Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Capitol Gorge to Grand Wash via Ferns Nipple: Capitol Reef National Park

Essence: The thru-hike from Capitol Gorge to Grand Wash is a submersion in exceptional beauty. Marvel at smooth sandstone sheets and the idiosyncratic designs of nearby domes and buttes. Simply attempt to comprehend the wondrous Waterpocket Fold and the grandeur of mountain ranges enfolding the park. This hike is for devotees of Capitol Reef who are familiar with the quirks and hazards associated with its chaotic and labyrinthine landscape. Navigation is the most demanding element of this trek. The off-trail challenge and effort is consistent with what you would expect on the long span between the park's two premier drainageways. We have done the thru-hike in both directions. This description begins from Capitol Gorge because it offers the easier (but longer) route to the Ferns Nipple arena for those doing an out and back. However, there's something to be said for starting the thru-hike from Grand Wash. The most exacting navigation and exposure occurs in the first few miles--is this hike for you? Plus, the Golden Throne Trail is a low-stress finish at the end of a long day.
Travel: The thru-hike requires a short shuttle. Drop a vehicle at the Grand Wash Trailhead and park at the Capitol Gorge Trailhead where the hike begins. Reverse the order if you are starting from Grand Wash. Start early to guarantee parking.
Fruita Campground: This idyllic, shady campground is adjacent to the Fremont River, tucked amongst historic fruit orchards. There are bathrooms, fire grates, picnic tables, and water. You may (and should) reserve six months in advance. Please be sure to cancel your reservations if you are not going to use them. The 71 sites are first-come, first-serve November through February.
Fee Information: Park facilities are open year-round.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10 miles; 2,500 feet (without exploration)
Total Time: 6:30 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail (2 miles), off-trail (8 miles); navigation most challenging; Class 2+ with one Class 3 move on the final pitch into Grand Wash; moderate exposure; carry more food and water than you think you will need and hike on a cool day.
Maps: Golden Throne; Fruita, UT 7.5' USGS Quads
Latest Date Hiked: Grand Wash to Capitol Gorge, October 25, 2022; Capitol Gorge to Grand Wash, April 11, 2017 
Quote: The canyon is like great music, within the reach of everyone and beyond the comprehension of anyone. We can feel it but we can never say it. Charles Bowden 
With its perfect conical form, Ferns Nipple is discernible from many locations in Capitol Reef. The prime features of the hike are concentrated in the surrounding locale--whether you are free-ranging amongst the buttes at the head of Bear Canyon, or climbing Ferns Nipple--Class 5 with serious exposure. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)
Route: For legibility, two maps are presented. While this description begins in Capitol Gorge and goes south to north, the route may be reversed. From the Golden Throne Trailhead, hike roughly northwest to the end of the trail. Head north along the west side of Golden Throne and then up a sandstone ramp to the west end of a ridge extending from Point 6,694'. Walk north-northwest in a drainage to the highpoint of the hike, 6,940 feet. Hold that trajectory and climb over Dome 6,860' to Ferns Nipple.

Swing around the north slope of Ferns Nipple and descend south in a broad gully. Round the south end of a ridge and hike north on slickrock benches high above Shinob Canyon. Wind in and out of three, unnamed side canyons. A cairned social trail picks up north of the middle side canyon. Follow cairns into Bear Canyon and on down into Grand Wash. Walk upcanyon to the trailhead. 
Golden Throne Trailhead (Capitol Gorge)
The Golden Throne and Capitol Gorge trails leave from different locations in a shared parking lot, elevation 5,420 feet. Start up the Golden Throne Trail on Kayenta Formation walking ledges pitched at just the right degree for a gradual, consistent ascent. The well-engineered trail weaves between enormous fallen sandstone boulders. Be engulfed in rock--everything is massive. Geological features to watch for are iron concretions flung about the surface, tafoni (cavities in the walls), and mustard-colored Liesegang rings. The popular footpath winds in and out of three, sheer-walled crack canyons. Living on soil-generating ledges are piñon-juniper, roundleaf buffaloberry, and ephedra. Blooming in the spring are Utah penstemon, rockcress, paintbrush, puccoon, cat's eye, and woolly milkvetch. (Please note that the photos used in this post were gathered on many hikes over the years so the skyscape varies.)
The Golden Throne trail ends at 1.9 miles, elevation 6,120 feet. The overlook is 0.1 mile to the west. With its smooth, vertical walls cloaked in yellow the Throne is a marvel. To its north are three flat-topped, cliff-bound buttes. The first two are unnamed and unnumbered. George Benchmark is image-left.

