Top of Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14321A, Service/ Volunteer


  • Work to preserve the park's trails
  • See a unique exposed fossil reef
  • Hike, explore the Chihuahuan Desert, or just relax


  • All meals
  • Tools and instruction from the National Park Service
  • Lodging or campsites


DatesOct 18–25, 2014
StaffJames Moody

Trip Overview

The Trip

The world's most perfect example of an exposed fossil reef lies -- of all places -- in the midst of the desert in West Texas, hundreds of miles from any present-day ocean. In the Permian Age, much of the western portion of the state was covered by a shallow sea. Technically, the Guadalupe Mountains are not a mountain range at all, but a massive coral reef now risen high above the surrounding plain by a geological uplift and the erosion of softer limestone layers above it. Today, despite adjacent expanses of sand and cactus, dry washes and creosote, the mountain range itself remains a verdant island in the midst of the Chihuahuan Desert.

As you climb ever upward in Texas' highest mountain range, you'll see ponderosa pine, bigtooth maple, Douglas fir, aspen, and many other varieties of tree, some not found anywhere else for hundreds of miles. The annual rainfall in the high country is twice that of the desert floor, but surface water is scarce at best, nonexistent most of the time. 

McKittrick Canyon is a shining jewel of the desert. Called the most beautiful spot in Texas by many, it's a living textbook of geographical diversity. As you walk beneath sheer white cliffs, notice the desert shrubs and cactus slowly give way to canyon woodlands, then to high country forest. Prickly pear, fern, the threatened Texas madrone (characterized by its distinctive orange bark and bright red berries), and pine trees somehow coexist within its unique ecology. Except in extreme drought, the canyon is ablaze with autumn color as leaves of orange, red, and yellow stand out in stark contrast against the evergreens and the towering white cliffs.

The Project

There are more than 80 miles of trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, most of them devastated by a 15-inch flash flood last year just before our trip there was scheduled. That project, unfortunately, had to be cancelled because of the government shutdown. With only a small staff to maintain them, the National Park Service (NPS) has come to rely on volunteers as the core of its reconstruction efforts. 

This trip will mark our 16th year partnering with the staff at this national park. In both 2004 and 2005 we worked on trails that had also been severely damaged by flash flooding. Another year one of our three crews took the "high road,” performing maintenance operations on the Guadalupe Peak Trail. In 2008 we repainted the trim on the historic Ship On The Desert, brushed the top of the scenic Permian Reef Trail all the way to the New Mexico line, and removed fencing and half-century old debris from a NPS site across the highway from the main portion of the park. Freezing weather and high winds cut out one work day in 2009, but our crews still were able to erect split rail fencing in the campground and reconstruct a bad section of trail below El Capitan. In 2010 we widened much of the McKittrick Canyon Trail and eliminated traces of work vehicles used in renovating the Pratt Cabin. In 2011 we tackled fence removal along the highway and in 2012 we worked exclusively on trails: The Tejas, Permian Reef, and two trails inside McKittrick Canyon.


Because of airline schedules and long distances by auto to the park, the trip leader will meet participants at several times on Saturday, October 18. Participants will receive notification of meeting time and place well in advance of the trip dates. Once the leader meets the group members, we will proceed to our home for the week, the location of which will depend on which trails we'll be maintaining and the availability of facilities. We have always had great accommodations, generally at a historic house near McKittrick Canyon called The Ship On The Desert. Both Saturday and Sunday are free days to explore the park. If you can’t arrive until Sunday, or will be there a day early on Friday, October 17, just let the leader know so he can meet up with you. The first work day, Monday, October 20, will have us on the way to work between 7:30 and 8 a.m. Lunch will be packed at breakfast and eaten at the work site. Our work will consist of at least some of the following: removing large rocks from the trail; building or cleaning water control devices, such as water bars and check dams; re-grading the tread surface of the trail; cutting back vegetation; rerouting the trail where necessary; and erecting retaining walls.

We'll receive more specific direction from the Trails and Roads crew who will assist us in this project. The NPS staff and the trip leader will also provide instruction to insure that the trip is a safe one, as well as a productive one. Individual levels of experience can easily be accommodated because of the diversity of the work we'll be performing.

Of the five weekdays, we'll work four and take one off. A variety of outings are possible on our free day, ranging from short, easy, walking hikes to more strenuous one-day excursions. Options include climbing Guadalupe Peak; hiking into McKittrick Canyon to view the fall foliage; hiking to Devil's Hall, an extremely narrow canyon with staircases to climb; or climbing into The Bowl for a taste of the high-country forest. Other hikes of varying length and difficulty are available. The trip leader has been on every trail in the park and can make suggestions for an enjoyable outing geared to your own particular level of experience and conditioning. Group hikes are often led by staff members. Participants not familiar with the desert or the park often find these to be quite rewarding.

