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Mini-Trip Report: Father-Son Road Trip through West Texas to Hike the Guadalupe Mountains

Mini-Trip Report: Father-Son Road Trip through West Texas to Hike the Guadalupe Mountains

Dec 29th, 2006, 06:19 PM
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Mini-Trip Report: Father-Son Road Trip through West Texas to Hike the Guadalupe Mountains

Four dads and our twelve year old sons met in Junction, Texas on a Friday in November for a hiking excursion to the Guadalupe Mountains in far west Texas.

Friday

Two of the sons had school holidays and the other two sons missed a day of school. We met in Junction, Texas and headed west on Interstate 10. First stop was at the Caverns of Sonora, billed by many as the most spectacular cave in Texas. The 90 minute tour did not disappoint, and our young female guide did a great job holding the young boys. The features in this cavern were as detailed as any I’ve seen, and the sons said they would definitely recommend it to their friends. (Unfortunately, the Butterfly, one of the most delicate features in the caverns, has since been vandalized.)

We stopped to get a picture of the boys on the Davy Crockett statute on the courthouse square in Ozona, the county seat of Crockett County, Texas. As part of Texas’s 100th anniversary in the 1930s, the fifteen foot high statue was carved from granite in heavy Art Deco style by Massachusetts-born and Texas and Ohio educated sculptor William M. McVey. His many other public works include a bronze statue of Winston Churchill at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the stone frieze at the base of the San Jacinto Monument near Houston: http://www.clevelandartsprize.org/visart_1964.htm

We all were then fortified by a delicious late lunch at the Hitchin’ Post Steak House on the western fringe of Ozona, including one of the best chicken fried steaks I’d had in a long time. (I actually intended to swear off this delicacy long ago, but the one on our neighbor’s table looked too tempting.)

The drive west on I-10 from Ozona is spectacular classic West Texas scenery, with the sky as big and blue as you can imagine. We diverted briefly on Highway 290 to get a spectacular view of the Pecos River valley from an overlook above Sheffield, and passed by the ruins of frontier Fort Lancaster. Soon the spectacular array of scores of 200 foot tall spinning wind turbines was visible on the horizon on the mesas far to the north of I-10, between Iraan and McCamey. They added an odd but graceful modern touch to the seemingly ageless Pecos River Valley terrain:
http://www.desertskywind.com/photos.htm

This trip, as many of our others, was planned at the last minute, so to dispense with the necessity of camping gear we decided to stay overnight in a motel and sally out from there for day hikes. No time to stop in interesting-looking Fort Stockton, and the western sky was ablaze with those sunsets you see only when you’re out west. As darkness fell, we pushed on westward to our base in the middle of nowhere — Van Horn, Texas.
MRand is offline  
Dec 29th, 2006, 06:27 PM
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Charming report MRand. My late husband always enjoyed trips that included hiking with his sons and nephew. A great memory for everyone. Wishing you all many more.
LoveItaly is offline  
Dec 29th, 2006, 07:04 PM
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LoveItaly - I'm glad your husband had that experience. It doesn't get much better than this.

Saturday

We were up before dawn at our average Best Western in Van Horn. Before the sun peaked over the horizon, we were headed due north. Our goal: Guadalupe Peak, at just under 9000 feet the highest point in Texas. Guadalupe Pass, below the peak, is the windiest spot in Texas and the National Weather Service was predicting 40 mile an hour gusts – not conducive to pleasant hiking.

In the soft, early sunlight we passed the Baylor Mountains on our right and soon the starkly beautiful Sierra Diablo Mountains on our left. The Sierra Diablos were the site of the last battles in Texas between the U.S. Army and the Apaches — this real Lonesome Dove Texas ranch territory.

Suddenly, the Guadalupes loomed straight ahead, purple in the distance high above the desert floor. Soon the southernmost peak of the Guadalupes, El Capitan, 700 feet below Guadalupe Peak but even more grand from below, jutted out in front of us. The hike to Guadalupe Peak is a strenuous five miles and 3000+ vertical feet from the starting point. We’re experienced hikers but I wondered whether the other dads and sons knew what was in store for them.
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Dec 29th, 2006, 07:21 PM
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P_M
 
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MRand, this is a great report. I have lived in TX most of my life, but I've never been to many of these places in your report. I did go on a trip to Ozona to audit oil wells in the area, but that was business and I didn't get to do fun things.

I hope to hear more.
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Dec 30th, 2006, 10:33 AM
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Saturday (cont'd)

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is about 60 wide open miles north of our base in Van Horn. The highway from Van Horn to the park is two lane and mostly straight as an arrow without another car in sight, allowing us to push the speed limit and make the trip to the park headquarters at Pine Springs in less than an hour. The highway rises from the desert floor below El Capitan up through Guadalupe Pass, largely following the route of the old Butterfield Stage Coach line in the 1800s. Back then, going up or coming down the pass in stagecoach was a harrowing feat. Now, we ascended the same route in a few short minutes on the modern highway cut through the pass.

