By national park standards, the Guadalupe Mountains are rather unpopular. Ask the average Texan if they’ve been to Big Bend National Park and, even if they haven’t, they’ve surely heard the name. In terms of common knowledge and visitor traffic, the “top of Texas” ranks far below more quintessential sites like Palo Duro Canyon, Enchanted Rock, and, of course, Big Bend. It seemed odd to me that, in a state starved for elevation, the tallest peak in the land, a whopping (by Texan standards) 8,800 feet above the sea, would remain so woefully obscure. That is, until I hiked it myself.
Let me not mislead you. The views from Guadalupe Peak, like the vistas along the 4.2-mile trail, are nothing short of breathtaking. Standing at what is essentially cruising altitude for small and military aircraft, it is not uncommon to see fighter jets from nearby Fort Bliss passing at eye-level. Wildlife is abundant, tent and RV camping is easily accessible, and the night sky is illuminated by every star in the galaxy. Still, the small park presents some challenges, both geographic and technical.
If you’ve witnessed the wonder of Big Bend National Park, you’ve likely enjoyed hours of incredibly scenic driving both on route and once inside the 1,200-square-mile park. Big Bend Ranch State Park is similarly massive, offering hours of scenic over-landing on dirt roads, through mountain-scapes of unspoiled land. More centralized natural destinations like Pedernales Falls or Enchanted Rock may not offer the same scenery on approach, but their appeal is, in part, their accessibility: both within an hour’s drive of Austin. The drive to Guadalupe Mountains National Park is neither convenient nor particularly scenic.
From Houston, the 10-hour trek takes you through the towns of Fort Stockton and Pecos, two oil towns kept alive by prospectors and Walmart, past endless miles of dusty Texas desert, marked by the occasional derrick or well. The final two-hour stretch feels like B-roll footage for Breaking Bad. When you've arrived at the relatively small park, one thing becomes immediately clear. There's only one reason to be there: the peak.
There are roughly a dozen trails identified on the park's trail map. Compared to the literally hundreds of driving, hiking, and rafting options in Big Bend, the Guadalupe Mountains feel almost quaint. The Guadalupe Peak trail, one of three hike-able peaks in the park, is by far the most popular—an 8.4-mile round trip hike that gains 3,000 feet of vertical elevation. Park maps and brochures estimate it’ll take you six to eight hours and rate its difficulty as "very strenuous" (a hilarious understatement).
There is no plateau once you’ve left the safety of the trailhead. The 4-mile path from parking lot to peak just keeps climbing, mercilessly, without respite or an end in sight. The peak itself is not visible from the trailhead and does not actually come into view until you're almost upon it. This leaves you with a general sense of are we there yet? that steadily grows to a more desperate dear, God, will this ever end? somewhere near the 3-mile mark. The views, I must reiterate, are astounding. The general flatness of the surrounding 200-mile radius means that even halfway up the mountain the horizon is seemingly endless. It's gorgeous, but the majesty of it all is lost at a certain point if, like me, you’ve severely overestimated your cardiovascular faculties.
Past a certain elevation, the well-defined trail flanked on both sides by trees and plant life is replaced by increasingly larger boulders, so that the last several hundred yards become more upward scramble than hike: a rock wall to your right and a precariously close drop-off to your left. Reaching the peak, while magnificent, is nonetheless bittersweet.
From the moment your feet stop moving and you collapse onto the nearest bit of flat ground, you cannot escape the nagging reality that, soon, you must turn back. Back down the four miles of endless switchbacks and stairs. Back down the monster you’ve just conquered before your body makes the involuntary decision to end its own misery. My decision to head back was hastened by the thin 9,000-foot oxygen and my heart's apparent desire to escape the confines of my chest.
The singular glory of the Guadalupe Peak Trail is, in a way, its disadvantage. More than a hike, summiting the peak is a formidable accomplishment, however meager it may seem to more experienced alpinists. It is a mountaineering feat in a state not widely known to contain any, and even during spring break, it was relatively quiet.
Simply put, I wouldn't recommend this park to the casual camper or anyone seeking a relaxing escape into nature. Instead, I'd warn any would be mountaineers to come prepared. Pack more water than you could possibly imagine needing, wear proper footwear, and load up on calories. Be weary of weather. Strong wind at the trailhead means deadly gusts at the peak. And finally, know yourself and your limits, lest you be faced with them at a terribly inconvenient time. Like, say, four hours into an eight-hour hike, 3,000 feet above the soft, warm security of a tent and sleeping bag. This is, after all, a "very strenuous" hike.