Show Your Colors

The best place to see fall foliage in Texas is the Guadalupe Mountains where the change of seasons appears in full splendor. Here are the secrets of the state’s undiscovered national park.

October 1993By Comments

Guadalupe Mountains National Park in far West Texas has a terrible image problem. It is a harsh, forbidding place, squarely in the middle of nowhere, or more specifically, a hundred miles east of El Paso and almost two hundred miles due west of Midland. No river runs through it. Although it shares some of the characteristics of Big Bend National Park-Chihuahuan Desert in the lowlands and pockets of coniferous forest in semi-alpine high country-it lacks the allure and immensity of Texas’ other national park, which is almost ten times the size of the 86,416-acre Guadalupe park. It makes you wonder why anyone would want to bother with what seems to be, from a passing motorist’s perspective, a rather unremarkable arid wasteland.

Well, here’s what Guadalupe does have: Texas’ tallest peak, most dramatic landmark, most beautiful canyon, and best fall colors, in addition to trails that lead to hidden thickets, forests, and woodlands. Guadalupe Peak’s 8,749 feet above sea level may be fairly unimpressive by Western standards, but it is higher than any mountain eastward to the Atlantic, and it rises a full mile above the surrounding terrain. The blocklike El Capitan, directly south of Guadalupe Peak (and frequently mistaken for it), is Texas’ most famous natural landmark, having served as a sentinel for generations of travelers. McKittrick Canyon has the most spectacular display of fall colors in the state.

If Guadalupe Mountains National Park lacks the photogenic attributes-and the hype-of better-known parks, it offers a seclusion that is itself a drawing card for anyone whose memories of a trip to a national park include traffic jams, tour buses disgorging hordes of strangers bearing cameras, and long lines inside the gift shops. These things are not problems at Guadalupe Mountains park, because there are no roads inside the park, no gas stations, and no motels or restaurants, much less convenience stores or concessionaires. The spartan conditions keep the annual visitor count down around the 200,000 mark, consistently placing the Guadalupes on the bottom-ten list in national-park popularity.

The park encompasses the front wedge of an uplifted range formed by an underwater limestone reef a quarter of a billion years ago. Gently welling up out of the Lincoln National Forest across the state line in New Mexico, the mountains reach their greatest height in Texas before ending at El Capitan; six peaks that top eight thousand feet jut directly above the barren desert floor. Pine Springs, the park headquarters, is on the east side of the range, and the side road to McKittrick Canyon is another eight miles to the north.

What little greenery exists in the Guadalupes is relict forest-remnants of woodlands that thrived here during cooler, wetter times after the ocean receded. Microclimates survive in the cracks and seeps of deep, desiccated canyons. The forests appear wherever they can find partial refuge from a relentless sun, wind gusts that can exceed 120 miles per hour, and sudden, severe mood swings of the thermometer. The highest temperature recorded in March is 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The record low for the same month is -4 degrees. Away from these slowly disappearing forests, the Guadalupes are the southern equivalent of the Dakota Badlands.

The dearth of goods and services is intentional. Wallace Pratt, the late Humble Oil geologist who donated 5,632 acres of his McKittrick Canyon ranch to the U.S. government 26 years ago, expressed the desire to keep the fragile canyon as unspoiled as possible. That was consistent with sentiments voiced by Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, a trailblazing naturalist and ardent preservationist who extolled the virtues of hiking this rough country in his 1967 book, Farewell to Texas: A Vanishing Wilderness. When the park opened in 1972, the National Park Service had clearly respected Pratt’s and Douglas’ wishes. Guadalupe Mountains National Park has remained wilder and considerably less developed than Carlsbad Caverns National Park, forty miles up the road. McKittrick Canyon, for example, is open to visitors only during the day. The only paved thoroughfare is U.S. Highway 62-180, which skirts the southeast corner of the park on its way from El Paso to Carlsbad, New Mexico, passing Pine Springs and turnoffs to trailheads. A proposal to run a tram to the top of Guadalupe Peak has been included in plans for the park since the beginning, but park administrators have never supported the idea.

