Archives for category: Guadalupe National Park

Overview:

Summit Marker on Guadalupe Peak

Summit Marker on Guadalupe Peak

This ascent takes you to the top of Guadalupe Peak in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Once again, it seems a little odd to be describing a Texas hike on a website devoted to New Mexico hiking, but the trail has enormous attractions. For one thing, there is the trail itself. It represents a huge commitment in park-hours. There are engineered steps wherever the terrain might otherwise wash out, innumerable water-control features, rock towers spanning gullies that would not otherwise support a tread and in several places rock has been drilled out (presumably blasted) to give trail users a place to place their feet. Some backcountry hikers might regard this as overkill, but for a vastly popular tread in a National Park it seems very sensible. Kudos the the Park Service! The trail ascends 3000 feet from trailhead to summit so it is a genuine workout. During that ascent you leave the chaparral growth of lower Pine Canyon, ascend over cliff bands, traverse high ridges and rise into a sky-island forest. It is tremendously popular. If you want solitude then avoid holiday weekends and seek out a mid-week expedition.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter I-25 heading south.
  • After 3.0 miles, merge onto I-10 heading east
  • After 25.1 more miles, in Texas, take the exit for Texas Loop 375, the exit ramp merges immediately onto South Desert Blvd (a frontage road)
  • After 0.4 miles, go left at a stoplight onto Texas Loop 375.
  • After 24.6 miles, take the Montana Ave / US-180E / US-62E exit, the exit ramp merges immediately into Joe Battle Blvd (a frontage road)
  • After 0.3 miles, go left at a stoplight onto US-180E / US-62E.
  • After 95.1 miles, go left onto Madrone Circle and enter the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
  • After 50 feet, go left onto Pine Canyon Drive.
  • After 0.6 miles, at the end of the road and in an RV campground, park at the trailhead.
02 Top of El Cap from park headquarters

Top of El Capitan seen over a ridge line from the trailhead at dawn.

Here are a few notes on the drive as experience on this outing. First, road signage was scant in the El Paso area. You may want to have a GPS running or to stick closely to the planned route. Second, “sticking to the route” was tricky since there was considerable construction activity along the length of Loop 375. After exiting I-10 and turning left, you will immediately encounter a profusion of orange barrels that keep you shunted to the extreme right side of what seemed to be a dilapidated back road rather than a major arterial. Nevertheless, stay on this rough road as it rises straight up to the mountains. It will eventually unfurl as a major road, as originally expected. After ascending up over the pass and descending back into a flanking part of El Paso, you will be forced off the main road due to another construction project. The detour puts you onto Woodrow Bean Transmountain Road, which parallels the main road. After innumerable stoplights and a bit more than 3 miles you are allowed to re-enter Loop 375. Of course, all of this is transient and what you encounter will vary with the state of the State’s construction plans.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at the trailhead. Above the cars rises the easterly knob of the eastern Guadalupe ridge

The mighty Camry at the trailhead. Above the cars rises the easterly knob of the eastern Guadalupe ridge

The trailhead is paved, there are running-water bathrooms, trail signage, and trash cans. Most of the parking area is taken up by long RV slots, but some parking spaces are set aside for hiker’s cars. The Park Service charges $5.00 for everyone over 16. You get a permit that is valid for 7 days. A number of factors complicate the situation, such as free-use dates and various pass plans. See the GMNP website for the details. On this President’s Day weekend the place was packed solid.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5822 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 8751 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 2929 feet
  • Distance: 4.1 miles
  • Maps: USGS Guadalupe Peak, TX

Hike Description:

Trailhead and view of eastern knob.

Trailhead and view of of the knob at the east end of the approach ridge.

The RV campground at the end of Pine Canyon Road lies in the mouth of Pine Canyon. Look north into the canyon and take note of the height of land above and to your left (west). A broad band of cliffs dominates the face, and those cliffs are (surprisingly) your initial destination. This is not Guadalupe Peak, but rather the lowest knob at the eastern end of a ridge descending from Guadalupe’s summit. As mentioned in the introduction you will be switchbacking your way up this face, contouring north and then following the ridge that lies behind this face.

