Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a great place to experience the extreme differences in Texas landscapes. There are entrances to two distinct areas of the park off US 62/180: Pine Springs and McKittrick Canyon.
You'll find the park's Visitor Center, and a campground, at the Pine Springs entrance. Also, you can access the Guadalupe Peak, Foothills, Frijole, and Devil's Hall Trails here. Continue on to the McKittrick Canyon entrance (the gate is locked every evening, but open during the day) to access the popular McKittrick Canyon trail, which takes hikers through a lush canyon, rich with fall colors in autumn. There's a third entrance too, at Dog Canyon on the New Mexico border. You'll have to drive almost to Carlsbad, then make a long loop back to the park's northern side to access the trails here.
Before you reach either entrance, you'll climb a steep hill and round a wide curve. El Capitan is right in front of you. Pull off at the picnic area and snap a picture or two.
After you've navigated a few more curves, you reach the first park entrance, at Pine Springs. Here you'll find the Visitor Center, and the trailhead for three popular hikes. The Guadalupe Peak Trail is 8.4 miles round-trip, and requires a dramatic elevation gain (translation: you'll huff and you'll puff before you reach the top).
I chose a trail that's half that length--the Devil's Hall Trail. However, since I arrived late (thanks Southwest Airlines, for adding that extra stop in Lubbock!), and since the sky was overcast, I didn't have time to hike all the way to the actual Devil's Staircase at the end.
Despite the gloomy skies, this was still a beautiful trail (even if you don't have time to reach the end). It requires a bit of uphill and downhill hiking, and the trail is occasionally rough and rocky.
The trail runs along the edge of a wash, then drops down and joins the dry creek bed. Cliffs tower above you on both sides.
Although my visit was in late March, I still found plenty of colorful leaves scattered on the ground, and an interesting variety of plant life scattered in with the ever-present cactus.
As you hike through the wash, you'll have to climb over some large rocks and small boulders in several places.
After hiking a short distance in the wash, I had to turn around. I'm not certain, but I believe the Staircase was only about 1/2 mile further, but with the sun setting, and the occasional drizzle, I wasn't able to go any further.
One more quick stop worth making is near the Pine Springs Visitor's Center. Here you'll find the crumbling remains of the Pinery Butterfield Stage Station. The old route of the Butterfield Stage Coach line cuts around El Capitan, then through the western side of the park.
Once finished at Guadalupe Mountains, continue heading east (and north) to Carlsbad.
For the night, I stayed in the Best Western Stevens Inn (request a room in the "new section"--it will cost more but will ensure you receive one of the few decent rooms in Carlsbad). There are also two Best Western Motels at White's City (much closer to the caverns than the actual town of Carlsbad). Since all of the hotels/motels in this area are a bit "iffy", you may want to check the latest reviews on TripAdvisor.com.
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