UKH

Hillwalking in Wild West Texas

© Ian Robertson

In Spring 2022, Munroist Ian Robertson went to the desert hills of west Texas in search of something a bit different, and ended up having one of the best trips of his 30-year hillwalking career.


Texas is a land of contrasts. Although much of the state is full of prairie, cattle ranches and oil wells, west of the Pecos River lie some fabulous mountains that rise from the desert floor. These are not the sandstone towers that you might expect from watching old cowboy movies, many of which were filmed not in Texas but in Arizona or New Mexico. The Texas mountains have a character all of their own.

Big sky country - looking over the spectacular peak of El Capitan  © Ian Robertson
Big sky country - looking over the spectacular peak of El Capitan
© Ian Robertson

It's a huge state, larger than France, and it takes a long time to drive anywhere. With the exception of El Paso, the major cities are all in the east in the cross-timbers region, a mix of oak woods and grassland. The mountains are all in the other extremity of the state, in the arid west. The two highest ranges are the Davis Mountains and the Guadalupe Mountains, on the stateline with New Mexico. I had long had a fascination with the history of the Wild West and wanted to visit Fort Davis as well as hike in the area, before moving onto the Guadalupe Mountains.

If you're are looking for landscape, nature and an experience that is completely different from anything you can get in Europe, come to Guadalupe

I knew that the desert nights would be cold and opted to stay in motels rather than camp. There are plenty of old style family owned "mom and pop" cabin motels where you drive up to the cabin door. These are handy for loading/unloading a rucksack straight from your car into your room and are a lot cheaper than the chain hotels. Tripadvisor is an excellent resource to find a good one.

I spent the first night in a motel in Fort Stockton, a town built round an old US army fort. The evening was warm and I made the mistake of not turning on the room heater before going to bed. I woke up at 3am, bitterly cold. On a cloudless night, the desert temperature outside had plummeted – after the room warmed up I slept better. I was glad I wasn't in the tent.

The following day I had a nasty surprise – Mount Livermore, the highest peak in the Davis Mountains, is only open for public hiking access two days per month; and I was a day late. I had planned my trip badly.

High mountain scrub on Hunter Peak  © Ian Robertson
High mountain scrub on Hunter Peak
© Ian Robertson

I should have known better. Texas is unique among the US states. It won independence from Mexico in 1836 after the battles at the Alamo and San Jacinto, and for the next nine years Texas was its own country. When it joined the United States in 1845, the state of Texas kept the rights to sell off unclaimed land (in contrast to the other parts of the US, where unclaimed land belonged to the Federal Government). The upshot of this is that most of the state is privately owned with no rights of access: it has a much smaller proportion of public land than say, Arizona or New Mexico. Access to much of the Davis Mountains is very difficult – the state park covers a small area and the Davis Mountains Preserve (including Mount Livermore) limits access to two days per month. Sigh.

I opted to walk on the short trail from the historic Fort Davis to the state park. I soon found out why the army chose the site they did – the fort location catches any wind blowing along the valley in a natural wind tunnel. When I climbed onto the ridgeline, the wind dropped and it was perfectly still. I soon overheated in the desert sun, even though it was mid-March. Two Desert Bighorn sheep ran past me – they are adapted to desert life and can go four weeks without water. They obviously didn't feel the heat as badly as I did. These are rare in Texas, so I was privileged to see them. I went back to the cool of the fort and decided to plan better the next day.

Fort Davis  © Ian Robertson
Fort Davis
© Ian Robertson

The drive from Fort Davis to the town of Van Horn goes through some of the most desolate scenery I have encountered, making the wastes of central Sutherland seem benign. On a highway with no-one else on it, I was tempted to put the foot down on the accelerator before I noticed a white object flying above me. It was a drone, monitoring traffic. Texas is one state that you don't want to have trouble with the police: apart from the fact that police here all carry guns, the state government doesn't believe that their taxpayers should pay for air conditioning in Texas jails. I slowed the car back down to well below the speed limit.

The following day, I set off for Guadalupe Peak, the highest in Texas at 8751ft. After my experiences in the heat on the Davis Mountains, I knew that I needed to set off at first light so I could get high before the blazing desert sun made the temperature unbearable. Even though it was spring, the desert could still get cold at night: it was -2°C on the desert floor on the drive in. On a perfectly still night, the cold air had sunk into the low point in the valley. At least the Pine Springs trailhead higher up at 5900ft was slightly warmer, above freezing.

Bridge over a washed-out gully  © Ian Robertson
Bridge over a washed-out gully
© Ian Robertson

The first 1000 feet was an unrelenting steep series of zigzags, and even in the cold light of dawn it was hot work. I climbed slowly – I wasn't used to the altitude – but wanted to reach the treeline at 7000 feet before the sun got higher. In contrast to Scotland where the hours of twilight are long, nearer the Equator the sun rises more quickly. At last about 1000 feet above the car park, I rounded a shoulder and reached the first trees.

