For a recent Fleet & North article, I wrote about my trip 750 feet below the Earth’s surface into the labyrinthine caves of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. As an aside, I mentioned Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the neighboring park situated on the border of New Mexico and West Texas. To say the least, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is not well-known. For hikers and backpackers, even its employees, it’s a kind of secluded paradise far from the maddening crowds of America’s more popular natural wonders.
Most people stumble on Guadalupe Mountains National Park accidentally while driving highway 62/180 to visit Carlsbad Caverns. In fact, the staff jokes it’s America’s Largest Rest Stop, because it’s 46, 000 acres of wilderness, but most people stop to use the facilities. Sometimes they’ll wander into the visitor center, which on most days is about as dark and quiet as an ossuary. And these visitors are usually disappointed to find out there are no scenic drives through the park. But for those who dare to penetrate the seemingly impregnable canyons and peaks on foot or on the backs of mules, there is a surplus of treasures.
One of these is the summit, Guadalupe Peak, the highest non-manmade place in the whole fat state of Texas. It’s a tedious 4.2 mile hike from the trailhead to the top, zigzagging upwards in an endless series of switchbacks. Switchback. Switchback. Switchback. It’s steep and rocky from start to finish with a handful of false summits mocking you throughout the climb. Upwards of 50 MPH winds barrel through the canyon on a good day and little natural obstacles offer to stand guard against it. The trail rides the rocky ridge of the canyon, sometimes with sheer drops into the yawning stretch of desert below.
One quick turn, and you’re overlooking a canyon speckled with rocks and scrubby bushes. Another quick turn and you’re beside a waterfall of rocks, placed and positioned by millions of years of geology. From desert, to forest, to mountain top, the trail is actually kind of an exciting hike.
The view from the top of the peak obviously affords a splendid 360 degree view of the park and the surrounding area, uninhibited unless by clouds. Also, you have an excellent view (albeit the reverse) of El Capitan, the rock face juts like the bow of a ship into the southern end of the park and marks the end of the Guadalupe Mountain Range. It’s possibly the most defining feature for tourists traveling through the pass.
When I finally reached the top after a solid two hour or so trek, and I beheld the sprawling expanse of earth below me, gulped in the icy air, shared some smiles with fellow hikers, and downed an entire bag of peanuts, I noticed my iPhone had service. My phone doesn’t have service EVER out here. So I called my dad and said, “I bet you can’t guess where I am right now!” For the record, he couldn’t, but was pleased to find that I was calling him from the highest peak in Texas! I snapped a selfie, of course, and after a total of maybe twenty minutes at the top, I began to shakily descend.
It’s just as rocky, steep, and the wind is just as unyielding on the way down as it is on the way up! I rolled an ankle more than once as I attempted to jog down the 4.2 miles.
Now, when I hike long distances alone, my mind wanders. As I push myself to achieve as many miles as possible in as little time as possible, I find that I enter a state of hypotheticals.
What if the weather suddenly turned and I was trapped in a tornado?
What if I had a third arm?
What if a killer plague overcomes America and I’m forced to recede into these mountains for my own safety and I have to survive like a ruthless hermit? Or maybe I live among the coyotes and slowly I become feral.
Usually these hypotheticals delete my body from my brain and when I think back on the hike, it seems like my head floated down all on its own. However, when I descended from the “Top of Texas”, all I could think was, I have to pee. I really, really, really have to pee.
Now, this may be TMI but usually, I would just find a fun little bush to do my business onto. But the trail is quite exposed and since it forms an endless Z’s down the mountain and up it, there’s never a great spot to hide. A piece of me wanted to shed all shame and say “Who cares!” But all I could think of was my opaque white butt staring at my fellow hikers, its pasty incandescence emblazoned in their minds forever! And then a gust of wind would blow and my thought evolved into, Even if I do find a spot, either my pee will blow directly onto my face or I’ll be blown directly off the ledge. No matter how I sliced it, I couldn’t find a comfortable place to drop drawers and take a leak. I even considered peeing my pants as a reasonable alternative.
It may not be as romantic as you might imagine, but the best part of my first time crawling up and down Guadalupe Peak was at the end, when I finally got to the trailhead bathroom.
Potty humor aside, the peak trail is challenging but accessible enough where anyone who is even remotely in shape should climb it if they happen to be near that isolated sliver of Texas known as Guadalupe Mountains National Park.