John Muir reminds us to “keep close to Nature’s heart and break clear, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
What better way to do that than to come to West Texas. Looming large in a remote section of the state is a geological phenomenon straddling the Texas-New Mexico border. Guadalupe Mountains National Park was established on September 30, 1972, and is home to El Capitan, the highest most visible peak in Texas at 8,085 feet.
It is an awe-inspiring rugged icon of limestone towering above the road, and the park protects the most extensive Permian fossil reef. It beckons hikers, campers, and backpackers to the surrounding wilderness, offering solace and solitude to all who explore.
Just north of El Capitan is Guadalupe Peak, at 8,751 feet. There are four other peaks within the park’s boundaries that top 8,000 feet, making for a stunning landscape amongst the flatness of the surrounding Texas countryside.
Pro Tip: Just before visiting, make sure your gas tank is full, along with plenty of food and water. Services are spare within and around the park. Cell phone service is spotty, as well, so prepare to unplug. Bring those paper maps of the park and do it old school.
Begin the Adventure at Pine Springs Headquarters
As with most any national park, a good way to orient yourself is to head straight for the visitor center. Here you can pay the entrance fee and obtain backcountry hiking permits if you plan to do some overnight camping. Tour the museum, shop for souvenirs, and pick up the aforementioned paper maps, as well as brochures and books. Rangers are on hand to answer any questions, particularly about trails and their current conditions.
Scenic Drives at Guadalupe Mountains
As no roads pass through the heart of the park, a series of roads provide access to some beautiful drives. US Highway 62/180 connects El Paso to Carlsbad, New Mexico. It provides incredible views of the park from the south, west, and north. The highway does enter the park boundaries for about five miles.
Highway 54 from the south will take you directly to the Guadalupes from Van Horn, Texas. The road runs between the Delaware Mountains and Sierra Diablo, providing a dramatic approach to the Guadalupe Mountains. On a clear day, admire the mountain ahead of you as far back as 40 miles as you approach.
Wildlife in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Despite the fact that there is a multitude of species residing in the park thanks to its diverse ecosystem, wildlife encounters are not abundant. The hot, dry desert conditions throughout the park dictate lots of nocturnal activity by the park’s permanent residents. The best chance visitors have of viewing wildlife is in the wee morning hours, or later in the morning if the temperatures are cooler.
Often the best way to experience wildlife here is to look for the evidence: tracks, rubbings on trees, scat, nests, and dens. Viewing around water sources is another good bet. Mule deer live throughout the park, and elk are occasionally seen grazing near the highway corridor. Coyotes, desert cottontails, grey fox, mountain lions, javelinas, rock squirrels, and black-tailed jackrabbits are all here.
In the high country, black bears have been seen, although it’s rare. Reptiles are commonly seen during the warmer months. Look for the short-horned lizard, prairie lizard, the Chihuahuan spotted whiptail, and rattlesnakes making their way along the desert floor.
Unique Hiking Experiences
Devil’s Hall Trail. This is a 3.8-mile loop trail that leads to a rocky wash, steep canyon walls, tall trees, majestic mountains, and geological formations. The scenery is stunning, especially at the higher elevations. This and Guadalupe Peak are part of the Pine Springs Area. Depending on the conditions, this trail can be moderate to strenuous.
At Smith Spring Trail, enjoy 2.3 miles of wonderful scenery on this loop trail where you can spot javelinas, mule deer, lizards, and various birds. In the fall, do not miss the gorgeous colors of the McKittrick Canyon Nature Loop Trail. The enhanced hues of the Chihuahuan desert contrast with century plants, steep canyon walls, and prickly pear cacti.
For something a bit more challenging, take the 8.5-mile Guadalupe Peak hike to the summit, with a 3,000-feet elevation gain. The hike is rated as strenuous, so allow 6-8 hours for the entire hike. However, the reward is amazing – you will literally be at the top of Texas. Once you reach the summit, look for the small metal box holding the mountaintop registry and sign your name proving you were there.
Perhaps the most challenging is the trek to The Grotto and Hunter Line Shack through McKittrick Canyon. The Grotto itself has exposed cave features with stone picnic tables, perfect for stopping to refuel with a picnic lunch. On this hike, you can overnight at McKittrick Ridge. Allow 2-3 days for this extended hiking adventure of 14.8 miles.
Explore white gypsum sands of the Salt Basin Dunes, which rise 100 feet from the desert floor, providing a starkly beautiful contrast to the towering cliffs of the Guadalupe Mountains. It is a 3 to 4-mile round trip hike and is rated as moderate due to the 60-feet-high dunes that require a bit of scrambling.
More Backcountry Camping
After tackling Guadalupe Peak, overnight at the Guadalupe Peak Backcountry Campground. Remember to grab that backcountry permit at the visitor center. There are five designated campsites with tent pads, located about 3 miles from Pine Springs and one mile before you reach the summit.
Spend a night at the secluded and forested Dog Canyon on the north side of the park. You can approach the canyon on Highway 137 from Carlsbad – there is no road through the park from Pine Springs, and be sure to check weather conditions before the trip. The elevation here is 6,300 and offers cooler weather. There are nine tent sites and four RV sites (no hookups).
Rob Decker is a photographer, artist and craftsman who is passionate about preserving the nostalgic style of the WPA-era. Rob had the rare privilege of studying under renowned photographer Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob's creating WPA-style posters of our national parks. He's picking up where the masters from that time left off, building on what they began to create a whole new body of National Park poster art for today's generation. Every Limited Edition poster, Artist Proof and postcard he produces is printed in the USA on “Conservation” a 100% recycled, domestically produced stock with soy-based inks. And they are printed by one of the greenest printers in America, right here in Colorado.
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