Author Interests: Hiking Guadalupe Peak In West Texas
by Dr. Toby K. Easley
I have always loved the mountains. When most people think of Texas, they do not envision naturally mountainous terrain. But think again, because out in the far western reaches near the southern New Mexico state line is the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. If you have never made plans to visit the park, you will most likely never stumble across this mountainous range. Perhaps the most famous and recognizable sight near Guadalupe Peak is the stunning El Capitan Mountain on the southern end of the range. From certain vantage points in the park, El Capitan seems to rise taller than the others, but it is an illusion. The illusion is laid to rest when one summits Guadalupe Peak and peers down on El Capitan’s curvatured top. However, anyone desiring to see the “Top of Texas” on their quest for Guadalupe Peak will need a map or GPS to finally lay eyes on the silver pyramid that rests at an elevation of 8,749 ft.
My first discovery of the Guadalupe Peak came in 1998 during a search through encyclopedic information on the highest peaks in various states. Eighteen years later my curiosity was piqued again while reading a 2016 article about a group of hikers who summited the peak. In early September of 2016, my wife and I had recently experienced the beauty of Big Bend National Park, and in the following weeks we started planning our own hike to the top of Guadalupe Peak.
Our journey began on September 16, 2016 when my wife and I loaded our supplies and tent and headed west out of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. The drive takes over seven hours and we decided to stay on I-20 all the way to Pecos, Texas. From Pecos we headed north on Highway 285 and then west on Texas Ranch Road 652. One should be prepared for a rougher ride on 652 and expect dust and traffic from oil field trucks during the day. Texas Ranch Road 652 curves around and comes to a T at the intersection of Highway 180. The junction of 652 and 180 is approximately 14 miles south of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. A large sign marks the entry to the park on Highway 180, which reads, “Guadalupe Mountains National Park, United States, Department of the Interior, National Park Service.” This sign on the north end of the park is the place we stopped to photograph our arrival. The speed limit also slows to 55 mph, which Park Rangers enforce, so slow down upon your arrival!
Our first order of business was to locate the Pine Springs Visitor Center and pay the $10 entry fee. The signs clearly mark the location and we made one more stop at the attractive entry sign and snapped a few more pictures. After parking, we soaked in some of the beautiful desert landscape and ascending mountains behind the visitor center. The building at Pine Springs is noticeably smaller than Big Bend’s Panther Junction but has an educational nature center with numerous flora and fauna displays from the area. In September of 2016, the Park Service also added a small bookstore that offers postcards, books, and souvenirs.
After waiting on a Park Ranger to explain some details of the site to other travelers, we began asking questions about the campground and trailhead to Guadalupe Peak. In addition to the entry fee, he informed us about the $10 hiking fee. The tent and RV fees are very reasonable at $8 a night, and both offer restrooms with scenic views. The tent area restrooms have no running water, but the RV site nearby has both running water and flushing toilets. There is no water or electric hookups in the RV or tent camping areas, and it is first come, first serve on all sites. After paying the entry fee and hiking fee, we were additionally required to display both ticket stubs on the dashboard of our vehicle.
Once we paid all of our fees, we sought out our tent site. We looked around at several in the open area and settled on site #8, with a picnic table nestled under a mountain Juniper tree. We set up our tent, inflated our mattress, and decided to explore some trails for the late afternoon. There were also a few brief questions we forgot to ask, so we returned to the Park Ranger to get answers. Entering for the second time we asked, “How much water should we pack tomorrow?” With a serious stare, the Ranger said, “Two gallons!” Although this was higher than we anticipated, we took his advice seriously. After asking several questions about McKittrick Canyon, we made our way to the car.
As we drove toward the visitor center exit, we agreed we would spend an hour in McKittrick Canyon’s Nature Loop. The Ranger warned us that the entrance gate to McKittrick was closed at 6 p.m. Therefore, we needed to leave the station in the canyon at least fifteen minutes before the top of the hour to reach the gate.
McKittrick Canyon is a popular destination for those seeking the beautiful fall foliage in October. A stunning hiking trail winds up to Pratt Cabin, a popular destination with park visitors. Since 6 p.m. was quickly approaching, we chose to take off on the Nature Loop that sharply rises upward from the canyon parking lot. We examined the diversity of plants and cactus as we meandered along the trail, always on the lookout for rattlesnakes. Our adventurous tendencies tempted us to walk further into the Nature Loop, but we turned back to give ourselves time to read a few identification signs for plants and trees and then were out the exit with five minutes to spare.
With an hour remaining until darkness began to set in, we decided to drive south on the highway and take a closer look at El Capitan and Guadalupe Peak. Staring at the peaks we both felt anxiety and excitement over the next morning’s adventure. We eventually made a U-turn and headed back to the Pine Springs campground for supper and bed. With a daunting climb the next day, we both needed a good night’s rest.
First light on Saturday broke at 6:30 a.m., and we started loading our backpack items from the detailed checklist. Breakfast was also a priority, since many of the strenuous trails were listed as “severe.” Sunscreen in the mountains was also critical, due to the forecast of clear blue skies and sunshine. We double checked all of our gear and backpacks and headed to the trailhead to take a selfie in front of the sign. The spectacular weather and possibilities of the day were enough to prompt spontaneous smiles as we snapped the picture and turned to the trail.
