Add Some Color to Your Life: Autumn at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds.
Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

If you were to tell someone that you were going to visit the Chihuahuan Desert for its spectacular fall foliage, you would likely be greeted with puzzled looks and maybe skepticism. Surrounded by a region characterized by its aridity and sparse vegetation, Guadalupe Mountains National Park’s diverse habitats and their seasonal changes are a huge draw for those who know that stereotypes and assumptions about unexplored places are often wrong. Spending some time on the trails away from roadways and modern distractions opens a world of color waiting to be discovered.

A hiker wearing a blue backpack walks on a trail that winds through trees with yellow, orange, and green leaves. Sunlight streams through the branches and shadows of tree trunks and branches stretch across the ground.
The meandering path in McKittrick Canyon has minimal elevation change and each curve beckons further exploration (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

The lowest elevations of the park receive less than ten inches of precipitation annually, but the middle and upper elevations receive 15-20+ inches and that makes all the difference on what grows at these altitudes. It is possible to hike in one day from an area with vegetation typical of Mexico to one that is more typical of the Rockies several hundred miles to the north. A land of cacti, creosote bushes, agaves, and yuccas gives way to broad-leaved trees like madrones, ash, oaks, and maples. Even a few aspen grow mixed with Douglas-fir and ponderosa pines in isolated areas of the high country.

Pine trees stretch to blue sky above with white clouds. A white and dark gray peak is between the branches and a large boulder among trees with yellow and orange leaves is below.
The scenery found in McKittrick Canyon varies from Chihuahuan Desert to riparian woodland. Fall weather is typically mild (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

That transition from desert to woodland is starkest in McKittrick Canyon, which shelters a shallow stream of crystal-clear water that flows year-round and even during the worst of droughts. To see the best color, plan on hiking seven miles roundtrip to the Grotto and back in late October to mid-November. If that distance is too much, a five-mile hike to Pratt Cabin and back will still allow you to see the stream and some color. Maples will turn yellow, orange or red. Mild sunny days, with cool but not freezing temperatures, bring in the reddest leaves. Little walnut will turn yellow, sumacs red. Chinkapin oaks usually turn brown, but may be gold-tinged in some years. All these varied hues and leaf shapes highlight the biodiversity of the area and are a source of continual surprise for travelers who have spent hours, or days in some cases, traversing arid terrain.

Red, green, and yellow trees seen from a distance cover slopes below rocky cliffs.
The views from the high country allow hikers to look down canyons filled with fall foliage (courtesy of NPS/D. Bieri).

Maples occur in other canyons as well. For those who are looking for a more adventurous and strenuous hike, the Devil’s Hall Trail & Route in Pine Springs Canyon offers the opportunity to scramble around boulders scattered in a wash that ranges from five to fifty yards wide. The twists and turns below the slopes of the canyon create new scenes throughout the 4.2-mile roundtrip hike. An erosional feature at the end of the hike, the Devil’s Hall, has walls that are sheer and about fifteen feet apart.

White and dark branches spread upward. Green leaves of low-growing plants are below. Red and orange leaves of different trees are in the back.
The peeling bark of madrone trees contrasts beautifully with colorful leaves of deciduous trees like maples, ash, and walnuts (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

Those who do not mind making a longer drive to Dog Canyon gain options to hike shorter distances to see fall colors. The Tejas Trail is fairly level for the first mile and winds along and across a drainage that has many maples. The trail continues into the higher elevations and becomes strenuous, with incredible views into Dog Canyon and McKittrick Canyon. To gain these views expect strenuous hiking and a roundtrip distance of at least nine miles. The colors in Dog Canyon and along the Devil’s Hall Trail tend to turn before McKittrick Canyon.

White rocks in shadow and sunlight stretch through trees with orange leaves on the left and red and green on the right. A small sun with spreading rays is in the upper left.
After one mile of trail, the Devil’s Hall route turns into a rocky wash with areas of large boulders and erosional features like the Hiker’s Staircase and a narrow section called the Devil’s Hall (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

If you arrive later in the season or are looking for a shorter hike, the Smith Spring Trail (2.5 miles roundtrip) tends to change after the colors have peaked in McKittrick Canyon. The number of maples around the spring is more modest than what can be found in other canyons, but the meandering cascade through the boulders and travertine creates a delightful scene and makes it a place worth visiting.

Autumn’s flourish of color is something to be savored before the harsh, cold winds of winter make hikes more challenging and the landscape seem dormant. The scale of the color change is not as grand as that occurring in the East, but the mix of fall foliage under the cliffs of a fossil reef, and the sight of colorful leaves tumbling beside cacti and agaves, are defining characteristics of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and some of the things that make people wish they had allowed more time to explore. If you do allow more time, you will not be disappointed and you will join the many who have discovered that the desert is not always what you expect. Plan your visit today!

By: Michael Haynie, Park Ranger, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

El Capitan and Guadalupe Peak from Hunter Peak. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

It’s Spring 2021, and I find myself looking to get outdoors; yet, that year, I’m also seeking roads less traveled. While some national parks are so busy that they require reservations, others make it easy to get off the beaten path, like Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas.

