"The best way to describe a cowboy Is mud, blood, guts, and glory."
One last trip
It is only fitting that I saved the highest point in Texas for my last trip. West Texas, clearly, has enchanted me unlike any other place in the country, however, it was time for me to leave. After living in the great state for three years, I felt like my time had come, and I was ready to experience new parts of the county.
Guadalupe Peak was the perfect exit interview. One last strenuous hike to the top of Texas.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Every year, I am surprised to see how low the visitation number are for Guadalupe. For a park as wild, rugged, and frankly beautiful as Guadalupe is, the visitation numbers do not do the park justice. The official National Parks Stats Report ranked Guadalupe the 12th least visited park with only 225,000 visitors. 12th place out of 60 doesn't sound too bad, but when you consider that 7 of the 12 are in Alaska or hard-to-reach islands, it paints a better picture.
Guadalupe is a hidden gem in the national parks system. I continually hear people complaining about the state of overcrowded parks. While that is true for some parks, many of the parks - Guadalupe included - are criminally under-visited. I personally believe that Guadalupe holds up to Zion, at the very least.
I have never met a Texan who isn't proud of their state, but I would be willing to wager that only a fraction of the nearly 30 million citizens would even recognize the park if shown pictures. I would think all proud Texans would want to stand stoically, on the highest point in their state.
Along with parks being overcrowded, I hear worries of rising park prices. This is supply and demand at work, because the entrance fee to enter Guadalupe is a paltry $5, and the backcountry permits? Free. As much as I love Yellowstone, Zion, and Yosemite, there are dozens of under loved parks in the National Parks System well worth visiting.
Guadalupe Peak Trail
The trail to the top of Texas is relatively short. An 8.4 mile round trip will take an experienced hiker maybe 4-6 hours to complete. However, the route is rugged. There is little in the way of cover from the sun, temperatures can climb to staggering degrees, and the trail itself, while well maintained, is rocky. The elevation change is a surprising 3,000 feet from base to the 8,749 foot summit.
Guadalupe Peak, the highest point, is actually behind what it possibly the most distinct mountain in Texas: famous El Capitan. The height of the mountains are masterful illusions, making them look much shorter than they actually are. From the road, El Capitan looks like it could simply be scrambled up in a matter of minutes.
The Guadalupe Peak Trail starts at the Pine Springs Campground, a short walk from the visitor's center. There is parking, but it is limited. You may have to leave your vehicle right at the visitor's center - make sure to leave your permit clearly visible in your car window.
The trail is fairly straightforward. In fact, you can see the switchbacks cutting into the side of the mountain even before you start the climb. Don't forget to refill all of your water bottles at the Campground before you start the climb! It is the last place to access potable water - especially take concern in your water levels if you are staying overnight.
The trail twists and turns up the side of the mountain, it's steep, hard work to the top, but don't give up! Take as many water breaks as needed, you will be in direct sunlight for a majority of the trail, there is very little cover on this side of the mountain. Don't let the heat dissuade you from visiting, the views are well worth it.
Guadalupe Peak Backcountry Campground
We were surprised to find that the campsites weren't fully booked, and we managed to secure one while they were still available. There is no primitive camping allowed off the trail, but there are a handful of great backcountry sites about a mile from the peak. Though the trail was only about three and a half miles to the top, we wanted to spend a night under the stars in the company of the mountains.
After driving 12 hours to the park, it was already getting late. We decided that the best course of action would be to hike to the campground, set up camp, and then hike to the top of the peak to catch the sunset. So we began to look for one of the designated spots, there were many options to choose from, each looking like suitable spots with great views.
We easily found our spot about a mile from the summit. High above almost everything else in the park, every side had a stunning view. I loved the nature of the backcountry campsites on Guadalupe, they were extremely rustic and one of the few parks left that leaves it up to the visitor to decide which spot they want.
With a few hours until sunset, I made the mistake of laying in my newly formed tent. The mountain breeze, warm sun, and chirps from birds and bugs quickly lulled me to sleep - and I never nap. Finally waking up an hour before sunset, we decided to head up the final mile to the summit of Guadalupe.
With golden hour fast approaching, the views on the way to summit were spectacular. With one last push, we finally reached the top of Texas to find ourselves alone with the Lone Star State. One other group with the same idea as us joined us at the top. We had actually already met them on the trail hours prior, and it was nice to have familiar company to enjoy the sunset with.
The sun lowered and lit the sky in a soup of pinks and oranges. The colors changed every few minutes as the sun sank in the horizon. The surrounding hills and mountains reflected the pink hue, the glow looking as if it was coming from inside the rocks themselves. Crimsons and blues fought for space on the white canvas of the cliffs, until the light retreated into the sky, and left us entirely. It was a wonderful display or color and light.
Once the sun dropped below the horizon, the amount of light and the temperature started to drop dramatically. We figured it was best to leave and make it back to the campsite before it was too dark to see. Taking one last look at El Capitan, I bit Texas farwell, promising to return someday soon.
The stars were bright overhead as I drifted to sleep. The ground still warm from basking in the sun all day - contrasting with the cold air. Bats and birds and bugs, buzzed through the night emphasizing the unique desert perch high in the Texas sky. It was a fantastically comfortable rest.
I was reminded that we were in Texas by the thousands of lights from oil fields dozens of miles away. In a way, the lights coming from the industry were as beautiful as the lights coming from the heavens. Two sets of stars were provided for me that night.
The Final Descent
Thinking we had seen it all, Texas had one last surprise for us. We managed to get up before sunrise to start the quiet hike back down to the visitor's center. It was a long drive back to Houston and we needed as much time as we could get. It turns out that we timed the walk perfectly- a few minutes after starting our walk we were greeted by the sunrise.
As we descended, the sun rose. Temperature picked back up, and we peeled off the light jackets we had packed along with us. The immortal hazy Texas morning lit the desert around us, causing a western glow as we finished the hike down.
I love Texas and everyone I have met in this wonderful state. It truly stole my heart and breaks it to leave. I understand why so many people are so passionate about Texas. I learned so much about myself during my stay in the South, and I encourage everyone to schedule a trip to the deserts of West Texas.