Our strategy for the climb was a paced steady hike. The trail sign we came across read, “TRAILS - GUAD. PEAK HIKER ONLY ↑..... ← EL CAPITAN..... HORSE/HIKER ->..... DEVIL’S HALL ->.” Making sure we were orienting ourselves in the right direction, we continued straight ahead up the mountain. Our adrenaline rose as steeply as the first switchback trails we ascended. Looking down on the RV parking lot and our car, the rise in elevation was self-evident and the views were sublime.
Approximately thirty minutes into the hike, we made our first stop for water and a brief respite. A young couple came up behind us and eventually passed by us. Before they moved up the trail, they paused and the four of us reflected for a few minutes about our trips out west and the routes we had all driven from the Metroplex. Moving on again, we took our time to soak in the views and snap plenty of pictures. We started our day looking up at the mountain to our north but as we hiked upward, a parallel perspective of its peak emerged with the rising elevation. The yellow and blue blooms on the desert landscape blended with the different shades of brown and green that had been the backdrop of our hike so far.
Approximately a mile into the hike, we came to a turn that placed us on the west side of the mountain with much larger trees appearing. After a few more switchbacks we turned right on the trail and viewed the mountain to the north once again. The gorgeous view encircled us, as the trees were not dense enough to block out visibility. Once again we took time to hydrate and visit with a young man hiking alone. He shared that he had previously been to the top of Guadalupe Peak and we still had several hours remaining till the summit. Despite the arduous hike behind us and the apparent nearness of the peak ahead, we were still three hours from the “Top of Texas.”
Weeks before making the trip we had watched numerous YouTube videos to familiarize ourselves with the trail. We knew we had to be getting close to the short bridge nestled next to a cliff connecting the trails over a steep drop off. Once we were over the bridge, we discovered a short trail leading up to a lookout area. We made our way up over the ridge to take in some breathtaking views to the south. For the first time on the trail we could see portions of El Capitan. We returned to the main trail and adapted to a much narrower portion of the trail with a wall of stone to our right and a cliff to our left. About a hundred yards ahead was a wide bend where we would rest for several minutes. We asked some of the people returning from the top, the length of time it would take from our location to the summit? The answer was forty-five minutes to an hour.
Approximately forty-five minutes later we were told we were fifteen minutes away from reaching our goal. Hikers warned us to “be careful because the last fifteen minutes you will be on rocks and climbing in narrow spaces.” Their words were not what we wanted to hear at the time, but we were determined to buckle down mentally and reach the spot where the silver pyramid rests.
Five minutes later we came to a place where the trail seemed to reach a dead end. Some rocks blocked the trail along with a cliff to our right. If I had taken a moment to climb over the rocks, I would have seen the trail continuing on toward the peak. Instead we climbed up over a steep narrow place above us that had a small trail. As we climbed, we noticed another narrow trail leading left down to the main trail. Finally back on the main trail, we realized we should have gone over the place that gave the semblance of a dead end. After a deep sigh, we were relieved to see people standing on the top. Our detour had unnecessarily taken us up and over a dangerous area that should have been avoided. Now that we were back on the main trail we patiently paused to weigh our options. To finally make our final ascent, there were two alternatives: The main trail offered a short walk up to the pinnacle on the left side or we could try the straight up approach by climbing the rocks to the summit. My wife took the left trail and, due to my anxiousness, I practically ran up the jagged rocks on the right to plant my feet on the top. Victory at last! I saw the silver pyramid monument we envisioned the night before.
Atop the peak we took in the views to the north, south, east, and west. The feeling of what we had just accomplished was exhilarating, and the wind was surprisingly calm on the summit. We noticed a young family with two daughters who we had spoken to on our ascent. We asked if they wanted us to take their picture? They said yes and then offered to take a picture of us. After taking a panoramic picture, we moved to the northern edge of the mountain to sit on some rocks and eat our lunch. “What a view,” I told my wife; she smiled and agreed. She was born in Texas and after raising four children she had reached the “Top of Texas,” her beloved home state.
Our climb to the top took five hours and now we had to refocus and make our way back down the mountain. Our trek down the mountain took a total of four hours and our legs and feet became sore and fatigued. We continued to hydrate properly and stayed alert in the dangerous areas. We made numerous rest stops and took time to photograph beautiful scenery we had overlooked on our way up the mountain.
About thirty minutes before reaching the trailhead and parking lot, a thunderstorm rolled in on top of the mountain. We quickened our pace, knowing that the rocks would be slippery in the rain. We were also concerned about the threat of lightning. Our fears were laid to rest as only a few sprinkles reached us at the base of the mountain. About one hundred yards before reaching the trailhead, we looked to the southeast to see a beautiful rainbow stretching from the ground upward toward the north. We also took our last drink of water from the second gallon of water, gave each other a kiss and a high five, and made our way to the car. With a weary voice, my wife mused, “This experience has to be in our top five things we have done together in the last thirty-two years.” I smiled and naturally agreed with my resilient Texas sweetheart that we should have made our quest for the Texas peak many years earlier. ~TKE~