Ferns Nipple
The next navigation objective is the west side of a knobby ridge, image-left. From the end of trail sign, strike out northward on a social trail. The path is a little obscure at first but it quickly becomes more distinct. Throughout the hike, do your best to stay on a use trail or open rock, and avoid stepping on cryptobiotic soil. The route hugs the west wall of the Golden Throne, pinching between the escarpment and a sharp drop. 

Over time, water gushing from the crack between the buttes has carved a fluted channel, pouroff, and pool.
At 2.4 miles reach the (normally) dry streambed just above water-scoured tanks that head the barrier fall. The social trail vanishes and the remainder of the journey will likely be one of solitude. (THW, photo)
Walk up the drainage about 50 feet and then take a few steps up out of the wash onto an appealing slickrock incline. Hike west, ascending 500 feet over 0.6 mile to rim's edge. It is possible to thread together slickrock runners and ramps the entire distance. (THW, photo)

Reach the west end of the ridge extending from Point 6,694' at 3.0 miles. Pause on the vast slab to look back one last time on the Golden Throne with its 500-foot earth mural. Mount Ellen in the Henry Mountains is one of 57 peaks in the Lower 48 with 5,000 feet of topographic prominence. (THW, photo)
There are plenty of cliff edges on this trek but none compare with the radical 800-foot drop to Scenic Drive. The rim is held up by cliff-forming Wingate Sandstone and thin bands of Kayenta Formation.
The route turns north alongside an impossibly high pouroff. Step into the arroyo beyond the dry fall. The route utilizes nature's pathway for 1.2 miles bearing north-northwest. The wash is brush-free, sandy, and peaceful. Elder juniper, rabbitbrush, and snakeweed surround. 
Take the left fork when the wash splits at 3.3 miles. In October, 2022, we followed the prints of an adult bear and two juvenile cubs for the next mile. 

The wash splits again at 4.3 miles. Turn west into a secondary drainage. In about 0.1 mile turn out of the streamway and go north onto a subtle east-west running rise. The high point of the hike is on a 6,940-foot knoll at 4.6 miles. One of our favorite adventures in the park is climbing nearby George Benchmark, 7,289', the highest prominence in the region. The knoll affords the first look at Ferns Nipple, a mile away and a straight shot north.

Walk on compacted soil with a crushed rock surface through a piñon-juniper woodland. Scattered on sheets of sandstone are captivating, odd-shaped organic forms--"egg rock." (THW, photo)

The route goes up and over the dome south of Ferns Nipple, image-left. In 2017, the friction pitch on the south side gave some of my friends pause. But it is a perfectly safe climb to the top of the dome at 5.5 miles, 6,860 feet.

From the rounded crest, Scenic Drive is now 1,000 feet below. Vast, timbered, and low-slung, Miners Mountain contributes water into both Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash (separated by the Slickrock Divide). Rising high in the west is Bluebell Knoll on Boulder Mountain, 11,340'. 

The surface of the dome is adorned with beige moqui balls and chunks of highly textured lavender-colored rock. Please tiptoe around them and resist all urges to pocket what was birthed here and deserves to live on this dome! (THW, photo)

Alight on the south bench of Ferns Nipple at 5.7 miles. Brilliant Navajo Sandstone dazzles in shades of purple, yellow, mustard, and red.
For me, the finest part of the hike is concentrated in this glorious slickrock world surrounded by multiple buttes with fantastical shapes. We explored east into the upper reaches of Bear Canyon. Reportedly there is a route down Bear that links with Grand Wash. In the spring of 2022, we attempted to go up Bear Canyon from Grand Wash but got turned around at a pouroff. Without a successful trip up, we weren't about to attempt an exit from the head of the canyon.
In 2017, I started up Ferns Nipple from the north side with friends. I bailed after just 100 vertical feet up the 325-foot rise. The climbing wasn't difficult but I couldn't tolerate the absurd exposure. After a successful climb, some needed a handline for the descent. Carry one.
Ferns Nipple to Grand Wash 
Those who are simply visiting the Ferns Nipple region should retrace steps to Capitol Gorge. For those doing the thru-hike, it is four miles from the north side of Ferns Nipple to the Grand Wash Trailhead. For reference, it took us three hours to cover the stretch from Capitol Gorge and almost an hour longer for the north segment. To begin, walk north on a rather narrow rim hugging up against Fern. Weathered blocks are poised to slide off the east slope.  
(THW, photo)
Iron concretions are abundant on this side of the butte.
Descend around to the north and west (shown) until you can drop into the gully that runs south along the west skirts of Ferns Nipple. Our route points south for half a mile before turning back to the north. Note: There is an alternate, shorter route from the north slope of Ferns that drops radically into the most southern of the three side canyons in Shinob Canyon. Reference Road Trip Ryan for an excellent description of the Ferns Nipple climb from the Grand Wash approach. Please consult the trip report before attempting this more challenging route. (THW, photo)
Finagle a way down through the gully. The step-down is a fun little scramble. There are multiple threads; we've worked all of them. The exit from the canyon is at the bright, sandstone landing, image-center. (THW, photo)

