Our Texas Mountain Trail Board Member, Drew Stuart, is a resident of Salt Flat in Hudspeth County. He is the Editor of the Hudspeth County Herald and Dell Valley Review. If you're planning a spring break trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, take note! Drew's article was written about a March hike in the park.
Adventures in the Guadalupes – Bush Mountain and the Bowl
The following piece is the seventh installment in a Herald series on hiking the trails of Guadalupe Mountains National Park and describes a 17-mile loop from the Pine Springs trailhead up to Bush Mountain, the second-highest peak in Texas, and through the wooded interior of the Guadalupes on the Blue Ridge and Tejas trails.
A late start – it’s after 1:30 p.m. when, gear assembled and loaded up, I leave the house. But my plan for the first day of the overnight trip is modest – just to make it to Pine Top. Without a pack, the 3.7-mile, 2,500-foot ascent on the Tejas Trail has taken me about 2 and a half hours. Tacking on an extra hour, I should have an hour and a half at the campsite before sunset.
It’s been a stymied morning at home, drifting from one thing to the next, but the mountain has a way of focusing the attention, and as I point myself in that direction I feel appropriately chastened. Driving through the hardpan of the dunes and bleached lakebeds, for a moment I think I know where I am, that I have a grip on the place. Then a truck passes me on the left and I see the license plate – “Texas” – and something about the contrast between the word and this deathless landscape jars my certainty. I drive into Guadalupe Pass, and feel the transition: the world of limestone, the familiar exposed rock, stacked stoned and tiered mesas and outcroppings.
As advertised, there are high winds in the pass. It’s March 16.
I stop in and get a backcountry pass from the good people at the visitor center, and I’m on the trail just before 3 p.m. It’s pleasantly warm, with gentle gusts of wind, and I walk in anticipation of that golden country up top, the forest. My imagination turns to the colors and lights from on a November hike to the mountains and the summit of Hunter Peak – tall grass washed in sunshine, trees sunk in darkness and shadow – and I am eager to be there again. A half-mile up the trail and gaining elevation, I feel vaguely elated, and not particularly mindful – the passing high of endorphins.
I come to the first of several limestone buttes or towers that form the natural signposts along the Tejas Trail, and rounding that bend, I get the wind, sweeping down from the head of Pine Springs Canyon. It’s a desert wind, I feel, a Western wind, and I think of all the space, all the Western desert out there.
Higher now, and pausing to lay down my pack and stray a bit off the trail, I think again of how the Guadalupes seem to have their own thing, flora-wise. The constituent of the mountains, the limestone material, gives the Guadalupes something in common with East Texas, the Texas Hill Country, or the eastern reaches of the Sierra Madre in Mexico, as much as with other mountains in the arid West. (Thinking of the words “East Texas,” I find myself chuckling. As far as I can tell, for Hudspeth County residents everything east of Guadalupe Pass is East Texas. Alpine and Marfa residents had a concept of “Central Texas,” referring to the Hill Country, where I grew up; there is no such middle ground here – perhaps Alpine itself is East Texas for some of my Dell City friends. I think of the slippery business of locating West and East, of finding the “True West,” and of the westering history of the country, how we have tried to out-west each other, Davy Crockett-style.)
There is agave and sotol, here on this arm or ridge, and I look back down at the zig-zagging trail, and the little caps of exposed limestone, four of them, that mark the flights or stories of the ridge and the Tejas Trail. Then, nearing the top and the passage to Pine Top, I find sand beneath my feet – the color of the trail changes, soft, orange-brown sand mingles with the pale limestone bumps and scree.
A peak experience, Pine Top. A high stage above the canyon, a proscenium, an altar lifted before the sun. (It seems that anyone who doesn’t worship the sun, at least a little bit, is a fool.) Standing among the scrub oaks and grass, the jumble and intricate splay of the Delawares is visible below me, and in the distance the arms of the Baylors stretching out and the northern tip of the Davis Mountains. The lumps and knolls of the Guadalupes rise above me, across the chasm.
