Monday, March 11, 2013

Hunter Peak, Part 1 by Drew Stuart

From the Tejas Trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
by Drew Stuart
This is the sixth installment in a series on hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. In recognition of the park's 40th anniversary, the author undertook earlier this year to hike all the park's trails. He still has a long way to go. (For more in the series, visit the Herald website, at


I set out to hike the Tejas Trail – a 2,500-foot ascent from Pine Springs to the Bowl, in the Guadalupes' highlands – on a cold and windy Nov. 11. My plan was to ascend the Tejas Trail, walk the western leg of the Bowl Trail – with, perhaps, a side jaunt to Hunter Peak, at 8,368 feet – and descend through Bear Canyon, an 8-and-half-mile round trip. The forecast called for “damaging winds” in the Guadalupes, but as I set foot on the trail at about 10 a.m., I was hopeful.

View in The Bowl
by Drew Stuart

In big wind, I walk up the slopes, in sotol and beargrass, prickly pear, cholla, juniper and oaks – the typical grassy parklands. The castellated columns and facades of the Guadalupes rise ahead and above me. Turning, I see a hush or pall on the mounds to the south. A kind of noonday alpenglow. The Guadalupes' exposed limestone – the compacted remains of ancient sea life – seems to cast its own frosted light, to charge the air. So much energy for skeletal, long-dead material. Strong wind drops and gusts down from the west, and clouds sweep quickly above the high country. I step over a flat, blood-red rock, like a Lilliputian sacrificial altar, though it's just the tuna-stained scat of some coyote.


My nose is running, my ears almost numb, but I'm sweating gently – it occurs to me it would be a good day for one of those breathable synthetic shirts that conscientious, “serious” hikers wear. As opposed to hacks like myself, who favor a cotton T-shirt, or whatever is closest to the bed in the morning. The mountains above are bleached white, blotched gray – I find myself thinking about the ancient Greeks, remember Homer rhapsodizing about “the folds of Mount Ida.” Mythology or stories about ancient seas, the rocks draw the mind back towards older worlds.


Soon I'm rounding a bend, heading toward the stone house or box that stands above Pine Canyon. Turning at an elbow in the mountains, the slopes rising up to the north are almost snowy white, and support their thorny culture of prickly pear and sotol. I look back to the east, to the broken mesas and tablelands below, and beyond, to just the silhouette of the Davis Mountains.


I've gained good elevation: below me are the wash and the small breaks of Pine Canyon, ahead the daunting prospect of Guadalupe Peak. I have moments of vertigo. There is the sense that I'd better start paying attention – I've staggered, fairly stumbled up the mountain, this far. But at this height, and at this distance from human comfort or aid, a little fear and trembling is appropriate.


Rounding the corner here, the wind comes with new force, of course. I see that this arm of the mountains, which extends into and rises above Pine Canyon, is like a wave of rock that crests here and breaks. A ridgeback or shoulder, with a giant head – the head of a giant, looking down on the space of the canyon and Devil's Hall. A little window in the porous and permeable limestone is visible near the ridge's far end. Below and to the west, I see slope after slope, one giving way to another, gentle-looking and mauve-colored.


The clouds are gone now, except in the distance to the east, and it's just sun and wind. It's a long way down, and very steep. I'm on a glinting canvas of rock, limestone in slats and pointing shards.


Sunlight, blue sky, the wind rushing through the scrub oak- and lechuguilla-covered slopes. Up and up and up. Why? What do I expect to find? A range of desert hills or mountains is a fastness of rock. However dry, the mountains persist in being sanctuaries, fastnesses. For marginally more wildlife than the creosote flats, perhaps. For the dream of rain. But for something else as well. What? Silence? Sometimes it seems they preserve memory – not ghosts, but time itself. The past, whether of 200 years or 200 million, seems to pool, gather at these places.


Nearing the top of the Tejas Trail, I pass here and there a twisted juniper, parched, warped by wind. I also have my only human encounter on the trail, with a ranger, who suggests Hunter Peak will likely be miserable in these windy conditions.

Stay tuned for Part 2!!

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of two parks participating in this fun and free challenge!  Sign up online at and the miles you hike may qualify you for prizes!

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