This image looks back upcanyon from the exit location.
Critical: you must be transitioning out of the gully by 6,560 feet. Curve west under the south end of the ridge, shown. Below, my partner is doing the hike from Grand Wash and is about to enter the gully.

Hold a north bearing while working broad, slickrock ledges. My field notes gloat over this stretch. There are no cairns--employ the intuitive route, descending all the while. The deep rift forming to the west is Shinob Canyon. It is not named on the Fruita topo but it is referenced on other maps.  (THW, photo)

The route winds in and out of three side canyons. To keep them straight I've labeled them on the map as "South," "Middle," and "North." I have been over this stretch four times and commandeering the first two side canyons is the most difficult part of the hike for me. Side Canyon South is complicated by massive boulders in the channel. It is hard to get down in there, but then I tend to approach too high. Cross at about 6,160 feet. This image looks into the canyon from the north. Road Trip Ryan's shortcut to Ferns Nipple begins in this canyon.

Crossing Side Canyon Middle (south of Point 6,309') is dicey. The approach into the canyon is steep but reasonable from the south. In 2022, cairns marked a passage for a crossing at about 6,000 feet. In the past, a social trail led from the creek bed onto a comfortable ledge on the north side, shown. 

I have crossed the canyon three times with little difficulty. However, the trail was blown away by a flash flood in June, 2022. The slope on the north side is washed out and trenched, shown. It is composed of rounded rubble balls pitched at the angle of repose hanging above a no-exit plunge. Simply do your best to find a safe place to cross. Figure you are going to drop some time while picking your way to safety. Below, my partner is entering the side canyon from the north.
A well-cairned social trail picks up on the north side and is reliable (and indispensable) all the way to Grand Wash. Capitalize on the slickrock pathway rounding Point 6,309'. Below, straight walled, brick and white striped Shinob Canyon joins forces with Grand Wash.
Side Canyon North is delightful, easy going, and shallow. Take a final look back at Ferns Nipple while leaving Shinob Canyon behind and rounding the corner into the Grand Wash corridor.
Stand on the last expanse of Navajo Sandstone while taking in phenomenal views of Waterpocket Fold and Thousand Lake Mountain. The image below captures groups of people visiting Cassidy Arch drilled into the garnet-colored Kayenta Formation.
Activate your navigation wizard for the 340-foot descent into Bear Canyon. You will be crossing Bear just above its pouroff into Grand Wash. The photo below was snapped from a landing at 5,900 feet, 1.0 mile from the end of the hike. The next objective is the platform across Bear Canyon, image-lower-left. 

 From the landing, hang a hard left into the gray chute, shown, and scramble down the crack. 
Punch down through complicated terrain troubled with cliffs. Follow cairns religiously. You will never guess your way. The route wiggles and weaves, threading from one tiny break in the cliffs to the next. Meander on shelves between weaknesses, shown. Churning down the hillside on this magic path is great fun...provided you don't lose your way. If you lose sight of the cairns, return to the last known one and locate the next before continuing. 
Pass through a small stone bowl, its surface riddled with eroded forms and recesses. 
Cross Bear Canyon at 5,560 feet, over the top of a beautiful but impassible pouroff. The final passage to the Grand Wash floor is a lengthy bypass of this obstacle. This image looks back on Bear Canyon.
The Bear Canyon platform is just 0.5 mile from the end of the hike.
The drop into Grand Wash is the final challenge. Over time, the unmaintained social trail has improved from braided and haphazardly cairned to distinct and well marked. It's fun to puzzle out the route as it descends the hillside riddled with large, fallen boulders and thin cliffbands. This is the most exposed portion of the hike. Getting past the crux point is mandatory in order to transition to the next lower level. Below, my partner has just left the platform and is about to reach the crux.

