At the end of April, a week or two before summer’s heat would detonate across the Southwest, my husband and I stopped to acclimate to the thin, crisp air of an alpine summit. Under the shade of ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, we laid out our rain jackets like blankets and fished snacks out of our daypacks and turned over fossils, wondering what otherworldly beings had been there before us. As we continued on, through a gently sloping backcountry meadow, I tried to reconcile where we were — the middle of a cool, dense coniferous forest, home to black bears, mountain lions and elk — with where we also were; that is, high above one of the emptiest stretches of arid, covered-in-cactuses West Texas.
We may have been some 8,000 feet above sea level, but it was no altitude-induced mirage — our fatigued legs assured us of that. Nearly three hours earlier, we’d set out from a trailhead just off a rapidly warming blacktop in the Chihuahuan Desert to climb an all-too-real, feel-the-burn, 2,500-foot ascent to scale the peaks of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Before we drove the 500 miles from Austin to spend a few days amid the anomalous archipelago of “sky islands” that the 86,000-acre park protects, I’d heard two things about Guadalupe: Most people come here to hike to the highest point in Texas. And hardly anybody comes here.
This is not well-trod ground. Guadalupe is one of the least visited of the country’s 60 national parks, welcoming just 225,257 people in 2017. By comparison, several million more people swarmed the perennially popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year than have wandered out to Guadalupe in the last 47.
If you’ve spent any time in sparsely populated, hauntingly sublime far West Texas, you know that this is D.I.Y. country. Unlike at Big Bend, Texas’s other (and larger and better known) national park about four hours south, there are no roofs to sleep under here or hot meals to order or waiters to refill your post-hike glass of wine.
If Guadalupe’s first-come, first-served campsites and RV spots are already taken — or you’d like to shower — you’ll have to drive to Whites City,N.M. (35 miles), or the tiny Texas towns of Dell City (44 miles) or Van Horn (64 miles) for lodging. Same goes if you need food or gas. As one park volunteer put it to me, “This isn’t a theme park; it’s a wilderness park.” He seemed slightly annoyed that you might come all this way and expect it to be anything else.
The land here bears compelling witness to some of the powerful geological forces that have shaped our planet. Two hundred and sixty million years ago, in the age of supercontinent Pangea, this region wasn’t terra firma but a tropical inland sea teeming with still-evolving life-forms; a proto-Vegas pool party of single-celled organisms, algae and sponges with skeletons.
Over millions of years, these marine creatures formed a 400-mile-long reef, which ringed the sea’s shoreline. The sea eventually dried up, some 90 percent of all life mysteriously went extinct at the end of the Permian era and the horseshoe-shaped reef was buried for eons beneath mineral salts and sediments.
And then, many more millenniums later, large chunks of it were exhumed as uplift pushed its fossil-studded remains skyward and erosion dusted them off. Now, geologists (and the oil and gas companies that employ them) come from around the world to study the well-preserved stratotypes in this extensive desert laboratory.
The reconfigured landscape, with its tiers of divergent ecosystems, is a bit of a mind-bender. The lower elevations look like what most people assume all of Texas looks like: scrubby flatlands light on trees, thick with prickly things. But then you find yourself amid verdant pockets nurtured by springs and seeps, as in McKittrick Canyon, where mule deer and ringtails slink through groves of bigtooth maples and chinquapin oaks and velvet ash that blaze with color each fall.
The highest elevations, which are officially classified as “an isolated extension of the Rocky Mountains” and are prone to winter snowstorms and made lush by rain, might as well be in Canada. It’s a strange thing to look up and see evergreens raised to the West Texas sky like sweet treats being offered to a desert deity.
And at Guadalupe, you do a lot of looking up. In addition to 8,751-foot Guadalupe Peak — the Instagram influencer that everyone wants a selfie with — the park is also home to the next three highest points in the state (not to mention nine of the highest 10, if unofficially). Collectively advertised as “the top of Texas,” the climbable though strenuous summits are dangled like medals to lure both box-checking climbers aiming to reach each state’s highest point and Texans whose natal pride leaves them vulnerable to a challenge.
Bear Canyon Trail
Like many road-trippers, we had once gone right past Guadalupe’s half-hidden wonders on our way back from Carlsbad Caverns, its sister national park 40 miles up the road in New Mexico. (The caverns are part of the same ancient reef that the exposed Guads are made of.)
