomplishment. The guy even stamps my passport as sort of a souvenir. I’ve been to Canada several times and never got it stamped so this is a treat. We explain that we’re just here to snap a photo in front of the sign and then we’ll be turning around and going back. He gives the go ahead and we walk the hundred or so feet to the sign, officially leaving North Dakota and the US and entering the province of Saskatchewan Canada. Here to welcome us is a big green sign and we snap a few photos in front of it. Then the officer comes outside and offers to take our picture in front of the sign. He snaps a few for us and we spend another five minutes or so taking various pictures from different angles, then finally turn to leave. I take one last glance at the surroundings before crossing back into the US. It’s no Lake Champlain here in Northgate Saskatchewan, but this area has it’s own beauty and I’m glad I got the chance to visit and briefly see it. 
Back in the US we load my gear into the car and begin the long road home. About two hours down the road is Lake Sakakawea State Park and the beginning of the North Country Trail, and we make sure to stop in and pay a visit for nostalgia’s sake. It’s been three years since we’ve both laid eyes on it and it’s a bit more lively with colors and not covered in snow. Just looking back on those three years, it’s amazing how much has changed in that short time. Hiking long distance trails has changed my life in many positive ways, and the GPT is no exception. I hope this idea takes hold and people embrace it and use it to preserve this piece of America that is often forgotten in the minds of many. I’m glad I made the decision to come out and hike this trail, despite the weird looks I got from some people when I told them my plan. I think deep down though, I knew that I was making the right choice and what I was doing was important somehow. After all, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.”

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