Ahhhh… summer vacation! Sun, fun and relaxation! Summer vacations are made for giving you some much-needed R&R. Taking a relaxing vacation can not only rejuvenate your body, but also clear your mind so you’re totally refreshed when it’s finally time to get back to the real world.
However, our summer vacation was hiking 40+ miles, hunger, sweat, thirst, sore feet, thigh muscles so sore you can barely walk. But oh was it worth it!
Our adventure starts with Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas. Guadalupe Mountains National Park hides in an obscure little nook of west Texas. Guadalupe Mountains National Park protects the world’s most extensive Permian fossil reef, the four highest peaks in Texas, an environmentally diverse collection of flora and fauna. Guadalupe Peak, tops out at 8,751 feet in elevation. It towers over its forty mile long mountain range, the same mountain range that also houses Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The park is also home to eighty-plus miles of campgrounds, stunning vistas, and other hikes including El Capitan, Devil’s Hall, Smith Spring Loop trail and McKittrick Canyon Trail.
We loaded up our gear and headed up the trail just before 7:00 a.m. The first couple of miles up the mountain is mostly desert shrubbery and sparse vegetation, with direct sunlight and fantastic views. It’s also the most strenuous part of the hike as it’s filled with switchbacks, loose and slick rocks as well as large steps up and down.
The second section of the trail starts when the trail rounds a narrow ledge of the mountain and begin to transition to more of a forest and leave the desert shrubbery behind. While still at a slight incline, this leg of the trail evens out and becomes much easier to navigate as you hike through pine forest tunnels.
Circling around the mountain once more, we came to a wooden bridge that marks the beginning of the final ascent to the mountain.
The last mile or so emerges completely from the forest and becomes open mountain face, and for the first time we got a true view of the elevation gain and the towering, unobstructed views west towards El Paso, and east towards Carlsbad, NM.
As you begin to near the summit, you meander through large rocks and boulders. And then… just when you think you can’t climb another rock, you’re there!
It is quite a moment to realize that you can turn a full 360 degrees with no obstructions, because there is literally nothing taller than you at that moment! You’re surrounding by views of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the Salt Basin Dunes to the west, and New Mexico to the north.
We spent about 45 minutes at the top, resting, refueling and taking in the breathtaking views. Then, we began the descent.
Once we made it through the large rocks and boulders near the summit, the hike was “easy” and we began to make good time. Or so we thought! Descending through the switchbacks and boulder “stairs” was just too much for Lucas’ little legs and the hike had really taken its toll on him.
It was tough for all three of us and when we reached the parking lot, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Lucas run as fast as he did to get to the truck!
Despite Lucas feeling like he could not take another step to get down Guadalupe Mountain, it was Walt and I that could barely walk the next day. So, what better way to recover from climbing the highest peak in Texas than walking the chilly caves of Carlsbad Caverns.
One of the oldest and most famous cave systems in the world, Carlsbad Caverns are a series of natural limestone caves rich with formations, fossils, underground pools and hundreds of thousands of bats. Carlsbad Cavern is one of over 300 limestone caves in a fossil reef laid down by an inland sea 250 to 280 million years ago.
Carlsbad Cavern includes a large cave chamber, the Big Room, a natural limestone chamber which is almost 4,000 feet (1,220 m) long, 625 feet (191 m) wide, and 255 feet (78 m) high at the highest point. It is the third largest chamber in North America and the seventh largest in the world. With the array of cave formations that included chandeliers, hairs and beards, soda straws, balloons and cave pearls, it was truly like seeing the world from the inside out.
The photos do not even come close to capturing the sheer size of the Caverns!
Sitting Bull Falls
After the Caverns, we decided to just drive and explore the Lincoln National Forest. An unexpected gem was Sitting Bull Falls, a series of waterfalls located in a canyon in the Lincoln National Forest. The falls are fed by springs located in the canyon above. The water flows through a series of streams and pools until reaching the falls where it drops 150 feet into the canyon below. Most of the water disappears into the gravel or cracks in the rocks and either reappears in springs further down the canyon or joins the Pecos Valley underground water supply.
Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
Before we headed out for our next hiking adventure to Palo Duro Canyon, we visited the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. This native wildlife zoo, exhibits more than 40 species of animals and hundreds of species of plants native to the Chihuahuan Desert, North America’s largest desert. During the 1.3 mile self-guided tour of the Zoo, you’ll walk through a variety of habitats; amazing displays of cacti, yuccas, agave, shrubs, and trees and over 40 types of animals from the Chihuahuan Desert. The Park is arranged in Chihuahuan Desert Life Zones that take you from the dry, windblown sand of the Sand Hills, through the life-giving Arroyo, to the populated Pinon Juniper Zone, and finally to the Mountain Canyons.
As we headed to Amarillo, TX to visit the nation’s second largest canyon, Palo Duro Canyon, we made a pitstop to see an iconic Texas roadside landmark: Cadillac Ranch.
Standing along Route 66 west of Amarillo, Texas, Cadillac Ranch was invented and built by a group of art-hippies imported from San Francisco. Amarillo billionaire Stanley Marsh 3 wanted a piece of public art that would baffle the locals, and the hippies came up with a tribute to the evolution of the Cadillac tail fin. In 1794, 10 Caddies were driven into one of Stanley Marsh 3’s fields, then half-buried, nose-down, in the dirt. They faced west in a line, from the 1949 Club Sedan to the 1963 Sedan de Ville, their tail fins held high for all to see in the Texas panhandle.
The Cadillacs have been in the ground as art longer than they were on the road as cars. They are stripped to their battered frames and splattered in thousands of layers of spray paint!
Palo Duro Canyon
Formed by millions of years of water erosion by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River and the West Texas wind, Palo Duro Canyon is the most spectacular and scenic landscape feature in the Texas Panhandle.
With a descent of some 800 feet to the canyon floor and more than 16 miles of paved road, Palo Duro Canyon State Park offers fantastic scenic views, historical sites and markers and miles and miles of hiking and biking trails, horseback riding and is by far one of the best state parks we have ever been to.
The Light House is the most famous rock formation in the park and one of the most popular moderate level trails. The main path leads to the foot of the 300 foot high Lighthouse formation, a point which marks the end of the main path and continues through a narrow, steep ascent right up to the base of the pinnacle.
The park is full of “hidden” gems including a cave. This little cave is actually called the Big Cave of Palo Duro Canyon State Park. It’s an easy walk from the road and is a short, fun side trip.
The next day, we tackled what is considered Palo Duro Canyon’s most challenging, the most strenuous, but the most rewarding with the best views of the canyon – the Rock Garden Trail.
It is a five-mile round-trip hike with a rigorous incline, and is the only trail in the park that takes hikers from the floor of the canyon to the rim, an elevation gain of over 600 feet in under 2.5 miles.
As the second biggest canyon in America behind the Grand, Palo Duro is not as jaw-dropping vast as its Arizona cousin, but it is breathtakingly beautiful.
Caprock Canyons State Park
Wind and water over the eons shaped the rugged beauty of Caprock Canyons State Park in the Panhandle of Texas. The Park hosts the only Texas state bison herd. At the urging of his wife, Charles Goodnight preserved several plains bison from those that were being slaughtered. This herd became one of the genetic sources from which current bison herds descend. In addition to the Bison, the park is home to an elaborate network of Prairie Dog tunnels.
The park has nearly 90 miles of trails that range from easy to very challenging and range from just over 1 mile to 15 miles. The park is definitely one of the state’s best kept secrets!
The Bison are notorious for hiding and unfortunately we thought we would be leaving the park without finding them. Luckily we ran into a park ranger that gave us the location of their last sighting and found them. Definitely one of the highlights of our trip!