Cliffs on eastern slopes of the east knob

Cliffs on eastern slopes of the first knob on the approach ridge

Enter the trail going west from the northwest corner of the RV park. In about 100 feet reach  a trail intersection where the Tejas Trail departs towards the north (right). Go left on Guadalupe Trail. At about 500 feet come to the second trail intersection. The Devil’s Hall Trail also takes off to the north, so go to the left once again. At 1000 feet from the trailhead, come to the start of numerous switchbacks that will take you up through the cliffs soaring above you. This part of the ascent  makes real energy demands on the hiker. At 0.8 miles from the trailhead (warmed up considerably) encounter the last of the trail intersections. Coming in from the right is a trail for equestrians riding their mounts to the summit. Remarkably, there was no horse sign on the trail at all, which removes one of the cares from your hiking. All these intersections were signed and most are in sight of the trailhead. Most people will find the navigation issues are negligible.

View of north wall of Pine Canyon from canyon floor

View of north wall of Pine Canyon from Pine Cayon floor

At one mile from the trailhead the trail takes on a new character. Here the trail begins an extended traverse north (with minor switchbacks ) to carry you across the face of the eastern knob. It is a matter for wonder that horses would traverse such terrain. In fact, there are several places along the trail where horse riders are told to dismount and lead their charges. As you get higher and higher check the opposing wall across Pine Canyon. It looks like great hiking over there.

View into northern Guadalupe Mountains from the long, northerly switchback

View into northern Guadalupe Mountains from the end of the long, northerly traverse

At 1.5 miles reach the northern extreme of this long traverse, turn west and switchback up steep terrain, coming quickly into views of the northern Guadalupe Mountains. Study the far wall of Pine Canyon and find Tejas Trail as it contours around a huge rib and then switchbacks fervently for the PineTop back country. When rested, continue east as the trail makes a relatively mild traverse below Point 7520. The environment shifts, too, with pinyon and ponderosa becoming commonplace.

Meadowed terrain and view of Guadalupe summit

Meadowed terrain and view of Guadalupe summit

Eventually, the need for altitude takes over. Make a series of about 5 switchbacks as if you were going to go straight to Point 8115, but about 100 feet below this prominence contour beneath it into beautiful, meadowy terrain. The trail curves a bit south and then back a bit north in this terrain. Views open to the summit. At 3.2 miles encounter an intersection (signed) for the Guadalupe Campground. It seems like fine camping, nearly 7500 feet above sea level.

View down to the summit of El Capitan

View down to the summit of El Capitan

The next stretch is a wide swing near the rim of a remarkably steep sided bowl. Watch your step because there isn’t much “there” there on the right hand side of the trail. Several gullies along this part of the trail have waterfall aspirations. There are more signs telling horse riders to dismount. At 3.3 miles from the trailhead, find yourself standing at the headwaters of Guadalupe Canyon and fine views south. A little further and you will see the “back side” of El Capitan. Unlike the views from US 180, this view is not dominated by cliffs, and now the its summit below your feet rather than above your head.

Adiabatic cloud formation over the Guadalupe Mountains

Orthographic lift and cloud formation over the Guadalupe Mountains

At 3.6 miles, enter the top of a pocket forest tucked within the confines of a near-summit gully. The tread switchbacks in the forest, swings past a rib and begins the assault on the summit block. Switchbacks resume, but as you pass by the horse rails you are almost there. Achieve the summit at 4.1 miles, marked with a 5′ tall metal pyramid. Welcome to the highest point in Texas.

Recommendations:

Author on Guadalupe Peak

Author on Guadalupe Peak

This is a secure, well maintained, yet demanding tread into high places. It could hardly be better for introducing strong young hikers to the joys and strains of mountain ascents. There are a few things for those young hikers and their guides to bear in mind. First, if you should meet equestrians then give them the right of way. If that means you have to back up, then back up. Also, find a place where you can get off the trail on the downhill side. That makes it easy for the horse to see you and is less likely to cause a nervous horse to shy. Second, there are a few spots where the danger from a trailside fall are real. The responsible guides should have a no-horseplay rule firmly in effect. I saw a couple youngsters, about 12 or so, ascending to the summit and they were having a great time. Their guides, however, looked like they needed a break. If you are out of shape or otherwise in ill health, then this is not a great place to test your limits.