It was already late in the day and wehadn’t allotted the recommended six to eight hours to reach Guadalupe Peak, though we did stop to snap a few photos of El Capitan, the thousand-foot-tall limestone prow that catches everyone’s attention from the highway. As we drove on, I scrolled through geotagged posts on Instagram and began to brood over the fact that I had never mugged for the camera with an arm slung around the metal pyramid atop the famed zenith. It seemed a shameful omission on my native-Texan C.V. And so, I took the bait. A few months later, weheaded back so we could say we’d been there, climbed that.
With more than 80 miles of trails and a number of way-off-the-grid backcountry campgrounds, Guadalupe has a reputation for being a hard-core hiker’s paradise. (The ultra hard-core can now tackle the hundred-mile Guadalupe Ridge Trail, which starts in the park and ends just past Carlsbad Caverns; you’ll need to hire an outfitter to drop water caches along the route.) If I were to boil down my own philosophy on ideal outdoor recreation, à la Michael Pollan, it would be, “Long walks. Not too difficult. Mostly shaded.” So, a few phrases jumped out as I skimmed a brochure promoting the park’s day hikes: “Extremely rocky.” “Avoid in midday heat.” “No trail the last ¼ mile.” “Avoid during high winds.” “Involves some scrambling.” There was a chance that I might not be the park’s target audience.
At least with three full days ahead of us, we had time to ease our way in before tackling Guadalupe Peak. We poked around a few of the park’s Old West structures, like the rock ruins of the Pinery Station, once a stopover on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, and the rugged Frijole Ranch compound. Its 1876 stone house and red schoolhouse are now a cultural museum that traces the stories of the region’s early inhabitants, from the Mescalero Apaches, whose mescal cooking pits and petroglyphs have been found nearby, to the hardy (and yes, legume-loving) homesteaders who ingeniously rigged all kinds of handmade contraptions to pump water and keep the gas lamps lit.
Behind Frijole, we picked up a trail that leads to two of the six springs that keep this part of the park golf-course green. The only obstacles along the short, wheelchair-accessible paved path to Manzanita Spring, a reed-lined pond that used to be the local swimming hole, were copious ringtail droppings, which looked a little too similar to the cherry pie Larabars I had stashed in my pack. The route got a little rockier as we continued past well-named Nipple Hill until the desert petered out, overtaken by a woodland of maples and oaks, fiery-limbed Texas madrones and maidenhair ferns. “Please protect this fragile moist oasis,” read a sign near where Smith Spring bubbles up out of the limestone escarpment, “by remaining in the ‘people section.’”
That there is a public “people section” is a testament to the vision of a couple of conservation-minded landowners who fell for this alluringly inhospitable part of the world. Both J.C. Hunter, a local county judge, and Wallace Pratt, who was the first geologist on the Humble Oil Company payroll, bought up sizable spreads that were eventually donated or sold to the National Park Service, paving the way for Guadalupe Mountains National Park to be established in 1972.
In those early days, it was hotly debated whether the new park should build any roads or facilities to accommodate visitors, or if, as per the Wilderness Act of 1964, it should be left “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Some boosters worried that without any amenities, only a small segment of the population would be sprightly enough to traverse Guadalupe’s undomesticated backcountry. “Go in while you’re young,” was one wilderness advocate’s rejoinder.
One morning at the Pine Springs Visitor Center, we overheard a man asking where to start the drive through the park. The ranger broke it to him gently: There aren’t any roads through Guadalupe. Its splendor doesn’t fully unfold until you get well off the pavement. To get to the remote Dog Canyon campgrounds, an isolationist’s Eden near the park’s northern edge, you either have to backpack 15 miles or else drive up into New Mexico and then back down into Texas, a nearly three-hour excursion.
But Guadalupe offers many favorable returns on investment. After about an hour of maneuvering — at times, “American Ninja Warrior”-style — through jumbo boulders in a dry wash along the “moderate” Devil’s Hall trail, I got to test out my nerve. We scaled Hiker’s Staircase, natural “steps” that should be renamed the Hiker’s Slippery Ladder (you’ll want to stick to the left). Just a little bit farther camethe trail’s eponymous payoff: a narrow corridor squeezed between hundred-foot limestone walls that turned out to be even more spectacular than all those like-bait photos I’d seen online.
So too did the rewards seem worth the effort when we decided to go off-roading to get to Williams Ranch, a sequestered 1908 house reachable via a rough one-lane back road. “We highly suggest you have a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle, and that’s neither,” park employee Kristi Haynie told a couple in front of us who wanted to know if they could navigate the rocks and ruts in their station wagon.
