"Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it."
Another Desert Path
Cradled in north west Texas, on the border of New Mexico, rests the stunning Guadalupe Mountain Range. The rugged west Texas mountains are not only beautiful, but they also hide a number of surprising secrets among their folds and fissures.
What is not a secret, is El Capitan, the signature peak of west Texas. The mountains also claim the four highest peaks in Texas, the tallest being Guadalupe Peak. The small national park is the perfect destination for anyone who loves mountains, hiking, deserts, and Texas.
Guadalupe National Park is relatively small, especially considering how big everything else (including Big Bend National Park) is in Texas. Guadalupe is also remote compared to most other national parks - the closest city being El Paso, about two hours away. From Houston, where I left, it was a nearly 700-mile journey across the entire state - about the distance from New York City to Chicago.
Despite the beauty of the mountains, the park only draws 150,000 visitors a year, ranking the park at 48th out of 60 in terms of yearly visitation. The other less-visited parks on the list are either in Alaksa or on islands, making them much more difficult to access. Guadalupe is one of the least visited parks that's in the contiguous United States, and it's a shame, because the park, as you will see, is beautiful.
As it turns out, the park is hot, really hot, and we decided to visit on July 4th (you have to take advantage of those long weekends!). The rangers informed us that we were the only backcountry backpackers in the park at the time - we later came across the only other backpackers to show up on the holiday weekend.
Through Dust and Fog
When we finally finished the 700-mile trip, It was extremely foggy, and we couldn't see anything even five feet in front of us. The mountains weren't visible, and we were beginning to worry we had made the trip in vain. Every so often, we could see looming masses of stone ahead of us. The odd shapes of the rocks looked like ships sailing in a misty ocean. This specific observation was accurately interesting... but we'll get to that later.
As we marched on the land slowly started to reveal its true nature to us, and we could see the insane progress we were making up the side of the hill. The path was particularly exposed, and the trail of white rocks dramatically stood out against the green hillside. Normally, it's not this easy to look back to be proud so soon into the hike.
The switchbacks were brutal, some of the harshest I had come across. There was no cover from the elements and as the fog cleared the heat began, the wind was harsh, and the elevation in-your-face apartment. It was a blast.
The trail we decided was the Blue Ridge Mountain Loop, a twenty or so mile trail that circled around the park entrance. We were staying for just one night, but were required to bring 4 gallons of water per person per day. That is a lot of water weight.
Just as the heat was becoming an issue, the trail leveled off and we found ourselves walking in the shade of trees. I honestly wasn't expecting forests, it was a welcomed surprise. I was already loving Guadalupe, and was getting anxious to see more.
The Blue Ridge Loop
After a few miles of walking in shade of the lush lumbers, the woods opened themselves up and shared with us a wonderful expanse of wilderness. It was different than Big Bend or anything else I had seen in Texas, it was all to ourselves.
Dave and I found our reserved back country campsite (unfortunately there was no primitive camping, which wasn't a big deal seeing as we were really the only ones out there). It was rather homely, and we quickly settled in. There was even a little American flag which was a nice reminder that it was America's birthday.
Patriotism has recently taken a negative connotation with the popularity of a more global community, and while I find nothing wrong with that, for we are all on the same planet after all, I couldn't help the pride I was feeling for my country. I love the United States' parks and people, I was amidst a truly spectacular, American landscape with a good friend, my pride swelled if not for the current state of the county, but for the past. It was a soothing idea to know that at some point along our short history we at least made the right decisions to protect the land that I was currently on.
As Dave and I prepped for dinner. Two hikers, Raven and Chin, claimed the empty sites beside ours. Having made too much food for ourselves, we invited them to join us for dinner. Maybe it was because it was the Fourth of July, or perhaps it was because we were the only people in the entire wilderness, but we all hit it off amazingly well, and quickly became friends. We agreed to finish the hike together the next morning.
The 4th of July gifted a personal fireworks show that night in the form of a formidable thunderstorm. Thunder blasted like canons shooting through a valley, and lightning lit the sky. Desert storms are always the best as you can feel the trees and grass dancing in the wind and desperate for a drink.
We woke to a beautifully peaceful early morning, birds chirping and all. It was a long 15 miles to finish the loop, and we had no time to spare, so we got moving. The path was dark, cloudy, cold, and ominous, so naturally we all loved it.
Until this point, we had been hiking mostly in the Guadalupe forests, that was until we briefly broke the tree line and were granted with a staggering view of the desert below including the salt flats. It honestly felt like we were flying in a plane - we towered about the surrounding landscape.
I think Raven summed the feeling we all had perfectly when she exclaimed "I can't believe I've never heard of this place, nobody talks about it or comes here often."
This can't be Texas
I was having trouble reminding myself that I was still in Texas and not another state. I wouldn't be surprised if many residents of the state would believe it either. Once we were back under the tree line I felt as if we were in north east Blue Ridge Mountain, but apparently Texas has been hiding its own.
And our group wasn't the only ones enjoying the view. Dave somehow spotted a massive herd of Barbary Sheep climbing the cliff face on the opposite side of the valley. I apologize for a distant shot, being a small national park I was not expecting to see so much wildlife!
The hike out was hot, but we were able to see what we weren't able to because of the fog on the way in. This time we had views and company. And although it was in the middle of the summer, the heat wasn't unbearable. It was certainly not a reason to skip the park entirely.
A Geological Wonder
The last surprise Guadalupe had for us was in the park's geology itself. As we learned once we visited the ranger's station (which I encourage everyone do at all parks) is that Guadalupe is the world's largest example of Permian Fossil Reef. 300 million years ago, the earth was covered in simple forms of life, including fish, algae and insects. The world's plates were moving and created the super-continent of Pangaea. Texas and New Mexico sat on the western edge of the massive continent, next to the nearly endless ocean. Around 80 million years ago North America started taking shape and force this area of land upward out of the water. The seabed was now hundreds of feet above ground and the weaker traces of reef quickly eroded away leaving what is now the Guadalupe Mountains.
Now there are fossils of the primitive ocean life forms and even seashells thousands of feet above land. I had a feeling the rocks were special. Their texture was extremely rough, their formations sea like, and the color almost white. I believe this is why the area felt different than Big Bend or other Texas parks.