Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

In Texas, Seeing the West as It Was

September 14, 2009, 7:12 am
A visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a vivid reminder that not all of the West was won and an illustration of why that’s a very good thing. The untamed West in all its cranky, craggy, dusty, arid majesty seems to have been frozen in amber in this park, a windswept wedge of 86,000 acres of West Texas mountain desert on the border with New Mexico. For the latter-day pioneer willing to find and make peace with this remote and inhospitable place, the rewards stimulate the senses and challenge the imagination.

The park is a repository of Texas superlatives that even most Texans are not aware of: the state’s highest point, Guadalupe Peak, at a challenging but climbable 8,749 feet; what is commonly referred to as its most beautiful single spot, postcard-picturesque McKittrick Canyon; and one of the most striking geological formations anywhere, an imposing slab of limestone known (like its more famous granite cousin at Yosemite National Park) as El Capitan.

The experience will be largely uncluttered by the intrusive presence of tour buses and crowds of camera-snapping tourists. When my wife, Ann, and I hiked in Guadalupe this spring, we ran into only a handful of other human beings, including a middle-aged couple from Pennsylvania, a couple of families day-tripping from El Paso and a few campers. The park was not dedicated until 1972, and perhaps because it is so lightly promoted, only 200,000 visitors a year come even now.

The National Park Service does not apologize for Guadalupe’s utter lack of creature comforts. There is no quaint, comfy lodge; no cabins. No RV park, although one is said to be on the way. No restaurant or snack bar or even a place to get a bottle of water. Camping facilities are spartan. The closest civilization with a decent choice of sleeping and eating accommodations is Carlsbad, N.M., 70 miles northeast, and even then, you’re talking about Comfort Inn vs. Motel 6 and Denny’s vs. the local fave, the No Whiner Diner.

“Guadalupe is about the authentic West Texas experience,” the park’s friendly superintendent, John Lujan, told me at the trail head to McKittrick Canyon, where he hobnobbed with a handful of hikers. “This is where you can feel the West exactly as it was.”