Balanced Rock at Big Bend National Park

Balanced Rock is one of the most popular hiking destinations at Big Bend National Park. This geological feature is very cool and frames some of the most spectacular views in the park.

Balanced Rock is accessed by way of the Grapevine Hills Trail, an easy 2.2 mile out and back hike with an elevation gain of 80 feet. The trailhead is located approximately 6 miles off of Highway 118 down the Grapevine Hills road. Although this is a well-maintained dirt road, make sure that your vehicle has reasonable clearance.

This is a pleasant hike, especially in the morning or late afternoon. The trail winds its way through a little valley in the Grapevine Hills, featuring some of the most spectacular rock formations in the park. Take the time to enjoy the views and the varieties of desert flora along the way.

The final quarter mile leads up some boulders, so you will have to do a little scrambling — nothing too difficult. The trail ends at the Balanced Rock. From this point you will enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding area with the distinctive Nugent Peak off in the distance.

As with all hiking in Big Bend, be sure to take plenty of water and a trail snack. It’s always good to be prepared in case something unexpected happens along the way and you have to wait for help. And remember my hiking mantra: pace and place. Hike your pace and watch where you place your feet and you will have an enjoyable hike.

Mule Ears Peaks at Big Bend

The picturesque Mule Ears Peaks is one of the most recognizable landmarks along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at Big Bend National Park. The twin pillars of black igneous rock that jut up from the desert floor are hard to miss.

The Mule Ears Spring trailhead is located at the end of a short spur off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The sign at the trailhead advises hikers to carry plenty of water — advice that should be heeded, especially in hotter months when temperatures can easily soar past the hundred-degree mark.

The Mule Ears Spring Trail is a moderate 3.8 mile roundtrip trek that winds through the foothills of the Chisos Mountains. The mostly rocky trail that leads to Mule Ears Spring skirts Trap Mountain and crosses several arroyos. The spring has created a desert oasis that nourishes thick stands of cottonwood trees, ferns, cattails, and a variety of desert shrubs.

Before arriving at the spring is a rock corral, a reminder of the resourcefulness of early sheep and cattle herders in the area. The corral is constructed of rock that was dry stacked and fitted together without the benefit of mortar. The fact that it still stands is amazing. If those stones could speak what wonderful stories they would tell about the challenges faced by early settlers to the area.

Mule Ears Spring is a turnaround point on the trail. However, you can hike through the vegetation and continue on a well-defined trail that leads ever closer to the peaks. The trail eventually leads to a bluff that offers absolutely spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert and the peaks.

The desert is rich with life and with beauty. You will enjoy the bigger views along the trail but don’t overlook the desert flora along the way — sotol, lechuguilla, yuca, ocotillo, and several species of cacti. The trail to Mule Ears Peaks is definitely worth adding to your day hiking itinerary on your next visit to Big Bend National Park.

The Window Trail at Big Bend

Beyond the Pecos River lies the vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert, that wide part of the state that boasts some of the most magnificent vistas in the Lone Star State. This is where the Rio Grande River makes a dramatic turn, giving Texas its distinctive and recognizable shape.

In the southernmost part of the trans-Pecos is Big Bend National Park, a place Lady Bird Johnson once described as “the very edge of the world.” Big Bend was established as a national park in June 1935. Encompassing 1,252 square miles of land, this national park is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

From the riparian region of the Rio Grande River to the rugged peaks of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend offers outdoor enthusiasts more than 150 miles of hiking trails. These avenues offer access to the amazing geography and geology of this region that is home to more than 1,200 species of plants and more than 600 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

The Window Trail is one of the most popular treks in the park. This 5.2 mile roundtrip trail is an easy hike for anyone in reasonable shape. The trail begins near the Chisos Mountain Lodge and descends 800-feet over a 2 mile stretch to a magnificent overlook of the Chihuahuan Desert. There are places along the way to stop and rest or to just sit in silence and listen to the sounds of the breeze and the birds.

