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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Guadalupe Peak: Night Hike to the Top of Texas

East Face Switchbacks from the Pine Springs Campground
A few years ago just as I was finishing grad school in Colorado, I was offered a job in San Antonio.  The job in San Antonio never materialized, but it did lead to a great opportunity that brought us to Utah, and then to Arizona.  While I was gearing up for the job in San Antonio, I did a little bit of research on Texas and learned about Guadalupe Peak.  I filed it away and thought it would be fun to someday visit and climb to the top.  When we planned our trip to Carlsbad, I knew it was the ideal opportunity to climb Guadalupe Peak as well.  I also knew that I didn't want to climb it with the kids (a hike up Frary Peak in 2012 convinced me of this). I ran the idea of hiking it at night by my wife and she gave the ok.  So, I started some lunchtime training on the treadmill at work, maxing it out at a 15% grade and going for up to 45 minutes of my hour break.
We dragged into the Pine Springs Campground about 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon.  The drive between Hueco Tanks and Guadalupe National Park being the right time and duration for the kids to get a good nap in on the way.  Surprisingly, the campground was about 75% full.  We found a site that required a short walk of about 100 yards to get to, paid our $8/night fee, and started hauling in gear.  We set up camp, ate dinner, and wandered around a little bit.  I got everything ready for the hike then it was time for bed.  I set an alarm for midnight then dozed off.  I ended up waking up before the alarm due to some other campers wandering around outside.  I knew that getting back to sleep was not an option since I was ramped up and eager to go, so I kissed my wife then crawled out of the tent- taking care to not wake the kids.  A short hike to the trailhead, then I was on my way! 
I hiked for a short while only guided by the light of the moon, but then thoughts about cougars and a friend who almost stepped on a rattlesnake while hiking at night convinced me to pull it out and turn it on.   Mentally, I had divided the hike into 4 sections: The east face, the south side of the canyon, on top of the ridge to the campground turnoff, then the final push to the peak.  The first 1/4 mile was brutal.  It always is on every hike as I seek to establish a good hiking pace.  Along the way small bits of light along the trail blinked at me- the spiders were out doing their hunting.  I felt good other than burning lungs, and after a while reached the point where the east switchbacks were done as I rounded the bend to the south side of the canyon wall.  Hiking at night has some great advantages.  It's quiet, it's not crowded, and you avoid the heat of hiking during the day.  It also has some drawbacks, namely being that you miss out on the fantastic views that you have in the daytime.  Pretty much all of my hike looked like the picture above- a small area illuminated by my headlamp, surrounded by darkness.
The north side of the shoulder of Guadalupe Peak doesn't have the switchbacks that the east face does and also has some pines and evergreens.  I pressed on, occasionally pulling out my camelbak for a quick swallow of water.  I could rest when I was done, but I wanted to hurry on.  I kept wondering about when I would make it to the top of the shoulder and finish the second part of my hike, but the trail never crested the ridge, and before too long I was at the turnoff to the campground.  I had estimated wrongly- the trail would be best divided into three sections.  I didn't mind because it meant that I only had a mile left to go.  Shortly after the campground turnoff, I crossed the famous bridge.  The bridge spans a small dropoff along a cliff, and happens to be the highest bridge in Texas.  I pulled out the camera for a quick picture and quickened my pace.  The trail soon zigzagged before me, steadily climbing to the top. 
I finally reached the summit of Guadalupe Peak an hour and 40 minutes after I started hiking.  4.2 miles and 3000 feet in elevation.  It was a brutal pace, but it sure was nice to get to the top!  The top is 8,749 feet above sea level.  It's marked by a unique monument placed by American Airlines.  I sat down, signed the summit register, and had a quick handful or two of dried fruit.  It was amazing looking off in the distance at the lights, but the pictures didn't turn out.  I thought about the last long solo hike I had done to an airplane crash site in Utah. 
Looking at the monument, it was pretty self promoting.  American Airlines placed it to commemorate the stagecoach drivers who helped open the west and made a comparison to themselves.  The wind was blowing pretty steadily, so rather then ponder the plaque at the top, I strapped my backpack back on and started back down the trail.  The elevation dropped rapidly as I passed familiar landmark after familiar landmark.  My knees were pretty tired by the time I turned the corner onto the east face, but by then the lights in the campground below beckoned me onward.  As I decended, the spiders once again started to appear here and there along the trail.  I hadn't noticed their lights blinking as I was higher up.  I staggered to the trailhead and checked the time.  It took me 3 hours and 5 minutes to hike Guadalupe Peak round trip.  It was a blistering pace, but I made it!  I stopped by the water spigot and dumped some cold water on my feet to cool off the hot spots.  It felt great finally taking a break.  I pulled my wet socks back on, didn't bother tying my shoes, then staggered down to the campground and my tent.  I checked in with my wife with a hug and a cuddle and was out until morning. 

Nearest City:
Location: N° W°
Time Needed: The National Park Service says to plan on 6-8 hours roundtrip.
Difficulty: Strenuous
Kid Friendly: No
Additional Info:

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