Sometimes, however, official policy can be taken to the extreme, as it was earlier this year [1993] when the Parks Service succeeded in shutting down the old Pine Springs store, less than a mile from headquarters, after years of threatening to do so. If only management could figure out how to eliminate those noisy eighteen-wheelers gearing their way up Guadalupe Pass and reroute those irksome jets overhead in the flight pattern to and from Los Angeles. And it would be nice to have at least one public shower in a park where hiking is the main activity.

There is, however, one seldom-traveled way to get into the mountains by car. It requires a 102-mile drive from Pine Springs through New Mexico, looping past Carlsbad Caverns, then cutting across the Lincoln National Forest before dead-ending at the Dog Canyon campground. At 6,400 feet above sea level, nearly 800 feet higher than Pine Springs, Dog Canyon is in the thick of the kind of big-tree mountain country that seems more typical of New Mexico than Texas—a logical impression, because the state line lies just outside the campground. Less than a mile from Dog Canyon on the Tejas Trail are numerous stands of big-tooth maples, which typically turn color a week or two before the maples in McKittrick Canyon.

More than eighty miles of hiking trails run through the Guadalupes, some of them so remote you are almost as likely to encounter deer, elk, and even mountain lions or black bears as another human. But others are so accessible and easy to traverse that even armchair adventurers like me who loathe the idea of lugging a sixty-pound backpack for the pleasure of camping overnight in the backcountry can learn what makes the Guadalupes special. (In 1982 a group of disabled outdoors enthusiasts from Dallas conquered Guadalupe Peak in wheelchairs.)

The most popular hike in the park is the trail into McKittrick Canyon, especially during autumn. This seven-mile round trip from the McKittrick trailhead varies little in elevation and is so unintimidating that thousands of trekkers make the journey every October and November to ooh and aah over the exceptional displays of autumn leaves. The only year-round stream found in the park runs through the heart of McKittrick, providing sustenance to stunning specimens of big-tooth maple, several varieties of oak, walnut, and ash, and the Texas madrone, a native found only in the Trans-Pecos and the Edwards Plateau. The madrone’s contorted trunk and branches perform a continual striptease, shedding the rough outer bark, then peeling off blood-red and pink inner barks to reveal a pale blond skin underneath. The flora and fauna inside the canyon are so unique that rangers are positioned along the trail to remind hikers to stay out of the stream that harbors Texas’ only reproducing stock of rainbow trout.

The fall spectacle is such a crowd favorite that visitors may be turned away once the one hundred spaces in the McKittrick Canyon parking lot are full. Still, even when “crowds” are at capacity—meaning two or three hundred people are on the trail—it’s far from claustrophobic. On a beautiful 75-degree mid-October Saturday last year, I passed and was passed by all walkers of life: senior citizens, Scout troops, families, and romancing couples, even a Type A speedwalker who had a copy of the Wall Street Journal folded into the back pocket of his hiking shorts.

There is one notable man-made sight in McKittrick-Pratt cabin, an impressive stone-roofed dwelling 2.3 miles down the trail. It is located at the confluence of two creeks where North and South McKittrick canyons meet, validating Pratt’s description of the land as the most beautiful spot in Texas. A mile farther up the trail is the Grotto, a picnic area near a surprisingly cool and wet limestone overhang.

Since the colors of the leaves on the trees along the creek weren’t peaking yet, I simply hightailed it up the McKittrick Ridge switchback, past a shady fern-choked seep, to reach a stand of maples about four hundred feet above the canyon floor that had gone full Technicolor. The golds, oranges, reds, purples, browns, and greens were so abundant I could have been convinced I was in Vermont, if I hadn’t just walked through desertlike vegetation.

