It wasn’t much past dawn on Sunday, November 7  when Patrick and I pulled into the parking area of Pine Springs Visitor Center at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. On this day off in our very busy Texas video shoot, we wanted to do a hike or hikes in the Park. Neither of us was particularly keen for the elevation gains we’d need to get up into the Park’s high country, so we opted for a front country hike: the El Capitan/Salt Basin Overlook loop. It was long at 11.5 miles, but its elevation gain was modest, and it was rated “moderate” by the Park Service, so it sounded perfect. It ended up being a very tough hike.
From the parking area we could just see the top of El Capitan peeking out from around the bulk of Guadalupe Peak.
We prepped for our hike: sunblock, sandwiches, water. I had three liters of water in my bag and another 1.5 liters in an aluminum bottle. It ended up being barely enough.
We started our hike at 6:45am on the path that connects the Visitor Center parking area to the campground. We walked quietly through the small campground, and I pointed out the spots I’d camped three years earlier. Folks were beginning to stir and start their breakfasts.
After a quick bathroom break at the primary hiking trails parking area at the top of the campground, we set out in earnest.
The trail begins in a wide, gentle arc out of Pine Canyon and through the grassland on the bottom edge of Guadalupe Peak.
We spotted a small herd of Mule Deer having their breakfast as we walked along.
From the start, we weren’t particularly speedy on the trail since we were taking so many photos.
Out of Pine Canyon, the trail turns south toward the distant face of El Capitan. It was along here on the earlier trip that we’d explored a bit with our friend’s two-year-old before turning back. Today, we’d continue on.
That this was the only major hike on my previous trip’s list left undone heavily influenced my desire to do it. That it wasn’t a run up into the mountains and then back down appealed to Patrick.
This portion of the trail was mostly flat, although it dipped occasionally through shallow ravines carved by water flowing east off of the Guadalupes.
Eventually these ravines grew larger and more dramatic as we approached the southern end of the mountain range.
All around us were reminders that this landscape was shaped by water. The Guadalupes were once part of an immense complex of coral reefs long formed more than 260 million years ago during the Permian Period.
The limestone of the fossilized reef is resistant to erosion and caps both the highpoints of the range and also some of the ridges that approximate what would have been the slopes between the gigantic coral reef and the expanse of the sea floor.
To underscore the maritime origin of the mountains, we began to notice fossilized sea life in the rock along the trail.
The juxtaposition of desert flora and fauna with ancient sea creatures renders this place all the more special.
Patrick kept saying, “That’s cool.”
After a ridge particularly dense with fossils, we rounded a bend and got our best look so far at El Capitan and the slopes we were about to hike through. From this vantage point it was possible to imagine-remember the coral reef El Capitan was, capping the sloping sea floor to deeper water. The brilliant blue of the sky that day also helped in imagining a watery world rather than the hot, dry, sunny one we were in.
Also from here we got our first good look at the expanse south and west of the Guadalupes.
This juxtaposition between huge vistas and tiny details like fossils in the landscape characterized the hike (and really characterizes Guadalupe Mountains National Park generally). The place invites you to squint across huge horizons of space, landscape, and time and also to observe with detail the grasses, desert plants, little insects and lizards, and geological details that comprise the place. It also invites you to contemplate your own smallness—the sublime tossed about so casually so often as you contemplate earth time, decomposing yucca time, and your own time on a trail tougher than you’d been expecting.
The trail descended from the ridge full of fossils and more parts of the capstone limestone came into view.
We kept descending into Guadalupe Canyon, like the earlier ravines only much bigger.
Around this point on the hike, I got a text from Patrick’s and my friend and former colleague, John, who’d been along for the Carlsbad Caverns portion of the earlier trip. It was a fun little coincidence.
Patrick whistled along as we descended into Guadalupe Canyon.
The trail is a lollipop loop. Actually not entirely, since El Capitan Trail keeps going and ends at a trailhead in the salt flats west of the Guadalupes. But for our purposes, the hike to Salt Basin Overlook was a lollipop loop, and we’d reached the loop. We chose to go clockwise. I’d read later—much later, back in Chicago—that counterclockwise is recommended. Oh well.
Our path led us down the canyon away from the escarpment.
The track was less clear down here, and we had a little trouble keeping on it as we crossed a dry wash. Patrick double-checked via Google maps.
The trail did make good use of these lower slopes, taking us almost to the boundary line of the Park several times. It was like the trail designers wanted to give visitors the opportunity to explore these lower slopes and ravines in what was otherwise a fairly compact, high country Park.
We swung out beyond a low hill and then turned back toward the escarpment. Now we’d be climbing for a long while until we were just underneath the face of El Capitan.
We passed a hiker going the other way, the only other person we’d see on the trail until we were almost back to the parking area. He said, “You have it all to yourselves.”
It was about ten minutes to ten, and we’d been on the trail for over three hours. So I ate an apple to keep my energy up.
A steady ascent brought us up to a table above highway 62/180.