At one point the trail descends slightly into a streambed where the rocks have been polished smooth by the flow of water. Steps carved into the rocks make it easy to navigate this section of the trail that leads to the breathtaking overlook flanked by rugged cliffs.
I should note that the overlook drops 220 vertical feet to the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The rock at the overlook is slick, so you should exercise lots of caution and not get too close to the edge. If you happen to be there in the evening, this notch is a great place from which to watch the sunset.
There is a junction a quarter mile from the end of the Window Trail that leads to the Oak Springs Trail. It is worth hiking the section of this trail that ascends to a ridge that offers unobstructed views of the Chihuahuan Desert. The views from this ridge are truly breathtaking.

The Window Trail and Oak Springs Trail will not disappoint. It’s worth taking the time to add these short day hikes to any visit to the park. The views at the end of the Window Trail and from the ridge on the Oak Springs Trail make it worth every step.

A final word to anyone planning on hiking in Big Bend — please make sure that you read the signs at the respective trailheads. These signs will help you to get oriented, understand the time commitment required, and remind you to always take water with you (at the least).

I have seen far too many hikers on trails at the park who ventured out without water. It is important to stay hydrated and to be prepared in case of any unexpected injury or delay that might occur along the trail. That is just hiking smart.

If you have not visited Big Bend I encourage you to do so. It is well worth the drive from any place in the state or the nation.

Guadalupe Peak 4.0

I stood at the top of Texas for the very first time four years ago. In search of my next adventure, I had researched Guadalupe Peak and then set off to solo hike to the summit on a cold December morning. And what an amazing adventure it was!

I summited Guadalupe Peak a second time and then a third time after bushwhacking to the summit of El Capitan. Since I was in the neighborhood and so close to the peak, a buddy and I decided to go for the peak, a third summit for both of us.

This month, I led a group of men and boys from my church to Guadalupe Mountains National Park to do something hard. We drove six-hundred and fifty miles for the opportunity to stand at the top of Texas.

In preparation, I had told the group that hiking Guadalupe Peak is hard. The hike along the steep and winding trail to the top is rated as strenuous. I knew for a fact that it would not be any less strenuous for me on my fourth bid.
We met at the trailhead at 6:30 in the morning while temperatures were still tolerable. Huge amounts of excitement swirled in the morning breeze and mixed with bits of anxiety as we waited like race cars with engines revved high.

We took a moment to share final thoughts about our adventure, we prayed, and then we hit the trail. Every guy knew that the first mile and a half would be the hardest because of the steep elevation gain.
Like a brick wall, the first mile and a half stop those who are either unprepared or don’t want to summit badly enough. This is where we have to decide whether we are willing to push past the pain.

The heat only added to the difficulty. As the morning wore on the temperatures continued to creep higher until they inched past the hundred degree mark. Our bodies craved hydration and electrolytes and power bars.
Every man and boy quickly settled into his respective rhythm as they trudged up the trail, slowly eating away at the elevation. My hiking mantra on this particular trail is pace and place — maintain a steady pace and watch where I place my feet.

Every one of the guys hiked his own hike and just past mid-morning, we began to populate the summit and feast on the amazing views. I felt just as excited as the day on which I first solo hiked to the top of Texas.
Standing at the summit of Guadalupe Peak with an amazing band of brothers was worth every hard step along the way. This is something we did together — a shared adventure, a reminder that we must do life in community with other men because alone is dangerous.
One thing is certain, the guys on this adventure will always share a special bond. We made it to the top of Texas on one of the hottest days of the year. We watched out for and encouraged one another. We enjoyed great fellowship. And we did it as a band of brothers.

If you are in search of adventure and in good physical condition, consider a trek to the top of Texas. This is one of the coolest bucket-list adventures in the Lone Star State. Although the hike is hard, the reward is worth it. Do your research. Hike prepared. Push past the pain. Enjoy the view.

