West Texas is home to one of the state’s finest national parks, where you'll find the highest point in the Lone Star State. Located about 100 miles east of El Paso, Guadalupe Mountains National Park rests on the New Mexico border. Hike the trails at this national park, photograph its wildflowers, observe its wildlife and, in essence, you're exploring what once was an undersea reef.
Formed during the Permian Age about 250 million years ago, an immense tropical sea once covered vast portions of present-day New Mexico and western Texas. During the millions of years that followed, the main reef builders of calcareous sponges, algae and other lime-secreting marine organisms combined to form the 400-mile-long, horseshoe-shaped Capitan Reef.
Located in the heart of the ancient reef, the national park encompasses 86,415 acres. Deemed worthy of protection in 1966, the park wasn't opened to the public until 1972.
From winter to spring, visitors can expect high winds. Seventy mph gusts are quite common, but these winds can range from extremely calm to 100 mph blasts. Summer produces severe thunderstorms accompanied by lightning strikes and possible flash floods in the canyons.
In the winter, look for mild to cool days and cold nights. High winds and freezing rain are common in the high country, with snow accumulations of three to six inches.
Today, the only ancient snails, clams or sponges that you'll see are fossils unearthed by researchers, but the Guadalupes remain rich in flora, fauna and wildlife. The park's high mountains, deep canyons and wide desert boast of more than 900 species of plants, 60 types of mammals, 289 kinds of birds, 55 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 11,000 types of insects.
Although the best way to view the Guadalupes is to hike the park's trails, you easily can see one of its most prominent and interesting features, El Capitan, from the highway. Early morning and late evening are best for image-making, as the sun sits low and casts its golden hue on the area.
A hike up Guadalupe Peak, the highest peak in Texas, provides an excellent view of El Capitan. It's a 3,000-foot climb in elevation from the campground (open all year) to the 8,749-foot summit, but the 4.2-mile, one-way trail passes through some of the most spectacular scenery—with wonderful views from start to finish—that you'll hardly notice you're climbing.
If you'd rather enjoy the summit at sunrise or sunset, try hauling your backpack to the Guadalupe Peak Campground. It's a mere 1,000 feet below the summit, and the views are outstanding. In the fall, be sure to go up McKittrick Canyon, often called the most beautiful spot in Texas, where deciduous trees such as maple and oak paint a rainbow of colors.
Wear sturdy boots if you're trekking, and bring plenty of water and sun-protective items such as sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm and hats. Also, don't forget to pack rain gear.
Contact: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, HC 60 Box 400, Salt Flat, TX 79847, (915) 828-3251, www.nps.gov/gumo.
The park and visitor center are open year-round. Spring is an excellent time to visit, as the days are warm and the nights are cool. Hiking is a pleasure any time of the year, with tiny wildflowers making their debut in the spring, while the vibrant colors of fall attract visitors from around the country.
Ideal for rigorous hikes over rough terrain, the Caldera boot by Vasque employs breathable Gore-Tex® XCR to wick away moisture and a DryTech footbed with a natural peppermint antibacterial component. A Vibram Contact outsole keeps your footing secure and a Phylon midsole provides extra cushioning. List Price: $150.