The Hike to Guadalupe Peak

Given a school half term and an urge to travel somewhere, James and I planned a hike up to Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas at 2667 m.

We flew to El Paso, picked up a rental car and drove east towards the Guadalupe Mountains. A short way past the border post (with its banks of cameras and guards with dogs) we saw a group of pronghorns (closest relatives, giraffes and okapis).

After two hours of driving, there was El Capitan's spectacular form, towering above us as the road looped closer.

El Capitan

The track to Guadalupe Peak. Notice the switchbacks up that first wall of limestone.

We stopped at the Pine Springs visitor center to take a look at the starting point for the trail and then turned off to drive along the road to Slaughter Canyon at dusk, often a good place for encountering wildlife. We came across a big group of mule deer and several jackrabbits with enormous ears. There were also red-tailed hawks and northern harriers, a kestrel, a spotted owl, and a comical group of scaled quail with tiaras (one plump little specimen was perched on a fence as lookout). Later, after a meal in Carlsbad we settled in for some rest before our hike the next day.

A large group of mule deer along the track to Slaughter Canyon.

Wednesday morning, an early start and back we drove to Pine Springs. By the car we checked our stuff - clothes, drinks, food, the walking sticks (from an ice-hiking journey in Canada a couple of years ago) - and set off up the trail. I was the pack animal on this trip since James was on the mend after fracturing his clavicle playing football.

We had climbed a fair distance when it occurred to me what was missing - the first aid kit - and I thought, a simple blister could ruin the day. There was nothing to do, but trot back down to the car to get it. We had progressed further than I had noticed and there was sweat in my eyes by the time I reached James on the trail again. Then, on with the hike and up that first big wall of massive Permian limestone.

Approaching the top of that first wall of limestone.

At the top of that limestone wall, a forest appears and a blast of cold wind lowers the temperature.

We enter the forest and notice ice on the path. This was not something we had deliberately prepared for, but we were grateful for the Canadian ice-walking sticks we had brought along.

The icy path snakes its way up through the forest of pines. The one other person climbing at about the same time is up ahead, a courteous and spiritual young native gentleman, taking a very reverent approach to the mountain. Later, at Carlsbad Caverns we saw a short film about the Mescalero Apache who used to live here and their depth of feeling when back in this landscape. From the top of the mountain we could see Sierra Blanca Peak, far off to the North, which lies within their reservation.

Nearly through the forest and soon to be in "flat land," which wasn't flat, but (after this icy trail) felt like a civilised stroll on gentle slopes through an open forest of ponderosa pines.

A rock in the snowy forest made of thousands of Permian fossils (fusilinids called Polydiexodina).

The path next to the precipice

Vertigo! The photo doesn't capture it, but that's a long way down!

Just past the precipice, the peak is in sight.

A huge view of the Permian reef. That's Hunter's Peak (2,551m) over on the other side of the canyon. The Delaware Basin lies beyond.

Looking down over El Capitan to exposures of a nearly complete Permian submarine fan exposed in the Delaware Mountains..

James creates a small mountain-top sculpture.

Looking west over the salt flats to the Cornudas peaks, eroded plugs of igneous rocks which once fed upwards to volcanoes on a long eroded away land surface..

Looking north towards Colorado. Sierra Blanca mountain is visible on the horizon. It lies within the Mescalero Apache reservation.

The hike up to Guadalupe Peak is long enough and varied enough to have an epic feel to it. You progress up through different worlds, from baking Chihuahuan desert, up a steep wall of massive limestone, to a cold, windy and snowy pine forest, to false peak plateaus, narrow paths next to a precipice and a final climb to the top. To go up and down in the one flow was very satisfying and felt full of metaphors for life - moments of elation, times of carefully progressing past obstacles (the icy path with steep slopes to one side), times of just persisting, one foot after the other, times of enjoying the occasional flat bits! And the joy of good company on the journey.  

We had over-prepared just the right amount. Back at the bottom, there was a layer of clothes we didn't use, but would have on a slightly colder day up top. There was some water and food left over, but that would have been all used up on a slightly hotter day.

And so, the next morning, we drove back to El Paso, with glimpses of a coyote on the salt flat and later a group of pronghorns, close to where we had seen them three days earlier. 

I remembered my first visit to El Paso, by Greyhound bus, as a wandering teenager in 1981.  On my return from that trip, my dad showed me a clipping from a 1955 El Paso newspaper, which included a photo of him on his motorbike with his home made panniers and the story about the young doctor travelling under his own steam between Jamaica and Saskatoon.

An earlier generation of Smith who drove through El Paso in May 1955 on a motorcycle journey between Jamaica and Saskatoon.


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