Salt Basin Dunes

Immediately west of the towering escarpment of the Guadalupe Mountains lies an other-worldly landscape. The Salt Basin Dunes rise modestly above the surrounding salt flats, the remnants of an ancient sea. These dunes of snow-white gypsum are formed by the collaborative artistry of the winds and the white sands of the salt flats.

The process is not entirely complicated. When the winds whip across the salt flats they pick up tiny crystals of gypsum. When these airborne grains slam against the western wall of the Guadalupe Mountains they are deflected upward and then fall back to earth to form the undulating landscape of the Salt Basin Dunes.
From the top of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, the salt flats seem strangely out-of-place in the otherwise desert-looking landscape. They have the appearance of snow blanketing the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The sight of the salt flats from Guadalupe Peak is quite spectacular and beckons exploring.
The Salt Basin Dunes are a part of Guadalupe Mountains National Park and are accessible by ranch roads not far from Dell City. This day use area offers access to the salt dunes by way of a two-plus mile hike. Because this is a delicate ecosystem, visitors should stay on the trail and not break the fragile cryptobiotic crust beyond the trail. This thin crusty topsoil is essential for preventing erosion, producing soil nitrogen, and stabilizing the soil for vegetation to take hold. So, don’t bust the crust!
The dunes themselves are pretty spectacular. Although this seems to be the most inhospitable of environments, animal tracks in the sand indicate the presence of nocturnal animal activity.  Various desert plants also accentuate the stark white dunes. Yucca, cholla, cactus, and various grasses have staked their claim to life on these shifting dunes.

While the view of the dunes is beautiful from atop Guadalupe Peak, the view of Guadalupe Peak is awe-inspiring from the dunes. You can, in fact, see five of the seven named peaks in Texas that rise over 8,000 feet. From north to south you can see Bush Mountain, Bartlett Peak, Shumard Mountain, Guadalupe Peak, and El Capitan keeping vigil over the dunes.

Regardless of when you visit the Salt Basin Dunes be sure to carry more water than you think you’ll need, a snack or two, and sunscreen in your day-hike bag. Stay on the trail. Have fun exploring the dunes. Take lots of pics. Take a moment to stop and enjoy the silence of the desert. Look toward the east and breathe in the beauty of the Guadalupe Mountains. And, leave no trace but your footprints in the sand.

The Devil’s Hall

John Muir is regarded as one of our nation’s most influential naturalist and conservationist. He inspired the people of his generation to experience and to protect what would later become some of our country’s largest national parks. Muir was no stranger to hiking. His countless miles of meanderings inspired him to write what has become a favorite quote: “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” That’s really good advice!
Sadly, lots of folks will live a lifetime without ever walking down a dirt path. For those of us who live in the Lone Star State, there is no excuse to not get outdoors to venture down a dirt or rocky path. With over ninety state parks, every Texan is within driving distance of a dirt path. It just takes a little planning and being intentional about venturing out.
Among my favorite day-hike trails is the Devil’s Hall Trail at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. This trail leads hikers to a magnificent narrow canyon called the Devil’s Hall. This four-mile out and back hike is rated moderately difficult because it requires a bit of boulder scrambling. But, don’t let that scare you off. That’s what makes this such a fun trail to hike.

The trail begins at the Pine Springs campground and is well-defined for the first couple of miles. The trail eventually leads to a canyon wash that is filled with scree and boulders. No danger of getting lost, however, as long as you stay in the stream-bed. This wash leads to a stair step series of ledges called the Hiker’s Staircase.

It’s an easy climb up the staircase and past a natural bathtub at the top of this formation. The trail continues a short distance to the Devil’s Hall, a canyon whose walls are lined with horizontal stones that look like they were laid down by a stone mason. This is the turn-around point for this hike.

