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The Guads: Trail Running in the Mountains of Texas

joe_prusaitis_art1In the state of Texas, it’s hard to find a set of trails finer than the Guadalupe Mountains, the Guads. This land, where the Mescalero Apaches ruled over 100 years ago, has a spiritual atmosphere to it. At altitudes between 5000 and 8600 feet, it’s one of my favorite playgrounds. This is where I go for a final tune-up, to get right, to heal whatever is hurting my head or my soul. My body, on the other hand, is about to be abused.

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The trails are typically quite rugged, go for a good long way, and change significant elevation: everything I could ask for to get ready for any mountain trail race. Tejas, Bush Mountain, Bear Canyon, Permian Reef, Devil’s Hall, El Capitan, McKittrick Canyon, Dog Canyon, Blue Ridge, and Guadalupe: each with a story of its own. I’ve run them all and can tell you a few. There are only three legal entry points into these mountains: McKittrick Canyon, Dog Canyon, and Pine Springs, all of them ranger stations and water access.

Pine Springs is the only access point on the Texas side with camping, which is why I know it so well. A camp site can be had easy, by the rule of “first-come first-serve”. Grab a site, put up a tent, and go. This is a good starting point with numerous route options, depending on our mood. Guadalupe summit is the typical choice, an easy eight mile round trip to the highest point in Texas, which is why I typically avoid it. Devil’s Hall is an easier four mile round trip that offers a beautiful slot canyon, which I feel the urge to hike just before I leave the park every year. Deep shade, high rock walls, huge boulders, and really quite pleasant.

We usually drive in on Thursday and stop along the way in Van Horn just for the nostalgia. Lunch at Chuy’s, a few bags of ice, and a full tank of gas. The last 60 miles between Van Horn’s gas stations and the park are empty and desolate, with tall naked mountains on either side, and a few ranch style homes with gate names like Sierra Diablo, that leave me wondering why they chose to settle right here in the middle of nothing? The last few miles change elevation quickly and introduce us to the wind, which remains until we leave. The park is huge, while Pine Springs is small, with only 20 camp pads, no showers, and no place within 35 miles for gas or food.

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Our typical start for the long run on Friday morning is in the dark. Tejas Trail to Pine Top, with plans to watch sunrise from the summit. There is something so perfectly serene about watching sunrise from a mountain top. Its a fine way to start the day: relaxing and stimulating at the same time. Gives rise to a bucket full of memories, old and new. Some of the things that stick in my mind from our trips here are the constant and brutal wind blowing in off the desert. The orange, red, and pink Madrone trees, climbing a mountain in Texas and descending in New Mexico, the water pouring on my head from a pump in Dog Canyon, a hummingbird nest, and all the cactus flowers on all the nasty gnarly cactus.

From Pine Top, we can see Hunter’s Peak, but we usually move off in the other direction for the lonely brutal Bush Mountain Trail. This is one of our favorite routes and well worth the time it takes. Its not much of a trail. If I didn’t know any better, I’d guess it was not. It begins as an uneven and crooked lane of shattered rocks, but does become more obvious, even though it remains just as treacherous. This high ridge rolls along near to 8000 feet, up one long climb and down the next, for miles. Down at our camp site is high desert, but up here, we’re in pine forest. We have occasional glimpses of the salt flats well off to the west. We celebrate our progress on Texas’ second highest peak, Bush Mountain, with a short break, within a rock’s throw of a solar powered weather tower. There are some who race this route for time and bragging rights, but most of our group moves along in a more leisurely pace, stopping for breaks or pictures. It is rare that I have ever heard an angry word or a serious conversation during these jaunts. All that seems to have washed off and remained behind. The importance of these days in the mountains are much deeper, more spiritual maybe.

The trail after Bush is what the park likes to refer to as ‘sparse’, but once I get the gist of it, its easy enough to follow. There is not much to the trail, but I do know when I am off of it. We usually wait at the Blue Ridge junction for everyone to gather up, as this is a critical point in our route. Miss this turn and we take the long desolate route down into Dog Canyon. We took it once just to see and have avoided it ever since. Its interesting enough, but the other options are much better. So, turning onto Blue Ridge is important to us. Also, Blue Ridge keep us up high even longer, which is one of the reasons we came here…for the elevation. Blue Ridge makes us dance as much as Bush Mountain did, as it cuts over to Tejas Trail. Its a nasty little piece of work, full of rock, but mostly under the trees, and passes one of the best back country camping locations in the park. A few years ago, we met a troop of boy scouts up here and had an interesting conversation. There was some confusion about where we started, where we were going, and how long it would take. I believe it took them two days to get here, so they had their doubts about our story.

One of the safety measure we take when we bring a group here is to drop notebooks at each major intersection, from which every person in our party must sign with name/time/destination. The first group drops them off and the last group picks them up. Pine Top is the first spot, Blue Ridge/Tejas intersection is the second drop. Another of our safety measures is to insure nobody is ever alone. Every person has a partner or two who they must remain with while in the mountains. When we arrive at spot #2, we drop off the book, after filling in our names. This is also were our group splits up, Some head back to Pine Top, while the long group continues on to Dog Canyon. Farewells are done and now we are less. This section from here to Tejas/McKittrick intersection is one of the easiest sections on this route, presenting phenomenal panoramic views off either side of the trail. It always surprises me to see hitching posts up here, even though I have seen a pack of horses once, many years ago. Actually, it was a train wreck of horses, as the load had come undone from one of the beasts, while on a narrow mountainside trail. The wranglers were having a hell of a time trying to sort things out and it didn’t help matters much when our group of trail runners suddenly runs up on them, unexpected.

