The multiple faces of our Chihuahuan Desert: Sky Island, fossil reef, and four of the highest peaks in Texas
Driving Highway 652 west across Texas the horizon becomes a wall and it’s not hard to imagine what the first settlers must have thought as they crested these hills in horse-drawn wagons, seeing such a roadblock as the Guadalupe Escarpment for the first time.
After miles of flat desert and pump jacks, the peaks of far west Texas are a welcome sight. And in the northern most part of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, along the Texas/New Mexico border, there lies a campsite called Dog Canyon.
Hidden in the seclusion of the Guadalupe’s wilderness boundary, nestled between steep cliffs. With pens and water, Dog Canyon is one of only two campsites in the park available to horseback riders.
A two-hour drive from Pine Springs Visitor Center, we make our way north and then southwest down winding, mountainous, free range roads full of breezy praire grass. The Chihuahuan Desert lies in disguise here.
Cresting a hairpin turn, the edge of the mountain looms and suddenly I look out into forever. The road slows to 35 mph and I feel young again. Exploring. Seeing things for the first time.
My dog, Kona, stands half in the passenger seat, half on the center console. She takes her paw and places it across my arm as if saying, “hold my hand.” She moves off and collapses into sleep, lulled by the truck’s vibration.
A wintery mix of brush – here you can lie in the grass – and I do. Hat loose on my head, reversing the bend in my back from hours of driving. Hoping for an easy ride tomorrow.
At an elevation of 6300 feet, it’s cooler here in the canyon. Especially in December. The temperature drops at night into the 20’s. Bundles of blankets keep me warm. No generator, no propane… wine helps.
Formally established in 1972, today Guadalupe Mountains National Park encompasses 86,416 acres in west Texas protecting part of the longest exposed stretch of the Capitan Reef, a 260–270-million-year-old fossil reef. It is one of three sky islands in Texas, standing tall surrounded by Chihuahuan desert, and host to four of the highest peaks in Texas.
In the morning, I set out to ride Tejas to McKittrick Canyon Trail. Moving quickly into the wilderness section of the park, crossing a limestone creek bed, it’s hard to tell we are in the desert here. Fall colors fan over prairie grasses, a mix of green, yellow, gray, and brown. The occasional blue verbena. A faded Century Plant leans – having given up for the year at hand.
An “intermediate” trail according to the park website, Tejas out of Dog Canyon requires a sure-footed, confident mount. Rocks grow exponentially as we wrap through these mountains; I am careful to sit balanced and centered. Trying not to look down. Not to think about toppling off the edge.
Just short of Lost Peak, we stop to catch our breath. Assessing the elevation gain I decide to turn back for the day. My horse not wanting to continue upward. Me wanting to ensure a safe retreat.
He’s a trooper.
Headed down now, under a pine we stand gathering strength and enjoying the view. Hearing the wind before it’s felt. The occasional creak of leather as I shift weight, gazing. Lost in thought.
And in this wonderful moment it’s hard to tell where I end and the land begins.
Public corrals are available at Dog Canyon via reservation only. https://www.nps.gov/gumo/planyourvisit/dogcanyon.htm