A job in West Texas sounded like a miserable place for a mountain lover but I learned there are some hidden gems in West Texas worth discovering. In 2013 I needed a job and ended up teaching in Midland, Texas. If you’ve never been there Midland is a flat dusty place in West Texas. I wasn’t thrilled about the location till I looked at a map. The Guadalupe Mountains were only about 3 1/2 hours away. I filed that information away for the future and dove into my new job.
Hiking to the “Bowl” – Hike 1
By February I’d had about all I could take of living in a flat dustbowl and really wanted some mountains. Without much planning, I threw my gear and two gallons of water in the trunk of my car and drove west.
Driving up to a mountain range and feeling the cool mountain air blowing down made me feel better right away. The most direct way into the mountains was the Tejas Trail up Spring Canyon. I decided to go there then camp at the Mescalara campsite.
The views in the canyon were a very pleasant surprise. I hadn’t really researched the area so I didn’t know what to expect. None of the pictures I’d seen before did this area justice, the views were very dramatic and the weather was cool but pleasant. I felt more relaxed within 5 minutes of hitting the trail.
Eventually after lots and lots of switchbacks I reached the rim of the canyon and could see into the “Bowl.” Basically it is a high mountain basin where enough moisture collects for trees to grow. This was another pleasant surprise. I’d known the Guadalupe Mountains had some forest on top but I hadn’t realized how extensive it was. It was fun to walk through a mountain forest again.
I hiked east along the rim of the canyon toward Hunter Peak enjoying nice views off the edge of the mountains. Then I turned back into the forest and began heading for my campsite for the night.
Before the sun set I had a chance to admire the interior of the “Bowl.” The dramatic canyons of the Guadalupe Mountains get more attention but the “Bowl” has its own beauty.
About 3 AM I woke up and noticed my tent was sagging, I wasn’t sure what was going on until I noticed the snow drifting under the edge. Snow was not on the weather forecast so I was glad I’d brought a shelter (I thought about leaving it behind to save weight). I knocked the snow off and went back to bed until the sun came up.
Since I wasn’t sure if the snow would block the roads or not I hurriedly packed up and headed back to my car. Fortunately there was almost no snow down on the plains. As I drove back I was already thinking about coming back. Suddenly my new home didn’t seem so bad.
A Plan Comes Together
The plan I developed was to hike as many different trails as possible over the course of the spring. There were three major canyons in the park and I decided I wanted to hike up each one of them to see as many of the different geographic areas as I could.
Dog Canyon – Hike 2
My next destination was Dog Canyon on the north side of the park. I started early with an ambitious mileage goal for a short winter day. My plan was to circumnavigate the mountains camp at Mescalara again and come back out at Dog Canyon the next day.
Dog Canyon was interesting because it was on the other side of the mountains and had more a Great Plains feel rather than a desert feel. There were more grass and more trees in the creek bottoms.
As the trees began to appear I discovered an old log cabin near the “Cox Tank” (a dried manmade pond). This cabin was part of a pre-National Park ranch. I was told later that a bear lives in and around this cabin.
I found the bear’s tracks a bit farther up along the trail. The tracks were small so I guessed it was a young bear. Later a ranger told me that most of the areas bears are small and scrawny apparently because they don’t get great nutrition.
The trail continued to climb and the trees got thicker. I saw what I thought was Elk sign but didn’t see any. Interestingly I never saw Elk on all my trips through the area.
The last part of the hike up the end of the high country was steep but spectacular.
The hike along the edge of the mountains was amazing. I could have easily spent another day exploring all the rock outcroppings and different viewpoints.
The trail from Bush Mountain to Pine Mountain was the last scenery of the day as the sun was quickly setting.
I got up early the next day because I had a long drive home. Fortunately the hike was mostly downhill and I ended the trip on time to get home and get ready for Monday.
My next two goals where Guadalupe Peak and McKittrick Canyon.
Day hike up Guadalupe Peak – Hike 3
Guadalupe Peak was on my to-do list but it doesn’t really connect to any overnight hikes (except a very short out and back). So I decided to it as a day hike on one of my busier weekends.
