Tackling your first mountain trek takes preparation, especially if it's Texas' tallest.
By Julia B. Jones • Photos by Chase Fountain
I have never climbed a mountain, but this metaphorically resonant activity has always appealed to me. Believe me, as an outdoor novice, such a feat can seem daunting. From the bottom looking up, the task of ascending a mountain seems nearly impossible. I want to see just how impossible it actually is.
This is the story of my attempt to reach the top of Texas’ highest peak in the middle of summer. If you’re as brave (or maybe as foolish) as I am, I hope you’ll come along for the hike.
The Guadalupe Mountains rise high above the desert floor.
THE PRACTICE HIKE
I was told the best way to prepare for a hike is to hike, so after a couple of weeks of gym visits, my fiancé, Jack, and I decide to set off walking.
We awake at 6:20 a.m., trying to prepare for the early start we’ll eventually need on Guadalupe Peak to avoid the scorching West Texas heat. In my tired daze — early mornings have never been my strong suit — I struggle to figure out how to secure my 2-liter water pack into my backpack. By the time we’re fed and ready, it’s nearing 8 a.m. and already 80 degrees.
I chose the trail — River Place Nature Trails’ Canyons route in hilly Northwest Austin — based on reviews claiming it’s a great practice hike for those seeking to summit Guadalupe Peak. If you hike the trail out and back twice, it’s just under 10 miles with 2,600 feet of elevation gain, while the Guadalupe Peak Trail is 8.5 miles round-trip with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain. A woman I meet at the Canyons trailhead tells me she uses it as a training ground for her trips to the Alps, where she’s hiked more than 100 miles.
While my aspirations — and my planned trek — don’t ascend that high, we set off heartened by her assurance, ready for the mostly downhill first segment to the turnaround point, 2.45 miles away, then back uphill to our starting point. In the first mile, there’s a bench overlooking the Hill Country with a gorgeous view of the trees, perhaps the highest point of the trail. Then it descends rapidly toward the creek, which we cross with the help of a metal chain handrail running across a few trees. The trail is well-constructed; making our way to the turnaround point is fairly easy. But then, we have to turn around and face the 900 feet of uphill that we had so casually walked down.
We break more often than I’d like to admit, but we make it up in pretty good time, probably due to the promise we made to ourselves about food at the halfway point.
As we sit and eat, the sun comes out from behind the clouds, delivering that feels-like-100-degrees heat. We begin to understand why hikers wear breathable fabric; as thrifty college students, we'd decided to wear normal T-shirts instead of “more expensive” fabrics, but it turns out $10 will get you a decent breathable shirt.
Our sticky shirts aren’t comfortable, but we can’t give up only halfway through, so we drag our sweaty selves back onto the trail for Round 2. For how exhausted we were on the way back to the trailhead the first time, we’re doing astonishingly well, keeping pace with our first trip down and back, save for the last mile of uphill, which stops me in my tracks. Whew.
With the longest hike of my life now complete, I feel better prepared for what comes next but also more worried. Even if I buy the right clothes and wear sunscreen, how will I fare on an open path in the sizzling West Texas July heat?
Three days before leaving for the mountains, I go over last-minute preparations with TP&W magazine Managing Editor Russell Roe, whose mountain climbing articles inspired me. He tells me to fill out a hiking checklist to make sure I have all the materials I’ll need. He makes sure I’m planning on bringing enough water.
Then he tells me, rather somberly, “I may have gone on a few more practice hikes.” Great.
Julia Jones and Jack Pliska settle down in their tent at the Pine Springs Campground.
Julia and Jack make their way up the Guadalupe Peak Trail.
At the Mountain
The drive to Guadalupe Mountains is long, giving me ample time to reconsider this choice. As we pass into West Texas, I start to panic every time I check the temperature on the car — the area around the mountains is often over 100 degrees — and think with some dread about 4 miles of uphill hiking in the desert heat.
We approach the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, and the temperature nearly drops 5 degrees when we get to the first lookout point. It continues to drop even more as the sun begins to go down, eventually settling at a comfortable 70-something.
Magazine photographer Chase Fountain suggests we set up camp at the Pine Springs Campground, a short walk from the trailhead, and set out the next morning. I don’t tell him I’ve never camped. Jack and I try to recall my grandfather’s tent-pitching advice, and after a few mistakes we get our temporary home to stand on its own. After a dinner of salad and tuna, I settle into the tent with my copy of Into the Wild (maybe an inappropriate choice for the occasion, but hindsight is 20/20) and drift off to sleep. A great night’s sleep it was not, but I’m sure my anticipation would’ve kept me up, even at a five-star hotel.
My alarm sounds at 5:30; I wake with an uneasy groan. I’m covered in goosebumps the second I crawl out of my sleeping bag, probably from a mixture of cold and anticipation, while Jack complains about a bug bite he’d gotten on his ankle a day before. We eat our breakfast, mine of soup and Jack’s of tuna, and head to the trail where Chase has been patiently waiting for us slowpokes. Our plan was to leave before sunlight, but setting off at 6:30 means there’s a gentle light on the path, rendering our headlamps useless.
