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Guadalupe Mountains National Park

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park Overview

The signature peak of the Guadalupe Mountains, 8,085-foot El Capitan, is visible from far across West Texas' chapped, interminable desert plains, and your first glimpse of it may floor you. The massive limestone bulwark's forbidding aspect might make you think that Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a harsh, demanding environment to adventure in; that may be partly so, but there are many secret soft spots hidden here. In the recesses of McKittrick Canyon and other ravines are big-tooth maples, chinquapin oaks, and little-leaf walnuts that put on a fall foliage show unrivaled in Texas. High-elevation hiking trails through the Bowl are lined by "sky islands" of ponderosa-pine and Douglas-fir forests. And lush oases like Smith Spring are packed with maidenhair ferns, red monkeyflowers, and jade-green madrone trees.

With the exception of the October leaf-peeping extravaganza, the Guadalupes are as lonely a national park as you'll find outside Alaska—which sounds awfully good to us, especially in the winter months when mild temperatures make it one of the best backpacking destinations in the country. It's a wilderness park with few amenities, and the only company you're likely to find here is the wildlife—everything from elk to big-eared mule deer to mountain lions, black bears, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes. And with its temperate climate, abundant year-round sunshine, and several distinct life zones, Guadalupe Mountains National Park provides excellent habitat for butterflies; more than 90 species have been reported within the park.

Explore a Fossilized Reef
When the area that is now Guadalupe Mountains National Park was set aside in 1972, its rarified geology was the main reason. The park protects a large chunk of the fossilized Capitan Reef—one of the premier fossil reefs of the world, and best exposed here in the Guadalupe Mountains. Way back in the incomprehensible depths of geologic time, this part of western Texas and the southeast corner of New Mexico were under the Delaware Sea arm of the Permian Ocean, and the shores of this sea lapped against this very spot. The mountains that start here, stretch to the north, and encompass the limestone caves of Carlsbad Caverns are all that's left of the prehistoric reef that built up along those shores, was buried and petrified under sediment when that sea dried up, and later was exposed and carved at by wind and water. For serious geology buffs, the park's strenuous, 8.4-mile Permian Reef Trail is the ticket; it has stop markers keyed to a comprehensive geology guide, and offers up excellent views into McKittrick Canyon.

Be There for Fall Colors
The only year-round stream in Guadalupe Mountains National Park sluices down through McKittrick Canyon in the northeast corner of the park, and gives life to huge old big-tooth maples, ashes, oaks, walnuts, and the coniferous shaggy-barked Texas madrone—not to mention the state's only reproducing stock of rainbow trout. This is the setting for the only major influx of humans the park experiences: Each fall those hardwood trees explode into a technicolor foliage display that is all the more amazing for being here in the Lone Star State, and not in, say, Vermont. The moderate McKittrick Canyon Trail follows an intermittent stream through the desert, transition, and canyon woodlands to the historic Pratt Lodge, Grotto picnic area, and Hunter Cabin. The 4.8-mile round-trip to Pratt Lodge takes two hours; allow three to five hours round-trip to hike to the Grotto and Hunter Cabin. There are other stands of big-tooths in the park if the crowds get to you; try the Tejas Trail out of Dog Canyon or the Smith Spring trail from Frijole Ranch.

Backpack the High Country
If you've always wanted to hear the hiss of that "West Texas wind" that Marty Robbins sings about in "El Paso," this is the place to do it. Packing your way into the higher elevations of the Guadalupes is a fairly strenuous endeavor, more so because you'll have to carry in all the water you'll need. But once you close in on 6,000 feet, you'll be walking in the cool shade of relict montane forests left from a period when this part of Texas was much colder. The thickest forest is in the north-central swath of the park called the Bowl, and in it you'll find plenty of spots that make serviceable base camps for a day or two of peak-bagging. If you're lucky you'll hear the bull elks' bugles resonating through the forest and enjoy vast panoramas from Hunter Peak; if you're not so lucky, that wind we mentioned will ratchet up to a full gale—wind speeds of 120 miles per hour have been recorded here.

More on hiking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Car-Camp Dog Canyon
We can't think of too many car-camping experiences that offer total solitude on par with a few nights at Dog Canyon. It takes a long, long drive to get here from anything like a town—McKittrick is much easier to get to from El Paso—and so you'll usually have the nine-site campground to yourself. At 6,400 feet, Dog Canyon is high enough to be in the thick of the park's sections of forested, grass-floored montane terrain. Humans have been hunting the mule deer in these meadows for 10,000 years, and there's a huge mescal pit near the ranger station. The Meadow Nature Trail is excellent for grassland birds such as chipping sparrows, and in early spring it's lit with wildflowers. This is simply an unusually inviting place to make a base camp for adventure—camp here and you'll have a number of great day hikes and a lot of big country all to yourself.

Take Some Pretty Pictures
If you've leafed your way through a coffee-table book of national-park photographs lately, chances are you've raised an eyebrow or two at some shots of the Guadalupe Mountains. This starkly dramatic landscape is an outdoor photographers' dream—and not just for the eye-popping El Capitan promontory, either. In September and October, conditions are perfect for capturing memorable images on film: The huge skies are roamed by the dark, billowing thunderheads of the annual monsoons; the reds and golds of turning leaves silhouette nicely against canyon walls; the monsoon rains have raised wildflowers and deepened the greens in the meadows. Look for surprises among spiky agaves and dazzling-white gypsum sand dunes on the western flank of the park. The light at sunset and sunrise is spectacular, both in the high country (where you'll get panoramas of color streaking across the Chihuahan landscape below) and along the southern approach to the park, where El Capitan gleams pink and gold in the changing sunlight.

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