If you're going to drive to Guadalupe Mountains National Park from Austin, or really from any direction, just know that you will be second guessing your navigation multiple times before you finally see the mountains rising up in the distance.
I would classify Guadalupe Mountains National Park as remote. Once you get on the other side of the hill country, the west Texas desert is as flat as a crepe (a really thin pancake) for many hours. The good news is that you can see something coming for miles. The bad news is that there is nothing to see coming. So fill up with gas early and often.
After seven hours and the fourth time of saying, "There should be mountains somewhere around here", Julie, Brandon, and I finally saw the mountains appear way on the other side of the crepe desert. Not dessert. The road leading to the Guadalupe Mountains is long and memorable. Watching the mountains grow will stick with you.
The Guadalupe Mountains are rugged, shrubbbed, desert mountains. They are rocky and provide excellent views in all directions because of the lack of trees and the flat landscape around. The desert around the mountains gets more and more impressive as you gain elevation and see it from up on the mountain trails. From higher up you can see how the wind has shaped this land. The dunes that ripple across the desert are so obvious and natural from the top of the mountain, but when you are coming into the park and driving between and around these big dunes, they seem a little random.
Once Pete made it down from Colorado there were four of us. The campsites at the main visitor center campground, Pine Springs, are all first come first serve. We thought getting in around mid-afternoon during the week between Christmas and New Year's would be easy, and we would have our pick of sites. Not true. I would recommend getting to the park as early as you can the first day so you can either get a spot at Pine Springs or have enough time to get up into the backcountry sites. Don't worry though, worst case scenario you end up cramming into an overflow group site with several campers and a guy who dog sleds with his two huskies across the country... more on Georgie later.
Guadalupe Peak is the obvious destination in this national park. It is the highest point in all of Texas at 8,750 feet. It is a satisfying feeling to know that you are taller than anybody else with their feet on the ground in an entire state. I would put it up there with crossing a state line on foot. It is just so satisfying. Try it.
So after a night of chicken tacos and a morning of finding a new campsite, we started our first trek into the mountains. The route is a little deceiving. From Pine Springs you look up to see a peak looming just above you. It seems obvious to think that is the peak - the tallest peak. But you are wrong my friend, and so was I. Once you make it up that little peak, you see there is a whole 'nother mountain behind it and you are maybe halfway to the summit. Life tip #1: Assume everything is a false summit.
We took it slow since going up and down this mountain was the only thing we had to do that day. And when going up and down a mountain is the only thing you have to do in a day, that's a good day. The weather was perfect, and when we got to the summit we relaxed in the sun and the breeze. The view was incredible as we drank our warm and shaken up beers. Life tip #2: Always carry a beer to the top of the mountain.
We headed back down, slowly again. We saw the sun set on our way and it was getting dark by the time we reached our camp back at Pine Springs. When we were already below the false summit and could almost see our camp, we met Georgie making his way up with his two pups and two new friends. This was just a little concerning since there was absolutely no way they were going to make it to the summit before well past dark. So we told them this and said good luck. Then kept an eye on the mountain as we ate our bolognese until we finally saw some headlamps bobbing down the switchbacks way up there. When we saw Georgie again he was as happy and optimistic as always. They didn't make it to the top, but his huskies did hear a deer while up on the mountain and take off down the trail, dragging Georgie holding the leash behind. Luckily he got it all on video.
Our next adventure was an overnight backcountry hike from McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center back to Pine Springs - about 19 miles. You can really only do this if you have two vehicles to get from one trail head to the other and back, or you can try hitch-hiking. Unfortuneately Brandon was feeling a little altitude sickness and dehydration so he didn't join us on this hike and decided to check out some desert dunes instead. Don't worry Brandon, this hike wasn't that great, but you should stop reading now.
This hike was THAT great. McKittrick Canyon Trail was awesome from start to finish. It started in a desert valley following a small creek - then into a thicker forested valley with more color - then a climb up and through a notch into a canyon on the other side - then across a windy, narrow ridge that drops off on both sides - then follows the ridge atop the canyon wall overlooking the valley below. Pete led the way with Julie and I behind stopping for photos constantly. It was too beautiful not to. We had walkie talkies so when Pete would reach a view or a intimidating rock staircase on the side of the mountain, he would give an encouraging yell into the radio so we knew we had something good coming up ahead of us. We camped up on that ridge in the trees at McKittrick Ridge Campsite just a couple minutes walk to the most perfect overlook to watch the sunset with victory beers, and then some hours later the sunrise with hot coffee in the cold morning.
The hike back to Pine Springs was a beautiful, fun, relaxing day with a little spritz mixed in. Brandon came up from camp and met us along the trail. We all descended back down to camp amid beautiful views on a sunny day. We enjoyed our last night at camp eating everything we had left, bartering with Georgie - who I don't think believes in money, and just looking at the mountains in the moonlight.
We woke up the last morning and could see a wall of clouds coming at us from across the desert. It was a cold front that was going to drop the temperature 30 degrees or so. We packed up and decided to head underground and out of the weather. Carlsbad Caverns is just about an hour north of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We spent a couple of hours there walking through the massive cave and checking out all the intricate rock formations before driving back to Austin. Enter the cavern through the natural entrance as opposed to the elevator. It gives you a much better sense of where you are, and the relatively short hike is full of more unique and massive rock formations. I definitely recommend the visit, especially if you are so near. I mean you might as well, can't dance.