There is a reason this is a popular hike in Texas, it packs a lot of scenery into a nice day hike.
McKittrick Canyon – Hikes 4 and 5
The last place I hadn’t seen was McKittrick Canyon. My first attempt ended in a bail when the new pack I’d designed fit poorly. The next weekend I was back with my old reliable pack and a determination to finally hike McKittrick Canyon. With warm weather creeping in I wanted to knock it off my list.
I left my car at the Spring Canyon Trailhead and hitched a ride to McKittrick Canyon on the north side of the park. I got a later start so I was in a bit of a rush and had to cover approximately 13 miles in 6 hours. On a good day I average 2 miles an hour so I thought speeding up a bit would be doable.
After following the creek for a ways the trail began a brutal climb up into the mountains. There was no way I was going to average anything close to 2 miles per hour here – in fact I was probably well under 1 mph. My heavy load of water slowed me down and I kept stopping to snap pictures.
I especially enjoyed the “notch” which is a narrow ridge with views of two different canyons. According to some it’s the “prettiest” spot in Texas.
I sped the pace up considerably on top of the ridge. In spite of the rush I stopped to enjoy the sunset over the top of McKittrick Canyon.
As the sun went down I pulled out my light and hiked in the dark. Thanks to a tip from Andrew Skurka’s book I had a better light than I used to have. I ended at Tejas Campsite after a mile of slow night hiking. In the morning I hiked the now familiar Tejas Trail back to my car, it was getting warm and I knew that my hiking season here was winding down.
Prior Cabin – Hike 6
My final trip was with a friend from school. He had never been hiking in the mountains and wanted to try it. I had no grand ambitions since I’d seen most of what I wanted to see and the weather was getting warm.
We did a simple hike up McKittrick Canyon to the famous Prior Cabin then turned back. It was a fun way to spend a Saturday with a friend and a nice end to the hiking season. All in all living in West Texas is turning out a lot better than I expected.
- Packs – On all my successful backpacking trips in the Guadalupes I used the Exped Lighting 60 pack. It carries the heavy water loads better than any “ultralight” pack I’ve experimented with. The tough fabric makes the pack very durable which is ideal since the Guadalupe Mountains are full of rough rocks that will put wear and tear on a pack.
- Shelter – Precipitation is rare in the Guadalupe Mountains, but weather can be unpredictable. So in spite of the dryness I always carry a shelter. The Guadalupe Mountains can also have very high winds so this is something to consider when preparing for your trip. In the forested areas a normal ultralight shelter is fine. If you plan on camping on a more exposed ridgeline carry something that can handle strong winds.
- Water – There is no water you can legally use in the backcountry. Due to drought, Springs and creeks are off limits to humans. You need to carry a gallon a day, even in cool weather. I suggest not skimping, despite the weight I always carried the full two gallons and I never regretted it. West Texas well water tends to be pretty nasty and sometimes has enough minerals in it to give you an upset stomach. I suggest brining bottled water rather than using the spigots at the Trailheads.
- Shoes – I have always used mesh trail runners; however for these dry conditions and occasional cactus, leather-topped shoes would be a bit more practical.
- Clothing – Even in cool weather you are exposed to a lot of sun and I came back sunburned on several trips. Since it was not particularly warm on my hikes I wore long pants and long sleeves to minimize sun exposure. My Tilley hat was nice, the chin strap kept me from losing it a few times. I carry a rain jacket because in the mountains weather forecasts are unpredictable
- First Aid – I never carried tweezers before but I would suggest them in the Guadalupes. There are a lot of prickly things.
- Maps – I used the Trails Illustrated map. It is plenty detailed and shows the established campsites, a useful thing when planning a trip. Old USGS maps such as those found on Caltopo don’t always show changes to trails.
Since starting this article it has cooled off again in the Guadalupe Mountains and I’m back to hiking them.
My first hike for the fall of 2014 was a repeat of my traverse from McKittrick Canyon to Pine Springs Canyon. This time I hiked with fall colors near their peak. There is a reason Texas photographers love this area. It’s worth visting if you’re ever in Texas.