Planning the hike: revolt at the El Capitan
So we’re sitting in the bar of the El Capitan in Van Horn, Texas, planning our trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and the revolt has begun. “I’ll do Guadalupe Peak,” Steve declares. “Hunter Peak is negotiable.”
Steve and I served in a diplomatic assignment in the Middle East 20 years ago, along with Norm, the third member of our party. When Steve says Hunter Peak is “negotiable,” he’s using diplo-speak for “fat chance.”
Norm is already exploring other options. “There’s a Greyhound station over by the truck stop,” he offers hopefully. “I bet there’s a morning bus to El Paso.”
OK, everyone is sore and tired after a long, hard hike in Big Bend two days before – we’re all at or near senior citizen status and don’t rejuvenate quickly – but the enthusiasm level for the next phase of our West Texas expedition is dropping faster than the temperature a few days earlier when we drove in from Houston through heavy rains, high winds and patches of snow and ice along the highway. This is spring break?
The next morning dawns brighter. Against his better judgment, Norm hasn’t bused his way to safety. Steve has discovered a two-mile nature trail as an alternative to the arduous 9-mile loop for Hunter Peak. We pile in the car and head north on the 65-mile drive from Van Horn to Guadalupe National Park, skirting long ranges of chocolate brown mountains. After 30 miles or so, Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan, its iconic spur, rise into view. They are inspiring in the morning light. A bit intimidating, too, almost as much as the year before when Steve and I caught our first glimpse of West Spanish Peak
Arrival: no room at the inn, but we get lucky
The main campground at Guadalupe is packed solid. A park volunteer advises that there are two isolated tent sites up the highway a mile at the turnoff to the park’s Frijoles Historic Ranch, so we race over and snag them. This turns out to be a great find; the site is quiet, has potable water, a picnic table, and a loo – our own private campground in the middle of the park.
Desert Camp One
At night, we have the place to ourselves, along with a half dozen mules and horses that amble into the corral from the Frijoles ranch a mile farther up the turnoff road.
Sunrise the next day is gorgeous. By 8:10, we’re heading up the Guadalupe Peak trail, and no one is griping about anything. It’s a first.
To the peak
Trailhead Remnants of a spring storm
The trailhead is located at the RV (northwest) section of the park’s Pine Springs campground. Get there early enough and you can catch a parking spot, but during periods of heavy use such as spring break, the lot fills up quickly and you have to park at the Visitor Center a quarter mile away.
The trail begins through scrub brush and begins quickly to switchback up the eastern buttress of Guadalupe Peak. Even though some portions are steep, the climb seems less strenuous than advertised, a pleasant surprise since the elevation gain to the summit is nearly 3,000 ft. over 4.2 miles, and half of that comes in the first mile or so. Maybe we’re in better shape than we thought? We’re making good time.
Steve on the trail
At 7,500’ patches of snow from the storm that swept through the week before line the trail. Around 8,100’, a sign points to the side trail to the backcountry campground. By 11, we’re on the summit – and, amazingly, have it to ourselves. This affords a quiet time to perform a somber duty; scattering the ashes of our good friend and hiking companion Bill Traylor, who died of cancer the year before. About 10 minutes later, others start to arrive; a middle aged fellow and his sons; then larger groups of student hikers. By the time we leave nearly an hour later, the summit is crowded.
Greetings to a park ranger friend
Steve and Norm reach the summit
About the trail
The Park Service keeps the trail in peak shape. Once you’ve zigzagged up the eastern flank of the mountain – the most arduous part of the hike – the trail climbs steadily but gradually along the north side of the ridge. Even when the trail winds through pine forests, it affords spectacular views of the mountains and the Bowl to the north and Hunter Peak to the east (which at 8,368 ft. is a worthy companion to Guadalupe). Shortly before the summit, the trail crosses over the summit ridge, presenting the first vistas of El Capitan and of the expansive plains that sweep far below to the south.
Switchbacking up from the Pine Springs campground El Capitan from the summit ridge
The trail presents few exposure issues. Most attention in this category goes to the portion known as The Bridge, a stretch at about 8,000 ft. where the trail is cut into the side of a cliff. Well before that, though, at 7,000’, is the part they don’t tell you about, a 50-yard don’t-look-down passage just before the point where the trail bends to the north side of the Guadalupe ridge. Still, both here and at the Bridge the trail is comfortably wide and even.
The famous bridge
The bridge from above Cliffwalk the guidebooks don't mention
Other things to know
Almost done -- Norm on the final leg
Guadalupe Park is near … nothing, absolutely nothing. The closest gas station is 35 miles away at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. There are no food stores or eating facilities in the vicinity. Even if you’re doing a day trip, bring whatever you will need other than water (the park provides excellent potable water, thanks to a 3,000’ deep well).
Where to stay before Guadalupe
If you’re coming from the south, Van Horn (on I-10) has a number of national chain hotels. When we visited, the chains were full so we tried the El Capitan Hotel. Another great find this trip. The El Capitan is a restored 1930s-era hotel with charming architecture, friendly staff, pleasant rooms, laundry facilities, great prices, an excellent restaurant, and the sounds of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller piped gently into the lobby.
Plus a bar that nicely quiets rebellions.