Within the northern boundaries of the Chihuahuan Desert of western Texas resides an underrated gem of the National Park System: Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Do you long for a desert hike? Then head to the bright-white Salt Basin Dunes on the west side or the creosote deserts to the east. Looking for breath-taking autumn colors? Then head to the canyon interiors of McKittrick, Bear, and Pine Springs Canyon where maples, ash, chinquapin oaks seem to dance with color as the wind blows. Do you need a challenging mountain hike? Climb the alpine uplands known as ‘The Bowl’ where elevations exceed 7,000 feet. Through dense forests of ponderosa pine, southwestern white pine, and Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir you’ll reach the famed Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, with an elevation of 8,751 feet.
Devil’s Hall Trail
For our first excursion, we hit the Devil’s Hall Trail, which departs from the Pine Springs Trailhead. Total round trip is a moderate 4 miles, with the first mile taking us through a desert lowland setting. After the first mile, the trail enters a rocky wash surrounding us with those famed trees. We were lucky enough to visit the Guadalupe Mountains in November when the trees really start to show their stuff. Leaves of bright blood reds, sunset oranges, lemony yellows sway and flutter against a bright white rock of the dry riverbed.
We scramble to about the rocks and boulders within the wash of Pine Springs Canyon. Eventually, we reach an impressive natural rock staircase. As we scramble up and over the staircase, we find a dark pool of water held within a tinaja. A Tinaja is a pocket carved from rock by turbulent flowing water. We push on, scrambling over boulders and finally reach “hallway” formed by steep canyon walls. The wave-textured 50-foot granite cliffs give us a cool and shady escape from the afternoon sun. The trail officially ends at a small sign on the north side of the hallway, but adventurous souls could continue the route and explore the winding canyon for a few hundred feet before needing to turning back.
Salt Basin Dunes
There are two gypsum dunes in North America. The first and largest is the famed White Sands National Monument. The second is the Salt Basin Dunes of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The hike to the Salt Basin Dunes is located 2 miles from the parking lot, so be prepared for a hike in the desert complete with extra water and sun protection.
The Salt Basin itself is a graben or a down-dropped block of the earth’s crustal rock. This area’s faulting of the earth’s crust began 26 million years ago and simultaneously shifted Guadalupe Peak upward for more than two miles to its current position. Water runoff from the mountains flowed down into streams and into the graben. Since the basin has no outlet for water, it just sat there until it completely evaporated, leaving gypsum and salt.
During the Last Ice Age, the Salt Basin received so much water, that it became a lake, providing water to megafaunas such as mammoths, dire wolves, and giant sloths. The lake was also visited by paleo-Indians some 10,000 years ago.
Today the sediment continues to collect within the basin every time the Guadalupe Mountains gets its annual rainfall. The lake bed is dry most of the year and it would take a huge amount of rains to form an actual lake of a few inches deep. Gypsum deposits are increasing in the Salt Basin minor by a third of an inch per year. Steady westerly winds shift the grains of sand from the dry salt lake, then drop them near the western edge of the park before sweeping up the ledge of the Guadalupe Mountains.
As I shuffle my feet through the sandy trail, I notice a dark black and brown crust covering the sand on either side of the trail. This black crusty carpet is actually a colony of lichen and fungus known as a Cryptogam. Without it, there would be no soil nitrogen, and nothing to prevent wind from eroding away at the landscape. Just above the bio-curst other plants take hold growing in symbiotic relation to the cryptogamic colony. According to the signs the cryptogamic crust is fragile and simply walking across it can open the soil to erosion. I respect and honor this precious land, and watch for the black crust of cryptogams and avoid walking on it. I focus on staying on established roadways, trails, and barren dunes.
Oh The Trails!
There are a total of 80 trails within Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Far more than I have time for in my short visit. But here are are my picks:
Guadalupe Peak Trail
The trail to reach the Top of Texas a robust adventurer must traverse steep paths. Hikers gain over 3,000 feet within 4.2 miles, so thus the hike is rated as strenuous. Start early when investing the sweat equity and be reward with the most stunning view Texas has to offer.
El Capitan & Salt Basin Overlook Trails
This hike leads through the Chihuahuan desert to the base of El Capitan at the southern end of the Guadalupe mountain range, so bring extra water, extra food, and lots of sun protection. Follow the El Capitan Trail and the Salt Basin Overlook Trail. Within a day a hiker can view the massive El Capitan formation from its base and the Salt Basin from above. Total trail length is over 11 miles, but it’s mostly flat and rates as moderate.
Permian Reef Trail
Serious geology buffs will want to pick up a geology guide at the visitor center before heading to this hike. The Permian Reef Trail comes complete with markers which the guide highlights. The strenuous trip is an in-and-out trail totaling over 8 miles and a gain of 2,000 feet. So be sure to start early and bring plenty of water, a lunch, and sun protection. Your hard work will be rewarded with excellent views of McKittrick Canyon from the top of Wilderness Ridge.