West of the Pecos everything shifts. The landscape gives up any pretense of being nurturing or pleasant, and the creatures that survive amid these harsh rocks tend to be prickly and self-sufficient (though most of the humans, at least, can be kind and generous). Mountains slash across the desert like knife scars, but in fact they are the crumbling bones of the world, connected to the Rockies, the Ozarks, and Mexico’s Sierra Madre. Locals will tell you that “everybody out here turns to Jesus or alcohol eventually.” But I am continually drawn back to these wild heights, where nothing comes between you and whatever is in your soul.
Texas has more than forty mountain ranges, all of them located in our eight westernmost counties. But because more than 90 percent of land in the state is privately owned, the vast majority of them are enjoyed by only a select few. Just seven Texas ranges have easily accessible areas. Still, that leaves plenty of peaks for those of us who don’t own our own mountains. Over the years, I’ve developed a list of my favorite activities, tailored to the best one or two things to do in each range, whether it’s hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing, gliding, or cattle driving.
But whatever I do in them, Texas mountains have a way of clearing my mind. When James Boswell told Samuel Johnson that it was impossible to refute the doctrine of nonexistence of matter, the doctor famously responded by kicking a stone and pronouncing, “I refute it thus.” When life weighs too heavily, I find that removing myself to a distant mountaintop in West Texas allows me to look the absurdities of the world in the eye and say to them, “I refute you.” Out here the clock still runs a little slower and you can find some of that increasingly rare gift, time savored in the presence of natural splendor.
Location: Northwestern Culberson County, 110 miles east of El Paso on U.S. 62/180
Highest point: Guadalupe Peak (8,749 feet)
Geology: The Guadalupes are a chunk of the large horseshoe-shaped Capitan Reef, which formed 250 million years ago in the Permian period, when this area was the bed of a tropical ocean. This lump of limestone was thrust up during the Laramide orogeny, a 30-million-year-long tectonic event that also gave birth to the Rockies.
Resources: nps.gov/gumo; 915-828-3251.
To stay: Camp at the Pine Springs or Dog Canyon campgrounds for $8.
Tip: The short Pinery Trail at Pine Springs is a great way to get up to speed on desert flora; signs identify various shrubs and trees that grow along the path.
A view of El Capitan from Guadalupe Peak. Photograph by Laurence Parent
There are more than eighty miles of trails and eight of Texas’s tallest peaks in the 86,000-acre Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the only officially designated wilderness in West Texas, which makes this the place for some high lonesome hiking. If it’s still on your Texas to-do list, make the popular trek up to Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in the state, and like the captain of an ocean liner, gaze over the jutting prow of El Capitan at the empty ranchland three thousand feet below you.
Most of the trails that begin at Pine Springs (park HQ) go the other direction, north toward New Mexico, fanning out and then converging at the campsite in the remote and beautiful Dog Canyon. Hiking there takes a couple days along the transmountain Tejas Trail (there are several backcountry campsites along the way), which begins with a grueling ascent to the Bowl, a forested lost world hidden behind the pine-tree-dotted ridges of Hunter Peak. Lovely as this is, I prefer to drive straight from Pine Springs to Dog Canyon and make my base camp there. On the way, you can visit the must-see Carlsbad Caverns and cool off in Sitting Bull Falls (off New Mexico Highway 137).
From Dog Canyon I like to make the round-trip to Bush Mountain, an all-day exercise in stamina and solitude that follows the western edge of the range, or hike up to McKittrick Ridge for a view into McKittrick Canyon. Although wind gusts of up to 100 miles per hour can make it difficult to enjoy, particularly in the spring, this vista is always one of the most beautiful in Texas. A winter snowfall can turn the forests into a real-life Narnia, and in October the maples paint the valley below red, orange, and yellow.
Location: El Paso County, 32 miles northeast of El Paso, 4 miles north of Texas Highway 62 on Ranch Road 2775
Highest point (in the hueco mountains): Cerro Alto (6,787 feet)
Geology: The Hueco Mountains are a classic Texas fault-block range, in which areas of bedrock are tilted by the stretching of the earth’s crust to form escarpments known as horsts. West of this fault line is the Hueco Bolson, and at the north end of the Bolson is the porphyritic syenite intrusion known as Hueco Tanks.
Resources: tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/hueco_tanks; 915-857-1135. (Self-guided access is limited to seventy people at one time, so a reservation is recommended. Check the calendar page for tour dates.)
To stay: There are campsites and RV hookups in the park, but it’s more fun to hang with the climbers at the Hueco Rock Ranch ( huecorockranch.com; 915-855-0142), where a tent site is only $5 a night.
Tip: If you haven’t visited in the past year, allow yourself an extra half hour to view the Texas Parks and Wildlife mandatory orientation video.
A view of Hueco Tanks. Photograph by Laurence Parent
Hueco tanks, the remains of a granite dome, lies on a dusty desert in the shadow of the Hueco Mountains. Over eons, the surface of the dome cracked and split into loose boulders, as though some lazy Hercules had swept the plateau’s debris into three untidy piles. The result is perfect for that most exhilarating of mountain sports: rock climbing. But Hueco