One of the best ways to get to know the area is to cruise west along I-10 from Balmorhea to Fort Hancock, passing, in order, the Davis, Apache, Wylie, Carrizo, Beach, Quitman, Malone, and those Finlay Mountains, as well as the Sierra Blanca and Devil’s Ridge. At first sight most of these ranges, not high enough for the kind of bio-diversity you find up in the Guadalupes or Chisos, appear to be nothing more than sweltering piles of collapsing rock. But if you watch for a while, the patterns of stone and sky start to add up to a stark grandeur, and my hope is that you’ll begin to treasure the gaunt beauty of these parts. Then maybe you’ll find yourself jamming on two pairs of socks and hiking boots, ready to roam the canyons and trails high above the desert.
Location: Northwestern Culberson County, 110 miles east of El Paso on U.S. 62/180
Guadalupe Peak (8,749 feet)
Bush Mountain (8,615 feet)
Shumard Peak (8,599 feet)
Bartlett Peak (8,497 feet)
Hunter Peak (8,258 feet)
El Capitan (8,064 feet)
Lost Peak (7,818 feet)
The camel may be the ship of the desert, but the Guadalupe Mountains loom like an ocean liner over the callous ranchland of Reeves and Culberson counties. Magnify this metaphor vertiginously when you stand three thousand feet above the desert floor on top of Guadalupe Peak watching as the storms blow in. That’s the hike that everybody wants to take, but there are in fact seventy more miles of trails traversing the 86,000 acres of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park (nps.gov/gumo; 915-828-3251) . So while a trip to the top of the state is mandatory, it’s just scratching the surface of what you can find in the only legally designated wilderness in West Texas.
If this is your first time, stop at the Pine Springs Visitor Center to get your bearings. Once you’ve checked in, wander down the short Pinery Trail; the signs that identify various shrubs and trees along the way will bring you up to speed with desert flora. As to fauna, there’s great bird-watching right at the campsite parking lot where the trail to the Peak begins. If you want to explore deeper, this is also the southern end of the transmountain Tejas Trail, which starts with a grueling ascent to the Bowl, a forested lost world hidden behind the high pine tree—dotted ridges of Hunter Peak. You can hike this trail all the way to the campsite at Dog Canyon close to the New Mexico border, but I like to drive here and make this my base, rather than Pine Springs. The fall colors in this remote valley are just as beautiful as the more popular McKittrick Canyon. Those Carlsbad Caverns (nps.gov/cave, 575-785-2232) are a must-see, and you should also try to visit Sitting Bull Falls, the only place for many miles around where your body can be immersed in water. From Dog Canyon, try the Bush Mountain Trail, an exercise in stamina and solitude that follows the western edge of the range, where backcountry campers will enjoy exceptional views of the sunset, or hike up to McKittrick Ridge for the view into McKittrick Canyon. This vista is at its best in October, when the maples put on their colorful display, but the only season to avoid is spring, when winds of more than one hundred miles an hour are common. In summer the high country stays cool, and in winter frequent snowfalls turn the pine forests into a real-life Narnia. If you own a horse, you can take advantage of the corrals at Dog Canyon and Frijole Ranch—sixty percent of the trails are open to riders. Backpackers don’t have to stay on the trails, but there’s no rock climbing or mountain biking allowed. Whatever you do there, what you’ll find in the Guadalupe Mountains is seclusion surrounded by nature in all its glory, from tiny hummingbirds to the grandest peaks. Despite the ravages wrought by accidental fires and the ongoing drought, these mountains are a unique paradise. Stay a week or more and let the world wash off you.
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)
Out on Texas Highway 62 El Paso never really ends. Sprawling junkyards give way to sun-bleached signs promising heaven in subdivisions that are nothing but geometric patterns carved on the featureless desert sand. The Hueco Tanks, entirely different from the dusty mountains that surround them, lie next to one of these sparsely developed grids as though some lazy Hercules had swept the plateau’s debris into three untidy piles. Years of erosion have sculpted these volcanic rocks into an unlikely oasis of shallow pools and shade; plants, animals, and humans have always been attracted to the food and shelter they provide.
From the early Jornada Mogollon people to the Tigua and Kiowa Indians—who fought each other and the Mexican Army among the boulders—the tribes that lived here left not only pottery and rock paintings that archeologists prize as an irreplaceable record of their cultures but also a spiritual imprint that the Tigua still cherish and defend. More recent visitors—travelers, picnickers, and rock climbers—have left their mark as well, and often in a way that showed little respect for the area’s artifacts or its aura. As a result, Texas Parks and Wildlife, which took custody of Hueco Tanks in 1969, has placed most of these hills off bounds to unsupervised visitors. The climbing community, for whom the Tanks are a world-class attraction, have loudly protested these restrictions. But since this is a State Historical Park (tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/hueco_tanks, 915-857-1135) , the TPWD is obligated to find ways to protect the cultural and natural resources of the Tanks, and everybody who comes here is required to watch a ten-minute orientation video that underscores the importance of