At the end of the trip we'll clean up the national park facilities we've utilized and pack away the Sierra Club equipment for use the following year. Then we'll be on our way. In cases where airline schedules pose a problem, participants can feel free to leave earlier.



Getting There

There is no public transportation to the park and limited facilities for food, lodging, or gas. Approaching from the west, it is 110 miles from El Paso, Texas to park headquarters. From the east, Odessa is 170 miles away. From San Antonio, it's 470 miles.

Accommodations and Food

Indoor accommodations have been available for those who desire them in all previous years and, with any luck, one of those facilities will again be provided for our use. Since research teams have first priority, however, we can never be sure until 4-6 weeks prior to the beginning of the trip. Should one not be available, participants will be notified of any changes. Of course, camping sites are always available for tents and campers.

Meals will be provided from breakfast on the first day to breakfast on the last day. Trip staff will prepare the menus for the week and will be in charge of the selected cook crew for each day. Each participant will be on the cook crew for one day. All efforts will be made to provide substantial, well-balanced meals. Questionnaires included with your confirmation packet will give you the opportunity to state allergies and preferences. Participants are responsible for their own mess kits and utensils. As a conservation matter, we require participants to bring hard plastic lunch containers -- we cannot provide plastic bags. This trip is vegetarian-friendly.

Trip Difficulty

High elevation, rugged terrain, and hikes to the work site may be strenuous, but anyone in reasonably good shape is capable of walking to the work site and performing the work once there. Trail maintenance involves a variety of tasks and work can be found that fits comfortably within the physical capability of most people. Each day we typically divide into several work crews and try to have at least one with minimal elevation gain.

Equipment and Clothing

Tools will be provided by NPS and include shovels, picks, racks, trimmers, sledgehammers, Pulaskis, and McLeods (if you don’t know what those latter two tools are, you’ll soon be quite familiar with them both). If you have a favorite pair of gloves, bring them, otherwise NPS can provide cloth or leather gloves, along with safety glasses, hard hats, and other safety equipment essential to the project.

Trip members are expected to furnish their own gear, including tent, sleeping bag, day pack, water bottles, personal mess kit, and some sort of container to use for packing your lunch. Work clothes should be practical and include long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and well-broken-in hiking boots. A hat is essential, as are sun block and moisturizer. We will be hiking and working in rocky terrain. A trip specific list of items to bring will be provided by the leader.




  • Trails Illustrated Topographical Map #203, Guadalupe Mountains National Park: 7.5-minute USGS Topo Quad Maps "Guadalupe Peak," "Guadalupe Pass," and "PX Flat"


  • Tennant, Alan, The Guadalupe Mountains of Texas. Photography by Michael Allender.
  • Schneider, Bill, Hiking Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains.
  • Jameson, W.C., The Guadalupe Mountains: Island in the Desert.
  • Kurtz, Don and William D. Goran, Trails of the Guadalupes.
  • Jameson, W.C., Tales of the Guadalupe Mountains.
  • The Sierra Club Guide to the National Parks: Desert Southwest.
  • Barr, Nevada, Track of the Cat.


While this trip is called a trail maintenance project, it could just as easily be termed an erosion abatement project. Much of what we'll be doing will protect the thin layer of soil on the desert mountains. Keeping a trail in good working condition cuts down on the temptation of hikers to make parallel trails (called “social trails"), cut across switchbacks, or create their own trails. Park Service personnel often lead a discussion on park use and the role of the public and adjacent residents. This is especially timely in the Guadalupe Mountains, as a management plan for the entire park — including the new White Sands portion of the park — has been a hot topic. Additionally, a wilderness designation study has also sparked debate.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.



James Moody initiated this trip in 1999. He is certified in wilderness first aid, leads backpacking trips for the Fort Worth Group, and has served on the executive committee. He edited the newsletter for the Fort Worth Group for two decades and won the Lone Star Chapter’s Environmental Reporting Award for 2007. He’s a retired journalist; the father of two; and grandfather of three — and, if you don’t know it already, you’ll soon discover he’s a rabid, if not fanatical, fan of the Texas Longhorns.

Assistant Leader:

Charlie Clapper will be serving as assistant leader again this year and has worked with James previously as a participant, leader trainee, and assistant leader on both this trip and the Reclaiming the Rosillos service project in Big Bend National Park. He's retired from the National Park Service and lives in Virginia.

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