In contrast to the brutal zig-zags, the next 1000 feet of ascent were on a wonderful path that meandered through the thin natural forest. The occasional shade was very welcome, as even at 9am the day was already warming up.

I stopped for an extended break at the upper treeline at 8000ft: this was my last chance for shade. There were dwarf shrubs only between here and the summit rocks. At least now there was a faint breeze. Rounding a corner, there is a descent to the col between the subsidiary top and the main summit. This is one of the most spectacular parts of the trail, with a sheer drop into the canyon as it hugs the cliff side. Further along, a gully had washed out the trail – fortunately the National Park had installed a wooden footbridge over the void. As I stepped onto it, one of the planks wobbled and I made the mistake of looking down. My leg muscles felt like they turned to jelly before I regained my composure.

I had read online that even on a still day the summit rocks are windy, and today was no exception. My broad-brimmed hat blew off as I reached the 'window' – a slot in the rocks that led to a rocky ledge. I think Texans are too used to being on the plains, as a couple of online reviews did not like this part; however compared to any scramble that you may encounter in the UK it was easy. At last I reached the summit and drank in the view of the stupendous El Capitan with the salt basin behind. It was worth the hike.

Water is scarce - a dried up stream bed in McKittrick Canyon  © Ian Robertson
Water is scarce - a dried up stream bed in McKittrick Canyon
© Ian Robertson

Having lingered for a while I set off back down, hoping to get back to the car before the day got too hot. You don't feel the altitude going downhill, but when I rounded the shoulder back to the final 1000ft of zigzags, there was no wind. I soon realized that I was overheating going downhill and I knew that the few perspiring souls going uphill at that time were not going to make the summit that day. I got back to the car at 2pm – the temperature was 30°C, a rise of 32°C over 8 hours. In my 30 years of walking on the hills, I had never experienced such a temperature rise over a single day.

The next day a storm system blew over Texas. Although there was no rain in the desert, there was gale force wind at valley level. I opted to walk into McKittrick Canyon instead of climbing a hill: I have had enough experience of being blown off my feet in Scotland and crawling off mountain tops not to want to chance it on steep mountains like these.

When I had visited the historic fort, the NPS custodian had told me the importance of water in this area. After having spent years fruitlessly chasing Apaches and bandits through the desert, the US army eventually realized that just guarding the few waterholes was a better way to make the country safe for travelers; bandits couldn't operate without access to water. Water is still a precious resource now. The Guadalupe Mountains are an "island" of wild life in the desert – animals still survive here from a time when Texas was a lot colder than at present.

At the trailhead at the entrance to McKittrick Canyon, the stream bed is dry. The vegetation is scrub and prickly pear cactus. As I rounded a corner of the trail, a snake darted out of the bush in front of me and I instinctively jumped two feet into the air – humans are still programmed with some primeval survival reflexes which many of us never use. After my heartbeat subsided back to normal and I was sure the snake was gone – it was going too fast to make a positive identification – I carried on. As the hills began to close in on either side, the wind dropped and the sweet smell of the sage brush was overpowering. One mile later and I had to stop and listen. For the first time on the trip I could hear running water. There was enough seepage off the mountains to accumulate to a stream. Here also were the first trees I had seen at valley level. It was a beautiful spot and I stopped to listen to the stream and the birds.

McKittrick Canyon  © Ian Robertson
McKittrick Canyon
© Ian Robertson

Primitive camping locations are restricted in the National Park and are away from the valley floor. Water is so scarce here that backpackers are told to bring in their own water and leave the natural resources for the animals. At 3.5 litres a day, this limits the length of trip you can do. There are other reasons to stay away from the streams at night – mule deer come here after dark to drink and the local mountain lions come to the water sources to prey on them.

I wandered further into the canyon and came to Pratt Lodge. Geologist Wallace Pratt fell in love with the place in the 1930s and built a stone lodge here as a mountain cabin. On his death in 1963, he bequeathed his land to the American people to save it from development – it is now part of the National Park. His cabin is as he left it, with 1930s furniture inside. It is a beautiful spot.

The day was now heating up, and with reluctance I turned back towards the car. Further down the canyon, after I had left the trees and was back on the desert floor, I heard a strange sound. Instinctively I froze still and listened. Over to my left was the distinctive s-s-s-s-s-s-s of a rattlesnake. I waited and then heard the sound subside as it slithered further away from the trail into the scrub. He was probably as scared as I was.

My trip to the Davis Mountains was a disappointment, except for the chance to see a Desert Bighorn. However it did leave me thinking how lucky I had been to live in the UK for many years with the rights to roam that we have. The Guadalupe Mountains in contrast were a special place and one I will go back to, probably earlier in the season than March.

