GPT – Photo of the Week – Slim Buttes

Here’s a new thing:  Every Monday we’ll post a photo of the week from somewhere on the Great Plains Trail.  This week is a shot from Custer National Forest in western South Dakota.

This parcel of National Forest is in the Slim Buttes region, which was the site of an influential battle between the Sioux and the U. S. Army in 1876.   Like a lot of places in the Great Plains, it’s bursting with fascinating history.  I don’t claim to be an expert on this particular piece of it, but here is the wiki page for the Battle of Slim Buttes.  That should serve as a starter in case anyone is interested in researching it further.

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National Trails Day!

Today (June 3) is National Trails Day.  It’s a time to celebrate trails of all shapes and sizes. From well known long distance trails like the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail to local bike paths and neighborhood walking trails.  That said, not every trail is technically a “national trail.”  There are three categories for national trails – National Scenic Trails like the AT or PCT, National Historic Trails like the Santa Fe Trail, and National Recreation Trails.  This last category has over 1,000 trails of local or regional significance.  They include rail trails, hiking trails, urban trails, rural trails, and wilderness trails.  It would be impossible to list them all here, but the odds that there is a National Recreation Trail near you are excellent.

Here is a link for a list of trails by state as well as a link to the NRT Database from American Trails. Find one and get on it!

State by State List

National Recreation Trail Database


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The National Trail System Act of 1968

On October 2, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Trails System Act, which among other things, seeks “to promote the preservation of, public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the Nation.”

Notice how they’re staring right at the Great Plains region.

Here are some more wise words about the NTS Act from a wise President:

“We are preserving for the pleasure of these people one of the most beautiful regions on God’s earth. I also have before me the first Federal legislation ‘providing a national system of both urban and rural trails.

The simplest pleasures–and healthful exercise–of walking in an outdoor setting have been almost impossible for the millions of Americans who live in the cities. And where natural areas exist within the cities, they are usually not connected by walkways. In many cities, there are simply just no footpaths that lead out of the city into the countryside.

Our history of wise management of America’s national forests has assisted us in designating the initial elements of the National Trails System. Two National Scenic Trails, one in the East and one in the West, are being set aside as the first components of the Trails System: the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.

The legislation also calls for study of 14 additional routes for possible inclusion in the Trails System.”

We’ve done the math, and it looks like 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act.  Here at GPTA, we will be planning a few things to help commemorate this historic milestone.  Unlike the photo, everything we plan will happen in full color!  Stay tuned!


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Are Long Distance Trails Normal?

As a brief follow up to my previous, wordy, rambling, existential treatise.  I want to also talk a little about typical, usual, “normal” businesses.

In the scene I described in the previous post, the standard suburban shopping area, there is nothing that is out of the ordinary, nothing unusual, nothing that any modern American would consider odd in any way.  Another way of putting it is that these big box businesses aren’t doing anything special or unique.  They are the status quo.  They are not taking any risks (other than the obvious financial risk to stay in business and turn a profit).  They are not expanding the horizon, or creating anything new and untried.

GPTA is NOT one of these types of ventures.  We seek to try to do something different, something that has been done before, but in a place never before imagined.

You won’t find us at the mall, but we invite you to join us in our endeavor, to be apart of a something grand, and new, and big, and rewarding.  It won’t be a smooth ride, but smooth rides lead to places well known and already crowded.  Bumpy rides lead to . . . well . . . who knows what they might lead to, but one thing’s for sure, it won’t be ordinary!




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Are Long Distance Trails Necessary?

A few weeks ago, while driving around the heavily suburbanized outskirts of my home town looking for something or other, I began to wonder about all of the businesses I was seeing.  In just a short scan of the near horizons, there were several restaurants, a coffee shop, a home center, a shoe store, a drug store, a gas station, a tire store, and a grocery store to name just a sample of the dozens of establishments that were within a few hundred yards of where I was.  I’m sure you’re familiar with the scene I’m describing.  These sorts of commerce driven landscapes are everywhere in America, and they’re all pretty much the same.  What struck me on this particular day was a question that seemed to come from nowhere in particular:  How many of these businesses are really necessary?

I know.  It’s a loaded question, and you could argue it in many ways.  If you want to argue that all of them are necessary because they employ people and keep the economy humming which is good for everyone, I get it.  I will neither oppose nor defend that view.  On the other hand, if you want to argue that none of them are necessary because we as human existed for thousands of years before such things, and the only necessary things are water, food and shelter, I get that view too, but I will neither oppose nor defend it.  I prefer to take the view that some of them are necessary, which of course means that some of them are not.

Our modern economy creates its own markets and its own demand.  This idea tends to support the belief that everything is necessary if there is a demand for it, but the word “demand” implies want, not need.  Just because there is a demand for M&Ms, doesn’t mean they’re needed.  We’d survive without them.  I’m not saying it’d be easy, but we could do it.  I think.

Our true needs are physical, social, emotional, and spiritual.  Generally speaking, only some businesses can really attend to these needs in the modern world.  Some of them are provided by public institutions (water).  That leaves places like grocery stores (food), and some businesses related to housing (shelter) as necessary businesses for our physical needs.  So what about social, emotional and spiritual needs?  Restaurants are social places, as are coffee shops, and of course churches (not commercial businesses) do their best to attend to people’s spiritual needs.  I’d say the business world is least effective at covering emotional needs.  That usually comes from our close relationships with others, and is not easily monetized.

So that brings us to long distance trails.  Are they necessary?  What needs are they fulfilling?  Long distance trails and the non-profit and government entities that run them are never part of the typical suburban retail landscape.  In fact, an experience on a long distance trail is a way to disengage from that world – the world which surrounds us and that we only partially need.  Long distance trails satisfy every type of need – physical, social, emotional, and spiritual – but in new and unexpected ways, and they also do something else.  They test us so that we can find out what we’re made of.  If you didn’t know you needed that, you do.

Long distance trails help us become more fully human, more fully alive, and you can’t go to the store to buy that.  You’ve got to get out on the trail!

And don’t forget to support trail organizations like GPTA who make it all possible.

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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.


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…


… followed by a beautiful Great Plains sunset


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.


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 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.


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

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.


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.


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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