Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Guads

El Capitan - Photo by Matt Vann

There's one great thing about living in Midland, Texas:  There are far better places to be and they’re a day’s travel or less.  Mountains, forests, big cities, charming small towns, lakes, rivers and oceans are weekend destinations for us.  One of the most overlooked spots is Guadalupe Mountains National Park (GMNP), about three and a half hours to the west.

Almost everyone in the area is familiar with Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but fewer know about the “Guads,” just a few miles away along the same mountain chain.  This is probably because the Guads are for a different sort of visitor than the Caverns.  There’s no hotel nearby, only a primitive camping area and a parking lot for RV’s.  There are no hookups and you won’t hear generators running all night.  Decent restrooms and a dishwashing area are all the amenities you’ll find other than what you brought.  The people you’ll run into at the park are pretty “outdoorsy” types and won’t be carousing at the next campsite all night.
Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, is probably the most popular hike in the park.  Most who start it are not prepared.  A trip up the peak and back takes around eight hours or so and it’s very strenuous for the average person.  I compare it to climbing stairs all day.  The top offers spectacular view and the opportunity to sign the register at the peak’s monument.  Like many others, my first trip up the peak was miserable, but I was very young and not prepared.  I think the peak is a bit overrated in comparison to the experience offered by other trails in the park.  I encourage people to try some of the other trails in the park before taking on the peak.
The day hikes offered in the park are worth a weekend trip.  You’ll get a little taste of the elevation changes you'll face in the higher country, but it’s not exhausting.  I always recommend Devil’s Hall, Smith and Manzanita Springs, McKittrick Canyon and El Capitan trails for day trips.  All offer spectacular views.  I’ve often made solo “decompression trips” to the park on my motorcycle at the end of the work week.  With the bike packed the night before, I can leave after work on Friday and be enjoying a cigar at sunset from my campsite.  I can hit a couple of day trails, take the long way home and be back in time for dinner on Saturday.
The most impressive aspect of the Guads is the transformation from arid desert at the bottom to pine forest at higher elevation.  Tejas trail is the best way to experience this.  Tejas is not as tough as the peak but it’s a good climb.  If you still have some energy, you can check out nearby Hunter’s Peak, the third highest of the peaks.  It’s a full day of hiking but you’ll be back at the campground in plenty of time for dinner.

Backcountry camping is the best way to experience the park.  My favorite trip in GMNP is Bush Mountain, the second highest climb.  Round-trip is about 12 miles, so it’s not a day hike.  Leaving Midland around 6:00 a.m, I can hit the park headquarters about the time they open.  I can be in the high country before the day’s heat sets in, even in mid-summer.  Lunch will be in the pines and dinner is on Bush Mountain.  The return trip gets a little hot coming back on the next day, but it’s bearable.  Backcountry is the way to experience the tougher trails, even the peak.  Even though I’ve been up the peak several times, I spent the night in the peak’s campground once and thoroughly enjoyed the morning hike back down because I wasn’t exhausted.

There are several big things to be aware of before hiking in the park.  First, there is no water ANYWHERE except the park headquarters, so you will be packing in every drop you’ll need for the entire trip.  Nothing in the park is more dangerous than dehydration.  Second is wind.  The Guads are known for unpredictable winds.  I’ve had winds go from dead calm to actually blowing me down within a few hours.  Be ready for this.  Apart from winds is the weather in general.  Check the weather carefully and understand that the canyons and mountain tops have their own climate.  I’ve scorched at the bottom and shivered at night in mid-summer.  Clif Sikes and I left for the Mescalero site one January.  We were wearing T-shirts at the trailhead and found ourselves in parkas while pitching tents in the snow up top.  Just like the Boy Scouts and the Coast Guard say, be prepared.
The park headquarters website is the first place to check for info on park conditions and alerts.  Wunderground has weather stations at different altitudes at the park and will help prepare for conditions.  Finally, even though cell coverage in the park is generally good and true GPS devices are better than ever, it’s always a great idea to carry a map, and the National Geographic series is one of the best.

Break in a set of good boots and head for the Guads!  Keep your gear light and bring a good camera.  Be ready to share dinner with a curious mule deer or kangaroo rat.  Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, take your time and sit in the shade.  Bring a bottle of wine and a couple of lawn chairs for an evening at the campground.  I’ll see you along the trail somewhere! 

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