Off the grid at Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Words and pictures by Barbara ‘Bo’ Jensen
Spring is here and I am trying to get out; however, this year I am also looking for less traveled roads. While some national parks are so busy they require reservations, others make it easy to think outside the box – like Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas.
US 62/180 is exactly the route I’m looking for, narrowing into a two-lane freeway that stretches over 150 miles from Carlsbad, New Mexico, southwest toward El Paso. The land around me is wide open, with long panoramic viewsâ¦ except for a prominent mountain ridge. The Guadalupe Mountains are like a secret gateway to this remote region, as they have been for millions of years.
The length of this highway roughly matches the length of the ancient Delaware Sea – about 150 miles long and 75 miles wide – which formed here in the Permian Basin 260 million years ago. The rock formations I see in front of me were once a huge underwater reef, now known as Capitan Reef, one of the best preserved Permian fossil reefs in the world. As this inland sea was cut off from the ocean over time, it evaporated, silt filling the basin, burying and protecting the structure of the reef. Then, 20 million years ago, powerful geological forces lifted the fossilized reef along nearly vertical faults.
Today, El Capitan, facing the cliff, rises to 8,064 feet above sea level, while Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, reaches an elevation of 8,749 feet. In fact, nine of the ten highest peaks in Texas are found here. Yet the Guadalupe Mountains National Park also drops below 4,000 feet. The contrast accentuates the chiseled promontory of El Capitan, creating a distinctive landmark for travelers below.
It has always been a vital stop. Limestone from the reef formation allowed natural springs to rise to the surface in these mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert. In addition, the nearby salt flats provided important nutrient minerals as well as the means for early hunters to preserve game and tanned skin. Nestled in the peaks, a pine forest called The Bowl is home to the only elk herd in Texas. First the Mescalero Apache, or Nde, then European explorers, Mexican and American settlers, and American cavalry troops stopped here, accessing water, salt, and game, and resting under maple trees at large teeth and madrones with red bark. And a place called The Pinery (for its stand of protective trees) marks the location of the former Butterfield Stage, the country’s first transcontinental transportation and communications system.
The Butterfield Overland Mail, a forerunner of the Pony Express, provided twice-weekly service from St. Louis to San Francisco for two and a half years from 1858 to 1861; his contract with the Post Office to deliver the mail within 25 days was unbroken, until it was cut short by the civil war. From the start, passengers also boarded coaches, eager to travel just as quickly across the country: five miles an hour, 24 hours a day, covering an average of 120 miles per day.
This 5,534-foot Guadalupe Pass station was the highest point along the original 2,800-mile route, valued for its reliable water, grazing, and shelter when traversing the desert; one stretch had no water for 75 miles. Remnants of the Stage Line Outpost can still be found near the Pine Springs Visitor Center in the National Park, along a paved and accessible path.
The nearby arroyo is dry, but it’s an easy family hike from the historic Frijole Ranch to the Manzanita Spring Pond, and just a mile away from the tree-shaded oasis of Smith Spring.
I could have followed the popular trails to Guadalupe Peak or El Capitan. But instead I take the Tejas Trail, overlooking a steep canyon called Devil’s Hall, to Pine Top, where I camp overnight among the piÃ±ons, with a spectacular view – nearly 3,000 feet above the surrounding plain. . As the sun sets, I hear the distinctive cry of an eagle, circling the heights. The next morning I stand atop Hunter Peak, looking over the canyon to Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan, able to clearly see the narrow trails zigzagging up their sides. Hunter is the fifth tallest peak in Texas. A backpacker’s gear flashes in the morning sunlight atop Guadalupe; I, on the other hand, have this side all to myself. As I walk along the edge of The Bowl, I keep my eyes peeled for the moose, then carefully descend Bear Canyon, the steepest trail in the park. No moose, no bear. Andâ¦ no crowds.
You can visit all of these hidden gems. With over 80 miles of trails winding through the area, day hikers can climb popular peaks or follow Devil’s Hall to a hidden spring, riders can travel through the old ranchland, campers can stay at Pine Springs or Dog Canyon, and backpackers can traverse through the heart of the Guadalupe Mountains. Remember to bring plenty of water; springs and water points are protected natural resources, as they always have been.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park has over 1,000 different species of plants, from common desert species to plants that can only be found in the park. Ecosystems like the Chihuahuan Desert, rocky canyons, and forests are home to these species of plants, 60 species of mammals, 55 species of reptiles, and 289 species of birds. Accompany an official product of the park of the Western National Parks Association.
Back at the reception center, I come across six cyclists resting in the breezy shade of the covered portico. They fill their water bottles and munch on a salty mix, their bike baskets loaded with camping gear, their faces and arms scorched by the sun. Six young people, all in their twenties, travel from coast to coast. They started their hike on a Pacific beach near Santa Cruz, Calif., And will end up dipping their front wheels in the Atlantic near Wilmington, NC. So far, they have cycled for 29 days, over 1,200 miles across the country. Only 1700 more to go. I tell them about the Butterfield Stage.
âIt’s also the highlight of our route,â says a young man. “It’s all downhill from here.” He smiles knowingly. They laugh together, well aware of the potential for hardship to come their way. Thirst quenched for the moment, they get back in the saddle and head east, following the long, quiet highway that brought them here, a road less traveled above the Guadalupe Mountains.
Barbara “Bo” Jensen is a writer and artist who loves to get out of the network, whether it’s hiking in national parks, hiking the Continental Divide Trail or following the Camino Norte through Spain. For more than 20 years, social work has paid the bills, allowing them to meet and speak with homeless people on the streets of America. You can find more of Bo’s work on Over there Podcast, Wanderlust, travel, and www.wanderinglightning.com
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This story was made possible in part through support from the Western National Parks Association