No One’s Coming to Save You on the El Capitan Trail

“If something goes wrong, we’re not coming to save you”.  That’s what the ranger told us at the headquarters of Guadalupe Mountains National Park when we checked out a key to the gate for Williams Ranch Road.

I’ve been wanting to do this expedition for some time.  Finally, a great team came together.  Mike could run the ten mile trail and barely break a sweat.  Dennis and John liked the idea of spending the day looking around an old ranch homestead before hiking up a trail they’d never seen before.  I just wanted explore a new part of the park. It was my opportunity to scout out a trip to offer through GeoBetty Tours.

El Capitan in Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the southernmost portion of the exposed Permian Reef.  It’s the iconic mountainous rock face seen from the highway as travelers approach the park.  Most people never get closer to this breathtaking site than is possible by car.  For the truly adventurous, the El Capitan Trail offers a way to get much closer.

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See rock spires in the foreground and salt flats on the horizon from Shumard Canyon.

One end of the ten mile trail is near the park headquarters and the other is at the Williams Ranch House.  Along the route hikers walk around the face of “El Cap”.  The route skirts around the escarpment with views that are constantly changing yet always stunning.  Look one direction to see the vertical wall rising a thousand feet or more. Gaze the other way for 50+ mile views of mountains, valleys, salt flats and sand dunes. Except for one ribbon of highway and a few jet contrails, civilization, thankfully, is out of sight and mind.

Because we started at the headquarters end of the trail, Mike and I were mostly hiking up in elevation for the first six miles.  We went from a start of 5,800 feet above sea level to reach 6,500 feet at our highest point.   We gave up 1,500 feet of elevation in the final four miles of trail. The beginning was wide and easy to navigate but much of the last five miles was on a sloped trail where one wrong step could lead to a long fall with serious consequences.  Those trail conditions meant two things: we had to keep our eyes on the route while moving and we need to stop frequently to soak in the amazing 360º views.

The scenery – up, down and all-around – was different every time we stopped. It was like being just inches from the face of a loved one and using a magnifying glass to study the details. I’d seen El Cap a hundred times, but never this close. Features never noticed before jumped out at me.

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Even from the Williams Ranch Road the views of El Cap are stunning.

Dennis and John had a very different adventure.   The Williams Ranch House sits at the other end of the El Capitan Trail. This faded blue wooden homestead lies eight miles from the nearest paved road.  The only ways out from that end is to retrace the ten mile hike or arrange a bone-jarring shuttle on an unmaintained dirt road back to the highway.  A section of this dirt road was part of the Butterfield Overland Mail stage line.  It looks like it hasn’t been maintained since the last coach went through 158 years ago.  (There is a primitive campground near that end of the trail, so backpackers can do this out-and-back hike as a two day trip.)  That dirt road was the portion of the journey the ranger had warned us about when we picked up the key.

John and Dennis’ adventure started at park headquarters.  After driving back down the highway with a long distance view of the monolith, they used the key to pass through two gates before rocking and rolling my high-clearance four wheel drive truck up eight miles of nearly impassible road.  It was the kind of road where you want to drive somebody else’s truck.  The ranger warned that a few spots on the way were capable of removing running boards. Our boys and my truck made it through unscathed.

After looking around the old ranch grounds they started up the El Capitan Trail into Shumard Canyon.  This end of the trail is probably the most spectacular. Trees line the narrow and shaded bottom of the canyon. Rock spires and natural amphitheaters fill the view as the canyon opens onto views of vertical walls rising toward Guadalupe Peak.

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Flat rocks made for a great lunch spot high on the trail.

Our group met about three miles up the trail at a curve filled with large, flat rock slabs.  It was a perfect spot for lunch before heading back to the ranch house and our truck for a bouncy ride back down the dirt road. Then we returned the key before the park offices closed.

A few observations if you want to go:

  • Vehicles are not permitted to stay overnight at the ranch house. You can only look around for the day or use it as a drop off/pick up location.
  • Long pants are a must when hiking this trail even in hot weather.  Thorny vegetation reaches over the route for much of the way.
  • Hiking poles are a good idea for navigating the more treacherous parts of the trail.
  • This is a serious expedition. Don’t go unprepared. The hike is long and hard, the road is bad, things can go wrong.
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Photographer Dennis McElveen always finds great angles.

Some of the best trips to the great outdoors are the hardest.  This one qualifies.  The logistics are difficult, but the views along the way make it an adventure to remember.  Just get the right team, good equipment, have a plan and a backup plan. Because no one is coming to save you.

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