This was my first day on a real mountain since relocating to Texas from Colorado in 1990, so I was pretty excited. My friend Andy drove from Houston to my home in the Hill Country and we headed west to the Guadalupe Mountains. After a short night in Van Horn, it was up at 5:00 AM for the quick drive up to the park.
We hit the trail about 30 minutes before sunrise, traversing the first series of switchbacks in the flat morning light. It was just as well, as this is a steep, relentless slog. The stairstep nature of this part of the hike made climbing easy, but it was tough on the legs at the end of the day.
After the first dismount point for horse riders near the top of the first set of switchbacks, the climb gets more interesting. The trail wraps around the back of the ridge and up into a pine forest. The views of Hunter Peak and the Tejas Trail across the valley are great.
Shortly after the campground and bridge, the trail crosses a saddle from the north side to the south side of the main ridge and the first views of El Capitan and the mountains to the south open up. From here, it's another series of switchbacks to the summit.
Trail condition, even after the torrential downpour we experienced on the first set of switchbacks, was surprisingly good. Footing was firm and the rock was solid, compared to many shale covered trails I've been on where you risk crumbling rock with every step. Signage leaves no doubt as to where you are and there's never any danger of losing the route. Others have mentioned exposure, but there's little chance of falling off of this mountain, There's one corner on the last set of switchbacks that has smooth rock and gives the impression that you're about to step into nothingness, but the cliffs aren't sheer at this point and it's not a big deal. The only real exposure is about the first 50 feet on the down mountain side of the footbridge, and you don't even notice it on the way up, only on the way back down. Don't worry, as the NPS has placed a railing along this stretch of trail.
If this is your first time on a "big" mountain, pace yourself until you can't see the parking lot any more. You gain almost half of your total elevation in the first third of the distance to the top and if you're not careful, the view of how far away the mountain is when you turn the corner will be depressing. Once the parking lot disappears, you're three quick switchbacks away from the end of the hard work, even though you haven't yet covered half of the distance to the summit.
This is a nice climb for Texans who want to visit the top of their state as well as misplaced mountaineers from other parts of the world who want the feeling that goes with being on top of the world. Though only 8,749' high, the views from the top are equal to or better than many higher peaks. Combining those views with a relatively uncrowded trail in one of America's few remaining wilderness areas makes a trip to Guadalupe Peak a top notch experience.