Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the “other” National Park in Texas. It doesn’t get many visitors because it specializes in hiking and hiking requires work. For those who love hiking, this park offers great scenery as reward for the effort.
The forecast said it was a sunny day, temperature in the 70s and windy, at Guadalupe National Park. I told Loretta it sounds like a good day to do some hiking. We can deal with the wind. As we got close, the car was shaking side to side and I had to compensate the steering to deal with the crosswind. El Capitan, a signature formation, came into view. It’s picture time so I pulled over, took my camera out, opened the car door with great difficulty against the wind, and took several pictures. To get back into the car, I pulled the door with great difficulty against the wind, put my right foot in the car and nearly lost my left leg as the wind tried to slam the door shut with my left leg still outside. Fortunately, my arm braced the door before it could slam and break my left leg. Disaster averted!
Guadalupe Mountain is part of Capitan Reef, which stretches 400 miles in a horseshoe shape from Alpine, Texas through Carlsbad, NM. Parts of the reef is exposed and formed mountains. Guadeloupe Mountain is not especially tall nor is it especially dramatic. It has some of the best examples of a marine fossil reef because this entire area was a sea formed 260 million years ago.
The Guadalupe Mountain range rises dramatically from the vast desert floor at El Capitan on the west side, stands as a wall from west to east before gradually melding into the desert floor on the eastern end by Carlsbad. Under the eastern end is Carlsbad Caverns.
With a couple of hours before sunset, we checked out Frijole Ranch and hiked the Smith Spring trail. Frijole is beans in Spanish, one of the crops in the early days. A NPS volunteer gave us a nice tour of the house and explained life in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The nearby springs gave life to the desert, which is why the ranch was located here. The short walk from the Frijole Ranch House to Manzanita Spring was flat and paved. The plants in the desert are small and short. The trail meanders through the desert and suddenly, there was a small pond of water amid the brown grass. This spring is fed by water seeping from the mountain and runs underground, eventually surfacing at this spring.
Life Giving Spring
After Manzanita Spring, the path turned towards the mountain and starts to climbed slowly. It follows a dry riverbed as the vegetation got taller. We heard increased chirping from the birds as they hopped from tree to tree. When we reached the foot of the mountain, there was a canopy of trees and a small pond with a stream of water feeding it. The water is clear refreshing. Smith Pond is roughly 30 feet by 20 feet, surrounded by trees, including a Texas madrone with its red trunk that is bare of bark. The trees sheltered the spring from the high winds. This excellent oasis provided life giving water and shade in a harsh, dry desert environment. I can sit under the shade, listen to the babbling brook, and hang out for hours.
The next morning, we had full the wind was gone. A perfect day for hiking. Guadalupe Peak trail was too much for us, even though the 8.5 mile distance didn’t sound too bad. With a 3000 foot elevation gain and gravel surface, we decided to skip it. Instead, we hiked the McKittrick Canyon trail, which followed McKittrick Canyon from the Chihuahuan desert into the mountain. The path passed through the border zone between desert and highland. As we left the desert floor, the vegetation got taller and trees denser. I felt like I was in a bowl, surrounded by mountains that tower 1500 feet above me on all sides.
We reached Pratt cabin that was nestled under 30 foot tall trees. This was a simple house with a living room in the middle and bedrooms on both sides. The cliff view from the porch was beautiful. We sat there, resting and enjoying the quiet of the valley. The only sounds we heard were the birds chirping. It was a still day with nary a wind blowing.
I wanted to try my GoPro head gear on this hike. I put on the head strap with the camera, carefully adjusted the view of the camera, and recorded most of the hike. As the hike went along, I started getting a headache. I told Loretta I hope I’m not coming down with something. When we got to Pratt cabin, I took off my head gear to check out the video. My headache stopped right away! I didn’t know a head strap on too tight can cause a headache! That was the good news. The bad news was the video. My head was bobbing and moved from side to side too much. Loretta got dizzy looking at it. Since I got bad video and a headache from the head strap, no more head strap. I went back to GoPro on a stick.
