El Capitan Trail

The El Capitan trail winds around the southern edge of the Guadalupe escarpment. It's one of my favorite Guadalupe Mountains hikes. It's rarely populated with more than few hikers, you can make it as long or as short a hike as you want, and it travels through various and diverse topography and landscapes without subjecting the hiker to extremely severe elevation gains. I like doing this hike when I have about a half-day to kill and don't feel like working too hard; such as the day before or the day after a more strenous hike or backpack up to Guadalupe Peak or the other mountains. Now that doesn't mean this is a cakewalk; although the net elevation gain from the trailhead at Pine Springs campground to the high point at the foot of El Capitan is only about 800', there are repeated ups and downs along the trail from crossing numerous washes and canyons. Also note that while it may be calm at the trailhead and for the first mile or two, winds can kick up to hurricane force by the time you get to the saddle at the foot of El Capitan, so always bring at least a windbreaker, even in the Texas summer.

The hike begins at the Pine Spring campground and follows the well-marked trail as it winds around the eastern foothills of Guadalupe Peak, fairly level and interrupted only by occasional dips into washes. After a couple of miles or so, the trail begins to get a bit rockier and the terrain a bit more rugged as you turn westward and begin to head almost directly toward El Capitan. The scenery improves as you ascend slightly, with ever increasing vistas to the south and southwest. Not far from the junction with the Salt Basin Overlook trail at Guadalupe Spring (the Trails Illustrated map says you've gone 3.4 miles), the trail crosses a ridge which allows a great view and affords a nice ledge to sit for a spell.

The trail then descends for a while (don't you hate that?) to go down the canyon, sometimes passing through almost cavern-like passages in the sides. Then one comes upon the trail junction with the Salt Basin Overlook Loop, which loops down a bit lower. Keep right (up) and head toward the next trail junction. The trail now ascends, with El Capitan looming directly over your right shoulder, to a junction with the back end of the Salt Basin Overlook Loop. At this point you've reached a quite impressive vista, although by now the wind may be quite strong. (I came across a crashed airplane here many years ago.) This is an excellent spot for photos (although describing the view is left as an “exercise for the reader” as the old textbooks used to say).

Here the trail continues on along the base of the western side of the escarpment for a couple of miles, then descends Shumard Canyon to the Shumard designated backcountry campsite. The end of the trail is at the Williams Ranch house. I can't comment on the rest of the trail because I've never taken it beyond the last trail junction. Although doable as a long day hike, most people I think use a vehicle shuttle to go point-to-point from Pine Spring campground to Williams Ranch. There's a four-wheel road to Williams Ranch. (The gate to the road is locked; get the key from the park service.) Also, the hike can be shortened considerably by starting from the highway (62-180); I'm told one can hit the Salt Basin Overlook trail with just a short hike from the highway.

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