Overview:

Summit Marker on Guadalupe Peak

Summit Marker on Guadalupe Peak

This ascent takes you to the top of Guadalupe Peak in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Once again, it seems a little odd to be describing a Texas hike on a website devoted to New Mexico hiking, but the trail has enormous attractions. For one thing, there is the trail itself. It represents a huge commitment in park-hours. There are engineered steps wherever the terrain might otherwise wash out, innumerable water-control features, rock towers spanning gullies that would not otherwise support a tread and in several places rock has been drilled out (presumably blasted) to give trail users a place to place their feet. Some backcountry hikers might regard this as overkill, but for a vastly popular tread in a National Park it seems very sensible. Kudos the the Park Service! The trail ascends 3000 feet from trailhead to summit so it is a genuine workout. During that ascent you leave the chaparral growth of lower Pine Canyon, ascend over cliff bands, traverse high ridges and rise into a sky-island forest. It is tremendously popular. If you want solitude then avoid holiday weekends and seek out a mid-week expedition.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter I-25 heading south.
  • After 3.0 miles, merge onto I-10 heading east
  • After 25.1 more miles, in Texas, take the exit for Texas Loop 375, the exit ramp merges immediately onto South Desert Blvd (a frontage road)
  • After 0.4 miles, go left at a stoplight onto Texas Loop 375.
  • After 24.6 miles, take the Montana Ave / US-180E / US-62E exit, the exit ramp merges immediately into Joe Battle Blvd (a frontage road)
  • After 0.3 miles, go left at a stoplight onto US-180E / US-62E.
  • After 95.1 miles, go left onto Madrone Circle and enter the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
  • After 50 feet, go left onto Pine Canyon Drive.
  • After 0.6 miles, at the end of the road and in an RV campground, park at the trailhead.
02 Top of El Cap from park headquarters

Top of El Capitan seen over a ridge line from the trailhead at dawn.

Here are a few notes on the drive as experience on this outing. First, road signage was scant in the El Paso area. You may want to have a GPS running or to stick closely to the planned route. Second, “sticking to the route” was tricky since there was considerable construction activity along the length of Loop 375. After exiting I-10 and turning left, you will immediately encounter a profusion of orange barrels that keep you shunted to the extreme right side of what seemed to be a dilapidated back road rather than a major arterial. Nevertheless, stay on this rough road as it rises straight up to the mountains. It will eventually unfurl as a major road, as originally expected. After ascending up over the pass and descending back into a flanking part of El Paso, you will be forced off the main road due to another construction project. The detour puts you onto Woodrow Bean Transmountain Road, which parallels the main road. After innumerable stoplights and a bit more than 3 miles you are allowed to re-enter Loop 375. Of course, all of this is transient and what you encounter will vary with the state of the State’s construction plans.

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry at the trailhead. Above the cars rises the easterly knob of the eastern Guadalupe ridge

The mighty Camry at the trailhead. Above the cars rises the easterly knob of the eastern Guadalupe ridge

The trailhead is paved, there are running-water bathrooms, trail signage, and trash cans. Most of the parking area is taken up by long RV slots, but some parking spaces are set aside for hiker’s cars. The Park Service charges $5.00 for everyone over 16. You get a permit that is valid for 7 days. A number of factors complicate the situation, such as free-use dates and various pass plans. See the GMNP website for the details. On this President’s Day weekend the place was packed solid.

Data:

  • Starting Elevation: 5822 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 8751 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 2929 feet
  • Distance: 4.1 miles
  • Maps: USGS Guadalupe Peak, TX

Hike Description:

Trailhead and view of eastern knob.

Trailhead and view of of the knob at the east end of the approach ridge.

The RV campground at the end of Pine Canyon Road lies in the mouth of Pine Canyon. Look north into the canyon and take note of the height of land above and to your left (west). A broad band of cliffs dominates the face, and those cliffs are (surprisingly) your initial destination. This is not Guadalupe Peak, but rather the lowest knob at the eastern end of a ridge descending from Guadalupe’s summit. As mentioned in the introduction you will be switchbacking your way up this face, contouring north and then following the ridge that lies behind this face.

Cliffs on eastern slopes of the east knob

Cliffs on eastern slopes of the first knob on the approach ridge

Enter the trail going west from the northwest corner of the RV park. In about 100 feet reach  a trail intersection where the Tejas Trail departs towards the north (right). Go left on Guadalupe Trail. At about 500 feet come to the second trail intersection. The Devil’s Hall Trail also takes off to the north, so go to the left once again. At 1000 feet from the trailhead, come to the start of numerous switchbacks that will take you up through the cliffs soaring above you. This part of the ascent  makes real energy demands on the hiker. At 0.8 miles from the trailhead (warmed up considerably) encounter the last of the trail intersections. Coming in from the right is a trail for equestrians riding their mounts to the summit. Remarkably, there was no horse sign on the trail at all, which removes one of the cares from your hiking. All these intersections were signed and most are in sight of the trailhead. Most people will find the navigation issues are negligible.

