The deserts of West Texas often get dismissed as an endless abyss of dirt and gravel. A wasteland where even the smallest amount of life struggles to survive. The vast Chihuahuan Desert stretches past the horizon without a bit of shade accompanied by an unforgiving sun daring anyone brave enough to face its burning rays to come explore its depths. However those that do are rewarded with unique treasures that few are able to enjoy.
I had no clue this place existed, which surprised me since I thought I knew about all of the National Parks. I came upon it by chance, seeing a headline on a blog about the highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Point. Never one to turn down a spontaneous adventure, I set off to get lost in the forests of sage.
The mundane rhythm of my tires along the pavement accompanied by the drab browns and pale greens of the dry desert pushed me into a trance for an hour as I fell into my own zone, thankful for auto pilot. At the park I was greeted by a cheery ranger who sadly recommended that I not hike to the peak that day. 30mph winds were rolling over the top of the mountains and it was apparently difficult to even stand upright. Determined not to let my day go to waste, she pointed me towards “The Notch”, another highland trail that had less wind, was a little lower in elevation, yet still a challenge that would offer breathtaking scenery.
I had just over four hours to make the journey as the gate to the parking lot closed at sunset. Having about 10 miles round trip and an 1100 foot elevation change, that time limit offered just enough of a challenge to push me forward. It was going to be tight but I was confident I could make it.
The beginning of the hike was quite relaxing, meandering through groves of mesquite intertwined with dry river beds, their waters once having covered a gigantic reef that covered the entire area. Halfway throughI came upon a old cabin, its brick slowly eroding from the harsh winds that roar through the canyons. This was the first summer home built in these mountains by settlers, although many people had already called these grounds home throughout time. What would it have been like to live out here in these dry lands, so far from water and other sources of life. There would have been no plumbing or electricity. Perhaps a well had been available. Still, as I stopped for a snack, I couldn’t help but think about how grateful I was to be alive today along with all of our luxuries.
Past the cabin a dry grotto marked the end of the low land and the beginning of the path into the cliffs. Did water flow here recently? That thought seemed like a far away dream in these conditions. The trail switchbacked steeply as the mountains began to tower all around me. Although it was March, the leaves were changing color as if an early fall disrupted the middle of an early spring. A recent snow/ice storm had recently overtaken the south and many of the plants were acting out of character reminding me how fragile the balance of life is in these ecosystems. When an area evolves to have certain harsh conditions, the opposite can cause devastation.
I turned a corner and a cutaway in some rocks offered a breathtaking landscape reaching out as far as I could imagine. I thin smile came over my face along with a feeling of content. There wasn’t much that could get better than this moment and I counted my blessings, thanking the universe for providing this opportunity. Here, in the middle of the desert, the world was swathed in a beauty almost indescribable.
I continued pushing towards the McKittrick Campground even though I knew there wasn’t enough time for me to make it there before the day ended. I wasn’t ready to turn back yet as it felt like the adventure was just beginning to start. As I found myself turning another bend, I stopped for a moment to try to take it all in. To think that just ten hours ago I had no clue that this place existed. How many more gems did the world have hidden in its crevices outside of cities? I had been living on the road for over two years and was still consistently finding awe in a world begging to be explored. How many people would see these things? All it takes is the desire to find something new, yet out of the 80% of people that live in urban areas, few are ever compelled to leave their bubble they call home, to take the risk that is necessary for discovery. If they did, maybe they would be a little more content with their lives. But who am I to think this, so small as an individual. Possibly, they would not find the joy that I have or maybe its the lack of people trying to discover that makes discovery so special.
Unsure of how long my return journey would take, it was time to let the day go and head back. The quicker pace of the downward slope combined with the already rapid walk that I normally have had me close to other people in no time where a smile and a nod led to conversation and friendship. Two gentlemen that were traveling the parks together after a recent retirement were eager to swap stories and compare our journeys, hoping to find a new gem that had escaped them just like this park had escaped me. Laughter quickly echoed throughout the mountains as three people with seemingly nothing in common spent time relishing in the joy of being human and exploring the earth. Before we knew it the visitor center was within view and out half hour friendship came to an end.
Not ready to head back to Van Horn, I found another trail leading to a watering hole that was accessible all night. The sun was quickly fading and my steady pace took on a sense of urgency knowing that once night took its grasp, the temps and atmosphere would completely change. A small stream trickled over a bed of rocks into a pool, the small amount of light left in the day softly reflected cold blues into my eyes. A single cottonwood hung over the water offering another way for small animals to reach this precious resource. Soon the sun would be down and I would be gone with the rest of the humans leaving this area for the multitude of nocturnal species that called the mountains home.
Further down the trail I could hear a rustling in the sage surrounding me, javelina out to get an evenings meal. They were so perfectly camouflaged, I tried to hide so they would come out but my presence was known and they stayed hidden in the brush, only allowing me to see their snouts for a second. These pig like creatures were often mistaken as feral hogs and killed because of that mistake. Knowing this, I could understand why they were so timid. By this time the sun had completely set and the air was becoming more frigid by the minute. It was time to leave.
As I drove back to Van Horn, I couldn’t help but be thankful for the day that had just passed. Unique surprises like the one I just experienced are rare making them all the more special. I pulled onto the shoulder to get one last look at El Capitan before it disappeared with the rest of the desert. It’s towering peak right next to Guadalupe Point beckoned me forward to explore its cliffs. Not today but I assured myself I would return to face the challenge. When that would be I couldn’t tell. Until then I will remember the unique beauty of this desert and all of the secrets it holds.
Closest Supercharger Van Horn TX (66 mi)
1921 Frontage Rd, Van Horn, TX 79855
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
400 Pine Canyon Dr, Salt Flat, TX 79847