On this mid-March day, only five days away from the vernal equinox and the start of spring, the sun was warm but the air was cold and the wind was howling. I wore a wool hat, ski gloves and had on a cotton shirt under a denim shirt in hopes that the denim would block the wind. It was almost a good idea. There was some balance between sweating in the sunny and wind-protected places and freezing in the shaded and wind-exposed places. The sunny summit was brutally cold. It was a huge relief to dig a jacket out of my pack. Winter is still with us. I drank only a liter of water. Of course, in mid-August the environment and the resulting needs are going to be rather different.

 Links:

11 Mountains from US 180The National Park Service has a short and clear description (PDF) of the hike. There is also a potentially useful list of alternative hikes in the Park.

Texas Monthly has an amusing and detailed story of camping in the meadows of Guadalupe Peak.

Natural Born Hikers has a post, apparently put up on this very day, describing the ascent and showing numerous photos.

For great photos and a detail description of ascending Guadalupe in snowy conditions, check out the Texas Mountaineer post.

Overview

View from lower McKittrick Canyon into GMNP

View from lower McKittrick Canyon into GMNP

This trip takes you along a canyon bottom with surface water (rare along the border of New Mexico and Texas). Then it switchbacks up the dust-dry canyon walls and gains the canyon rim. From the rim the options are constrained only by the the sun’s position in the sky and the water in your pack.  Here I simply kept to the rim until  early afternoon and returned by the same path.

This report is being written up two months after I actually made the trip. Be extra skeptical. My driving notes have been lost, so the driving directions are simply taken from Google.

Admittedly, it is a little odd to have a Texas hike in a blog called New Mexico Meanders. That sort of technicality, however, is going to be resolutely ignored for the greater purpose of hiking the high terrain in the desert southwest.

Driving Directions

  • From Las Cruces, enter I25 from Lohman Av (Exit 3) heading south.
  • After 4.9 miles, merge onto I10-E (towards El Paso, TX).
  • After 24.8 miles, take exit for Tx-375/Woodrow Bean Transmountain Road (avoids downtown El Paso)
  • After 24.6 miles (climbing into Franklin Mountains and crossing portions of Fort Bliss) take the US-62/US-180/Montana Blvd exit.
  • After 0.3 miles on the exit ramp (possibly signed Joe Battle Blvd) go left onto US-62/US-180
  • After 103 miles, turn left onto McKittrick Road (paved)
  • After 4.3 miles, at road end, arrive at trailhead and McKittrick Canyon Contact Station.
01 Sunrise over hills east of Fort Briggs

Sunrise crossing Fort Bliss on road to Guadalupe National Park

When I did this in late March there was quite a bit of construction on TX-375, which slowed things down a bit on the morning drive. On the return that afternoon I tried taking US-62/US-180 all the way to I10 and driving through El Paso. The traffic on I10 in El Paso was extremely heavy, so perhaps the Transmountain Road is the way to go.

Trailhead

31 Car at trailhead in afternoon duststorm

The mighty Camry in an afternoon dust storm

This trailhead is in a national park. You will need a park pass or else pay a registration fee.  At this writing, the Park Service fees and registration page is calling for a fee of $5.00 per adult, good for seven days. If you have exact change you can pay the fees using envelopes at the trailhead. Otherwise stop at the Pine Springs Visitor Center on US-62/US-180 and pay at there.  The McKittrick Canyon Contact Station has picnic tables, potable water and toilet facilities.  There is a large amount of paved parking.

This trailhead is designated for day use only!  When I was there the trailhead was open until 6:00, but at other times of year the trailhead gates are closed at 4:30. Check the McKittrick webpage for exact times.

Data

02 view of El Capitan in Guadalupe Natnl Park

El Capitan on drive to McKittrick Canyon

  • Starting Elevation: 5000 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7700 feet (depends on where you go)
  • Net Gain: 2700 feet
  • Trail Length: 7.5 miles one way (again, depends on where you turn around)
  • Map: Guadalupe Peak, Tex (if you’re going to go north, take “El Paso Gap” as well)

Hike

29 Big Fang (distant)  and Little Fang  (nearby)

View up South McKittrick Canyon from trail above the Grotto junction

The trailhead parking lot lies over the outwash from McKittrick Canyon.  Cross the breezeway in the McKittrick Canyon Contact Station and follow the path northwest, directly towards the mountains.  In about a quarter mile cross the canyon bed for the first of about seven crossings. When I was there all but two of these crossings were completely dry (but in a high-snow year it could be quite different). The canyon walls quickly rise and steepen about you.  In half a mile make a second crossing and count yourself inside the canyon proper.