The low Class 3 move is assisted by a small piñon tree growing in a crack.  

This image looks back at the tree crux on the left. Exposure is moderate and the holds are good, thanks to the little tree. Be gentle with it. (THW, photo)
The route threads from one ledge to another with well-cairned step downs. Arrive on the floor of Grand Wash about 100 paces downcanyon of the Cassidy Arch Trail. The junction is sometimes marked with a cairn on the east side of the canyon. Walk up the watercourse 0.25 mile to the Grand Wash Trailhead, 5,420 feet. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Guadalupe Peak, 8,749', and El Capitan, 8,085': Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Essence: Give it up to Texas for having one of the finest highpoints in the nation. Guadalupe Peak is composed of a rare fossilized reef. Its glowing white limestone dome rises 5,000 feet above the Chihuahuan Desert. This world class hike to the "Top of Texas" is "just a walk" on an admirably engineered trail chiseled into bedrock. However, it is a long walk with significant elevation gain. You are likely to be accompanied by rightfully proud Texans and members of the "Highpointers Club" who are climbing the tallest mountains in all 50 states. The trek to El Capitan is a higher-order challenge with the commensurate thrill of hiking along a sheer, vertiginous 1,000-foot-tall precipice. It should be attempted only by desert mountaineers well-versed in off-trail navigation. The Guadalupe Mountains extend for 40 miles from far West Texas to New Mexico. The park was established in 1972 to celebrate and preserve the four highest mountains in Texas, geology born within an ancient sea, and a limestone cliff rimming the edge of the world. This hike is on public land managed by the National Park Service.
Travel: Guadalupe Mountains National Park is located in West Texas on Highway 62/180. Turn west into the Pine Springs Visitor Center and follow the paved road past the campground. The trailhead is at the far end of the RV camping area. Restrooms and water are available at the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Guadalupe Peak, 8.5 miles; 3,000 feet. El Capitan adds 2.4 miles and 1,450 feet. Totals for the two mountains: 10.9 miles, 4,450 feet
Total Time: Guadalupe Peak: 5:00 to 7:30. El Capitan took us an additional 3:00--your time will likely vary.
Difficulty: Guadalupe Peak: Class 2 trail; navigation easy; no exposure. El Capitan: off-trail; Class 2+; navigation challenging; cliff edge exposure can be moderated; brushy, wear long pants. Carry more food and water than you think you will need and hike on a cool day. We carried a gallon of water each in mid-October. 
Fees and Park Information: Please consult Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Display an Interagency Pass in your vehicle or pay the entrance fee at the Pine Springs Visitor Center. The campground is reservation only. 
Geology: The Guadalupe Mountains are composed of a resistant fossil reef that formed 260-270 million years ago during the Permian period while modern-day Texas and New Mexico were submerged under an ancient sea. The waters evaporated over time but the 400-mile-long Capitan Reef remained entombed for eons under sediment. Faults over the last 20 million years caused a portion of the Capitan Reef to rise several thousand feet. Overlying sediments eroded exposing the Capitan limestone composing the modern Guadalupe Mountains and its two signature features: the Top of Texas and El Capitan.
Map: Guadalupe Peak, TX 7.5' USGS Quad
Date Hiked: October 11, 2022
Quote: There's a vastness here and I believe that the people who are born here breathe that vastness into their soul. They dream big dreams and think big thoughts, because there is nothing to hem them in. Conrad Hilton (referring to Texans)

The north ridge of El Capitan offers a unique perspective on the southern slopes of Guadalupe Peak and its radical western escarpment. The uplifted reef extends from El Capitan to Guadalupe, Shumard, and Bartlett peaks, and Bush Mountain, the four tallest mountains in Texas. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Travelers accustomed to seeing El Capitan from the highway might be surprised to learn climbers must drop 1,000 feet from the Guadalupe Peak Trail before scaling along the rim to the apex of the southern prow. (THW, photo)
Route: Guadalupe Peak is nearly due west from the Pine Spring Trailhead. Follow the Guadalupe Peak Trail as it snakes through complicated and rugged terrain. The footpath is well-trodden and easy to distinguish from secondary trails that spin off the main. The route to El Capitan (indicated with a blue line) leaves the peak trail 250 feet below the summit. The off-trail route is essentially a straight shot south (with nuances!).

