National Park Number: 40 of 59
Guadalupe Mountains Playlist
This one did not go as planned.
Which happens. But I feel bad in this case because we’ve always been pleasantly surprised by the lesser-known, “underdog” parks and we like championing them. Heaven knows Zion and Glacier have enough people singing their praises and more than enough visitors, so we like having a reason to go to—for example—the middle-of-nowhere west Texas to check out a park that might not be high on many folks’ lists.
We only had two days to explore Guadalupe Mountains, and due to Buster busting his oxygen sensor, we were waylaid in El Paso and didn’t get to the park til afternoon. No matter, we said; we’ll hit the ground running anyway! So we bounced into the visitor center and accosted the ranger on duty for tips, then set off up the canyon toward Devil’s Hall.
The start of the hike is classic Chihuahuan desert, gravel and dust and scrub dotted with prickly pear, ocotillo, and madrone trees. But about a mile in, the ancient history of these mountains became more visible: the Guadalupes were once part of a massive reef in an inland sea and the trail to Devil’s Hall leads you through a wash covered in rounded limestone pebbles and huge white boulders, some of which required a bit of scramble to get past. The vegetation changed the farther up-canyon we got, to desert oak, maple and juniper, and after noticing rustling leaves and sudden rockslides, we realized we were surrounded by at least a dozen mule deer grazing around the edges of the wash.
We were enchanted, and had just made it past the natural stone staircase of stratified limestone called “Hiker’s Steps” when Graham lost his footing and smashed face-first into a boulder.
We’d gotten a bit ahead of him in our deer-gazing, so we rushed back to assess the damage and found Graham with blood all down his front and a split chin. Of course in this moment of need we had failed to bring a first aid kit, so David sopped up the blood with his shirt
Graham still wanted to finish the hike, so we kept going a few hundred yards to the slot canyon of Devil’s Hall, then we rushed back in the dimming light to dress Graham’s wound in the bus.
We were torn on whether he needed stitches: we got the bleeding stopped, but the cut was deep, and wide enough that we weren’t sure we could seal it with super glue. We consulted the medical-minded family members we could get on the phone, and finally decided just to get Graham bandaged and both kids in bed.
The next morning we inspected Graham’s chin again and, seeing it more clearly without all the bleeding, wondered if we shouldn’t take him in for some stitches after all. We located a clinic in Carlsbad, drove the hour to get there, wrestled with our insurance a bit over the phone, waited a few hours at the clinic and finally got in to the doctor, who said Graham indeed should have had stitches, but we didn’t get him in on time. At that point, the risk of closing in an infection was higher than the risk of letting it heal itself, and because a chin moves so much, we couldn’t even use butterfly bandages to help it.
Graham was happy to hear he wasn’t getting stitches, David was peppily keeping Graham from being worried about the cut, and I was wallowing in my mom-shame, feeling horribly guilty that we hadn’t taken Graham to the doctor the night before.
We all ate our feelings at an excellent taco truck in town, then headed back to the park for a stab at another hike, this time up McKittrick Canyon, the celebrated “most beautiful spot in Texas”.
Unfortunately by this time it was solidly afternoon and the McKittrick Canyon section of the park locks its gate at 4:30. They give you a number to call if you get locked in, and I thought maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t make it out in time (free camping perhaps?), but David follows the rules, which is smart and good and the exact thing we should be encouraging others to do in the national parks. We didn’t have enough time to hike all the way up the canyon, so we went about halfway, grumpily turned around, and made it out just before closing time.
Maybe my primary emotion during our time at Guadalupe Mountains was guilt—over not using our time wisely, not learning enough about the park and, mostly, over Graham—and that’s not a great way to enjoy a place. Especially because, in the end, we did have some really lovely moments here: we loved the ancient coral bed-lined trail to Devil's Hall and by the time we got back from that hike, the sky was navy and covered in stars. We're pretty sure the Texas skies are unmatched for star-gazing—just stepping outside on a clear night will nearly knock you to the ground. So though it wasn't our best effort, we still came away very happy to have been there.