Guadalupe Mountains National Park – The Top of Texas

A trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the perfect complement to visiting Big Bend National Park, which is less than a four-hour drive away, or Carlsbad Caverns National Park, only 30 miles away. The park sits on the northern border of the state and boasts the highest point in Texas: Guadalupe Peak (locals call it Guad Peak) at 8,749 feet above sea level. We’ve been to the park twice, once in May and once in October, and found both spring and fall were great times to visit.

During our October trip years ago, when we were on our journey to visit all of the national parks, the fall colors were at their peak in McKittrick Canyon. Starting in the far northeast corner of the park, the McKittrick Canyon Trail runs west for about ten miles where it meets the Tejas Trail in the center of the park. From that intersection, you can connect to just about any other trail in the park. On our visit, we hiked about four miles out—to a rock outcropping called The Grotto—ate lunch, and then hiked back to the trailhead. That was far enough for us to experience walking through the colorful trees and vegetation, and to reach an elevation where we could take pictures of the canyon we’d just come through.

On that trip, we’d asked the ranger at the visitor center which hike she would recommend. “Do you want to do a hard hike or a pretty hike?” she asked. Karen and I replied at the same time. Karen said, “Pretty,” and I answered, “Hard.” Karen won that round, so we chose McKittrick Canyon. I had been hoping to hike Guad Peak. “We’ll do the peak on our next visit,” was Karen’s concession; she figured we’d never be back. But back we were in May 2017, and on that trip, there was no argument over which hike we’d do; we were going to the top.

Matt and Karen at the peak

The trail to the peak is about four miles, one way, but felt like ten when we hiked it. The elevation gain is a steady 3,000 feet. Even though it was late May, the wind howled, and we were glad to have several layers of clothing with us. It was one of those hikes when you’re frequently too hot or too cold, and often both at the same moment. By the time we finished lunch at the peak and started back down the trail, the wind had calmed, and the temperature was mild. While hiking down, I fell into a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other daze; I never saw the rattlesnake until I stepped on him. The full version of what happened is in Dear Bob and Sue: Season 2. Suffice it to say that the next time we hike in rattlesnake country, I’ll be wearing snake gaiters—and I don’t care who laughs at me.

Weather conditions and encounters with rattlesnakes aside, the views from the trail were beautiful. Looking south from the peak, we could see the top of El Capitan, the southernmost rock outcropping of the Guadalupe Mountains. El Capitan is the closest and most prominent peak you’ll see when driving by the park on Highway 62. It’s easy to mistake it for Guad Peak, which is a few miles further north and another 600+ feet higher in elevation.

Even though we don’t have firm plans to revisit the park, we always like to think we’ll be back to a park we’ve enjoyed. In addition to the miles of trails in the interior of the park we haven’t hiked, the trail around El Capitan would be a strong contender for our next visit. It’s a couple of miles longer than the peak trail, but the elevation gain is only about half.

Another feature of the park that looks intriguing is the Butterfield Stage Route. The route cuts a southeast to northwest diagonal through the western section of the park. From 1858 to 1861, John Butterfield operated a stagecoach service under the name Overland Mail Company that took passengers and mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. The route passed within a few miles of El Capitan and Guad Peak. Due to the advance of the telegraph and railroads, the service was short-lived, although I’m not sure it was just those advances in technology that killed it. The entire 2,800-mile route took nearly 600 hours to complete. The company’s timetable listed the average travel time for most of the trip segments as four-and-a-half-miles per hour; that’s somewhere between a fast walk and a slow jog. Next time we visit the park, we’d like to find where the route intersects with Highway 62 and get a glimpse of what those passengers experienced 150 years ago on their way across the wild west.

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