Guadalupe Peak
Four trails leave from the Pine Spring Trailhead, elevation 5,840 feet: Guadalupe Peak, Devil's Hall, El Capitan (runs along the base of the peak), and The Bowl. There are three trail junctions in the first 0.8 mile. If in doubt, stay on the main path charging upward.
We started hiking in dawn light, the full moon settling down in the west. We carried uncertainties along with packs heavy with food, water, rain gear, and a headlamp. We weren't sure if we could navigate ourselves to El Capitan or how long the two-mountain hike would take. It was a warm morning and crazy beautiful. The awakening sun set the world glowing, the stony bedrock path sparkling. You will get a taste for the trail's challenge from the start. There are juniper log risers with hefty step-ups and crushed rock treads. Further along, risers are made from artfully set boulders and the treads are thin slabs of stone. Now and then boot-smoothed limestone rises to the surface and you'll imagine yourself walking on top of a reef. (THW, photo)

The trail positions itself for churning up the boulder and cliff-riddled front hillside by switchbacking south. This hike features verticality. The pitched slope crashes down to the desert floor. The highway is audible running along on the Chihuahuan plain. This sunny side of the hike features pricklypear, sotol, yucca, walking-stick cholla, and agave. Blackfoot daisy and a shrubby yellow composite bloomed as if spring was eternal. (THW, photo)

At 6,600 feet the trail turns northwest to commandeer the ultra steep slope. Trail builders chiseled and blasted their way up the pitch. Dynamite drill holes perforate the surface. I was both incredulous and grateful that this trail escorted us so effortlessly up an otherwise unscalable mountain.

There is one short section of trail that will give those with a fear of heights pause. It is just ahead of "Around the Bend" at 7,040 feet. It is posted in both directions with a sign: "Caution: cliff riders dismount and lead." Likewise, parents should have a tight rein (so to speak) on children. (THW, photo)
On the other hand, people who get off on safe-enough but slightly scary places will think this is the coolest part of the trek. The blown pathway is three feet wide with a substantial drop off to one side. (THW, photo)

The trail curves sharply around to the back side of the front hill at 1.6 miles. The grade eases, the steepest part of the hike accomplished. However, be psyched for more stair-stepping to come. Look carefully at the image below and you'll see the Tejas Trail climbing out of Pine Spring Canyon toward Hunter Peak, image-right.

Below, the full moon sets behind Shumard Peak, 8,615', ranked third highest in the state.

The path traverses a north-facing slope. It was a shady, cool passage in autumn and could well hold snow in winter. The woodland favored an array of trees typically found in the park: piñon pine, Chihuahua white pine, Douglas fir, alligator juniper, and Arizona pine, shown.
Guadalupe Peak comes into view when the trail turns west once again at 3.0 miles. Pass the backcountry campsite, descend slightly, and cross a wooden plank bridge. (THW, photo)
The bridge spans a fissure in the cliff wall. 

 The pathway heads Guadalupe Canyon, a rift in the reef plunging 3,000 feet in short order.

Begin ascending the east slope of Guadalupe Peak in lengthy, lazy switchbacks. Aside: The image below was taken from the east ridge and shows the notable and enticing bluff above the bridge. On our return we crossed the bridge and then walked up onto the bluff for an alternate view of the peak.
From the bluff, the peak displays a thin mantle of vegetation that's taken hold on solid limestone, the generous trail platform laboriously hacked into its flanks. (THW, photo)

In the switchbacks, the trail maintains a pleasant grade. Below, El Capitan is just coming into view. With every step the terminus of the Capitan Reef becomes ever more impressive. (THW, photo)
The spur to El Capitan leaves the Guadalupe Peak Trail at the apex of a switchback at 8,500 feet. I will discuss this option in detail later in this post. Meanwhile, one of my favorite sections of the peak trail awaits. The passageway is cleaved from weathered limestone with shiny crystals. The top of the reef is right beside the path, ten feet overhead.
Arrive on the summit of Guadalupe Peak at 4.25 miles. Congratulations, most especially to all the Texans who achieve their state's highpoint. With a rise of 3,027 feet off the 5,723-foot saddle (and 5,100 feet above Salt Basin), the uninterrupted vantage point is downright imponderable. The image below was shot from the west promontory and depicts the generous crest covered in "bubbles" of limestone. Based on new, more accurate measurement technology, LiDAR, the mountain has been elevated over what is shown on the topo by one foot to 8,750 feet. (THW, photo)
The three-sided summit monument commemorates overland stage and air travel. It was installed in 1958 before the inception of the national park. (THW, composite photo)
This image looks north to Shumard and Bartlett peaks. It lends perspective on just how abruptly and vertically the Capitan Reef projects from the surrounding plain.

