It’s All Downhill from Here

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

West Texas

Mile 6999

October 18-19, 2010

The author's boots resting atop the Guadalupe Mountainss, overlooking West Texas.

Since returning from my trip last fall, I’ve been asked several times about my favorite places along the way.  This is one of them.  It was beautiful, there were great views, and it stuck out (both literally and figuratively) as unique in both Texas and the Southwest.  The real reason, though, that I was blown away by the Guadalupe Mountains was a pretty nerdy one: botany.

I had just spent nearly a week crossing the desert, from San Francisco to west Texas.  New (to me) flowers, grasses, shrubs, and of course cacti sprouted from the sparse sands of the rolling hills and expansive plains as I traversed that territory.  As I was nearing Texas, I asked a fellow traveler what I should see while passing through.  Without hesitating, he named the Guadalupe Mountains, and added, “You might be in time for the peak colors.”  I spent the intervening days pondering what he might have meant by that statement.  I knew that my timing had been off for the spectacular fall bloom of the Arizona desert, but thought that maybe I would be able to hit it 500 miles to the east.

I arrived at the National Park campground at dusk on a Monday in mid-October, and was surprised to find it nearly full.  I scrambled to secure the last available tent site and get my tent set up before darkness fell.  There was a thunderstorm off in the distance, and the winds shooting across the plains were upwards of 30 mph.  The ground was too hard for stakes, and my site was totally unsheltered, so I wound up putting logs around the inside of my tent to try to hold it down – it was too windy for a fire that night, anyway!  In the morning, commiserating with fellow campers about the night before, I commented on the unusually crowded park.  “Well,” he said, “it turns out we’re a little early for the fall colors, but I’d already taken this week off of work.”  “Yeah,” I said, “What are these ‘colors’ everyone keeps talking about?”  “Oh, well the maples are really pretty when they change color – everything’s all bright red and orange.”

Maples?  In the Chihuahuan Desert?  Sure enough!  Somehow, just before dark, I had crossed the invisible line to a place where maples and oaks, prairie grasses and blazing stars grew – alongside of the yucca, prickly pear, madrones, and ocotillo.  As I headed out on the trail, I saw some mustache grass

Gray Oak

(Bouteloua hirsuta) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium/Andropogon scoparius) next to my boots, and when I reached the higher reaches I was able to immediately identify gray oak (Quercus grisea)and pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), which I’d never seen before, based

on my frequent browsing through The Golden Guide to Trees.  Through this environment, so similar to our own prairies or oak-pine barrens, there was strewn a huge variety of desert succulents and western shrubs.  The juxtaposition made my hike as exciting intellectually as it was visually!

Prickly Pear cactus, in fruit

Blazing Star

Madrones

I walked on through the heat of the day, under cover of the high desert trees, startled a few white-tailed deer, and took a break on the peak overlooking, well, the rest of Texas.  As I explained briefly in a previous post, the Guadalupe Mountains are the remnants of the reef of an ancient sea that spread away to the south and east.  While their sheer elevation might make them mountains otherwise, the vertical rise of around 3,000 ft. makes Guadalupe Peak an impressive edifice!  Perched atop the escarpment that runs around the edge of the plains below, I could almost envision the long-dry waves lapping in the haze below.

Below Guadalupe Peak, small splashes of color indicate where maple have found water and shade from the desert sun.

Finally, I began my descent along steep switchbacks, through a canyon on the back side of the hills.  As I picked my way downhill, the cooler, moister conditions brought about a change in the vegetation – at last, the long-sought maples!  While not yet at their peak, the Bigtooth Maples (Acer grandidentatum) were dotted with scarlet, and after the desolation of the desert I could understand why this splash of cool color would be worth driving hundreds of miles to view.

Bigtooth maples have little leaves!

Maple leaves dropped onto a yucca

My biggest (and nerdiest) find of the day was yet to come, though.  Edging along a rocky trail, I spotted an oak tree out of the corner

Chinquapin Oak

of my eye, with different bark from any others I’d seen in the park.  Pretty familiar bark, actually – browner than gray, with flaking furrows.  I looked around for a shed leaf, and picked it up.  Could that be a chinquapin?  Quercus muehlenbergii is at the tip of its northern range in the southwestern-most corner of Wisconsin, existing primarily on the dry, rocky bluffs above the Mississippi River, but I didn’t know it extended that far south and west.  Upon examining my Golden Guide, it turned out that its primary range extends to eastern Texas…  but there was a small outlier dot placed over the border between Texas and New Mexico… right at the Guadalupes.  In fact, many of the plants there, including the maples, were outliers, with their nearest counterparts a hundred or more miles away.  In all, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park has over 1000 species of plants, making it even an amateur botanist’s paradise!

Cancer Root is one of the rare plants that does not use photosynthesis for its existence, surviving instead as a parasite on tree roots.

Yucca, Century Plant, and Big Bluestem in a West Texas sunset

That night in my tent, I mused over my finds here at the end of the desert.  The next day would take me through the desert grassland and low hills of West Texas, en route to Austin.  Details to follow soon!


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