Turning to the north, it’s the wind in the pines, and the gray of a weathered juniper, sending up dark, scattered clumps of new growth – an endurance to aspire to. At my feet, blue agaves and beargrass. Looking off toward Bush Mountain, I see gaps where the 2,000-foot cliffs of the Guadalupes’ western escarpment must be. I turn toward the massive form, the hulking mass of Guadalupe Peak, looking august. I can see the knob of the peak itself is angled slightly, turned to one side – as if it’s thoughtfully taking something in. Old, and yet still green – there’s still a certain freshness there, that comes from the sea, from its sea origins, and from the dark green that covers it. This is a bright place, this bright lip, Pine Top, both a peak and a passage.
A steep quarter-mile up the Bush Mountain trail, and I find my campsite. A beautiful spot: a person could stay here for days. As I’d hoped, there’s more than an hour till sunset. Pulling out my tent, I discover I only have two stakes. (Belatedly, uselessly, I remember a night below El Capitan in August, when a 3 a.m. windstorm sprung my stakes free of the ground and flung them into the brush – and how the next day I could find two of them.) There’s always something. I put some large rocks inside the tent, at the unsecured corners, and feel satisfied, confident. After wandering up the mountainside and taking in the sunset light, I eat my cold burrito. I’d decided I could go without a hot meal for a day, and left my stove at home, to lighten my load.
It’s a brisk night, but I’m warm in my down sleeping bag and sleep in longer than I’d expected. The sun has clicked into place in the sky by the time I climb out of my tent. I drink my jar of cold coffee, and soon I’m on the trail to Bush Mountain.
Again to the south and east I can see the Delaware and Apache mountains, their complex forms revealed now by the morning light. As I pick my way west and up the trail, I have excellent views of Guadalupe and Shumard peaks. The trail ascends through grassy meadows, littered with smooth juniper branches and marked by plump agaves, one still supporting a leaning, blackening stalk. Behind me, Hunter Peak catches the morning sun; to the north, views of what I take to be the Brokeoff Mountains and the northern reaches of Crow Flat. Then, I’m out of the the upland meadows and passing through dark woods, pines, a black fairy tale forest on a high ridge.
A slow, final march and I come to the summit of Bush Mountain, a bald white mound. I move to the edge, and take in the tremendous space. The mountain falls away almost clear to the desert floor. To the north, a long arm, with sharp stone pillars, extends to the flats below. Tracing the cliffs down with my eyes, the sheer drop, the extent of it, registers at some spot deep in my brain – bringing a buzz. I sit for a few minutes on a rock at the edge of the escarpment, quickened every few moments as I grasp the drop and the extent of space. What space! A mile below, there is the brown desert and bleached swaths of the empty salt lakes, the white sands a pale dusting in the foreground, the dun folds of the Patterson Hills, the Cornudas and Cerro Alto, the Sierra Diablo and Sierra Prieta, Sierra Blanca and Round Top mountains, 60, 70 miles away. All those mountains are diminutive from this throne.
At 8,631 feet, Bush Mountain is the second highest peak in Texas. Guadalupe Peak – 8,749 feet – may be the premier summit, but it’s here, on Bush Mountain, that one can get the most immediate sense of the scale and dramatic arc of the escarpment, and the abrupt 5,000 drop from the Guadalupes’ western rim to the desert floor below.
Rising from my roost to continue on the trail, I bump into Bryce, a young park ranger who’d checked my pass at the Pine Top campsite the night before – he’ll be my only human sighting before the final hour of my two-day trip. We discuss the view for a moment, before I head on.
From Bush Mountain, I drop into a shaded forest of skinny pines. The trail skirts the escarpment two, three times, the trees framing views of Wind Mountain and the crop circles of Dell City far below. Then I walk along slopes, looking east and north, out at the wooded humps and the rocky faces of the mountains, the Guadalupes’ Bowl.