Ian Robertson in the Davis Mountains  © Ian Robertson
Ian Robertson in the Davis Mountains
© Ian Robertson

If you want to climb lots of limestone peaks, there are better places to use your air miles and carbon offsets. Austria and Bavaria are a lot closer to the UK and have many more peaks accessible to the day hiker; the climate is less extreme and there are more hours per day that you can hike than in Texas. If on the other hand you are looking for landscape, nature and an experience that is completely different from anything you can get in Europe, come to Guadalupe. You will earn memories to last a lifetime.

Getting there

Direct flights from the UK go to Houston, Dallas and Austin. If, like me, you also have an interest in Texas history, flying into Austin would let you visit the Spanish missions and the Alamo in San Antonio before the drive across Texas. Otherwise, I would transfer to an internal flight to El Paso. This would also let you explore some of New Mexico on your trip.

In common with much of the US, public transport is virtually non-existent in West Texas and hitch-hiking is not recommended, especially in this area close to the Mexican border. You will need to hire a car. Unfortunately, after the Covid-19 pandemic, car rental prices in the US have increased astronomically and stayed high. Cost comparison sites such as Priceline will help you avoid being ripped off. Before finalizing your flight booking, check rental car prices for those dates as the cost of a hire car can vary greatly and impact your planned dates. This applies to anywhere in the US right now (2022), not just Texas.

The area has a similar feel to the Northwest Highlands in that garage locations are few (even on the Interstate) so keep your fuel tank topped up.

What to take

Your biggest risk is dehydration and overheating, so dress accordingly. In March, I took a light wind stopper rather than a full waterproof shell, likewise a thin fleece on the hill. I wanted to save weight and space in my pack for water. I use fabric boots, not leather, for extra breathability. Walking poles are recommended for steep trails.

Due to the dry air, you will lose moisture exhaling as well as sweating, so you will need more water than in the UK - reckon on 3.5 litres per day minimum. I do not recommend Camelbacks or similar in the desert, it is difficult to monitor your water consumption (and how much you have left!). I use transparent water bottles for that reason. By the time you are down to your last half-litre of water, it's time to head for the car no matter where you are on your walk. Other essentials are lip balm (Chapstick or similar) and a sun hat.

Where to stay

I like independent motels - not only do I prefer to support family business rather than a corporation, but they tend to be significantly cheaper than the likes of chains like La Quinta or Days Inn. The Desert Inn in Van Horn and the Deluxe Inn in Fort Stockton were about $50 and spotlessly clean. They had a microwave, fridge and coffee maker. Tripadvisor is an excellent resource to find a good one.

Camping locations are limited - the Pine Springs campsite at the National Park is your best bet. Booking in advance is recommended - see here

You will need a good sleeping bag as the desert nights are cold. If you camp, you will need to plan your food carefully (canned or preserved) due to the high daytime temperatures. Porters grocery store in Van Horn closes at 8pm. Alternatively stock up at Walmart in Fort Stockton or El Paso on your drive through.

Maps

Guadalupe Mountains National Park (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map, 203) ISBN 1566953162

Davis Mountains Preserve trail map is available online

Other essentials to know

Healthcare in the US is among the best in the world, it is also the most expensive. You MUST have a travel insurance policy that covers healthcare. I know people who were uninsured and were bankrupted by hospital bills in the US, there is no equivalent of the NHS here.

A good habit to get into (to avoid a visit to Urgent Care) is to shake out your boots before you put them on. In my 12 years in Texas, I have only seen a black widow spider once, but it is better to be safe than sorry. On the plus side, I don't know anyone who has been bitten by one; I cannot say the same for midges in Scotland.

Other Peaks and Areas to Explore

Other good summits in the Guadalupe Mountains include El Capitan (reached from the Guadalupe Peak trail), Wilderness Ridge from the Permian Reef Trail and Hunter Peak reached from Bear Canyon. Bush Mountain is 21 miles round trip and may be suitable for cooler days only, or by backpacking.

By contrast, North Franklin Mountain (7192ft) and South Franklin Mountain (6791ft) are easier hikes in the Franklin Mountains State Park near El Paso and each can be done in a morning.

The other National Park in the Lone Star State is Big Bend, named after the change in direction of the Rio Grande. It is a vast desert, considered by some as the "Last Frontier south of Alaska". Big Bend contains the Chisos mountains, third highest range in Texas. Emory Peak (7824ft), highest peak, is an 11 mile round trip hike from the visitor centre. Unfortunately your only accommodation is at the NPS campsites or lodge, which tend to get booked out a year in advance for popular weekends and holiday weeks from October through March. Planning ahead is essential.


About the author

Ian Robertson compleated the Munros in 2007. He is co-author of the first comprehensive English language guidebook to Norway, "Walks and Scrambles in Norway". In addition to the UK, US and Norway, he has also walked and hiked in Spain, the Alps and Jordan. He currently lives in east Texas.



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9 May

Very interesting, thank you, I knew nothing of this area of Texas.


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