Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Every national park has its fans and its unique features. Some, though, are more famous than others. Yellowstone, for example, has Old Faithful. Yosemite has Half Dome and El Capitan. Grand Canyon has “the” canyon. Carlsbad has caverns. About an hour south of Carlsbad’s caverns, though, is one of the national park system’s hidden gems, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, with an El Capitan of its own, as well as Guadalupe Peak, which, at 8749 feet, is the tallest piece of rock in Texas.
What Guadalupe Mountains National Park doesn’t have — when compared to its more famous siblings — are millions of visitors. Even during spring break, when the odds of finding an open campsite in some parks is no better than the odds of winning the lottery, the campgrounds at Guadalupe Mountains are surprisingly open and available. Part of this may be the fact that there are only two campgrounds in the park, and while both of them have tent and RV sites, neither one offers a shower or hookup. Another part of this may be the fact that since it’s sandwiched, in a giant sort of Texas way, between Big Bend and Carlsbad, both of which offer more amenities, and are better known, the maddening crowds tend to miss Guadalupe Mountains.
However, during our most recent visit, the biggest reason for the lack of crowds was simple: W-I-N-D. Sustained winds of 60 miles per hour on the day we arrived, with gusts up to 100. The wind blew up a dust storm so fierce that the sun disappeared at 4:30 in the afternoon on a day when el Sol wasn’t due to set until almost 9 o’clock. Gusts blew so much dust that when we arrived at the park headquarters in Pine Springs we couldn’t see Guadalupe Peak or Hunter Peak (8368 feet), even though neither was more than two miles away. So strong were the winds that when we pulled into the campground a park ranger asked us what kind of low-profile tent we planned on using, then started laughing when we asked if he considered a 7-foot-tall tent “low profile.”
If a park ranger laughs at you before suggesting, very strongly, that you make alternate sleeping arrangements, but that “it’s your hide,” it’s a good idea to pay attention, admit that discretion is the better part of valor and make the 65-mile drive to a Carlsbad, New Mexico, hotel. So that’s exactly what we did the first night.
A New Day
When the winds dropped to a tolerable 20 mph the next day, gusting to no more than 35 or 40, it was sane to return to the Guadalupe Mountains and set up camp. Of the two main campgrounds, Pine Springs, where the visitor center and park headquarters are located, is far and away the more popular due to its proximity to Guadalupe Peak, Hunter Peak, the Bowl and El Capitan. That was where we chose to make base camp.
The other campground, Dog Canyon, is a bit more remote and even less crowded. There are 10 backcountry campgrounds in the park, as well, all accessible only on foot. These are true backcountry sites, not even offering water, and are primarily used by hikers on multi-day expeditions. That doesn’t mean that the backcountry campgrounds are rarely used. With 80 miles of trails that range from easy to very strenuous, Guadalupe Mountains is a hiker’s paradise. In fact, hiking is really the only way to see the park. The longest road in the park is four-wheel-drive only and just 7-miles long. Pine Springs and Dog Canyon campgrounds are less than a half-mile from the park entrances. As a result, the usual itinerary is to set up a base camp at either Pine Springs or Dog Canyon, then do out-and-back or multi-day hikes, spending the night at whichever backcountry campground is closest when night starts to fall.
High Desert Hikes
The rangers and the guidebooks are all deadly serious when they remind you that even day hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park require some planning and precaution. Outside of Dog Canyon and Pine Springs, there are virtually no reliable water sources anywhere within the park, so you have to pack accordingly. The park is in a high-altitude desert, so sunburn, even in cool months, is always a probability. And as we discovered, sudden and extremely powerful wind storms are a staple of springtime, thunderstorms with lightning come in summer, and none of the above describe the kind of conditions you want to face unprepared.
None of that, however, is reason enough to hesitate for a second when it comes to hiking Guadalupe Mountains. There are three hikes that are generally considered “musts:” The Bowl, Guadalupe Peak and McKittrick Canyon. Two of these, The Bowl and Guadalupe Peak, are accessible from the Pine Springs trailhead. McKittrick Canyon is most easily reached by driving to the McKittrick Canyon exhibits and trailhead, although it can be reached from the Pine Springs or Dog Canyon trailheads as a multi-day outing. The fact is the entire park can be reached from any trailhead if you’re willing to spend a few days and nights on the trail.
The three hikes are as different as can be imagined. The Bowl is a high-country forest of pine and Douglas fir trees some 2500 feet above the desert floor. Guadalupe Peak is a strenuous hike that takes you to a spectacular 360-degree view from the very top of Texas. McKittrick Canyon has been called “the most beautiful spot in Texas,” and incorporates everything from mountain streams to forests of Chinkapin oak and alligator juniper.
Of the three, McKittrick Canyon is the least strenuous and in the fall it’s a spectacle of rare beauty, boasting foliage ablaze with colors that can make you think you’re hiking in New England. In the spring, the canyon bursts into life with an array of blooms. If you want an easy stroll, there’s the McKittrick Canyon Nature Trail, less than a mile long with lots of interpretive signs to teach you about the area. The real hike, though, runs 5.1 miles (one-way) through McKittrick Canyon, and can be best described as walking into a postcard every time you turn a corner. The canyon is almost completely hidden from view, so you have no idea what you’re getting into as you hike in. Then your jaw starts dropping and you spend much of the hike simply picking your chin up off the ground.
