Cross-Country Road Trip: Hiking with Cougars in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Previously: Cross-Country Road Trip: Back to the Beginning in San Diego, California

On a trip that keeps delivering superlatives, it’s hard to maintain high expectations. The best barbecue. The best stargazing. The best lake. We wondered what benchmark Guadalupe Mountains National Park would set for us.

As it turns out, this was the best hike of the trip.

And that’s saying something. I mean, we had already spent many amazing days on the trails at Hanging Lake, Bryce, and Canyonlands. The hike in Guadalupe was almost an afterthought. A “let’s see if this place has anything to offer” kind of nonchalance that left us open to possibilities. And it certainly didn’t disappoint.

We parked at the Pine Springs Campground in the early afternoon and found that we were only one of two RVs in the whole place, which likely meant that the trails would be empty. We filled up our Camelbak bladders, threw in a few snacks, and checked the trail board to see which route we would be attempting.

Pine Springs is situated in a valley northeast of the stunning cliffs of El Capitan and due east of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas. We debated about exploring some of the shorter, flatter trails along the Pine Spring Canyon, but opted instead to see what Texas looked like from nearly 9,000 feet above the great flatness.

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As we set out, Zack offhandedly commented about the notice he saw on the board, warning hikers of the recent mountain lion attacks and cautioning that hiking in the dark could be hazardous. We laughed and joked that seeing a cougar on the trail would be quite a thrill. Insert foreboding music here.

The trail followed the river for nearly a mile, and we strode along easily in the early afternoon sun. But with the first switchback begins some serious elevation change, and our pace slowed as each turn brought us to ever-higher sheer drops.

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The wind quickened, racing in from the endless Texas plains, trying to sweep us from this lone rocky outcropping.

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And the views were stunning.

I’ve seen the curvature of the Earth from an airplane, and I have perceived a bent horizon from the bow of an ocean-bound ship. But this was something else entirely. To stand on a precipice. To balance on the peak of an impossible scar, upthrust from an otherwise perfect plane. To watch the world wrap itself around your position, falling off at the far horizons. To watch the shadow of the sunset rush perceptibly across the green-brown eternity.

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We hit the peak just before dusk. At over eight miles, round-trip, we started calculating how quickly we could return before the sun slipped completely away and left us fumbling our way back down in the dark. Ever prepared, Zack broke out a couple of flashlights, and we half-jogged along the trail for a couple of miles.

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It was pitch dark. And, without a moon, we hiked along quietly by starlight.

Rounding yet another turn in the trail, with a sheer drop of 100 feet to our left and a dense thicket of pine and laurel to our right, we heard a rustle in the underbrush.

There was a hulking figure, big, dark, breathing heavily, barely hidden in the rocks immediately above us and not ten paces away. Frozen, we were all thinking about the cougar warning and wondering where we could run, if it came to that.

Zack trained his light on the silhouette and found yellow eyes staring back at us. We hit the dirt as a massive deer exploded from the thicket, arcing over our heads and careening down the cliff face, finding purchase and footholds where we could see none.

It was another two hours back to the RV. Tired, hungry, and still shaken from our close encounter with the deer-cougar, we collapsed into camp chairs and hammocks. Steak, potatoes, and whiskey for Angela and me, and we were all ready to call this day done.

It’s a funny thing about travel.

The more distance you have from an event, the more you romanticize it. And, in the retelling, the hike up Guadalupe Peak certainly finds its place among the very best. Cougar and all.

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Next up: Cross-Country Road Trip: Carlsbad Caverns National Park