U.S. 62/180 is just the road I’m looking for, narrowing into a two-lane highway that stretches more than 150 miles from Carlsbad, New Mexico, southwest toward El Paso. The country around me is wide open, with long, sweeping views except for a prominent ridge of mountains coming into view. The Guadalupe Mountains stand like a secret gateway in this remote area, as they have for millions of years.

The length of this highway roughly matches the length of the ancient Delaware Sea—around 150 miles long and 75 miles wide—that formed here within the Permian Basin 260 million years ago. The rock formations I see before me were once a huge underwater reef, now known as the Capitan Reef, one of the best-preserved Permian fossil reefs in the world. As this inland sea was cut off from the ocean over time, it evaporated, silt filling the basin and burying and protecting the reef structure. Then, 20 million years ago, powerful geologic forces uplifted the fossilized reef along nearly vertical faults.

You’re surrounded by greenery when you’re in “The Bowl” of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Today, the cliff-faced El Capitan stands 8,064 feet above sea level, while Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, reaches an elevation of 8,749 feet. In fact, nine of the 10 highest peaks in Texas are located here, and yet Guadalupe Mountains National Park also drops below 4,000 feet. The contrast accentuates El Capitan’s chiseled promontory towering overhead, creating a distinctive landmark for travelers below.

It has always been a vital stop. The limestone of the reef formation allowed natural springs to bubble to the surface in these Chihuahuan Desert mountains. In addition, nearby salt flats provided important nutritional minerals, as well as the means for early hunters to preserve game and tan hides. Nestled within the peaks, a pine-forested area called The Bowl is home to the only herd of elk in Texas. First the Mescalero Apache, or Nde, and then European explorers, Mexican and American settlers, and U.S. Cavalry troops stopped here, accessing the water, salt and game, and resting under bigtooth maple and red-barked madrone trees. A spot called The Pinery (for its stand of protective trees) marks the location of the old Butterfield stage stop, the first transcontinental transportation and communication system in the country.

The Tejas Trail is a rugged and demanding route to the top of the national park. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

The Butterfield Overland Mail, a precursor to the Pony Express, ran twice-weekly service from St. Louis to San Francisco from 1858 to 1861. Its contract with the Postal Department to deliver mail within 25 days was unbroken until interrupted by the Civil War. From the beginning, passengers rode in the coaches as well, eager to travel just as swiftly across the country: five miles an hour, around the clock, covering an average of 120 miles a day.This station at 5,534-foot Guadalupe Pass was the highest point along the original 2,800-mile route, appreciated for its reliable water, grazing, and shelter while crossing the desert—one stretch had no water for 75 miles. Remnants of the stage line’s outpost still stand near the Pine Springs Visitor Center in the national park along a paved, accessible path.

The nearby arroyo is bone dry, but it’s an easy family hike from historic Frijole Ranch to the pond at Manzanita Spring, and only a mile farther to the tree-shaded oasis of Smith Spring.

Bowl area of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Courtesy of US Geological Survey

I could have followed the popular trails to Guadalupe Peak or El Capitan. Instead, I take the Tejas Trail, overlooking a steep canyon, called Devil’s Hall, up to Pine Top where I camp overnight among the piñons, with a spectacular view almost 3,000 feet above the surrounding plain. As the sun sets, I hear the pealing of an eagle, circling the heights. The next morning, I stand atop Hunter Peak, looking over the canyon toward Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan, able to clearly see the narrow trails zigzagging up their flanks. Hunter is the fifth-highest peak in Texas. A backpacker’s gear flashes in the morning sunlight from atop Guadalupe, but I have this side all to myself. Walking along the edge of The Bowl, I keep my eyes peeled for elk, then carefully descend Bear Canyon, the steepest trail in the park. No elk, no bears, and no crowds.

You can visit all of these hidden gems. With over 80 miles of trails winding through the area, day hikers can ascend the popular peaks or follow Devil’s Hall to a hidden spring; horseback riders can travel through former ranchland; campers can stay at Pine Springs or Dog Canyon,; and backpackers can journey through the heart of the Guadalupe Mountains. Just remember to bring plenty of water; the springs and waterholes are protected natural resources, just as they’ve always been.

A sea of annual wildflowers blankets the slopes of the Smith Springs Trail. There are 1,000 plants species in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Courtesy of Cookie Ballou, NPS

Guadalupe Mountains National Park has more than 1,000 species of plants, from common desert species to plants that can only be found in the park. Ecosystems like the Chihuahuan desert, rocky canyons, and forests also support 60 species of mammals, 55 species of reptiles, and 289 species of birds.

Returning to the visitor center, I come upon six bicyclists resting in the breezy shade of the covered portico. They are refilling their water bottles and snacking on salty trail mix, their bike paniers laden with camping gear, their faces and arms sunburned. Six young people, all in their 20s, are traveling coast to coast. They started their trek on a Pacific beach near Santa Cruz, California, and will end by dipping their front wheels in the Atlantic near Wilmington, North Carolina. So far, they’ve pedaled for 29 days and over 1,200 miles across the country. Only 1,700 more to go. I tell them about the Butterfield Stage.

“This is the high point of our route, too,” says one young man. “It’s all downhill from here.” He grins knowingly. They were well aware of the potential for hardships to come on their journey. Their thirst quenched for now, they swing back into their saddles and ride off toward the east, following the long, quiet highway that has brought them this far, a road less traveled over the Guadalupe Mountains.