El Capitan
The off-trail trek to El Capitan (from elevation 8,500 feet on the Guadalupe Peak Trail) adds 1,450 feet and 2.4 miles roundtrip. While it took us three hours, your time might vary radically. For perspective on our pacing, our roundtrip time to Guadalupe Peak (including breaks) was just over five hours. Guadalupe Peak is a fine mountain and deeply satisfying. But for confident desert mountaineers, El Capitan is the greater pleasure. It has everything: navigation challenges, rough surfaces, light scrambling, insane views, and cliff walking.

I will describe our two routes, out and back. Both were perfectly acceptable. There's plenty of latitude, including spending more time roaming along the rim. El Capitan is essentially due south from the launch point and our out-going route proved the more efficient. I've roughly drawn it on the photo below. On the initial descent ridge, the first 100-foot pitch was the hardest. It begins steeply with loose rubble underfoot and impeding brush. A quick perusal of the web ahead of time warned repeatedly of heavy brush. Sure, wear long pants. Maybe we're hardened by off-trail cactus slashing in the Sonoran Desert because brush was a not an issue for us.

As we descended there was more bedrock, less brush, and better traction. Limestone karst is as sticky as rock gets. It literally digs its stony claws into your boots and wears them away. A mystery plant was wafting a sweet, rounded earthy perfume. I didn't know the earth could smell that good. We headed for "The Bowl," shown, where ridges and gullies coalesce. In fact, we entered a handy gully just before hitting the low point at 7,640 feet. From there, it worked superbly to climb to the rim, hitting it in the notch south of the triangular knob depicted. (This knob is just south of the 7,780-foot saddle giving El Capitan a rise of 305 feet.)

Don't get your momentum up. Gasp! It doesn't get more airy than standing on this threshold between stone and sky with its sheer 1,000-foot drop. (THW, photo)

We arrived on the raw edge at the very moment a low-flying fighter jet came through the breach while snapping an aileron roll. More drama!
The overhanging cliff profile is a no-nonsense freefall zone.

The wind was a contender and gusts complicated matters. So we were grateful to happen upon an unexpected game/social trail a comfortable distance off the rim. Even erratic and fragmentary trails are gratefully accepted. This image was shot looking south from the first false summit at 8,060 feet.

El Capitan wants to be climbed. We could have gotten cliffed out ten different ways. And yet, here we were just gliding up, our hearts filled with expectation and elation.  This mountain is for all those people out there who relish big limestone walls. I was reminded of Notch Peak in Utah's House Range and Big Hatchet Peak in the New Mexico Bootheel. (THW, photo)

Trees part to reveal unadulterated sky and the climb abruptly ends on a perch looking out over measureless spans of visual space. We walked over to the aerie suspended over thin air, disturbing the local flyers who were surely questioning what a couple of humans were doing in their domain. (THW, photo)

It was emotionally gripping out there at the ragged edge of the world. I think mountains leave an imprint on our souls. Perhaps even more so when you stand atop a thousand-foot perpendicular limestone wall, sedimentary material splays for another couple of thousand feet, and Guadalupe Canyon dissipates into the Guadalupe Arroyo 4,000 feet below the reef. 

Below, I'm heading back to the El Capitan summit from the aerie with Guadalupe Peak in the background. (THW, photo)

If you have any doubt about how to extract yourself from the El Capitan spur, simply retrace your steps to the trail (black-line route shown below). We wanted to check out a possible shortcut, so from The Bowl we started up our descent ridge and then transitioned to the ridge on our east at 7,760 feet. At 8,100 feet, we transfered once more to arrive on a flat at 8,160 feet (blue-line route).
We read about a shortcut on the web and it would have been a quick jump over to the trail, joining it at 8,200 feet. Perhaps it would have worked out fine but it looked treacherous to me. I'm not fond of sidehilling on steep slopes with loose material, shown. Plus, the gully crossing looked scary. So we just hefted up the ridge we were on. It proved to be an excellent route. We made contact with the Guadalupe Peak Trail at 7.0 miles and simply strolled back down the mountain.
This beguiling image of both El Capitan and the summit of Guadalupe Peak was shot through the windshield on the roll up Highway 54.

El Capitan is a monumental tribute to our ever-evolving Earth. Whether you admire it from Highway 62/180, the Guadalupe Peak Trail, or from the summit aerie, the southernmost tipoff on the Capitan Reef leaves a favorable and indelible mark.