Date of hike: September 27, 2014
Distance: 8.4 miles
Elevation gain: 775 feet
Time on Trail: Just under 3 hours
Pre-Black Mesa Jitters
Nearly every source I read about hiking Black Mesa cautions hikers about rattlesnakes. The months leading up to this hike were no big deal; I wasn’t afraid of snakes. I’ve held a few, seen countless varieties and sizes on hikes, and have never once been squeamish around them. Most people have some major fear – flying, heights, public speaking, spiders. I’ve been fortunate to never have had a concrete fear I could point to… until a month before Black Mesa.
Four weeks before this trip, I had a surprise encounter with a snake in my yard. I moved my garbage can so I could pull a few weeds near the house, which trapped me in a small area bound by my house and shrubs on the non-garbage can sides. The snake slithered right next to my foot (I was in flip flops), which freaked me out. I realized after the fact that I had instinctively jumped over my shrubs in one gigantic leap. Maybe I can credit this superhuman catapult to my former Parkour training. Though, more likely, it was adrenaline that propelled me a distance I otherwise would not have managed to clear. After that, everything looked like a snake to me: a coiled wire discarded on the ground, a piece of string, a curvy stick near the sidewalk.
Which brings me back to Black Mesa. This was rattlesnake country and every hiker needs to be prepared for how to avoid getting bitten, and then understand what actions to take in the event of a bite. Snakes, never a previous concern, now became my obsession. I read everything I could get my hands on, particularly about rattlesnakes.
The advice that concerned me most was if you’re bitten, remain calm because getting upset will move the venom through you more quickly, reducing your chances of survival. How would it be possible to remain calm after that? If you’re bitten, wouldn’t your normal impulse be to scream, run, I don’t know, swat at it with your hiking poles in defense, probably provoking it further? How was I going to survive over 8 miles in rattlesnake country now that I was a little rattled (pun intended) by snakes?
The answer – I tried not to think about it. I pushed it out of my head until the day of. Four weeks passing without any surprise snake encounters was apparently all I needed.
Early in the journey, I started chatting with another hiker. Before my brain could process what I was saying, I heard the words come out of my mouth, “I’m hoping to see some rattlesnakes today.” After I’d said it, shocking both me and my husband, I realized it was true. I was honestly hoping to see some of these mystical creatures I’d been so nervous about. Now, it became pure curiosity. I wanted – needed to see these large, powerful coils in their home land. I was on a mission.
Black Mesa is mostly flat with one brief demanding section between miles 2 and 3 where all of the 775 feet of elevation gain happens inside of a short distance. Along the way, you’re rewarded with cactus and interesting insects like shiny black grasshoppers that have red wings only visible when flying.
Black Mesa marks each mile with a bench displaying the mile marker carved into its back. A literal benchmark – loved it. At the top of the elevation gain, the hike flattens out at the top of the Mesa. It was a bit windy and dusty by extension – I don’t tend to walk with my mouth open, but I was definitely licking dirt and salt off of my teeth at the summit. A buff would come in handy to guard against this.
An obelisk greets you at the summit, showcasing the direction you’re facing and the mileage to whatever view you’re taking in. Also, dozens of high school students may greet you at the summit. They were clearly locals who frequented this hike as their register entries just before mine said things like, “Here again” or “Another day at Black Mesa.” They seemed unaccompanied by adults and identified the obelisk base as the perfect spot to enjoy their sandwiches. One girl spoke loudly several times of her uncontrollable urge to photo bomb strangers’ photos. We strategically asked her to photograph us and joked with her about why we asked her to take it instead of any of her buddies. She was good spirited and friendly and made her friends clear out of our frame, so we were thankful for all of that.
The way down was largely uneventful. We met an older local couple who had come in search of birds. They were ready with binoculars and their bird watching shirts. The wife didn’t want to talk long – she couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen any birds (I was too busy looking for rattlesnakes to notice birds) and she urgently needed to search for a juniper mouse, which I suspected and later confirmed is a bird.
The biggest factors to consider when hiking Black Mesa are the dessert atmosphere and high exposure to the sun and elements. BRING WATER and sunscreen even on cooler days!
In the mile closest to the trailhead, I spotted two softball sized holes, which I presumed to be snake dens. I desperately wanted to investigate, but the sensible side of me took over and I deftly stepped over them. Sadly, no rattlesnake sightings the entire time. A huge disappointment after all of that dramatic build up.
Many estimates suggest allowing 4-5 hours for the round trip. Most of the terrain is flat, so you can significantly improve upon that time if you want to. We did it in under three, including a 15 minute stop at the summit to sign the register, take photos, and enjoy kettle cooked doughnuts we’d bought that morning for our hiking snack.
Black Mesa provides a port-a-john with permanent walls around it in the parking lot just before the gates. Otherwise, you’re out in the open, so plan well. Oh, and be sure to watch out for rattlesnakes!