The most popular hike, and the one we took, is 7 miles (round-trip), with only a 340-foot elevation increase. A stop at the Pratt Lodge (2.3 miles one-way) and a visit with the volunteer in residence (if they’re home) gives you a chance to refill your canteen and learn some of the area’s fascinating history. The lodge was the summer home of Wallace Pratt, a geologist for Humble Oil (now Exxon) and his family, and boasts the only handcrafted limestone roof (according to the volunteer there when we visited) in the U.S. In 1957, Pratt donated 5632 acres of his 16,000-acre ranch to the government to create a national park.
In 1930, Pratt and his neighbor, Judge J.C. Hunter, introduced fish to the stream that runs through McKittrick Canyon, now called McKittrick Creek. Pratt introduced a school of black bass and Hunter a school of rainbow trout. A flood soon washed away the bass, but the trout survived, and in spite of the precarious nature of this desert stream, rainbow trout live there to this day.
Past the Pratt Lodge lies the Grotto, a sort of surface cave, complete with stalactites. The Grotto is a good turnaround spot, complete with stone picnic tables so you can sit and refuel for the hike back. If you’re game, you can carry on to the Notch, which delivers a panoramic view of McKittrick Canyon, but that part of the hike involves climbing about 1300 feet in 1.5 miles. It’s one of the toughest hikes in the park, and should only be attempted with lots of water and lots of daylight left.
Keeping an eye on the sun is an important part of any of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park hikes, because time can really get away from you. It took us almost exactly five hours to do the 7-mile hike from the McKittrick Canyon trailhead to the Grotto and back, and it didn’t feel like we wasted any time at all. (Time awareness is extra-important if you’re hiking McKittrick, because the gate on the road leading from U.S Hwy. 62/180 to the trailhead is locked each night at 6:00 p.m.) A good rule of thumb is to figure a hiking rate of about 1.5 mph for moderate hikes, like this one, with a slower rate, maybe as slow as 1 mph, for strenuous outings such as Guadalupe Peak.
The Old, Old West
All of the hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park take you through some pretty incredible history. Hiking the Pinery, Frijole and Foothills trails takes you through areas where the Buffalo Soldiers camped and chased the Apache in the late 1800s. It’s generally agreed that the Buffalo Soldiers and the Mescalero Apache met in a number of skirmishes in what’s now the Guadalupe Mountains. The exact locations of these battles are still being argued. Artifacts have been found from various camps in the Pine Springs and Choza Springs areas, and at least one rifle pit where a lookout was stationed on a ridge has been discovered.
While the modern history of Guadalupe Mountains is fascinating, it pales in comparison with the big picture, the geologic history. The Guadalupe Mountain range, which runs through the park, north through the Lincoln National Forest and Carlsbad Caverns National Park, is actually an ancient fossil reef, and it was primarily due to the geologic importance of this incredibly well-preserved reef that the area was designated a national park in 1972. While its unethical, immoral and illegal to remove any artifacts, rocks, plants or animals from the park, dedicated rock hounds will enjoy the days spent searching for and finding fossils — just leave them where you find them.
It helps, but you don’t have to be a rock hound to be impressed by the formations in Guadalupe Mountains. Hiking up Guadalupe Peak, for instance, you get a stunning overhead view of El Capitan, the towering cliff that rises to the south and has such an imposing silhouette from the highway. You also get to look down on Hunter Peak and everything else in the state of Texas, but you have to work for it. This is an 8.4-mile round trip from the Pine Springs trailhead, and you’ll be climbing nearly 3000 feet to reach the summit. It can be done in a day if you get an early start, but many people prefer to make it an overnight hike, with a stay at the Guadalupe Peak backcountry campground that’s about a mile from the summit, the highest campground in the state. It’s a serious lug to get an overnight pack up to the campground, but it’s worth the struggle to be able to wake up and see the sunrise from the summit. On a clear day you can look north and see New Mexico’s Sierra Blanca, more than 100 miles away.
Of course, if the winds are back up to 50 or 60 miles per hour (sustained) and gusting up around 80, as they suddenly were near the end of our stay, you might want to think twice about even attempting Guadalupe Peak. You definitely want to think three or four times about doing something as certifiably insane as attempting to set up a backcountry campsite on the side of a mountain.
Our tent, admittedly a bit oversized at 12x14x7 feet, was set up at the Pine Springs campground. A half-dozen 40-pound rocks were inside for weight and it was well-staked, but our tent still seemed to have a hard time deciding whether to collapse or lift off like a balloon with each gust, convincing us to leave the summit camp off our itinerary this trip. In fact, after watching the stakes come sailing out of the ground in one quick jerk after a particularly wicked gust, we were convinced that maybe the ranger was right. Maybe our 7-footer isn’t exactly “low profile” and maybe the wisest course of action would be to break camp and head for calm.
It wasn’t exactly the ending to this extraordinary adventure that we had hoped for, however, leaving some things undone and unseen did give us even more reasons to return. When things are a bit less blustery, we’ll come back and continue exploring the hidden gem that is Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
When You Go
The Headquarters Visitor Center at Pine Springs is accessed via U.S. Highway 62/180 between Carlsbad, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas. Dog Canyon, on the park’s north side, is accessed via New Mexico State Road 137. The park is 110 miles driving distance from El Paso, Texas.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park has relatively hot summers; calm, mild autumns; and cool to cold weather in winter and early spring. Snowstorms, freezing rain, or fog can occur in winter or early spring. Frequent high-wind warnings are issued from winter through spring. Late summer monsoons bring most of the park’s precipitation. The nights are often cool, even in summer.
For more information, contact:
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
HC 60 Box 400, Salt Flat, TX 79847-9400; 915/828-3251; nps.gov/gumo