After a short rest and hydration, we kept going up country to the Grotto. This was a rock formation that looked like someone carved gourds into the cliff. It was very strange and yet very beautiful. We took out our lunch by the stone picnic table and enjoyed the solitude and the quiet. The wind was calm and strangely, we did not hear birds at the Grotto area. The quiet was very relaxing and the day beautiful with the occasional bug buzzing us and trying to share our food. We took a well deserved rest before heading back.
We saw a deer walking through a pool of water in the wash by the Grotto. When my camera chirped as it turned on, the deer stopped, turned her head towards me with the ear raised, trying to figure out what the sound was and where it came from. After a moment, satisfied there was no threat, continued her journey and disappeared behind some tall bamboo. I was excited to see deer in its natural habitat, especially in a park like this where she can roam freely without worrying about people and their neighborhoods.
The 6.8 mile hike was an excellent way to spend a few hours. The hike was mostly gravel and it crisscrossed the wash. The gravel is harder to walk on than I anticipated, but it was relatively flat.
Research and Global Talent
We saw two young men with strange equipment that pointed at the cliffs during the hike. They were graduate students from the University of Oklahoma mapping the topography of the mountain range using laser. They were geology majors from northeast China, measuring Texas topography.
US universities attract the best and the brightest from all over the world. After we educate them, we need to keep them here to contribute to US society. It will help us stay at the leading edge of technology.
As we came down the mountain, the same students were lugging their heavy equipment back to the car. They may be great geologists, but they didn’t look like seasoned hikers as they huffed and puffed their way down the trail.
Thought for Guadalupe:
Turn the challenges Mother Nature give you to your advantage, like harvesting frequent high winds of Guadalupe mountains with windmills to produce energy.
Impressions of Guadalupe:
Most National Parks have a specific claim to fame, a central feature or two that makes it stand out. Guadeloupe doesn’t have an unique, dominant geological feature. Its claim to fame is hiking. Climbing to the tallest point, Guadalupe Peak at 8,751 feet, is a strenuous 8.4 mile hike with 3000 foot elevation gain. It is a popular day hike challenge for those who are able. The gravel surface makes the miles longer than it seems. This hike was too much for us but I hear the view from the top is fabulous.
This park is great for hiking partly because there are so few people here. Except during the peak of fall foliage season, you are mostly alone during your hike. We saw less than 10 other people during our 6.8 mile McKittrick Canyon hike.
The historical aspect of this park is not that interesting. The ranch houses are good to see but not especially noteworthy. The volunteer ranger gave us a great feel of life here 100 years ago.
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(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Practical Info for Visiting Guadalupe:
You have to hike to enjoy the park. There isn’t much scenery by auto.
- Carlsbad, NM is the closest town with decent services.
- Dog Canyon and Salt Flat sections require a long trip around the park. Visit them if you have time.
- Allocate time based on the amount of hiking you want. Half day is enough if you do not plan to hike more than a couple of miles.
- Sitting Bull State Falls is a nice surprise. The facilities are excellent and the waterfall is only a short walk from the parking area. It is on the way to Dog Canyon.
- Be sure to use the self registration process at the start of hikes. If you already have a NPS pass, write down your pass number. If you don’t come back, they will know to go look for you.
- Trinity Hotel Restaurant in Carlsbad is excellent. Chili’s is the next best one. The brisket at Danny’s BBQ is really good. None of the other places we tried are worth visiting.
- Size: 86,415 acres, ranked 40th
- Visitors: 181,839 in 2016, ranked 48th. Record was 1997 with 231,980 visitors
- Peak Month in 2016: November with 21,663 visitors
- Low Month in 2016: January with 8,499 visitors
- Entrance Fee: $5 per person on honor basis. Self service. No entrance gates.
Date Visited: February 17 – 18