One key motivation for this trip was to see for myself Rattlesnake Canyon at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, scene of the story of two college students who supposedly got lost there, leading to the death of one of them, in the summer of 1999. Abby and I had both eagerly read the book about the event, Jason Kersten’s “Journal of the Dead,” and after studying the topographic map of the trails at the park couldn’t figure out exactly how anyone could get lost there.
• Driving day to Carlsbad, New Mexico
I only shot a couple of items at sunset, but I managed to get a huge number of stickers in my shoelaces.
• Old Guano Trail, Rattlesnake Canyon, Devil’s Hall
Up before dawn on a beautiful day, I was unable to find breakfast or even coffee.
I was at Carlsbad by 6:45 am, to find that nothing was open, neither the road to the trails nor the visitor’s center. I hiked for some distance on the Old Guano Road trail, making a few passable images.
Drove to the Rattlesnake Canyon trail head, where I immediately found the trail to be as poorly marked as any I had hiked in recent memory. Also, unlike the canyons of Utah, these have a certain “sameness” to them. I was especially discouraged by the trail head, which left me guessing and blundering into the wash from anywhere. I could definitely see how someone might get lost.
The side canyon that leads to Rattlesnake Canyon is brushy and indistinct. Rattlesnake Canyon itself is wider, and lined with white limestone where the wash runs. I hiked it in both directions and found some of the landmarks mentioned in “Journal of the Dead.” I concluded that while navigation is something of a challenge in the area, ultimately it would be unlikely that I could get as lost as the hikers in the book did. Even if you were unable to find the side canyon that lead back to the parking area, in a pinch you could hike north to another trail, the Guadalupe Ridge Trail, which would then lead you to the road that would take you back to your car or the visitor’s center. And finally, you could hike southeast out of the canyons into the open desert, which places you just five miles west of a major highway.
My final conclusion was that you would have to be pretty inexperienced and a very poor navigator to get lost and then trapped in this area. Local law enforcement believed that one of the hikers, Raffi Kodikian, lured his partner, David Coughlin, to the canyon for the expressed purpose of murdering him, and arrested and charged him with that crime. Neither theory fully explains the events, and my visit didn’t really answer any more questions than it asked. Abby and I both recommend the book.
By afternoon I was at nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park, my second visit to the park, hiking the Devil’s Hall Trail, which was exceptionally beautiful with autumn color.
Arriving at Guadalupe today felt somehow like coming home. In all the hiking I did today, I only saw three other people.
• McKittrick Canyon, Permian Reef Trail, Sunset at El Capitan
An exceptional day on the trails, today hiking from the McKittrick Canyon Visitor’s Center on the northern end of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
In the morning I hiked McKittrick Canyon to the Hunter Line Cabin and the Grotto.
By afternoon, I hiked to the top of the Permian Reef Trail, which was long and steep. Excellent views of the canyon and mountains.
Sunset near El Capitan
• Bear Canyon/Bowl/Tejas Loop
Hiked one of Guadalupe’s more challenging hikes today, the Bear Canyon/Bowl/Tejas Trail loop, 10.2 miles in about six hours. The first half mile ascends 2500 feet in Bear Canyon. It was a great ending for a great trip.