05 water over rock shelf in lower McKittrick Canyon

Surface water in McKittrick Canyon

You’ll see that you are on a backcountry road rather than a trail.  This road persists up to the Pratt Homestead at about 2.4 miles. This is not exactly a wilderness experience, not with a power line overhead! Still, the canyon is strikingly beautiful. Even in a drought year there were grassy areas and even occasional swampy spots. The stream flow is largely sub-surface, but from time-to-time rocky ledges will force the water back into view. It was cool and clear, although I never saw any of the promised rainbow trout.

09 McKittrick Canyon dry bed

Dry canyon bed and sheer canyon walls

The tread turns to due-west and then begins to head south-west for a while. Where it is close to the stream it tends to be rocky – good ankle support is appreciated in this part of the hike and it can be a good idea to bring along a hiking pole.  Sheer walls adjacent to the stream reveal how the water has been eating away at the old fossil reef.

At 2.4 miles pass the junction to the Pratt cabin, which lies about 100 feet away. It is easy to see why Pratt (a geologist) might be taken with this spot. It lies at the confluence of the North and South McKittrick Canyons, has a terrific little forest, reportedly the only reliable year-round water in the mountains, and access to an infinity of rock. The cabin (including the roof) is itself an exercise in repurposed sedimentology.

17 stalagtites in grotto

View out of grotto, past stalactites

The trail crosses the North McKittrick Canyon bed and stays above the bed of South McKittrick Canyon. About a mile past the cabin there is a junction where the side trail leads down towards the canyon bed. This will take you to a grotto and, further on, another rock walled building that was once used by hunting parties.  The picnic tables near the grotto made of limestone, although apparently sized for NBA players.

Chihuahuan vegetation arrayed in garden-like lines near rim

Chihuahuan vegetation arrayed in garden-like lines near rim

Past the grotto the main trail starts to rise. At first it is a gentle incline. Below the path you will see a busted pipe system. I am guessing that it was once used to collect water from one of the wetter canyon branches. In fact, you enter that wet branch in about half a mile past the grotto. Where you cross the stream bed the ground is quite damp (even after years of drought conditions). There was even a small puddle. If you look downhill from the bed you can see where the pipe used to run into the ground to reach the spring.This is the last hint of water along this trail, however. As you exit this side canyon the number of trees begins to fall off and more typical Chihuahuan flora (yucca and prickly pear) appear at trailside.

"Knife edge" col becomes an attention getter in high winds.

“Knife edge” col becomes an attention getter in high winds.

The trail along the rim is in good shape (thanks to all those Park Service folks who do the trail maintenance!) but in places the trail hits rather sharply inclined rock or crosses a knife edged col. Under most circumstances this is not a problem. On this hike, however, the wind started picking up in the afternoon. There were a few occasions where it seemed advisable to “hunker down” and let the gusts go by. In fact I wound up turning around a little early just because the winds were making it uncomfortable to be up on the edge of the canyon.

30 Dusty views of Guadalupe after windstormReturn the way you came. Don’t forget, as I forgot, that the trailhead is day-use only. It was a good thing for me that the wind was so pushy!  I wound up making it back to the car just 45 minutes before closing. They say that dust storms are common occurrences  in the Chihuahuan Desert. As the photo to the left shows, a day that started bluebird-blue ended sandy-brown. The Camry was really bouncing around on the return drive along US-62/US-180.

Recommendations:

16 me in McKittrick Canyon grotto (inside shot)

Grotto dweller.

I climbed to the high point in the park, Guadalupe Peak, about 24 years ago. That was another great hike, but McKittrick Canyon is the real “highlight” of the park. What a difference a stream makes.

The section of trail that switchbacks to the rim is unshaded and steep. Don’t count on getting any further water after the junction to the grotto. It seems likely that almost everyone camping on the rim would need to have a gallon of water for each day of camping.

The distances you can travel without seeing a gas station in West Texas can be impressive.  It might be a good idea to fill your gas tank before leaving the El Paso area.