The Devil’s Hall is especially beautiful in the fall of the year — almost as colorful as nearby McKittrick Canyon, one of the most beautiful places in Texas. The canyon wash is lined with a variety of trees, including big tooth maple, Texas madrone, and ponderosa pine. The trek offers spectacular views of geologic formations and distant mountaintops. In short, this is a really beautiful place waiting to be enjoyed by those willing to take a dirt path.

The Devil’s Hall Trail is a great day hike. Even so, always be sure to take a day pack with snacks and plenty of water. Walk carefully. Enjoy the views. Stop often to breathe and to breathe in the beauty. And be sure to take lots of photos. The Devil’s Hall, and places like it, is a paradise for those who choose to take a dirt path.

Summiting El Capitan

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.

Thank You, Trail Crews

On January 1, Texans of all ages will head to our state and national parks to participate in First Day Hikes, a cooperative initiative among the nation’s state parks to get more people outside. On that single day alone, folks in Texas and around the nation will collectively log tens of thousands of miles on park trails. And that’s a good thing!
Omar on Guadalupe TrailI enjoy both hiking and biking the trails in our state parks. In fact, I use my Texas State Parks Pass as often as possible. There is no question I get more than my money’s worth every time I renew my annual pass. There is no better way to relieve stress and to clear my mind than heading down a trail in one of our parks.
Doyle on Tejas TrailAs a guy who enjoys taking dirt paths, I have often wondered about trail development and maintenance. After all, trails don’t maintain themselves. The fact of the matter is someone had to get out there and determine the best way to get a hiker from Point A to Point B. That means understanding the local geography, how to mitigate things that can erode or damage trails, how to scratch out switchbacks to get hikers to higher elevations, building boardwalks and bridges, and much more.
on-tejas-trailOn my recent visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I had an opportunity to meet a trail crew — young folks who were there to do maintenance work on Tejas Trail. They were all thin, tanned, athletic, super-friendly, and excited to do their part to keep the trails we all enjoy in good repair. My friend Doyle and I made it a point to thank each of them for their work as we made our way up Tejas Trail toward Hunter Peak. And each of them in turn told us to enjoy our hike.
trail-toolsAt the end of a long day of hiking, more than nine hours on the trails, we made our way back down Tejas Trail as the sun was setting. The work of the trail crew was evident. They had refreshed quite a bit of the trail by pruning back limbs of adjacent trees and plants, filled areas damaged by erosion, and more to keep this particular trail well defined. What a great gift to those of us who show up ready for adventure.
Tejas TrailI hope you will participate in a First Day Hike (or ride) at a park near you. Lace up your hiking boots, fill your hydration pack, toss some snacks into your daypack, air up your bike tires, and then get outdoors. And as you hike or bike down a trail, do so with gratitude for the trail crews that work so hard to make sure every trail in the Lone Star State is well maintained for our enjoyment. Thank you, trail crews!

Return to McKittrick Canyon

After my first visit to McKittrick Canyon I knew without question that I had to return. The mesmerizing beauty of this rugged landscape sliced into the eastern edge of the Guadalupe Mountains had earned a place in my memory. And not just any place but instead a place near the front where it refused to be ignored.
McKittrick SignMy travel schedule did not allow me to return in the spring as I had hoped. I determined, therefore, to return in the fall when the canyon bursts into a palette of colors that have earned it the reputation as the most beautiful spot in the Lone Star State. Once you visit you will understand why its hard to argue against that. It is indeed a beautiful and unforgettable place.
mckittrick-trail-wide-copyWhether you are a seasoned hiker or a novice, McKittrick offers trails to scratch every itch. The McKittrick Trail, a round-trip of about eight miles, is family friendly. The trail is flanked by beautiful trees and native plants hemmed in by jagged canyon walls. The color of the big-tooth maples is accented against the varying shades of green of alligator junipers and manzanita trees with their tiny apple-like berries.
mckittrick-manzanita-treeThe Grotto, a small limestone cave that resembles the gaping toothy mouth of a dragon is the perfect spot for a picnic. The park service has built some rustic tables at this location under the shade of the trees. You can turn around at this point or head just a little farther up the trail to the Hunter’s Line Shack, built in 1924 — worth the extra steps.
doyle-at-mckittrickFor those with more adventurous ambitions, you won’t be disappointed. There are even more hiking options available. But, regardless of whether you do a short or long hike, be sure to take a hydration pack and some snacks. Sign in at the trailhead when you start your hike and sign out when you leave. This will help the park personnel account for all visitors.
mckittrick-tumor-treeRegardless of where you live in the Lone Star State, make it a point to add McKittrick Canyon to your list of outdoor adventures. Consider visiting in the fall when the colors in the canyon are at their peak. Visiting and taking even a short-hike at McKittrick will do you good. In the words of John Muir, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” You will certainly find that to be true at McKittrick Canyon.
Omar Hike McKittrick