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Tejas/McKittrick intersection is spot #3 for our book drop. This is where our group splits again. We all take a break, and then some head back, while the remaining few turn down into Dog Canyon. Another option, not for today, is to take McKittrick for a few more miles down into McKittrick Canyon. That choice is one I have done a few times, but it’s an epic 40 mile round trip and quite brutal, especially in regards to having enough water. We will gather here again after the out-n-back, a few hours later and bit more worn…after the dog.

After signing and dropping the book, we head in with our small group, still on Tejas Trail. It’s about three miles of constant down and then another mile of bottom land through the trees of a dry creek bottom that is quite serene. It’s all rock, but many are laid out as steps, and very easy to run, launch, and land, as we descent at a sprint. Its tempting to take your eyes off the rocks, to gamble for a glance at the grand vistas, but not very smart. Some take interval breaks just for a look and a picture before going on, but with any group, we quickly spread out, each picking our poison. Its one hell of a sweet ride for a good downhiller, but the rocks would slice you open in a moment, a turned ankle would leave you on the wrong side of the mountain. Coming from central Texas, we have few opportunities for a classic descent of this length and it must be used well.

The Dog Canyon water pump is the end of the trail for our gang: where we rest and refuel. We dump what water we have left and refill with fresh cold spring water. I might even remove my socks and soak my feet, drench my head, and air out for a few. We usually pack a few items just for this mid-day lunch break: apple, sandwich, coke, or what-have-you. Our little meeting place is a great location, right next to the pump. Because this is the end of a long out-n-back, we are sure to meet everyone of our groups somewhere between here and book#3 on top, so we usually take our time for those who are near to gather up. Everyone else, we will see on the climb out.

Heading back up is always a struggle. Climbing stairs in the heat of the day, with no shade… all you can hope for is a breeze. Our plan is to Not Stop. To dial in whatever stride and cadence best suites each of us and keep moving til you reach the top, where we all stop to collect our wits and each other. The best climbers get the longest break on top, which is only fair. Once we have all collected, then we continue towards book#2 at Blue Ridge. I take some time to read the book entries. It helps me to understand where everyone is and what they have done. It always raises a few laughs and giggles.

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For the entire return trip, we stay on Tejas all the way back to camp, with Pine Top as our next intermediate destination. Its a deceptive section after Blue Ridge. Three good climbs and a dense stand of trees and wonderfully deep cool shade. Pine needles muffle our noise as we enjoy a coolness we haven’t felt in awhile. A few years ago, we found a deep bed of white in here. We first thought it was snow and later determined it to be what was left of a heavy hail storm. It must have been crazy, as thick as it was, with broken branches everywhere. This last set of climbs takes everything we have to reach Pine Top and book#1. The serenity of these hills are usually forgotten by the exhaustion of my brain dead senses, which awakens only when we reach Pine Top. Typically I am the last one here and collect the final book.

The last 3.6 miles is all glorious downhill, so I empty all my remaining water but for a single bottle. Once we gather our group, we head over and down. Slowly at first, but building speed as I go, until I am flat out running: taking the turns at speed, flying low, surfing the rocks, and laughing at how insane this is. Living, really living…is all about these rare special moments. They may be an instant, a flash, or an entire descent from Pine Top to Pine Springs…and it lasts a lifetime.

Regardless of everyone’s plans for this evening, most are wiped out after today’s go round, and bed comes early. It’s a great day and it goes down easy.

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Day two is a sleep in day for most of us: no alarms. Some go long again, taking the 20 miler up Tejas and down McKittrick for a monster route that has it all. Most of us drive over to McKittrick to pick them up, and to get in a run of our own: Permian Reef. Its a short route, a six mile up and down that is all up and all down. A skinny single-track with rocks and switchbacks and a whole lot of open sky. Its a beast of a run and as lovely a route as you can find. Beautiful with endless views and one of my favorites for memories. I have struggled up and sprinted down this trail so many times with so many people and made so many memories, it is etched in my mind and more than a few pictures. We collect everybody and end the running part of this day early, retire to camp for dinner and discussion. Everything and everyone is talked about and laughed about. It is the end of another glorious day and a wonderful weekend. By days end, we have already planned our departure in the morning.

Sunday morning, the tents are broken day and loaded. A final hike is put together into Devil’s Hall or Guadalupe Peak, and by noon, by twos and threes, everyone says their goodbyes and starts their long drive back home. The Guads weekend is done but for the long quiet drive.

In the state of Texas, there is no better choice than the Guads. The park staff is over the top friendly and understanding to a group of trail runners. As long as you understand the trails, routes, and water, you will have a grand time and an epic weekend. And there is no way you won’t remember everything for a very long time.

A few other trails I have run which are well worth your time are Bear Canyon and El Capitan down to Williams Ranch, but those are each unique experiences and well worth another long story each.

More info:

– Joe Prusaitis

About the author

Joe Prusaitis Joe Prusaitis ran his first trail race in 1996, a 50 miler. Since then, he has ran at least 100 ultras, nearly 50 marathons, and a variety of other odd and various distances. Joe also sits on the USAT&F South Texas board, representing Mountain/Trail/Ultra. For more information on Joe, check out the About page where you can see his coaching and race directing projects.

3 Responses to “The Guads: Trail Running in the Mountains of Texas”

  1. on 02 Jun 2014 at 5:52 am Steven

    Beautiful, just beautiful.

  2. on 05 Jun 2014 at 11:35 am Steve P

    Nice article, Joe….looks like a beautiful area!

    Missed hooking up with you at Jemez…maybe another time.

  3. on 06 Aug 2014 at 12:09 pm Brandon Ostrander

    Joe,

    It was wonderful to read this and reflect on this great trip from April. I look forward to returning to this beautiful park.
    Thank you again for letting me tag along