The Guadalupe Mountains National Park is in West Texas on the border of New Mexico and in one of the least populated areas of the country which is why I’m so drawn to it. The highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak is located here, but that’s not my destination today. I plan to climb Bush Mt (8631’ elev.), the second highest peak and continue on to complete a loop in the interior of the park.
I manage to take off by 6:15 before the sun peeks over the mountain tops. The evaporating rain has created a blanket of fog in the lowlands making the morning feel cool and refreshing. The trail takes me across a dry wash and then I begin to climb. The coolness quickly turns into a humid slog as I start to labor up the steep incline.
A series of switchbacks helps ease the effort, but only a little bit. Soon I’m high on the mountain peering into the cloud shrouded valley far below. The sun illuminates the peaks all around me. This mountain range was formed by an ancient underwater reef that was eventually covered by sediment, lifted by tectonic compression and then exposed by eons of erosion. The Capitan Reef is a 300 mile horseshoe formation that extends north of Carlsbad Bad Caverns and curves back down towards Alpine, TX. It is one of the best preserved fossil reefs in the world.
My pace is slow because of the altitude and steepness, not to mention the ruggedness of the path. As I toil my way up the mountain I hear the tell tale screech of a raptor and see the bird take flight from a cliff edge high above me. She soars around for a while and then perches on the edge of a rock face to keep a sharp eye on me. Before long I reach a ridge line where I stop to take a quick break, eat a snack and ring out my sweaty shirt. (I know. Ewwwww!) The humidity is going to make for a tough day and I need to keep up with my hydration.
The trail continues climbing eventually leading to a four-way. Here I take the left trail toward Bush Mt. This one is even more rugged because it traverses eroded limestone with tripping hazards everywhere. Running is difficult and turns into more of a rock dance which requires lifting your feet higher and flapping your arms like a chicken to keep your balance. Luckily I’m going mostly uphill and can’t go very fast anyway.
I reach the top of a summit and wonder if I’m there yet. A quick look at my handheld gps reveals that I’m only at 7500’ and Bush Mt is several miles away. I’m able to run faster for a while as the trail follows the contour of the mountains. I reach an overlook and can see the Dell Valley far below. I know it’s the Dell Valley because surrounding the barren desert are perfect circles of lush crops that appear to have been drawn with a compass. I can also see the salt flats, the subject of the El Paso Salt Wars of the 1800s and an ancient shallow lake bed. The usually dry lake actually has water in it since it stormed last night.
After climbing some more I top out on the peak which is marked by a solar powered weather station. This climb is not as dramatic as reaching Guadalupe Peak with El Capitan below, but a beautiful trip all the same. After taking another short rest, I begin my descent.
At first I’m not sure if I’m on the trail because it is very steep and quite overgrown. I consult my park map and see that this trail is for hikers only; no horses allowed for obvious reasons. Even though I’m heading downhill, I’m not able to go very fast because of the technical nature of the route. At times I can’t even see my footing because saplings and other brush are covering the trail. A few sections require me to use my hands when the rocky step down is too high and occasionally I get off the path when the trail takes a sharp switchback.
After some time I transition onto Blue Ridge Trail and finally make it to Tejas Trail which cuts smack through the middle of the park to the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. Here I have to make a decision. A left turn will take me five miles to Dog Canyon where I could fill up with water, but then have to come all the way back to my starting point or I could just turn right to go back to the Pine Spring trailhead where I started. Since my pace has been slow due to the technical nature and steepness of the terrain I decide on the latter.
At this point the trail follows a lush canyon that crosses a dry white creek-bed multiple times and then steadily ascends to the four-way that I passed earlier. When I reach the ridge line, the clouds that were laying in the valley are now gently rising up the slopes. The horizon lost, I feel that I’m in another world, a mystical Shangri-La. I take a short pause to take it all in and then begin my long descent.
The lower I go the more Texas Madrone trees I see. These trees have a very smooth orange or pink bark that peels off the trunk. Berries grow that ripen to a bright red in the fall creating food for birds. I finally make it all the way down into the dry wash below and arrive at my car. The July heat has taken it’s toll on me, but I want to run some more since I’m here for only one day.
I rehydrate with ginger ale and take a little pause before heading back out to explore the Devil’s Hall. All the fog has dissipated and the sun is beating down in full force so I slather on some sunscreen for protection. The trail starts out easy enough; mostly flat with some rollers to keep it interesting.
Whiptail lizards are out in droves and I have to be careful not to step on them. They usually run down the trail in front of me until they get far enough ahead and then scurry into some cover. Occasionally they will leap to clear rocks or a check dam. Interestingly, these whiptails are all females and reproduce by parthenogenesis; no sex needed. Can you believe that?
In about a mile I have to climb down a steep rocky embankment where a sign instructs to follow the dry wash. Rock cairns mark the way and at times I have to use my hands to scramble up large boulders. Between the heat and the climbing I’m soaked with sweat. The walls of the canyon become higher and narrower as I continue and soon I come to a terraced rock formation. Uniform two inch stairs lead up to a small pool in the rock. I’m tempted to jump in to cool myself, but keep moving deeper into the canyon.
All of a sudden a horned beast leaps down off the vertical wall as a barrage of rocks fall. A goat like animal runs straight towards me and I wonder: is this the devil that lives in Devil’s Hall? Is this the end of me? If so, I’m alright with it; I’d rather go like this than live out my feeble last days in a hospital or nursing home. As suddenly as the devil bolts towards me, he turns and bounds up the wall defying gravity disappearing high on the wall.
Barbary sheep, an exotic species from North Africa, were introduced into parts of Texas and New Mexico in the 50s and were partially responsible for the disappearance of big horn sheep that once inhabited the Desert Southwest. According to the Mammals of Texas Online, “[Barbary sheep] are expert climbers and can ascend and descend slopes so precipitous that man can negotiate them only with great difficulty.” That explains how the little devil came down from one wall and, in a flash, disappeared up the other side.
After this excitement, I ramble on and reach Devil’s Hall proper, a very narrow hallway of stratified rock. The effort to get here was well worth it for this is an amazing work of natural art. A sign reads “End of Trail” so I turn around and head back out passing the inviting pool once again. It’s much easier getting out; climbing and sliding down the boulders instead of scrambling up.
I take one last side trip to view El Capitan before finishing my 9 hour adventure that included traversing an ancient reef, lizards that don’t mate and a horned devil. When I return to my car I discover that the best watermelon is the one you eat after running 23 mountainous miles in the July heat of Texas. As for cantaloupes, the best come from Pecos, TX, located not far from here and I was lucky enough to pick up a few from a farmer along the highway on my way home.
See you on the trail.