Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
62 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park in one year. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late.
Pennington is committed to following CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the safety of herself and others. She’s currently on a travel break until the parks begin to reopen. In the meantime, we’ll continue to publish her previously completed parks to help you take your mind off the pandemic and plan for future adventures.
Believe it or not, I grew up in Texas. I didn’t love it. It was flat, hot, and humid. In summer it felt like I was sucking warm steam through a straw just to breathe. Boy, I wish I had known about Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Located in a far-flung corner of West Texas, just 30 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns, the park is a magical respite from the arid tract of the Chihuahuan Desert to the south. Much like the state’s only other national park, Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains possesses that rare, island-in-the-sky vibe that makes hiking through it feel otherworldly.
The big vistas, ponderosa pine forests, and high-mountain wildlife that I yearned for as a kid were all there in spades. The park’s main attraction is 8,751-foot Guadalupe Peak, the top of Texas, which many people climb.
I got a late start one morning on a brisk February weekend, hoping to avoid the 50-to-60-mile-per-hour gusts of wind that are common on the summit in winter. Lucky for me, it was a sunny, bluebird day. Park visitors were out in droves. Everywhere I looked, there were groups of college dudes or father-son teams in boots and baseball caps, ready to tackle the state’s high point.
As I ascended from the trailhead at 5,800 feet, I swooned at the panoramic views of nearby Hunter Peak and the vast desert below. One of the most striking things about Guadalupe Peak Trail is the way it traverses a series of radically different riparian zones, from the water-starved desert to mountaintop forests of pine and fir. In a park that’s home to over 1,000 species of plants, some of which only exist in these mountains, it was a great way to see the lush biodiversity firsthand.
My breath began to quicken as the altitude gripped my lungs at around 8,000 feet. I passed a forlorn teenager hunched over a boulder, his enthusiastic dad goading him toward the summit. The peak was a rite of passage not everyone wanted to endure, it seemed. The boy asked me, “I guess it’s too late to turn back now, right?”
“Right!” I chimed in. “You’re only a mile away, and the views from the summit will totally be worth it.”
I pressed onward, mouth agape as my first glimpse of Guadalupe Mountains’ so-called El Capitan came into view: a remarkable, thousand-foot sheer cliff of crumbling late-Permian rock sprouting up from the desert floor.
Just a few more steps, and I had summited Guadalupe Peak, standing face to face with a silver pyramidal summit marker. The day was a success.
As I stood at the top of Texas, I thought a lot about how dramatically your image of a place can change once you’ve left it. The town I was born in lies at a humble 72 feet above sea level, and I didn’t experience real mountains until I moved to California.
But maybe I needed a suffocating suburb to leave to become the person I am today. Maybe this summit was a rite of passage I wasn’t meant to take until the age of 32.
Better late than never.
62 Parks Traveler Guadalupe Mountains Info
Size: 86,367 acres
Location: West Texas
Created In: 1972 (national park)
Best For: Hiking, horseback riding, backpacking, car camping, peak bagging
When to Go: Visit in spring (37 to 85 degrees), fall (55 to 85 degrees), or winter (30 to 62 degrees). Avoid strenuous summit hikes in the summer, when temperatures can hit 100 degrees.
Where to Stay: The park offers two vehicle campgrounds, Dog Canyon to the north and Pine Springs to the south. There are also ten backcountry campgrounds spread throughout the park for solitude-seeking hikers.
Mini Adventure: Enjoy the sunset from Salt Basin Dunes. Motor out on a scenic, 43-mile drive from the Pine Springs Visitor Center to check out a different view of the Guadalupe Mountains. An easy one-mile hike from the parking area will take you over a small field of gypsum sand dunes and face to face with an epic panorama of the park’s most famous peaks.
Mega Adventure: Hike to the top of Texas on the Guadalupe Peak Trail. This 8.5-mile round-trip trek is the most popular in the park, climbing 3,000 vertical feet from the Pine Springs Campground. If you’ve got the time, grab a permit and backcountry-camp a mile below the summit to enjoy sweeping vistas of the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Peak at sunrise.