If the McKittrick Canyon parking lot is full, the hike to Smith Spring is an easy alternative, a practically effortless 2.3-mile round trip through the foothills from the Frijole Ranch parking area. At the end of the trail is an oasis where maples, madrones, oaks, and ashes crowd around a babbling brook decorated with maidenhair ferns. Smith Spring has a long history as a resting spot for migrating Indian tribes, a refuge for covered-wagon expeditions and ranchers, and a medicinal spa. Today it is simply a great place to sit on a wooden bench, listen to the steady trickle of water and the songbirds enjoying a drink, and blot out the world beyond the canopy of trees. On a day when several hundred people were hiking all over McKittrick, I didn’t see another person in two hours at Smith Spring.

The trail to Guadalupe Peak is the most difficult of the popular hikes. The first half of the 9.3-mile round trip, an almost three-thousand-foot vertical climb, taxed me to the point that the summit seemed to be getting farther and farther away the longer I hiked. Just short of three hours on the trail, though, I was rewarded at the summit with a stunning panorama. To the south were the forested backside of El Capitan and, beyond it, the softly eroding Delaware range; to the northwest sprawled Bush, Shumard, and Bartlett peaks and the Sacramento range in New Mexico; and far below, to the immediate west, the barren salt flats where a violent feud flared up in the 1870’s sharply contrasted with the geometrically perfect irrigated fields in the Valley of the Hidden Waters, as the area surrounding Dell City is known.

Standing atop Guadalupe Peak was a heady sensation (have you ever looked down on a full rainbow?) made headier by dive-bombing swifts audibly zooming past, a panhandling squirrel, and the climbers’ logbook, stored in a strongbox. Summiteers from five to seventy had written rather eloquently about feeling closer to God and about how a rattlesnake sighting on the trail delayed their ascent. Several voiced objections to the squat aluminum pylon at the summit honoring people who carry the mail. It is emblazoned with the logos of the U.S. Postal Service and American Airlines. “Blowing up this ugly sculpture,” one climber wrote in the logbook, “would be something special in the air.”

What grabbed my attention most, though, was a small piece of rock I had absentmindedly picked up. It was a piece of calcium carbonate—limestone—embedded with the fossils of hundreds of tiny clamshells, proof that once upon a time the highest landmass in Texas was submerged beneath the sea. The Guadalupes surprise you like that.

In a place where time is measured in epochs and ages, last May’s fire around Pine Springs is but a momentary disruption. For now, however, it has caused some problems. The result of a careless camper’s playing with matches, the blaze charred more than six thousand acres. The bad news is that the burn was more severe than initial reports indicated. It destroyed stands of endangered madrones, which aren’t reproducing like they used to, and wiped out some already shrinking environments, such as the tiny oasis at Juniper Springs. From a distance, the visual impact is largely limited to an abundance of dead yuccas, the blackened stems of junipers, and hundreds of partially burned trees. The good news is that the fire cleared out a lot of dead brush and encouraged the growth of a thick carpet of grass that has been greened up by the summer rainy season. In late August, the grasslands around Pine Springs had an exceptionally verdant, almost lush look. It ought to be a grand fall.

When to Go: October and early November for fall colors; any time for a wilderness experience. Highs in October average in the seventies, with lows in the forties and fifties.

Getting There: The Guadalupe Mountains National Park headquarters and main campground are located at Pine Springs, 102 miles east of El Paso International Airport via U.S. 62-180 and more than 60 miles north of Van Horn via Texas Highway 54. I prefer approaching the park from El Paso for the views of El Capitan thrusting out like the bow of a clipper ship, though the drive from Van Horn to the south, staring El Cap straight in the face, is almost as stirring. From the east, the route follows Interstate 20 to Pecos, U.S. 285, and desolate FM 652. To reach Dog Canyon, the site of the park’s other campground, go north from Pine Springs via U.S. 62-180 past White’s City, New Mexico, turn left onto Eddy County Road 408 (a decent two-lane paved road not found on state highway maps), and then turn left again on New Mexico 137. Total distance: 102 miles. Dog Canyon can also be reached from the west by taking FM 1437 from U.S. 62-180, 29 miles west of Pine Springs. Go 13 miles into Dell City, which has a gas station and a grocery store, then continue in a zigzag pattern east on FM 2249, north on FM 1576, and on Otero County Road 65 in New Mexico for 61 miles, following the handmade signs to El Paso Gap. About 35 miles of this route is unpaved gravel, which means it is not recommended for RVs.

