As you may have read in our previous posts, we were fleeing an impending ice storm in Big Bend National Park. However, as we arrived in Guadalupe Mountains, the fight was on. Ice was everywhere; roads were slick and visibility was low. If this happens to you, slow down and enjoy the danger; 80 mph on black ice is a death sentence.
You can camp at Guadalupe Mountains National Park for $8 a night. There is only one campsite and no showers. The site also does not have full hook-up for you RVers out there. They do have a dishwashing sink and one set of flush toilets. Site 2 is optimal; your tent pad is close to the car and you are closer to the running water.
Carlsbad Caverns NP: Left-Hand Tunnel, Big Room, Hall of the White Giant
Carlsbad Caverns can offer a reprieve from bad (or terrible) weather. An hour drive on icy roads, but well worth the escape. And I do emphasize escape. The caverns are always wonderfully 56ºF and intensely humid. We spent 2 days in the caverns while the storm waged on the surface.
Visiting the Big Room at Carlsbad Cavern is a must. Tickets are $10/adult (good for 3 days) whether you take the elevator or hoof it, but we strongly recommend you go via the Natural Entrance. You’ll see a lot more and it’s what Jim White, the explorer that helped create the park, would have wanted. You can hike out this way as well but it is steep and taking the elevator is also an exhilarating experience. It’s a one-minute trip through the mountain. It took us about 3 hours to explore the cave, but we wanted more.
If your self-guided hike leaves you hungry for more, book a tour or 2. We did not make reservations in advance so pickings were slim. The Rangers offer 6 tours, we did 2 and we recommend both! So if you are a wannabe caver, dish out more cash and explore darker caverns. The Left Hand Tunnel Tour is $7/adult and 1.5 hours. You take candle lanterns on this stroll to better simulate the way early explorers would have viewed the cave. You also get to see bat carcasses! Since we were there in the off-season and there were only 4 people on our tour, the ranger took us deeper than is normally allowed; one perk for winter travelers.
We also went into the Hall of the White Giant. This tour is $20/adult and is 4.5 hours of walking, crawling, climbing, headed-bashing, and slipping as you try to reach the White Giant, a calcite stalagmite at the end of the hike. You can’t touch the White Giant though as our skin oils prevent further formation. For most semi-in-shape individuals, this tour is cool. For people like me that get scared walking down a metal staircase, this tour is heart pounding. Keep calm and belly-crawl on.
Carlsbad Caverns NP: Scenic Drive
Carlsbad Caverns also offers a 9-mile dirt road scenic drive. If you need to kill time or get to one of the hiking trails, by all means drive the loop. Otherwise, grab the brochure at the visitor center and read it later…I guess.
Guadalupe Mountains NP: Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan -8.4 miles, challenging
If you have no more money for tours or simply crave above ground glory, go back to Guadalupe Mountains NP to bag the namesake Guadalupe Peak. At 8,751 feet, it’s the tallest in Texas. The park guide says it will take 6-8 hours but if you are in half-ass shape, you can probably do it in 4. The trail is 4.2 miles to the top with 3,000 ft of elevation gain. This was probably the windiest hike we have ever been on. I just went to the peak but Luke gathered up his courage and veered off trail to nab El Capitan. By his account, this cross-country hike is not for the faint of heart, or those with heart problems. Perhaps you will not mind the wind but the cacti will bring you to your knees. There are 2 registers so do not turn around after the first one, as it states “This is not the summit. If you made it here you are relentless unlike the rest”.
Guadalupe Mountains: McKittrick Canyon – 7.5 miles, moderate
Worn out by your El Capitan expedition, you may need something easier the following day. McKittrick Canyon is the perfect choice. It is flat and short, terminating in a grotto. The entrance for McKittrick Canyon is a few miles North of the main entrance and the gate closes promptly at 4:30 pm so don’t get stuck inside or you will need to call the Sheriff and I do not imagine he would be happy.
Guadalupe Mountains NP: Devils Hall – 4.5 miles, moderate
Devil’s Hall is another good choice. Starting at the Guadalupe Peak Trailhead follow the signs. Make sure you take the stock trail, as otherwise you’ll gain unnecessary elevation before descending into Pine Springs Canyon. The NPS guide claims this hike is easy. It’s not strenuous, but you have to watch your footing as you make your way around and over many boulders. This was especially tricky due to the ice. You’ll be rewarded with a unique, narrow, high-walled rift. You can keep hiking up the canyon for quite a ways, so turn around if you’re not interested in an all-day hike.