Luckily, our S.U.V. fit the bill, though “you will lose paint,” she assured us. Puncturing a tire was also probable. And the cost for a tow? Two thousand dollars, minimum. One visitor, Ms. Haynie said as she handed us a gate key, broke his axle, and the truck that came to haul him out got two flats and fell into a crevice. Feeling duly warned, we checked our spare, aired down our tires and headed for the mountain’s seldom- reached western escarpment.
As we lumbered along through a sea of spiny ocotillos with red blooms on their fingertips, we had an unadulterated view of the Guads’ much-studied rock exposures. The drive turned out to be a succession of lesser-evil decisions: Do we avoid the small boulder or steer clear of the crater? Gun it up the gravel hill or chance getting stuck in a gully? Sharp tendrils of mesquite scraped the car’s flanks like nails on a chalkboard. It took us an hour to go a little more than seven miles.
Lord knows how long it took the mule train that hauled the ranch house’s lumber all this way, but the teal-trimmed structure still stands proud. It’s a tribute to the grit of those for whom the solitude and breathtaking panorama outweighed the lonely toil (though one well-worn, if unconfirmed, story involves a new bride who high-tailed it back to civilization after just one night). After a quick jaunt on foot to get a better look at the oldest rocks in the range, we capped off our brief residency with a picnic on the porch. And then it was back, slow and steady, the way we came.
On our last morning, a funny thing happened on the way to the park. Because the Pine Springs campsites had filled quickly for the weekend, we had been happily ensconced at the Hotel El Capitan, in Van Horn. It was an hour’s drive away, but the commute gave me time to plot each day’s itinerary — and to fall awe-struck anew each time the Guads rose into view from the highway. (And, since the park is just within the Mountain time zone, we would arrive each morning at the same time as when we’d left the hotel.) We had our sights set on conquering Guadalupe Peak, but as I flipped through my notes, I began to realize something. I’d asked just about everyone we’d met — rangers, volunteers, friendly strangers — what their favorite parts of Guadalupe were. Not a single person mentioned the hike that everyone comes here to do.
Guadalupe Peak may be the hook that draws visitors in, but it’s just the tip of the park’s sublime iceberg. One route recommended repeatedly was the nearly nine-mile loop through the Bowl, the alpine island in the sky, to Hunter Peak (at 8,377 feet, merely the sixth-highest in Texas). The vistas, we were assured, were even more stunning, plus we wouldn’t have to do any backtracking (though we would have to trudge up one of the steepest grades in the park) and it was far less trafficked. By all accounts, it would be more bang for our buck. I queried the park ranger on duty at the visitor center: Was there any convincing reason we should hike to Guadalupe Peak instead? “Well, you would have that accomplishment,” she said.
I could collect my “top of Texas” medal another time. We were off to the Bowl. The march up Bear Canyon, basically a two-mile StairMaster session in full sun, was as grueling as we’d beenwarned it would be. When we were nearly to the top (or so I kept telling myself), a sonic boom rippled through the air, momentarily interrupting the birdsong echoing off the canyon’s upper reaches. And then, another one. About 35 miles away, Jeff Bezos’ suborbital Blue Origin “space vehicle” and its rocket booster had landed on the Amazon billionaire’s West Texas ranch after another successful test launch. We continued our own mission skyward.
After roaming through the Bowl’s shallow, secluded valley (we’d see only one other hiker all day), we ascended one more rocky staircase to get to the top of Hunter Peak. There were hundred-mile views of the park’s “greatest hits” in every direction: We could see the gypsum dunes shimmering on the desert floor, the 45,000-acre relict forest just behind us, El Capitan’s noble profile and, rising above it all, Guadalupe Peak.
As we made the long descent, I found myself fixating on the contradictory meanings of the phrase “it’s all downhill from here.” Going down proved no easier as we tested fears both known (my husband got to see a rattlesnake’s tonsils) and previously unidentified (I started to panic along several no-margin-for-error precipices). And even though we had been told, insistently and many times, to bring at least a gallon of water per person, we had brought two-ish gallons and ran out less than halfway through. Such a rookie mistake.
That evening, after eight hours and four minutes on the trail, as we limped back into the hotel, we passed the Blue Origin team. They were gathered around the courtyard’s fountain, drinking celebratory beers, seemingly as giddy with relief as we were to have made it back down in one piece.
In the early ‘70s, there was talk of installing a tramway that would take visitors to just below Guadalupe Peak, allowing many more people to revel in the beauty of the lesser-seen high country. The plan was ultimately scuttled. This would be no theme park. It’s a wilderness park. And long may it remain.
Jordan Breal is a writer based in Austin, Tex. Her last article for The New York Times was about the Padre Island National Seashore along the Texas coast.
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