Services: The closest sources for gas and snacks are at the Dell City turnoffs on U.S. 62-180, 23 and 29 miles west of Pine Springs, and White’s City, 35 miles northeast of Pine Springs.

Where to Camp: The main campground at Pine Springs has twenty tent campsites and eighteen spaces for self-contained RVs (no hookups), available on a first-come, first-served basis. Two group sites are available for groups of ten to twenty. The Dog Canyon campground on the north side of the park has nine sites and four spaces for self-contained RVs. Fees are $7 per night per campsite and up to $30 for the group sites, depending on the number of campers. Wood and charcoal fires are not allowed. Backcountry camping is at designated sites only. There is no charge for these sites, but permits, obtained from rangers, are required. For general information and updates of road and weather conditions, call park headquarters at 915-828-3251. For questions regarding Dog Canyon, call the ranger station at 505-981-2418. Both Pine Springs and Dog Canyon have rest rooms, water, parking lots, and day-use picnic areas.

Where to Stay: The nearest motels are in White’s City. This gateway to Carlsbad Caverns has two Best Westerns and the Walnut Canyon Inn, with doubles priced from $69 to $75 a night, as well as RV facilities with hookups. For all reservations, call 505-785-2291.

What to Do: Hike. Or ride horseback. Many hiking trails are also open to horseback riders (BYOH), with hitching posts provided at campgrounds, backcountry campsites, and even the summit of Guadalupe Peak. Pets, however, are not allowed on the trails. Take one gallon of water per hiker per day on the trail. In addition to the hikes already mentioned to McKittrick Canyon, Smith Spring, and Guadalupe Peak, options include:
The Bowl, a strenuous 11-mile trek rising two thousand feet from Pine Springs to a mile-wide high-country bowl. Up top you will encounter a rare stand of quaking aspen.
Devil’s Hall, a level 4.2-mile round trip from Pine Springs to a stark, tight canyon distinguished by rather eerie stratified rock formations sculptured by wind and water.
The Tejas Trail (northbound), a 12-mile hike from Pine Springs through the Bowl to Dog Canyon. Or you can turn off to scale Bush Mountain, the second-highest peak in Texas, or enter McKittrick Canyon through the back door.
The Tejas Trail (southbound). From Dog Canyon, it is less than 1 mile to the big-tooth maples that display fall colors.
Indian Meadows Nature Trail, a .6-mile stroll at Dog Canyon. I stumbled upon two bull elk with massive racks of antlers rooting around a dry water tank.

Alternatives to Hiking: You don’t have to hoof it to get acquainted with the Guadalupes. Several sights around Pine Springs require little, if any, walking. The visitors’ center has an extensive exhibit about the history and geology of the park with an adjacent interpretative nature trail. Evening ranger talks are scheduled irregularly in the fall at the amphitheater next to the Pine Springs campground. Schedules are posted at the visitors’ center.

Frijole Ranch, a shady compound a mile northeast of Pine Springs, has a museum with ranching artifacts that is staffed by volunteers and open in the fall on an irregular basis. A seven-mile dirt road that skitters around the base of El Capitan to Williams Ranch in the western extreme of the park is open to four-wheel-drive vehicles. Keys to the ranch gate can be picked up at the Pine Springs visitors’ center.

The route to Dog Canyon along New Mexico State Road 137 detours around the perimeter of Guadalupe park. Rim Road (Forest Road 540, which diverges from N.M. 137 some fifteen miles east of the Dog Canyon campground) provides the automotive equivalent of hiking Guadalupe Peak. The gravel road meanders up the far lusher back slopes of the Guadalupe range along a harrowing, acrophobia-inducing precipice above El Paso Gap until it reaches Five Points Vista, with breathtaking views of upper Dog Canyon and the appropriately named Brokeoff Mountains. The Brokeoffs are the first in a series of fault lines that extend all the way to California. In other words, this is where the West begins.

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