The Top of Texas: Guadalupe Mountains National Park 

Over 200 million years ago, the Guadalupe Mountains were a marine reef under a tropical sea. When the sea evaporated, the Capitan Reef was buried in sediments and mineral salts. Later, an uplift created the mountains that today tower above the Chihuahuan Desert. These mountains include Guadalupe Peak, which, at 8,751 feet tall, is the “top” or highest point in Texas. We spent five days exploring this remote place.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is only about 45 miles from our last stop, Carlsbad Caverns, but it felt like an isolated world away. We counted a only handful of cars passing us as we drove to the Texas border. It was no surprise to us given that Guadalupe’s 2016 visitation of 181,839 people ranked it 48th out of 59 national parks. The park has an unusual amount of diversity, encompassing several different ecosystems and providing habitats for 60 mammal, 55 reptile, 300 bird and 1,000 plant species.

There are two campgrounds in the park and we divided our time between them. At the northern Dog Canyon campground there was only one other person camping with us. Most trails in Guadalupe take you up into the mountains, with 1,000 feet or more of elevation gain. We explored Dog Canyon on two hikes, providing us with different perspectives on the canyon.

The Dog Canyon campground

It was very windy the afternoon we arrived, but we decided to go ahead and complete a 4.6 mile hike to Marcus Lookout for a view of West Dog Canyon. The trail took us up a grassy hillside, with some occasional trees. By the time we reached the lookout, the gusts made it almost impossible to take pictures of the desert floor below. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the hike.

Darren pausing on the hike to Marcus Lookout
View from Marcus Lookout

The wind subsided the next day, making it possible for us to hike to the top of Lost Peak (7,834 feet). We only saw one other person during our 6.8 mile trek. This hike took us through more trees than the previous day, and we walked through beautiful Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. 

The hike to Lost Peak
Sign to the peak and rock scrambling to the top

Back at the campground, we enjoyed watching a Javelina that walked through the tall grass. These animals are covered with black bristly hair and weigh between 40 and 60 pounds. Although it looks like a pig, it is not related and is actually part of its own family.

Javelina in the tall grass

We left Dog Canyon the next day and drove 120 miles to the park headquarters at Pine Springs. The wind had come up again, with forecasted gusts up to 80 miles per hour. Hiking was not possible, so after we found a spot at the campground, we decided to explore one of the park’s four wheel drive roads. We got a key from the Visitor Center and unlocked two gates that led us onto a road partially paralleling the historic Butterfield Stage route used for passenger travel and mail service from 1857 – 1861. To our right we could see the mountains’ western escarpment, dominated by El Capitan (8,085 feet). Unfortunately, the condition of the road only enabled us to drive about one third of the way to the old Williams Ranch site. Back at the Visitor Center we found out that the park offered a Senior Ranger program, so I worked on those requirements during the rest of the afternoon. 

Driving on the 4×4 road
View of El Capitan while driving

McKittrick Canyon, located north of Pine Springs, contains a diversity of plants and one of the few permanent water sources in the park. We hiked the next day into the canyon, crossing a river wash several times before arriving at Pratt Cabin. This was the home of Wallace Pratt, a geologist who fell in love with the area and built a ranch home in 1931. When Guadalupe Mountains National Park was established in 1972 it was partially due to donations of land from several individuals including Mr. Pratt. 

Pratt Cabin

We continued another mile to the Grotto, located beside a stream. Up to now the trail had been relatively flat, so we decided to climb up to the top of the canyon to view the other side. The hike took us on one of the rockiest trails of our entire journey towards the canyon’s notch at 6,045 feet. It was worth the effort, as the view to the other side was pristine. 

The Grotto
Steep rocky hike (note stone stairs) to the Notch
View from McKittrick Canyon’s Notch

On our last day in the park, we trekked to Guadalupe Peak. The hike was a classic case of traversing through the desert, canyon, and alpine ecosystems of the park in just 4.2 miles each way. With 3,000 feet of elevation gain to the summit, we found the first and last miles especially steep. After about three hours of walking we could see the monument just above us marking the peak. True to the remoteness of the park, there were just two other people at the top with us. At the summit it felt like being on an island, as there were sheer dropoffs all around us to the desert floor far below. 

At the top of Guadalupe Peak
Looking at the backside of El Capitan and down to the Chihuahuan Desert

During our five days in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, we hiked a total of 28.7 miles. We not only saw a variety of trees and plants, but came face to face with a Javelina and learned about the ranch and stagecoach history of the area. And we did all of this with just a handful of other people around us. We found the “top of Texas” to be a real undiscovered gem, and we enjoyed our time in this park. And I was awarded my Senior Ranger certificate and patch by the park ranger. 

Senior Ranger presentation by Ranger Michael

We continue our time in West Texas at our next stop, Big Bend National Park.

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