“Drive super slow,” an REI sales clerk warned. “There are, like, these bunnies everywhere.” Wide-eyed and grave, she flailed her arms, as though deflecting a flurry of shuriken, to stress the magnitude of bunnies—the gauntlet of bunnies—that haphazardly frequent a stretch of TX-54 leading to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. “We hit two.”
We hit at least one—a mighty hare—perhaps, the fabled jackalope.
Easing my Ford Focus along TX-54, well below the speed limit, Rocks (or “Shitting Rocks” as we so lovingly call him on the trail) slammed the breaks. A thud and an ominous scraping sound seemed to immediately confirm a kill. To my heart’s relief, the scraping sound was no bunny but a long strip of plastic that fit beneath my car’s bumper. Tufts of desert-brown fur poked from a hockey-stick-shaped crack in the cheap-plastic-like material that ornaments Ford sedans in lieu of functional bumpers. I longed for the old, sturdy-bumpered pickup that I had traded-in the previous summer, opting for fuel economy over that pickup-breed of ruggedness that includes ground clearance enough for a bunny to slip under (well, so long as it dodged the tires).
The road was awash with rabbits—from fluffy, pygmy-puff bunnies you’d want to take home for your kid sister to sinewy, kangaroo-ish hares. They kamikaze-ed across the road from every direction without warning and with reckless abandon. Skittishly cruising around 25mph in a 70mph zone, we may have squashed three. It was impossible to tell.
So, my only advice for those who hope to bag the tallest peak in the Lone Star State:
Drive super slow! There are bunnies everywhere!
The rest is cake.
At roughly 8,750 feet, Guadalupe Peak boasts the tallest summit in Texas. To westerners, an eighter may seem weak but, considering the mind-numbing flatness of most of Texas and that Guadalupe Peak stands 2,000 feet taller than Mount Mitchell (the tallest peak in the eastern United States) and 2,400 feet taller than Mount Washington, Guadalupe Peak is nothing at which to sneeze.
The park encompasses stunning country. Rising 3,000 feet out of a sort of American Serengeti north of the Delaware Basin, Guadalupe Peak’s little brother, El Capitan, greets visitors at the gates of the V-shaped Guadalupe Mountain range that continues into the celebrated Carlsbad region of New Mexico.
From the trailhead by the Pine Spring Campground in the park’s southeastern corridor, Guadalupe Peak Trail (8.4 miles roundtrip) begins as a yawning ascent through ankle-tickling prairie grasses. Cacti and several junipers, including the delightfully scalely alligator juniper, line the park’s lowest levels. Shade is rare real estate.
A little farther than 1.5 miles on the trail, the rugged prairie becomes a sparse pine forest on the shadier, north-facing (trail-side) slope of the mountain. The view of Pine Spring Canyon and Hunter Peak becomes more photogenic with each rocky switchback through the pine. At Guadalupe Peak, daredevil aviators called white-throated swifts whoosh and whizz through stiff winds. Aside from Shumard Peak (8,615 feet) to the north, nothing in the region is remotely as tall as Guadalupe Peak. Expect 360 degrees of open, uninterrupted skies. But be prepared to share that splendid view with a gaggle of other hikers, jockeying to snap photos beside the Butterfield Overland Mail monument with the Patterson Hills and Salt Basin Dunes in the distance.
Sunny, windy, prickly, and dry but not quite out of cell-phone range—the southern prairie/ badlands of west Texas are not the most forgiving terrain but, also, not the most daunting. Guadalupe Peak is patently day-hike-able. Lots of people traverse the rocky switchbacks to the top of Texas. Hell, lots of people summited Guadalupe Peak on the very day that we hiked it.
Though it seems that nearly all who visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park do so motivated by the bombastic goal of “Standing atop Texas-exas-exas!” (cue car-commercial echo), the park’s majesty truly lies in its sprawling and less-traveled backcountry. Of its 86,000+ acres, roughly 86,000+ acres are backcountry (give or take). Aside from a spattering of modest structures on the outskirts of the park and the hellishly cramped and crowded Pine Spring Campground and RV lot, the park is entirely backcountry.
Even front country sections of the park’s trails (other than Guadalupe Peak Trail) feel remote and lonesome. Up and down Guadalupe Peak Trail, we played Hiker’s Leap-Frog with, easily, a dozen groups of hikers. But, on El Capitan Trail, we only passed a single family of three, who hiked in as we hiked out. The father (a round and ruddy fellow wearing a Seattle Sombrero and brandishing a knotted-wood, wizarding staff like those walking sticks sold in park gift shops) led his wife and a tweeny boy with flippy-floppy bangs. Gleefully ignorant, he asked, “Where does this trail go?”
Though perhaps unfairly so, Guadalupe’s backcountry treks—Tejas Trail, the Bowl, and McKittrick Canyon Trail—are often compared to the wildly more popular South Rim of Big Bend National Park. So, why do hikers stick to the front country in the Guadalupe Mountains? It could be the lack of water. Backcountry hikers must lug-in all they hope to drink. More likely, though, the draw of the tallest peak in any region is too strong to ignore but, especially, in a state as proud as Texas.