Looking up at what we’re about to climb, I can’t help but feel the same sentiment I felt when I pitched the story: from the bottom, the top looks unreachable. I know I’ve been preparing, but the label “strenuous” on the trail marker concerns me, not least because “strenuous” is subjective. And I also think about all of the things I haven’t planned for — like what if we run into a rattlesnake, or a mountain lion, or any of the other things listed on the hiker safety guide they have available at the trailhead?
Russell had told me the first mile is steepest with frequent switchbacks, and he was right. Some other hikers start tiring around what is probably the quarter-mile mark, and I’m happy they want to stop so often. The view is phenomenal, even from the first half-mile: The sun turns the horizon red, but dark clouds keep it from spreading light for a little while longer. When the light does break through the clouds, it looks like aliens casting beams down to abduct people miles away from us, which doesn’t sound beautiful, but it is. Rain wasn’t in the weather forecast, but the clouds don’t seem to care.
The terrain changes rather rapidly after the first mile and a half, and it continues to change the entire way up. It goes from rocky to forested to rocky again, looking at times more like a hill than a mountain. At different elevations along the way are ponderosa pines, oaks and the distinctive Texas madrones with red bark and sinewy branches. Early on, we pass a smaller mountain, speckled with trees on one side while the other is covered in brush. This place is far more mountainous than images had led me to expect. The mountains are not all rocky like the range’s signature El Capitan, but instead are rich in vegetation and wildlife.
The temperature, which started off a bit chilly, becomes even cooler as we continue up, and I’m grateful for it after all that climbing. Jack and I wonder the same question aloud a dozen times, reminding me of my younger self’s constant pleas of “Are we there yet?” on family outings.
“Is that the summit?” Each time, it isn’t.
A single raindrop hits my arm when we reach the forested part of the trail, an omen I’m not ready to acknowledge. The National Park Service recommends getting to the lowest possible elevation during a storm, and we’re doing the opposite. The sprinkling subsides quickly, though, so we continue on.
Taking a moment to enjoy the sunrise.
A bridge connects two sections of the trail near the Guadalupe Peak summit.
“Hey Jack, is that where a bug bit you yesterday?” Chase asks. We stop to look, and the bite on his ankle doesn’t look great. The area sports three different colors; none are normal skin tone. We decide we’ll dress the wound once we get to the summit, just a little over a mile away. (We had just passed the Guadalupe Peak Campground, a primitive site 3 miles up.) Chase jokes that as long as a red line doesn’t start up the leg, he’ll be fine.
The last mile is gorgeous — the higher elevation makes looking down similar to looking out the window of an airplane. The parking lot near the trailhead looks the size of a quarter against the vast spread of earth below. A bridge connects two parts of the trail, seemingly hanging in thin air over the cliff below.
Less than a quarter mile away, we reach a point where the trail ahead seems dubious. There’s a minor fork in the path; one way climbs up and the other descends slightly. We head toward the uphill section, but the steep rock ahead seems a little too unworn to be the official path. Jack and I pause, thinking we should turn back and go the less steep route, but Chase advises us to carry on.
We follow it, off-roading the last bit of the hike until we see the metal pyramid that tops the peak. I scramble up first (it is my story, after all!) and bask in the foreboding storm clouds. I am the highest person in the state of Texas. We made it.
Then the rain starts up again, this time colder and crueler. Although we’d just arrived, we decide it’s safer to seek lower elevation, so we leave the summit behind and start down the now-slick rocks we had just climbed up. I pull on a raincoat I’d left in the bag in case of emergency, and the warmth is welcome after a rain-fueled temperature drop. The rain stops within the first few switchbacks, and I slip for the first time, but definitely not the last.
We stop to clean and bandage Jack’s bug bite, and it looks better at first. Chase walks ahead of us, and as I trail behind Jack (I’m very slow going downhill), I notice a red mark on his lower leg near the bandage. We stop, and I’m able to trace a red line from the bandage to the inside of his knee.
“We should hurry,” I suggest, a little worried.
Jack and I catch up with Chase and let him know we’re taking the lead. We book it down the mountain to the ranger station. The sun is finally making itself known, and we’re sweating. The trekking poles now come in handy on the way down — there’s far less strain on my knees, and we make it down in good time. Once we’re at the bottom, we look up for Chase, who’s nowhere to be seen. We realize that he’s got the car keys. Oops.
We have to make do with what we have, so I grab some ice from the campsite and hold it to Jack’s leg, which he now says is cramping pretty badly, whether from this health issue or the 8-mile hike we’d just completed. Chase catches up and we drive to park headquarters, where they advise us to go to a clinic and get it checked out. (We do, and, long story short, he’s fine.)
It was a grand, dramatic way to end a day hike, and as we sit down to hearty plates of chicken-fried steak at RJ’s Grill in Van Horn, we’re able to enjoy ourselves, reflecting on a climb well done.
Julia B. Jones is a University of Texas student and former Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine intern.
A silver pyramid marks the summit (and top selfie spot).
On second thought, I'd…
We each burned more than 3,000 calories on that hike, so tuna packets didn’t cut it. Bring more high-energy snacks.
GET ACTUAL HIKING SHOES.
I wore a six-year-old pair of tennis shoes with worn-out treads, and slipping got old after a while.
Bring antibiotic ointment.
You never know when a bug bite can turn deadly (or at least a bit infected).
Write an entry atop the peak.
I spent so much time reading others’ stories, I didn’t write my own. Good thing I work at a magazine.
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