Friday, July 17, 2015

Three days in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

"The Guadalupe Mountains are among the best examples of a marine fossil reef. Geologists come from around the world to marvel at this extraordinary phenomenon that formed 260-270 million years ago.

"During that time a tropical ocean covered portions of what is now Texas and New Mexico. Over millions of years calcareous sponges, algae, and other lime-secreting marine organisms precipitated from the seawater. Along with lime, they built up to form the 400-mile-long, horseshoe-shaped Captain Reef.

an ocean once ran through it

"Eventually the sea evaporated. As the reef subsided, it was buried in a thick blanket of sediments and mineral salts. The reef was entombed for millions of years until a mountain-building uplift exposed part of it. Today this ancient reef complex towers above the Texas desert in the Guadalupe Mountains..." ~ National Park Service brochure


Frequent readers will know that I rarely paste a bunch of text from a brochure into a blog post. This time, though, I couldn't help myself - I can't even wrap my head around the concept of 270 million years, so any of my other words would never adequately summarize how these amazing mountains were formed.

Anyway. We knew nothing of this when we decided to camp at Guadalupe Mountains National Park over Memorial Day weekend. We just knew that we wanted to stay in a pretty, quiet place near Carlsbad Caverns National Park during that time. Mission (and so much more) accomplished...

The hikes. There are about 80 miles of trails, many of which intersect each other. We got recommendations from the rangers on the "must-see" hikes as well as where to avoid the holiday weekend crowds. (Helpful hint: always, always, always go to the ranger station for advice! They aim to please, and they usually succeed by tailoring their recommendations to your individual physical abilities and interests.)

Since we'd been going full-force for two weeks straight, we'd also decided to take shorter hikes and spend more time relaxing at this particular park over this particularly hot weekend. We ended up hiking almost 29 miles over three days... mission definitely not accomplished there.

Day One: first up was Devil's Hall, a 4.2 mile return hike to a narrow passageway in the cliffs.

the early part of the trail -
hiking into the desert abyss

first desert cactus flowers

rock-eating tree

almost there - beautiful rock formations

there - can't stop looking up

a little more perspective
(see Patrick in the bottom left corner?)

After marveling over that, we headed over to Smith Spring Loop for a 2.3 mile trek with great 180° views.

I was obsessed with this conical mountain the whole time

around mile #1, parched desert suddenly turned to balmy rainforest

desert cacti were everywhere

these were pretty too

Day Two: we conquered Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas! It was an 8.4 mile return trek with 2500' elevation (so, approximately 75% as heinous as Kings Mountain, Oregon, for you local readers.)

our eventual destination:
behind that giant rock, off in the distance

so many wildflowers along the way

yep, we walked across that

the valley

El Capitan, Texas
(which came first, Yosemite's or Guadalupe Mountain's?)

(ignore the ham radio line from a local tourist...
we also had to wait in a bit of a line to get this picture - yay for holiday weekends!)

first paintbrush of the season
our view on the way down

(I was also obsessed with yucca flowers)
(OK, fine, I was kinda obsessed with ALL the flowers)

After the peak hike we decided it would be a good idea to walk another 0.7 miles around the nature trail near the visitor's center. Because, you know, we weren't exhausted or anything.

The trail had lots of informative signs about the local plant life.

finally learned that this gorgeous plant is apache plume

The nature trail ended at a monument to the Old Pinery Station. This was a stop on the pre-pony-express mail delivery stagecoach that once delivered 12,000 letters from San Francisco to St Louis every 25 days.

anyone remember "mail"?

Day Three: one of the rangers had recommended McKittrick Canyon (part nature, part historic) so we headed there early to beat the heat.

walking on the bottom of a very old ocean

reef remnant surprise!

Along the trail we ran into a guy we'd met on the Guadalupe Peak hike who suggested an alternate trail that offered great views of the canyon. We followed his advice...

... and didn't regret it

Afterward we decided it would be a good idea to do the Foothill/Frijoles 5.5 mile loop. (They're just knees, we don't really need them.)

dry, hot...

... yellow

Twenty-nine miles: check.

The campsite. There are two campgrounds in the park. That Friday morning we got to the southern campground just in time - there were about five sites available when we arrived; 30 minutes later they were all taken.
  • Pine Springs campground (we chose site 3)
    • Pros: close to the visitor center, trails and modern bathrooms; fairly well spread-out with lots of brush between campsites; surrounded by gorgeous mountains; no artificial or city light glare after dark so you could really see the stars
    • Cons: not much shade during the day; no campfires allowed (for very good reason!); no showers (but really, at this point, who cared?)
(I mean, would you care about no shower?)

(what about if you were able to watch Gemeni rising over a crescent moon,
would you care about a shower then?)

Our route didn't go near the northern campground so we can't speak to that one.

The food. Normally when it's that hot, we keep things simple and opt for fresh salads. But our cooler is very small, ice at the park is expensive, and the closest market is probably an hour's drive away, so we had to plan our meals carefully. Canned tomatoes, pre-cooked brown rice from Trader Joe's and quick-cook rice noodles saved the day.

dinner #1: rice pasta with spicy tomato sauce and sausage

dinner #2: some sort of huevos rancheros concoction
(gotta love breakfast for dinner!)

dinner #3: not really sure what this was, actually...
after 29 miles we would've eaten just about anything

More photos here...

The summary. If these pictures haven't convinced you to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I'm afraid I can't really help you. It's a beautiful, less-traveled space and we highly recommend it.

Next up: yet another cave!


  1. What a great post! Once again, Texas in the summer is not for me, but Wow! What an adventure. The images of the rock formations are fascinating.

    1. Thanks Renee! It was really unexpectedly beautiful. I bet it would be great in the early spring or later fall too - I'm with you on avoiding southern summer heat!

  2. What an incredible experience! Beautiful photos.

  3. I'm tired just hearing how much you hiked much less thinking of the strain of 2500 elevation and it's dry and hot! This is why I tell my husband I don't like camping, I'd probably go along with the Walk but I would be extremely grumpy without a shower...

    1. I used to have a 6-day-no-shower tolerance. After this last road trip it's down to 4 days... And Day 4 is not pretty. :)

  4. What a wonderful place! All the hikes look wonderful, but I don't know if I could do them ALL in a weekend!

    1. Yeah, we tend to go big... and then we pay for it later. :)

  5. Hi! Just stumbled across your blog. Amazing photos and great recommendations! Was curious how early you got to the campsite that Friday morning to secure a spot as I am thinking of doing the same over Memorial Day Weekend this year.

    1. Hi SaraBeth! Thanks for stopping by, glad you liked the pics. We stayed in Balmorhea State Park the night before and left super early to ensure that we got to Guadalupe Mountains around 9:30am to secure a campsite. Pretty sure the campsites were full by 11:30 or so... And the ice machine (and soda machines) were empty all weekend so be sure to bring plenty with you, if you need them! Hope you have a great time.