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Once it was a long reef just below the ocean's surface, then it inched skyward and ultimately became a forested area surrounded by wooded canyons and desert lowlands. Today Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a rugged wilderness of tall Douglas firs and sometimes lush vegetation rising out of a vast desert. Here you will find numerous hiking trails, panoramic vistas, the highest peak in the state, plant and animal life unique in the Southwest, and a canyon that many believe is the prettiest spot in all of Texas.

As you approach from the northeast, the mountains seem to rise from the landscape, but seen from the south they stand tall and dignified. El Capitan, the southern tip of the escarpment, watches over the landscape like a sentinel. In the south-central section of the 86,416-acre park, Guadalupe Peak, at 8,749 feet the highest mountain in Texas, provides hikers with views of the surrounding mountains and desert.

Park headquarters and the visitor center are at Pine Springs, along the park's southeast edge. There you'll also find a campground and several trail heads, including one with access to the Guadalupe Peak Trail, the park's premier mountain hike. Nearby, a short dirt road leads to historic Frijole Ranch, with a museum and more trail heads. A horse corral is nearby for those with their own mounts. The McKittrick Canyon area of the park, near its northeast corner, may be the most beautiful spot in Texas, especially in fall, when its oaks, maples, and other trees produce a spectacular show of color. A day-use area only, McKittrick Canyon has a delightful (though intermittent) stream, a variety of plant and animal life, several trail heads, and historic buildings. Along the park's northern boundary, almost in New Mexico, is secluded, forested Dog Canyon.

Particularly impressive is Guadalupe Mountains National Park's vast variety of flora and fauna. You'll find species here that don't seem to belong in west Texas, such as the maple, ash, and walnut trees that produce the fall colors in McKittrick Canyon, and even black bears, which are usually found only farther north. Scientists say these seemingly out-of-place plants and animals are leftovers from a time when this region was cooler and wetter. As the climate changed and the desert spread, some species were able to survive in these mountains, where conditions remained somewhat cooler and moister. At the base of the mountains, at lower elevations, you'll find desert plants such as sotol, agave, and prickly pear cactus; as you start to climb, especially in stream-nurtured canyons, expect to encounter ponderosa pine, ash, walnut, oak, and ferns. Wildlife abounds, including mule deer, elk, and all sorts of birds and snakes.