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TipTop Texas: Guadalupe Mountains National Park

With the tallest peak in Texas, Guadalupe Mountains national park offers lofty adventures
Written by E. Dan Klepper.

Hiker Mary Baxter rests after ascending Guadalupe Peak. The summit affords views from the highest point in Texas, as marked by the stainless steel pyramid. (Photos by E. Dan Klepper)

I am standing on the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, tracing the Earth’s curvature with my fingertip. The horizon bends like a longbow at this height—8,749 feet above sea level—and a gauzy canopy hangs above it, capped by an azure sky.

It’s six o’clock in the evening, probably not a good time to linger on the Peak while anticipating the hike back down to Pine Springs Campground, a 3,000-foot drop in elevation by way of dozens of rocky switchbacks. But thanks to the dramatic light, all three of the state’s runner-up peaks—Shumard, Bush, and Bartlett—are collapsing into the silhouette of the distant Brokeoff Mountains, and the crenulated edges of El Capitan, directly below, radiate the bright evening’s glow. Taking in the Peak’s irresistible view feels like flying, and in fact, I stand higher than the routine altitude of a small plane. Add in the narrow confines of the Peak itself, and a hike up the Guadalupe Peak Trail—a favorite daylong adventure in Guadalupe Mountains National Park—approximates the only way to soar across the top of Texas without the aid of wings.

I am standing on the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, tracing the Earth’s curvature with my fingertip. The horizon bends like a longbow at this height—8,749 feet above sea level—and a gauzy canopy hangs above it, capped by an azure sky.

This year commemorates the 40th anniversary of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a desert mountain environment with more than half of its 86,000-plus acres designated as wilderness. Established by Congress in 1972, the national park lies along the northern limits of the state’s “boot heel” and shares a border with New Mexico. It originated with a 1959 land gift from 
petroleum geologist Wallace Pratt, and was supplemented by the purchase of J.C. Hunter Jr.’s Guadalupe Mountain Ranch a decade later. Pratt loved the country’s rugged beauty enough to build a summer home on his McKittrick Canyon property, a riparian waterway in the northeast corner of the park where bigtooth maples turn saffron in the fall. The McKittrick Canyon Trail has become one of the park’s premier autumn destinations. Hunter’s ranch holdings comprise the lion’s share of the national park, forged from several smaller ranches in the surrounding sierras and foothills. Pratt and Hunter, both conservationists, recognized the intrinsic character of the Guadalupes and helped facilitate the national park’s creation.

The park also celebrates a history that extends far beyond the conservancy efforts of Hunter and Pratt. The Guadalupe range shelters important components of the state’s natural heritage including springs, salt basins, gypsum and quartz dunes, fossils, and native plants and animals (more than 300 species of birds alone). The park also contains some of the earliest remnants of our frontier past. Explorers, pioneers, settlers, surveyors, Native Americans, and the military all crossed this way over the last century-and-a-half, leaving behind ranch houses, overland-mail and stage routes, encampments, and rock ruins.

As my hiking companion and I make our way down the Guadalupe Peak Trail in the failing light, I recall the words of U.S. Boundary Commissioner John Russell Bartlett, who in 1850 set out to validate the state’s border provisions as outlined in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. His description of the surrounding environment, recorded as he and his crew passed through the region via mule and wagon train, remain some of our earliest, and most distinct, eyewitness accounts of the Guadalupe Mountains.

“The road here, after passing through long defiles, winds for some distance along the side of the mountain,” Bartlett wrote of traveling through Guadalupe Pass, a natural byway that comes into view a thousand feet below me as I descend the switchbacks along the east side of the Peak. “Now it plunges down some deep abyss, and then it suddenly rises again upon some little castellated spur. … Again we pass along the brink of a deep gorge, whose bottom, filled with trees, is concealed from our view, while the evergreen cedar juts forth here and there from the chasms in its side.” Bartlett’s narrative also serves as an apt description of Guadalupe Peak Trail, a slender footpath blasted out of the mountain’s vertiginous flanks less than 40 years ago.

The park’s mule herd, used for trail maintenance and mountain rescue, sometimes resides in the Frijole Ranch corrals.

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