We met the Guadalupe Peak trailhead at Pine Springs. Contrary to the forecast, there was virtually no wind, but the chilly morning air made perfect conditions for hiking. The first thousand vertical feet were up a series of switchbacks rising out of Pine Spring Canyon. Several vantage points on the way up provided great views of the canyon, the rolling plains to the east, and the Devil’s Hall area of the canyon with it’s spectacular fall foliage. The middle third of the hike leveled off to a degree through pine forests, providing occasional glimpses of false summits that raised the hopes of several in our party that we were nearing the top of the peak. We rounded a corner where we finally see the true peak, probably another thousand vertical feet above us.

After another series of long switchbacks and some light scrambling, we reached the Guadalupe Peak summit – the top of Texas. We all touched the odd shiny metallic pyramid that the U.S. Postal Service placed at the peak years ago, and signed the logbook that the National Park Service has left in an ammo box for hikers who make the summit. One of the young sons wrote “this is a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life.” Another says “I thought about turning back, but I’m glad I didn’t.”

It was a cloudless day and the 360 view was remarkable. The prow of El Capitan that looked so imposing from the desert floor was 800 below us. Broad salt flats that the Spanish and Apaches fought over hundreds of years ago lay a full vertical mile below and to the west. We identified the Sierra Diablos and beyond them the purple silhouettes of the Davis Mountains 125 miles to the south, the worn Delaware Mountains to the southeast, and Frijole Ridge to the northeast. Bartlett, Bush, and Shumard Peaks, some of the other highest peaks in Texas, rose to our northwest. This is not classic Colorado Rocky Mountain scenery, but big desert Southwestern landscape - spectacular nonetheless.

The wind that had been so surprisingly absent all morning picked up with strong gusts. After a quick lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix, and water, we were ready for the descent. We finished the entire hike in about six hours: 3 hours up, half an hour on the peak, and 2.5 hours coming down. None of the twelve year olds and some of the other dads had ever done anything quite like this, and all were elated. This was a strenuous, challenging day hike that gave all of us a good workout and a solid sense of accomplishment, especially for the first timers.

I’ve had incredible experiences in Yosemite, Rocky Mountains, and Grand Canyon National Parks, but compared to those, there is little in the way of tourist infrastructure or crowds here, which is one of the things that made this trip so enjoyable. We drove back to our Van Horn base in the late afternoon sunlight weary but exhilarated. We dined at a local dive. They say that even bad sex and bad Mexican food are pretty good. Well, maybe not this time, but the chips, hot salsa, cold beer, and college football on the big screen TV made up for the food and fortified us. On this clear night, there were thousands of stars in the cold night sky of West Texas, very different from the view in a city. We went to bed tired and happy.
MRand is offline  
Dec 30th, 2006, 02:05 PM
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I wonder if it was Chuy's in Van Horn where you had your Tex-Mex. They did have a big screen TV. We stopped there 10 days ago on our trip to Austin, and we stayed at the Motel6 (cheap and clean).
trippinkpj is offline  
Dec 30th, 2006, 04:46 PM
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Wonderful report, wonderful adventure for fathers and sons.
cmcfong is offline  
Dec 31st, 2006, 08:19 AM
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Sunday

Another early morning drive from Van Horn to Guadalupe Mountains. This time our destination is McKittrick Canyon, 10 or 15 miles northeast of Pine Guadalupe Peak and the drive up from Van Horn takes about 90 minutes. McKittrick was inhabited for hundreds of years by Apaches, and is named for a rancher who settled there after the Civil War. It is particularly known for its spectacular fall colors when the bigtooth maples deep in the canyon change. (Check out some pictures here: www.texasexplorer.net/guadmckcanyon.htm .) We had hoped to time our trip to catch the canyon at the peak of the colors.

The hike to the back of the canyon is about 7 miles roundtrip. At the start, we could hardly see that we were entering a canyon, but about a mile-and-a-half in, the walls rose and narrowed and the colors began. Unfortunately, we’d missed the peak colors (around the end of October/first of November) by about 10 days, but the cloudless sky was some of the deepest blue I’d ever seen, and contrasted brilliantly with the white and rust of the rocks, mixed greens of the pines and cedars, and the brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges of the changing bigtooths.

We took a brief rest at Pratt Cabin, a simple but inviting stone-roofed lodge built by a wealthy Houston oilman for his family in the early 1900s. Several National Park Service guides arrived, opened up the cabin, and gave us a brief tour. We started toward The Grotto, which is a rock overhand near the back of the canyon, but time demands intervened so sons reversed course on the trail to head back to the cars, followed by the dads a few minutes later. We rejoined at the trailhead, but short one son. A park ranger radioed back to Pratt Cabin and dad of missing son headed back down the trail. Missing son, who’d briefly left the trail for a rest break, was located on the trail within about thirty minutes. A short time later we were headed home.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is two hours east of El Paso, which has a major airport. The park doesn’t have the conveniences that, for better or worse, are associated with the Yosemites, Grand Canyons, or Yellowstones, and would probably be too hot to visit in the summer. It seems largely undiscovered, except by locals. I'm tempted keep it that way, but at least wanted to tell my fellow Fodorites.
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Jan 1st, 2007, 12:46 PM
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P_M
 
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MRand, I'm glad you decided to tell us about it. It'll be our secret.

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