Bush Mountain and Hunter Peak

Six of the seven named peaks in Texas that are more than 8,000-feet in elevation are located in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Of these six, three are accessible by steep and rocky trails — Guadalupe Peak, Bush Mountain, and Hunter Peak. The others can only be reached by those intrepid enough to bushwhack their way across rugged terrain with topo map and compass in hand.
Guadalupe Mountains PanoramicOn my recent visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, my friend Doyle Lowry and I decided to start our quest to summit all seven peaks by hiking to the top of the three peaks accessible by trail. Now, just because these peaks are accessible by trail does not necessarily make them an easy win. Quite the contrary!
bush-mountain-and-hunter-peakAfter reaching the top of Guadalupe Peak, we set our sights on summiting Bush Mountain and Hunter Peak in one long day of hiking. The Bush Mountain hike is a 13-mile roundtrip hike that is rated as hard and recommended for very experienced adventurers. The Hunter Peak trail is rated as difficult and adds a few more miles to the hike.
Doyle on Tejas TrailDoyle and I set off from our base camp at Pine Springs Campground as soon as the sun came up. We followed the winding Tejas Trail toward the junction of the trailhead to Bush Mountain and Hunter Peak. The Tejas Trail slowly winds its way up the mountain and features long inclines and gentle switchbacks that lead to ever-increasing elevations.
Omar on Tejas TrailAfter several miles of hiking we reached the Bush Mountain trailhead and turned left toward Bush Mountain. The trail to the summit loses and gains in elevation but finally leads to what we found to be the least spectacular of our summits. No matter. We took a quick photo, checked it off our list, and retraced our steps to the junction of the Bush Mountain Trail, Tejas Trail, and the Bowl Trail.
Doyle Pointing to SummitAfter a ten-minute nutrition break at the trail junction, we set off on the Bowl Trail until we reached the intersection of the trail that leads to Hunter Peak. This was by far one of our very favorite hikes. The area is absolutely beautiful. But, like the other trails leading to the summits, the trail led increasingly upwards.
Omar and Doyle Hunter PeakFinally, Hunter Peak came into view. When we reached the summit we were rewarded with much more than we expected. The views from Hunter Peak have to be the most beautiful in the park. Absolutely magnificent views in every direction. From the summit we could see all of the other peaks in the park as well as hundreds of miles toward the distant horizons.
Omar Pointing at Hunter PeakWe started our descent a little after mid-afternoon and slowly made our way back to base camp, stopping along the way to take more photos. We reached the lower portions of Tejas Trail as the sun disappeared over the peaks and finished our hike in the dark. All in all, we spent 9.5 hours on the trails and returned to camp tired but excited about our day.
Basecamp at NightGuadalupe Peak gets lots of attention at the park and understandably so. After all, it is the highest point in Texas. However, the views from Hunter Peak rival if not exceed those from Guadalupe Peak (at least in our estimation). So, if you set your sights on Guadalupe Peak, make it a point to spend an extra day and hike up to Hunter Peak. I promise that you will not be disappointed.