Some three miles from the summit, I come to the junction of the Bush Mountain and Blue Ridge trails, and pause there in a meadow. Continuing on, I head east now on the Blue Ridge Trail. Soon Bryce rejoins me, having checked on the Blue Ridge campsites. (Picking up toilet paper, he tells me, “the part of being a ranger people don’t think about.”) A law enforcement ranger, Bryce is on a four-day posting in the backcountry, making foot rounds each day – some plenty arduous – through the mountains. We walk together, talking about his past – growing up in Alaska, working at Montana’s Glacier National Park for six years, until his recent relocation to the Guadalupes. The trails here have surprised him, he says – with the exposed rock and steep grades, they’re harder to walk. We both shudder recalling the agonies of the Bear Canyon Trail, which runs less than 2 miles but involves some 2,500 feet of elevation gain. After a lifetime of lakes and loamy earth, Bryce is, understandably, in a state of shock at the local dryness, desolation and solitude, but is game. (He has also been shocked, and impressed, by the hard-working staff – some of our locals displaying a work ethic that, apparently, is not universal among government servants.) We walk together as far as the junction at the Tejas Trail, and he turns north, to check on Mescalero campground. For me, the company has broken up a bit the noonday doldrums.
Back on the Tejas Trail, it’s down, down, till the trail reaches a rocky draw. I’m in the plumbing of the mountains’ interior. The wash, which drains toward McKittrick Canyon, is piled at places with white boulders, a chaos of washed stones – proof that, though it may have been before my time, it has rained in West Texas. I’m reminded of the beautiful mess of rocks in Pine Springs Canyon, on the Devil’s Hall Trail.
Following alongside this dry creek, the trail passes by knotty Douglass firs and large pines, through carpets of dead leaves, the deciduous debris and white stone giving this stretch the feel of Kentucky woods, of Appalachia. Then, before long, I’m working my way up again, back toward Pine Top.
Working my way up, slowly. Even in the recent past, as recently, maybe, as my November scramble up Hunter Peak, I’d sprint up a segment of trail – and then pause and catch my breath. There is no pausing now, just slowing. Breathing evenly, I have breath to look up from time to time and take things in, to see.
I’m joining the ranks of slow walkers. At several times during the hike, I find myself thinking of my friend Ted, a writer, now 80 years old, and and a lunch he and I and my girlfriend at the time had several years ago at a diner in Marfa, We finished our food, and an hour, than an hour and a half in, he was still working on his liver and onions. Though I’m an acolyte, and was eager to pay my respect, to demonstrate reverence, finally we had to leave him – I had to go back to work. For all I know his lunch lasted another 45 minutes. He was unruffled, unapologetic for his slowness. (Turtles are a kind of totem for Ted, and it’s an identification I can understand now, as I picture his deliberate mastication.) I, on the other hand, am feeling some ambivalence about my slow walking. Am I premature oldster? I don’t want some young buck coming up the trail and seeing me like this.
Ted, after all, is a man of some wisdom, I tell myself: there’s no reason to blush at it, this turtle pace. Basically, for me, this activity is first of all an act of leisure – “holy leisure,” I want to say, lifting a phrase from the Catholic monks – before it’s a workout. After many years of adopting an attitude of defiance or denial, I’m beginning to feel gravity, to acknowledge it, which is more honest. It’s not a flight, this business of climbing and moving across the planet on foot (unlike driving, say) – in fact, it’s going to be a trial, a good bit of it is going to be physically disagreeable. Feeling it, the discomfort, tempering my habit of defiance or denial, I notice I’m enjoying it more, the walking.
After a loop of more than 9 and a half miles, I arrive back at Pine Top. I make the quarter-mile climb back to my campsite, and pack up my tent and sack to head down. Another beautiful weekend in the mountains.
– Andrew Stuart