Though another 50 miles of travel remain, glancing slightly left off laser straight US Highway 62/180 in west Texas, the dramatic vertical cliffs of the Guadalupe Mountains could easily be seen. Matching perfectly the cover photo on a Guadalupe Mountains National Park brochure picked up at a Texas Visitor Center outside El Paso, there was no doubt my destination would soon be reached. Within an hour I would be setting up a tent in Pine Springs Campground and settling in for a night under the stars, eagerly anticipating accomplishing tomorrow’s challenge.
Hiking Guadalupe Peak Trail to trail’s end delivers hikers to the summit of the 8,749-foot Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas. More personally, this would be my 10th state high point.
Comprised primarily of fine-grained limestone formed by growth of algae, sponges and tiny animals, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is an unparalleled example of an ancient fossil reef. Reefs of today are formed mainly of a rigid framework of corals.
During the Permian Period of geological time, 225 to 280 million years ago, western Texas and southeastern New Mexico were covered by a vast sea. Furthermore, this land mass was located close to the earth’s equator. The Delaware Basin of this sea was just a portion of the 400-mile long, horseshoe shaped Capitan Reef. Uplifting the reef nearly two miles around 26 million years ago formed the Guadalupe Mountains, with the thousand foot high cliffs of El Capitan the most striking feature. Due to its geological significance, the area’s 86,000 acres were designated a National Park in 1972.
Signing the trailhead logbook at 6:35 a.m., already a hiking group of five had a 20-minute head start. At 5,829 feet the trail, though at a gentle incline immediately began to gain altitude, a condition continuing almost ceaselessly for the next 4.2 miles.
Directly ahead rose a steep foothill, the most daunting section of the entire trail, a Forest Ranger told me the previous evening while checking camping tags. With the sun rapidly climbing into clear skies and significantly warming this east-facing slope, I was anxious to enter a pine forest the ranger noted would happen once this section of repeating switchbacks was completed.
As my GPS device reached 1.6 miles, it was apparent this would be the last traverse across the slope. Ahead the trail hooked around a rocky point. Wide Pine Spring Canyon meandered far below, separating two primary ranges of the Guadalupe Mountains. In total, six peaks reaching more that 8,000-feet elevation are found in the park.
Wind conditions had been calm to this point. However, as the trail swung around a rocky point, down canyon winds were significantly stronger. Glancing back toward the trailhead, it was startling to see the altitude the trail had reached. In about 90 minutes almost 1,300 feet of elevation had been gained.
Following a few more switchbacks across open slopes, Guadalupe Peak Trail enters a forest. At this elevation, Pinon, Southwestern White Pine and Douglas Fir cover the hillsides. Ponderosa would be encountered later at higher elevations. Breezes whisper through branches, carrying a delicious pine forest aroma across the hills.
Beautiful wildflowers bloom along the trail. Brilliant red Indian Paintbrush, wild pink roses, delicate lavender flowers on long stems, all improving an already wonderful day.
Just beyond the 3-mile mark an elevation of 8,000 feet has been reached. The forest has thinned considerably, allowing views of Guadalupe Peak. Interestingly, the flora has taken on a more desert environment appearance. Agave plants thrive in the tall grasses, Century plants stand in the low drainage north of the trail, red blossoms opening on tall stalks. A variety of cactus plants are scattered across these slopes.
For the next mile, the trail follows an easier grade, gaining less than 350 feet. A push over the final three tenths of a mile will gain the remaining 400 feet.
Eventually, I catch the earlier group as Kathy, Hank, Bill and a couple of guys named David rest and snack in shade overlooking Pine Spring Canyon. Across the valley, steep Tejas Trail descends from Hunter Peak, an 8368-foot peak these folks hiked a couple of days earlier.
Enthusiastic hikers, they have traveled from Georgetown, an extremely active retirement community north of Austin, Texas. They are but a few of more than 250 people that make up a hiking club, traveling near and far to experience challenging adventures. Soon, we sling packs across our shoulders and our final assault to the summit is underway.
Less than a 100 yards down the trail, a particularly dangerous section of trail has been made safe through construction of a bridge, spanning a deep gap next to a vertical wall. Additional distance and elevation change would be required to navigate around this area.
Guadalupe Peak Trail now traverses to south facing slopes, with the clear skies allowing sunshine to beat down. Switchbacks are once again the norm, crisscrossing the remaining distance to the summit. We catch an occasional glimpse of the shiny high point marker.
Rounding a final u-turn, I hear the happy voices of hiking partners offering congratulations, snapping photographs around the marker. Kathy begins to recite the state song, “Texas, Our Texas.” Having accepted the challenge and successfully achieving the goal, there is justification in enjoying the reward.
Brad, visiting from Washington, D.C., has reached the top, as has Chris from New Hampshire. Training for a summit climb of 14,110-foot Pike’s Peak in Colorado, she is toting a backpack of rocks gathered at the trailhead. Earlier a couple from Alberta, Canada, already descending, passed along the trail.
The Texas high point marker, a six-foot tall stainless steel pyramid, erected in 1958 by American Airlines, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, a stagecoach line that passed south of the mountain. It was the nation’s first Transcontinental mail route.
A little more than 30 minutes is spent at the summit, allowing some recovery and time to eat snacks and drink fluids. The views are absolutely incredible, dulled slightly by smoke drifting east from a wildfire burning in the Gila Wilderness of southwestern New Mexico.
Evidence of a small, lightning caused fire can be seen below the summit. A few days earlier Guadalupe Peak Trail was closed due to smoke and the possible spread of this fire. Guadalupe Mountains National Park has more that 85 miles of trails, so other options are available.
Having now completed just half of the journey, packs are shouldered and the downward trek begins. Certainly the hike will be predominately downhill, but legs are tired and bodies are exhausted. Caution must be exercised on this strenuous path.
Slowly but steadily everyone negotiates the remaining miles. Finally the formidable steep and rocky section of trail where the adventure began is reached. Seven miles have been hiked to this point and it’s no time to be careless.
Beautiful red barked trees are scattered across this hillside. Resembling Manzanita, these are Texas Madrone trees, unique with their thick, papery, peeling bark. A change begins in Fall as the red bark sloughs off, revealing cream colored new bark. Throughout the year, new bark changes to peach color, then to coral, to red and eventually a deep rusty red, the process beginning again in Fall. Without the peeling away of the old skin, the trunk and branches cannot get bigger.
Less than thirty minutes later the trailhead is reached and yet another fabulous, though challenging, day on a trail has been greatly enjoyed. The well prepared group of five hikers that I have spent much of the day with kindly invite me to join them for some post hike celebration, as snacks and cold beverages are shared.
For more information contact Guadalupe Peak NPS Visitor’s Center at 915-828-3251, or visit the website at www.nps.gov/gumo.