Fall in the Guadalupe Mountains

The Guadalupe Mountains are a long way from my home in the central Texas hill country. But in those remote and ancient mountains is a location I’ve wanted to experience and photograph in the fall – McKittrick Canyon – a winding path through rugged peaks that holds a remnant collection of bigtooth maple trees. Each Autumn, this canyon comes alive with fiery color of the changing maple leaves, a stark contrast to the surrounding desert landscape. I also wanted to hike up to Guadalupe Peak, the tallest point in Texas, and shoot both the sunset and the Milky Way from its lofty summit. I’d made this walk-up before, but this time I wanted to capture the landscape in evening light.

Over the course of four days, I was able to photograph some incredible landscapes, and I’m not sure if an image on a website can really do justice to the rugged beauty of this west Texas area. First, the Butterfield Overland Stage Route provides some great vistas of El Capitan. You have to obtain a key from the National Park to access two gates, but the views are worth it. You will need a four-wheel drive, for sure, as the road is treacherous at times.

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El Capitan Sunrise, Guadalupe Mountains 3 : Prints Available

This panorama from Guadalupe Mountains National Park shows the famous west Texas landmark, El Capitan. This limestone peak is Texas’ 8th highest point at 8,064 feet high. It rests in the shadow of Guadalupe Peak, the tallest peak in the Lone Star State. I have to say thank you to the National Park folks at the Pine Springs Visitor Center for allowing me access during “closed” hours along this dirt road in order to photograph this amazing landscape at sunrise.

This panorama is available in large custom sizes. Please contact me for more information.

I photographed from this location on several occasions and was fortunate to have some great light.

One of my points of emphasis this trip was McKittrick Canyon, the bigtooth maple trees, and “The Notch” that gives a great view of both McKittrick Canyon and South McKittrick Canyon. The maples were beginning to turn, and there were sections of brilliant reds and oranges, yet other areas were still quite green. The weather was beautiful, and with calm winds, photographing the scenery along this trail was a pleasure.

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McKittrick Canyon Glory, Guadalupe Mountains 1 : Prints Available

Following the trail through McKittrick Canyon, there are places of dense maple trees. At one point, you are nearly surrounded by the beautiful leaves, and in Autumn the forest can turn orange and red with some of the most beautiful fall colors in Texas. The main hike is around 4 miles each way, but you can continue up to ‘the Notch,” a climb of about 1500 vertical feet over another mile or so at which point you can look down into a canyon on each side of you. The hike up is a grunt, but the views are incredible. You can look back down and see the colorful maples as they follow the path of the river.

The grunt up to “The Notch” was steep and rocky, but the landscape showcased those granite mountains and jagged peaks both to the north and south. Looking back in the direction I came, the winding flow of red and orange leaves of the bigtooth maples in the distance followed the winding creek as it snaked through the canyon. While resting at the top, I even sat about three feet from a rattlesnake. That was quite the surprise. The round trip to this point and back to the trailhead turned out to be a little over 10 miles and actually wasn’t too bad. I’m glad, because the next evening I’d be trekking up a different trail – this time to Guadalupe Peak and the highest point in Texas.

At 8,751 feet, Guadalupe Peak is the tallest mountain in Texas. The trail to the top is relatively easy – just a gradual walk up gaining ~ 3,000 feet in altitude over 4 miles. The views at the top offer a unique perspective that looks across the Chihuahuan Desert to the east, south, and west. Below the peak is the famous El Capitan, the 8th tallest summit in Texas and one that I’d photographed both that morning and the night before from other locations. I arrived at the top of Guadalupe Peak a little before sunset, enjoying the quiet solitude. While there, I took in a wonderful sunset, and later witnessed the Milky Way at it rolled across the sky in the southwest. The walk down passed quickly, but I was glad to arrive back at the trail head. Trails at night always seem a bit creepier and unknown. I have good flashlights, but I’m always happy to be finished with long hikes at night. The thought of mountain lions is always in the back of my mind.

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El Capitan from Guadalupe Peak after Sunset 2 : Prints Available

This panorama taken on Guadalupe Peak, the tallest summit in Texas at 8,751 feet, shows the southwest sky at sunset on a fall evening. The hike is nearly 9 miles round trip, especially if you spend time exploring around the summit, and you’ll gain 3,000 vertical feet. If you stay for sunset, you’ll likely have the entire mountaintop to yourself. This hike is one of the gems not only in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, but in all of Texas.

This panorama from Guadalupe Peak is available in large and custom sizes. Please contact me for more information.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the less well known of Texas’ two national parks, will reward you if you are willing and able to get out and explore. Those age-old mountains – once part of the Delaware Sea 30 million years ago – hide valleys of lush green trees and crystal clear streams. Trout even survive in some of the pools tucked away in the canyons. Outside those canyon walls is a rugged and unforgiving desert. Both provide opportunities for exploration and contemplation. I hope to return again soon!

Happy Travels, Texas.
~ Rob

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