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Return to the Guadalupes

Photographing fall’s arrival in the Guadalupe Mountains
Written by Laurence Parent. Photographs by Laurence Parent.

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I got to know the Guadalupe Mountains as a child in the 1970s, when my dad was a park ranger at nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. I remember limping around with a broken leg and crutches when we attended the dedication of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in 1972, and later, scrambling up Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, with high school buddies on a foggy day before there was even much of a trail. On another memorable visit, I leapt from a boulder in McKittrick Canyon when an eight-inch centipede crawled up my arm.

Characterized by arid peaks, colorful forests, sheltered canyons, and sand dunes, the Guadalupe Mountains rise at the intersection of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains.

So I was excited when Guadalupe Mountains National Park selected me to be an artist-in-residence last fall. Other than a few brief photo trips, I had not spent much time at this West Texas park in recent decades. The artist-in-residence program gives creatives like photographers, painters, musicians, and writers the chance to spend five weeks on site with free housing in a staff apartment or an RV site at Pine Springs Visitor Center. With both my parents now gone, returning to the Guadalupe Mountains was an amazing opportunity for photography, if a little bittersweet.

Covering nearly 120 square miles, Guadalupe Mountains National Park protects a mountain range that formed about 265 million years ago as an underwater reef. Today’s arid climate, sheer mountain cliffs, sand dunes, sheltered canyons, and spring-fed oases result from the regional intersection of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains.

I arrived in the middle of October during a spell of frequent showers and storms. Bad weather can both make and break photos. Usually, I’d head out into the rain and have nothing but gray skies until dark; but occasionally the sun would peep through the ominous clouds and briefly paint the land pink and gold. One time, adrenaline sent me running down a hill near Williams Ranch Road when a storm suddenly built overhead and threw down lightning bolts. I reached my truck as the skies opened up. I barely managed to get back to the highway before the dirt road started to flood.

I watched and photographed as the mostly green vegetation of late summer transitioned into the colors of fall. I hiked up to Devil’s Hall in Pine Springs Canyon several times over the course of two weeks, as the foliage there appeared brighter and more consistent than in McKittrick Canyon early in my stay. On every hike, the trees would look different. The summer rainy season made the park’s maple and ash trees turn brilliant gold, orange, and red, and the colors lasted longer than most years.

I hiked many of the park’s 80 miles of trails during my five weeks there. Park officials also granted me access to the upper part of South McKittrick Canyon, which is closed to visitors, to take the first photographs of the area since it flooded in 2013 and 2014. While some outings brought back pleasant memories, I also found new adventures. Friends joined me for two backpacking trips into the high country. With the rains, the mountains were lush with tall grasses and healthy trees—oaks, junipers, Douglas firs, and ponderosa and white pines. During an October backpacking trip, we scrambled off-trail up a rough unnamed side canyon looking for a small grove of aspens. We found the trees, their leaves turning gold, but we also startled a black bear that quickly bolted out of sight.

I did my second backpacking trip in early November. A friend and I made the 100-mile drive from the Pine Springs Visitor Center around to Dog Canyon on the north side of the park. Wind was forecast, but my time in the park was running out. We talked to the ranger at the ranger station and enjoyed the quiet of the little-visited area. Scattered alligator junipers, pines, oaks, and maples dotted the grassy valley. The small campground had only one occupant, even though it was still fall color season. We donned our heavy packs and started hiking up the Tejas Trail. The valley quickly narrowed into a canyon, its walls sheltering stands of flaming maples. We needed to get to camp, but I couldn’t resist photographing the colorful trees.

As we climbed out of the canyon, the wind battered us on the open ridge tops. Once we turned off the Tejas Trail, we followed the faint, little-used Blue Ridge Trail. After several hours of hard hiking, we reached our campsite on Blue Ridge at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet. Even though pines and Douglas firs sheltered our campsite, the wind whipped our tents around as we tried to set up camp.

From camp, we hiked a half-mile to the western escarpment of Blue Ridge in time for sunset photos. I had never been to that part of the park before and was amazed at the spectacular views and cliffs below us. After a windy, noisy night, we photographed the sunrise, packed our gear, and trekked back to Dog Canyon, taking more photos along the way.

Missing my family, I was grateful when my wife and two kids came out for a long weekend in the park. My children had never been to the Guadalupe Mountains, so we took them to the Grotto in South McKittrick Canyon to see the fall color. The next day my wife and I dragged them up Guadalupe Peak, the highest peak in Texas at 8,749 feet. There was a little justified whining on the long climb, but we all were impressed with the view. My family started down ahead of me, fixated on dinner, while I lingered for sunset photos and followed them down in the dark using a headlamp.

