Guadalupe Mountains was one of those parks that I didn’t have any serious expectations of. It doesn’t have any famous defining features like Santa Elena Canyon or, you know, being a huge cave. But I think, like with my non-existent expectations for Petrified Forest, that was great. We rolled into the park around 6pm (or was it 5pm? It’s right on the edge of the time zone change and is in mountain time, but cell phones mark it as being in central due to the placement of the cell towers), and picked a campsite. I have to say, I really like how this campground is set up. I have mixed feelings about the surge in RV campers, but the two are completely separate in the Pine Springs campground in Guadalupe. Most of the RV sites are admittedly a little lame as it’s essentially just a parking lot, but the tent sites are excellent (albeit a bit far from the bathrooms for most of the sites). Most of them are a short walk from their parking spots, which makes for a secluded feel that also doesn’t result in blinding lights flashing into the tent when someone pulls into the campground late at night.
The next morning dawned fairly windy, but sunny. Apparently the wind is essentially omnipresent in Guadalupe Mountains, but the thing we were a little less than thrilled about were the strong gusts. We had originally intended (an oft-repeated phrase, I suppose, but I’m okay with it) to hike Guadalupe Peak, “The Top of Texas,” but decided to postpone it due to the gusty wind and the slightly ominous clouds in the sky. Call me a weenie, but I’m what you might call a “slight” individual, and have been known to get pushed around by strong gusts of wind. The last thing either of us wanted was for me to get gusted straight off the top of an 8700 foot mountain to my death. It probably sounds dramatic, but Brady is an overly cautious person (not a bad thing), and to be honest, hiking in the wind is not really all that fun. So we opted for Devil’s Hall instead, after a quick trip to the Visitor Center.
While browsing through the exhibit in the visitor center, I overheard a lady asking for junior ranger packets for her sons, and the ranger asked, “Would you like a senior ranger packet for yourself as well?” And you know when, in cartoons, something happens that catches a character’s attention and they suddenly appear right next to the people having the conversation? Well, that was me. My head popped up so fast I almost got whiplash and I zipped over to the desk and said, “did you say SENIOR RANGER?” The ranger laughed, said yes, and handed me a packet. I felt like a leprechaun finding a pot of gold, I was so giddy. I of course immediately did all of the activities in the visitor center, and to my mild surprise, I actually learned something! Did you know that baby hares are born fully furred with eyes open, ready to take on the world, while baby rabbits are mostly hairless with eyes closed? This is one of the main differences between hares and rabbits (which, second fun fact, “jackrabbits” are actually hares… and snowshoe hares are actually rabbits) and I had never even heard about it. Just more proof that even national park veterans like me can always learn something new. I can’t believe I never even thought to ask if adults could do the junior ranger program (several parks have senior ranger programs, or more ‘grown up’ versions of the junior ranger program), and now I’m feeling super ashamed and sad that this is the first park I’ve done it in. But, better late than never! After doing all of the activities and watching the slideshow (which the ranger apologetically explained was “not a movie” because park movies cost a lot of money, and I have never wished more in my life that I were a billionaire and could just say, “Can I cut you a check?” than when we emphatically assured him that we pass no judgment, and we’ll still love it), we headed out for Devil’s Hall.
It was a super fun little hike! You spend a lot of your time hiking through a wash, with the mountains soaring high above you in both directions, and a little bit out of the wind. I have to admit, it was super weird to be hiking in the mountains in mid-February in Chacos and light leggings/shorts.
After Devil’s Hall, we stopped by Frijole Ranch, which unfortunately wasn’t open (besides walking around outside). The ranch is staffed by volunteers, and their hours aren’t super regular or posted on the website. It was still really cool to walk around the property and learn about all of the ingenious ways they made life easier in the desert, like the stream they piped under their produce storage shed to naturally cool it before sending it to irrigate the fields, or the water tower that they pumped water into using a goat-powered pump and then had pressurized water inside the house (as the water tower, which is no longer standing, was taller than the house- thanks, gravity!), or the numerous other little things they invented.
The next morning dawned colder and windier than the day before, so we decided to stick to our original plan of going up to McKittrick Canyon and hiking around up there. It was completely worth it. In spite of the intense wind, the hiking was pleasant, and the canyon was gorgeous- and super deserted. We saw a grand total of 5 people our entire time in the canyon.
Our first stop was Pratt Cabin. Built by Wallace Pratt in the early 1930s and donated to the park in the 1960s, this cabin is built entirely of wood and stone (the roof shingles are stone) and is completely unchanged from its original state. It has three fireplaces… so let’s just say it’s pretty much my dream home. During busier times of the year, volunteers run the cabin and its open to the public.
Next stop was the Grotto! It was actually kind of a surprise, you branch off the main trail (which starts getting significantly steeper after that point) and hike down a hill, and then back up a hill, and there it is. You come upon it a bit suddenly, and it’s pretty neat.
McKittrick Canyon was fantastic, even if it was insanely windy. I was glad that we had a tailwind hiking out, but occasionally wished that I had some sort of parachute to carry me with each gust! We had considered going all the way to the Notch, but considering that the gate to McKittrick locks at 430pm (6pm in the summer), we didn’t want to risk getting stuck. We headed back to the visitor center, where I got my super cool Senior Ranger patch, and settled in for the evening.
The next morning we woke up to rain (BECAUSE WE’RE CURSED), but thankfully I had actually packed rain gear for Brady (and me), and like a ninja I took our tent down entirely within the rainfly (another shout out to the Half Dome- we cannot do that in our big tent). We packed up camp and headed off for our next adventure- Carlsbad Caverns!
Our Guadalupe Mountains National Park “Must Do”:
This is a tough one! We really loved both of the hikes that we did. I think if you’re strapped for time, Devil’s Hall is a great option, but between the two I think the ‘must-do’ is McKittrick Canyon. It packs a huge variety of biomes into a reasonably short hike (the Grotto is just under 7 miles round trip), and includes a lot of neat history with the Pratt family and how the land came to be in the possession of the NPS.