View of north wall of Pine Canyon from canyon floor

View of north wall of Pine Canyon from Pine Cayon floor

At one mile from the trailhead the trail takes on a new character. Here the trail begins an extended traverse north (with minor switchbacks ) to carry you across the face of the eastern knob. It is a matter for wonder that horses would traverse such terrain. In fact, there are several places along the trail where horse riders are told to dismount and lead their charges. As you get higher and higher check the opposing wall across Pine Canyon. It looks like great hiking over there.

View into northern Guadalupe Mountains from the long, northerly switchback

View into northern Guadalupe Mountains from the end of the long, northerly traverse

At 1.5 miles reach the northern extreme of this long traverse, turn west and switchback up steep terrain, coming quickly into views of the northern Guadalupe Mountains. Study the far wall of Pine Canyon and find Tejas Trail as it contours around a huge rib and then switchbacks fervently for the PineTop back country. When rested, continue east as the trail makes a relatively mild traverse below Point 7520. The environment shifts, too, with pinyon and ponderosa becoming commonplace.

Meadowed terrain and view of Guadalupe summit

Meadowed terrain and view of Guadalupe summit

Eventually, the need for altitude takes over. Make a series of about 5 switchbacks as if you were going to go straight to Point 8115, but about 100 feet below this prominence contour beneath it into beautiful, meadowy terrain. The trail curves a bit south and then back a bit north in this terrain. Views open to the summit. At 3.2 miles encounter an intersection (signed) for the Guadalupe Campground. It seems like fine camping, nearly 7500 feet above sea level.

View down to the summit of El Capitan

View down to the summit of El Capitan

The next stretch is a wide swing near the rim of a remarkably steep sided bowl. Watch your step because there isn’t much “there” there on the right hand side of the trail. Several gullies along this part of the trail have waterfall aspirations. There are more signs telling horse riders to dismount. At 3.3 miles from the trailhead, find yourself standing at the headwaters of Guadalupe Canyon and fine views south. A little further and you will see the “back side” of El Capitan. Unlike the views from US 180, this view is not dominated by cliffs, and now the its summit below your feet rather than above your head.

Adiabatic cloud formation over the Guadalupe Mountains

Orthographic lift and cloud formation over the Guadalupe Mountains

At 3.6 miles, enter the top of a pocket forest tucked within the confines of a near-summit gully. The tread switchbacks in the forest, swings past a rib and begins the assault on the summit block. Switchbacks resume, but as you pass by the horse rails you are almost there. Achieve the summit at 4.1 miles, marked with a 5′ tall metal pyramid. Welcome to the highest point in Texas.

Recommendations:

Author on Guadalupe Peak

Author on Guadalupe Peak

This is a secure, well maintained, yet demanding tread into high places. It could hardly be better for introducing strong young hikers to the joys and strains of mountain ascents. There are a few things for those young hikers and their guides to bear in mind. First, if you should meet equestrians then give them the right of way. If that means you have to back up, then back up. Also, find a place where you can get off the trail on the downhill side. That makes it easy for the horse to see you and is less likely to cause a nervous horse to shy. Second, there are a few spots where the danger from a trailside fall are real. The responsible guides should have a no-horseplay rule firmly in effect. I saw a couple youngsters, about 12 or so, ascending to the summit and they were having a great time. Their guides, however, looked like they needed a break. If you are out of shape or otherwise in ill health, then this is not a great place to test your limits.

On this mid-March day, only five days away from the vernal equinox and the start of spring, the sun was warm but the air was cold and the wind was howling. I wore a wool hat, ski gloves and had on a cotton shirt under a denim shirt in hopes that the denim would block the wind. It was almost a good idea. There was some balance between sweating in the sunny and wind-protected places and freezing in the shaded and wind-exposed places. The sunny summit was brutally cold. It was a huge relief to dig a jacket out of my pack. Winter is still with us. I drank only a liter of water. Of course, in mid-August the environment and the resulting needs are going to be rather different.

 Links:

11 Mountains from US 180The National Park Service has a short and clear description (PDF) of the hike. There is also a potentially useful list of alternative hikes in the Park.

Texas Monthly has an amusing and detailed story of camping in the meadows of Guadalupe Peak.

Natural Born Hikers has a post, apparently put up on this very day, describing the ascent and showing numerous photos.

For great photos and a detail description of ascending Guadalupe in snowy conditions, check out the Texas Mountaineer post.

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