By mid-November, the leaves were falling and winter was approaching. Cold fronts blew in the notorious winds for which the Guadalupes are known. One evening, with winds gusting as strong as 75 miles per hour, I braved the highway through Guadalupe Pass, trying to get photos in the eerie, dusty yellow light. To hold the camera steady enough, I huddled behind my truck and used fast shutter speeds and a high ISO setting to minimize camera blur.

All too soon I was packing up my belongings at the park apartment where I had been staying. I thanked the park staff for offering me the opportunity to photograph such a beautiful place and headed east toward home. As the Guadalupe Mountains shrank in my rearview mirror, I thought about how blessed I was to revisit one of the most scenic places in Texas.

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Favorite Hikes

Here are some of Laurence Parent’s favorite hikes in the Guadalupe Mountains, both from years ago and recent visits.

McKittrick Canyon Trail

McKittrick Canyon’s clear, rushing creek, towering walls, and multitudes of colorful maples make it one of the most beautiful places in Texas. It’s a 6.8-mile round trip to the Grotto, gaining about 300 feet on a smooth, easy path. While McKittrick Canyon is famous for fall color, don’t neglect this trail at other times of year. Even in the peak of summer, plentiful shade after the first mile or so makes it a wonderful hike if you get an early start.

Smith Spring Trail

Smith Spring is an easy, 2.3-mile loop that gains about 400 feet in elevation. The trail starts at the historic Frijole Ranch house and spring, passes Manzanita Spring, and climbs to the oasis of Smith Spring. Water pours off small cascades into clear pools under a shady canopy of pines, madrones, oaks, and maples. The site offers great color in fall and a cool respite from the heat in summer.

Devil’s Hall Trail

The 4.2-mile, round-trip Devil’s Hall Trail departs from the Pine Springs Trailhead and climbs about 500 feet in elevation. The first part of the trail ascends gently into Pine Springs Canyon before dropping into the rocky canyon bottom. The route then follows the canyon upstream as it slowly narrows into a deep slot at Devil’s Hall. Along the way, the trail passes by stands of maples, pines, and other trees. Fall color tends to appear earlier here than in McKittrick Canyon, probably because of the higher elevation. Like Smith Spring, it’s a good hike in summer because of the shady areas.

The High Country

For the ultimate in high country forest, consider a hike up to the Bowl, Bush Mountain, or Blue Ridge. Depending on the route, the hike will cover 10 to 17 miles. In addition to passing through forests of pine, oak, juniper, and Douglas fir—a setting more typical of higher-elevation mountains in New Mexico—the views from Hunter Peak, Bush Mountain, and Blue Ridge are almost as good as from Guadalupe Peak.

A 10.5-mile loop day hike or overnight trip that gains roughly 2,500 feet starts by climbing the Tejas Trail, cutting through the Bowl with a side trip to Hunter Peak for its views, and descending the steep Bear Canyon Trail. Another spectacular trip is a 17-mile loop up the Tejas Trail to Bush Mountain and Blue Ridge. This route offers heavy forest, endless views, and lots of solitude. A shorter but still strenuous route to Blue Ridge comes up from Dog Canyon. Some of this area burned in a forest fire in May 2016, so check with the park on trail conditions before setting out.

Salt Basin Dunes

Located 48 miles from the Pine Springs Visitor Center, the white gypsum dunes on the west side of the park require some driving to reach, but the flat, two-mile, round-trip hike is easy. The dunes formed when an ancient Pleistocene lake dried up, leaving salt and gypsum deposits. Over time, west winds have picked up gypsum sand grains from the old lake bed and deposited them as dunes. The rippled dunes and the sheer west face of the mountains rising to the east create a beautiful sight, especially late in the day when the shadows lengthen. The lack of shade and low elevation make this a very hot place from April through September. Hike it only in the cooler months, and be sure to stay on the trail to avoid getting lost.

Guadalupe Peak Trail

Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas at 8,749 feet. Everyone should climb it, right? However, it’s tough. The trail is well-built, but it requires 8.4 miles of hiking round-trip and gains almost 3,000 vertical feet. The views from the trail and summit may well be the best in Texas, stretching from Sierra Blanca Peak near Ruidoso, New Mexico, to the Davis Mountains. Looking down a vertical mile to the Salt Flats to the west seems more like the perspective from an airplane than a Texas mountain. Start early, take lots of water and snacks, and bring extra clothes to be prepared for bad weather or colder temperatures on the summit.

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