El Capitan, the signature peak of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, rises a modest 8,085 feet above sea level — just enough to make it part of an elite group of Lone Star peaks that are higher than 8,000 feet. I first became acquainted with El Capitan when I traveled to the park in 2014 to solo hike to the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas.
El Capitan is a ruggedly handsome peak from all angles. And, because of its prominent place, it is likely the most photographed peak in the Guadalupe Mountains. But after seeing this limestone bulwark from the summit of Guadalupe Peak, I was both intimidated and motivated. I knew then that I had to one day bushwhack my way to the top of this mountain.
This past week Doyle Lowry, my hiking buddy, and I met at the national park for a week of cold weather camping and to hike to the summit of El Capitan. Doyle and I had previously made a pact to summit all of the 8,000-foot peaks at the national park. El Capitan would be our fourth peak but far from the easiest since there is no trail to the summit.
We departed our campsite at a little after 7:00 AM and made our way up the Guadalupe Peak Trail. The National Park Service has rated this hike as strenuous because the trail steadily rises 3,000 vertical feet along the way. They are not kidding when they say strenuous. Be prepared to feel the burn in your legs.
Just shy of making the final switchbacks to the top of Guadalupe Peak, we left the trail and started toward El Capitan. Since there is no trail to El Capitan, we selected a prominent landmark and bushwhacked our way to the western edge of the bulwark. This made the hike up Guadalupe Peak Trail seem like a walk in the park (no pun intended). They call it bushwhacking for a reason.
Once we reached the western edge, we picked new landmarks and slowly pushed our way through the brush and scrambled around and over boulders toward the summit. The views from this side of the mountain are beyond spectacular and looking down the sheer cliffs is stomach-churning. Even though our progress was slowed by all of the brush, scree, and boulders, we could tell we were making progress.
We lost and gained elevation several times along the undulated way to the summit. As we neared the summit we also contended with snow on the ground and high winds. Finally, after more than two hours of bushwhacking, the summit came into view — and it was indeed beyond spectacular. We stood at the pinnacle of this intimidating peak and breathed in the most amazing views.
Before making our way back down, Doyle located the ammo box containing the summit log and we both signed our names in the book. There were very few names in the book, and understandably so. If you want to stand on the peak of El Capitan you have to be a little crazy and a whole lot determined. As Doyle pointed out, what we both lacked in youth and endurance we made up for in grit and determination.
After enjoying a few minutes on the summit, we started bushwhacking our way back toward the Guadalupe Peak Trail. This time we opted to do the final push along a dry ravine filled with boulders and scree — either that or battle the thick brush again. But, hard as it was, we finally reconnected with the Guadalupe Peak Trail.
Once we reached the trail, we decided to make our way to the summit of Guadalupe Peak — a third summit for each of us. From there we looked northward toward Shumard Peak and Bartlett Peak, two more of the 8,000+ foot peaks that we hope to summit next year. We started our descent by 4:30 PM. What had previously taken us far less than two hours to hike took us two and a half hours because we had to hike in the dark and had to hike slow because of the snow and ice on the trail.
Finally, after 11 hours and 43 minutes on the trail, we reached the Pine Springs campground and entered our time into the hiker’s registry. We are beyond elated at our accomplishment. Not a bad day for two old guys who hear the clock ticking and want to get in as many adventures as possible while it is still possible. For me, bushwhacking to El Capitan is officially the hardest day hike I have ever done — and the most rewarding. And hiking with a good friend who loves the outdoors is always a bonus! Already looking forward to our next adventure at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.