We passed on old stock tank from the area’s ill-considered ranching days.
The the trail swung us out along a ridge right up the the Park’s boundary fence high above the highway. The drop off was fairly dramatic, and Patrick checked to make sure I was ok, given my acrophobia.
We could plainly see the pullout where we’d watched sunrise on the face of El Capitan hours earlier.
We stood there watching one enormous blade of a wind turbine creep slowly up toward Guadalupe Pass, likely headed for New Mexico not too far away.
Patrick remarked that up here the desert felt more like what he’d expected, desert pavement with succulents and shrubs rather than the grasses we’d experienced at the lower elevations.
We reached Salt Basin Overlook right around 11am. It was time for rest, for huge views, and for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Although a little hazy, from here we could see far to the west to the salt flats beyond the Patterson Hills and beyond the Park boundary.
To the northwest, we could see the gypsum dune field, made of the same soft sand as White Sands, but much smaller.
Nearer at hand, we could see standing water in the salt basin just north of 62-180 as it headed west toward El Paso.
Up on the shoulders of El Capitan, we could see the pine forests of the Park’s high country spilling over the edge of the escarpment.
We were standing at the southern tip of the Guadalupe Mountains, which stretched northeast behind us for some 65 miles, far into New Mexico. At the other end, they are protected by Carlsbad Caverns National Park. And in between the Parks by Lincoln National Forest. There has long been talk about combining all three into one National Park, and that’s all well and good, but not particularly likely with the rivalries between federal agencies (Interior and Agriculture) and states (Texas and New Mexico).
What was clear to Patrick and me as we gazed out was that more land around the Guadalupes needed protection, particularly as gas extraction came right up to the Park’s boundaries. It was hard not to compare it to Big Bend, which protects far more than the Chisos Mountains at its heart. This park, too, should have a buffer of protected land stretching far beyond its mountain core.
We half joked, “Do you want to start a Greater Guadalupes Land Trust?
As with the hike itself, there was absolutely no shade at the overlook, so although it felt good to rest, we continued on once we had had our fill both of lunch and of sandwiches.
Now the trail led us up, up, up to our closest approach to the escarpment.
I was feeling rough, but looking back, we were surprised by how high we’d climbed so quickly.
We reached the intersection with the main El Capitan Trail, the highest elevation point of our hike. From here, the trail descended, pretty much without pause, all the way back to the other junction at the bottom of Guadalupe Canyon.
Patrick remarked, “I respectfully disagree with the Park Service’s routing of this trail.”
As rough as we’d had it, at least we’d be headed downhill for a while.
After the trail junction, we began the climb out of Guadalupe Canyon, which was rough. I had definitely overdone it, and my body was angry. We’d gone eight miles, but we still had 3.4 miles to go. Taking my camera strap off my neck helped as I pushed through.
Happily, the final portion of the hike was the basically flat curve through the grassy area near Pine Canyon at the foot of Guadalupe Peak. I was a bit embarrassed by how rough of a time I was having, but Patrick pointed out that we were pretty high (~6,000 feet) after having been at sea level a few days earlier. “It’s similar to when I first get to Colorado.”
Near the very end of the trail (within site distance of the campground and parking area), I finally had to sit down under a tree and rest. A woman approached, the only other hiker we’d seen since the young man that morning. She asked if there was anything to see on the trail, so I described it to her, but warned her that it was a long way to the overlook and she wouldn’t make it there and back before dark. But it was worth going a few miles down the trail for the views.
Patrick offered to go get the car and move it up to the trailhead parking area from the Visitor Center, but I pushed through after my rest.
At the car I chugged a sugary mango kombucha and refilled my water bottle. Then I sat and contemplated my own mortality and how the hike had gone so wrong. The hike had taken us seven hours, forty-five minutes to go 11.5 miles. Not a bad pace, in retrospect. We should have taken into stronger account the length and the lack of shade. Even though the hike wasn’t a climb into the high country, I should have used my hiking poles because there was a lot of elevation gain. (My poles were, stupidly, right there in the car.)
Really the biggest factors in what almost became a dangerous situation were: my out-of-shape pandemic body was not the same as my relatively in-shape pre-pandemic body that had backpacked in this Park, the trail’s rating of “moderate” is wrong and dangerous and masks the true nature of the hike, and having done a hike up into the high country I assumed that a “moderate” front country hike would be easier. It just simply wasn’t.
In the year and change since we did this hike, Patrick and I refer fairly regularly to “that time I almost died at Guadalupe Mountains.” That may be overstating it, but this hike got my head on straight for post-pandemic Park adventures, and I’ve been much better prepared (and had more enjoyable times) during subsequent Park trips, particularly Saguaro a year later.
After we’d recovered a bit, we headed into the Visitor Center so that Patrick could get his passport stamp and I could be mocked by all the Javelina merchandise for sale.
They mock me because I’ve yet to see one in the wild, and not for lack of trying. At this National Park in particular.