The Top of Texas

The air is dry, the wind is brisk and the Spring sun has just started its march across the clear blue sky. Even early in the morning, the trail head is bustling with activity as hikers of all ages rally around the sign-in board, each eager to begin their trek along the many varied trails that make up Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Each trail comes with its own challenges and offers its own encounters with nature—from the various types of foliage, to the diverse geology to the myriad animal life—and these people seem eager to encounter it all. They are dressed differently; some wear shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops, others are sporting the latest high tech moisture-wicking spandex, and still others are in blue jeans with hiking boots. Some have back packs, others have hydration systems and a few are only carrying small bottles of water. Each will have their own encounter with the mountain, which is what beings them all to this remote part of West Texas.

Interstate 10 west of San Antonio is often thought of as a flat, straight, boring highway, devoid of scenery. Nothing could be further from the truth. The road weaves and turns and bounces amid rolling hills, flat-topped mesas and meandering valleys all the way to El Paso. In fact, West Texas is home to the few real mountains in the state and the tallest peak is located in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Located about an hour and a half east of El Paso near the New Mexico border just west of the Texas Panhandle, the park enjoys a steady flow of guests looking to visit the Top of Texas.

The park is an hour from the nearest town that offers hotels, restaurants or retail shopping, so visitors must remember to bring everything they will need for their trip with them. Guadalupe Mountains is part of the National Park Service, which held its centennial celebration in 2016 and has enjoyed a marked increase in attendance at all the national parks, according to Elizabeth Jackson, Chief of Interpretation, Visitor Services, and Education and Public Information Officer. “Certainly all the parks have had a good boost,” she said. “Largely our tourism increase has been [from] New Mexico and Texas,” she said of the visitors to Guadalupe Mountains. The park service debuted a program last year dubbed “Find Your Park,” which she said accounts for the dramatic uptick in attendance.

Enjoying everything the park has to offer requires more than one day, but the nearest hotel is a half hour away in White’s City or an hour away in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The park offers a few primitive camping sites near the trail head and several more in the back country as well as a couple of RV pads, but no hookups. The wind coming through the mountains requires a particular attention to detail in setting up a camp site, lest it get blown down. The sites fill up quickly and the park does not take reservations except for large groups, so arriving early is helpful. Open fires are prohibited, but propane or butane stove are allowed for cooking at the camp sites.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers several different hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty. Each offers a full experience with the ecosystem, introducing the hiker to plant and animal life as they walk along the trail. The McKittrick Canyon trail is one of the most popular hikes, taking visitors into a valley full of spectacular sights. Tim and Philip Long are brothers from the Houston area and both hiked the trail. “I’ve been wanting to come here for years,” Tim said. “I’ve been to Big Bend quite a bit but I’ve never been here. I’d heard about these mountains and I’ve heard about McKittrick Canyon.”

His brother particularly enjoyed the canyon hike. “The canyon is easy,” Philip said. “Beautiful canyon. I heard about McKittrick Canyon before I’d heard about Guadalupe Peak.”

Guadalupe Peak is the draw for many hikers stomping along the trails. At 8,749 feet above sea level, the peak takes hikers up an 8.5 mile round trip trail offering a three thousand foot elevation. Hiking this trail takes on average six to eight hours to complete. Some hikers may struggle with the beginning of the trail, which features a steep incline along rocky, timber-lined steps before leveling out into the forested path. The trail switches back and forth long the entire mountain, taking hikers up and down the trail, across a bridge and over some rocky terrain before reaching the peak. The mountain is composed of different types of minerals from dolomite to limestone to sandstone and the layers are easily visible in the rock faces along the trail. As the trail goes up, the plant life changes from cactus and brush to evergreens, cypress and even deciduous, leafy trees that offer shade along the trail. Three-quarters of the way to the top is the Guadalupe Peak campground, a back-country area with five sites for primitive camping. There are no vehicles allowed on the trail, so camping equipment must be packed in along the three-hour hike.

The last part of the trail brings the hiker to the peak along very rocky terrain. At the top, a large metal monolith is perched on the rocks and several hikers take the opportunity to rest, eat and perhaps take a selfie before descending. Beside the monolith is a metal dry box with a book for hikers to sign to commemorate their trip. Shaila Rubenthaler and her boyfriend took some time at the peak to rest from their efforts to hike the trail. “I think the last part is the harder part,” Shaila mused. “I thought that after the beginning, and going through all those stairs, I was like ‘when we get to the top it’s going to be just perfect’. And then we get to the top and we’re literally like rock climbing. It was harder at the end than at the beginning. But it was worth it.”

Her attitude was shared by 71-year-old Ariel Luna, who came here at the suggestion of a family member. “My nephew came here a couple of weeks ago and he sent a couple of pictures and I said I want to do that. He said, ‘let’s go!'” Ariel even had a baseball cap made to commemorate his hike. “I don’t know if I want to do it again,” he said, adding, “I’m glad I did it.” He found the last part of the hike the most strenuous. “And we’ve still got to go down,” he smiled.

Devil’s Hall is a shorter trail with less elevation, but one that offers a different geological experience. Jackson said that the trail is quite popular. “It’s pretty rocky. Usually older kids go there. We take school groups up there. 4th graders and older. You’re hiking up to see the really cool geologic stair steps. It’s neat.” Andrew Rivera and Anouk Van Nelleftien were part of a group of thirteen students from the University of Texas Odessa cross-country team who decided to hike Devil’s Hall as a team building exercise. “We’re bonding,” Rivera said as the group easily scampered over the rocks on the trail. None of them seemed the least bit fazed by the exertion of the hike, owing to their cross-country training. “I think I’m pretty trained,” Van Nelleftien said before hopping over a large boulder.

If these three trails are the main draw for the park, there are other trails for those looking for less of a workout. For the younger kids, Smith Springs Trail is a 2.3 mile loop. “A good mile and a quarter is paved,” Jackson said, adding that there is also the Frijole Ranch museum as well as other educational offerings. “Sometimes folks do just the short Pinery trail. Some of the more adventurous groups we send to McKittrick. It is a favorite hike by most. You’re hiking deeper into the canyon rather than up.”

Charles Grenade, an Air Force retiree and avid hiker, enjoys hiking the park and offers suggestions for those wanting to hike to the Top of Texas. “Get here early. That’s a long hike to get into there. Bring plenty of water. Sturdy boots…it’s a real rocky trail. A walking stick or trekking poles are very useful.”

Jackson echos those thoughts. “We remind folks, hydration is important. One gallon per day per person. Take enough water.” She adds that it is important to know one’s limits. “You don’t use the same muscles going up that you use going down.”

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a remote, rustic wonder in the state. Even with no resort amenities, the park attracts a steady flow of nature lovers and outdoor activists to it natural beauty.

This article appears in the September, 2018 issue of TexasLiving magazine.

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