Top of Texas
A roundup of the top five vantage points in the Lone Star State.
By Wendee Holtcamp
Reaching the top of Texas makes every breath, every drop of sweat and every sore muscle worth it a hundred times over. I felt exhilarated to stand literally at the highest point in the Lone Star State, at 8,749 feet, with hundreds of square miles of Guadalupe Mountains National Park wilderness below. What an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous hike with views of desert mountains, salt flats and the majestic sheer rock face of El Capitan.
I shared the trek with my friend Laurie, and we passed only one other pair of hikers on that cool, fall day — a perfect time for hiking because the intense sweat you’ll work up is offset by the chill air. Recent rains had made the canyons and desert flush with life, from the brilliant red Texas madrone berries to the magenta cholla cactus flower to the bright white bull thistle flowers.
The trail begins sharp and steep, and climbs 3,000 feet in elevation over 4.2 miles (8.4 round trip). The beginning segment offers an overlook of a canyon, where luminescent orange and red maples give the cliffs a shout of color, then continues through the rock-strewn Chihuahuan high desert, with agave, prickly pear, yucca and sotol — with its deep green, thin serrated-edge leaves that Mescalero Apache Indians used for weaving baskets and mats.
After a while, the trail begins a series of switchbacks, through ponderosa pine, white pine and Douglas fir forests, a relict of times past when a cooler, moister climate prevailed. Wildlife thrives here — elk, mule deer, black bear, mountain lion. Eventually you emerge above the treeline. At the highest elevations, the view is wild land all around for miles in every direction. The only human mark is the road in the far-off distance below.
Wyler Aerial Tramway
Reopened in March 2001 under TPWD ownership, the Wyler Aerial Tramway takes a short, steep trip inside a cable-guided gondola to the top of the eastern Franklin Mountains. From the starting point in the parking lot, the ride takes only four minutes to reach the top at 5,632 feet. I’m not a huge fan of rocking gondolas, but I felt no fear inside the closed-in cable car, even as a wickedly fierce wind blew.
After ascending 2,600 feet up to Ranger Peak, the tram stops at the mountain top, where 20 or so people, mostly locals from El Paso, exit onto a platform to witness the dance of lights. We arrived at dusk, and I marveled at the changing scene as dusk turned to nightfall. The sky turned brilliant azure, with a sunset of blazing red and magenta, and one by one, homes would flicker on their lights, which could be seen for miles and miles into the distance. You can view El Paso just below the mountain, New Mexico to the west, and, across the Rio Grande River, the dusty Mexican border town of Ciu-dad Juárez.
The Franklin Mountains emerge from a flatter plateau, the state park forming a nearly 24,000-acre island surrounded by El Paso. The combined population of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez forms one of the densest population centers on any international border in the world — 2.2 million people, mostly on the Mexico side.
Photographer Laurence Parent and I climbed out on a mountain ledge and could see a lone yucca plant fighting for survival on the harsh desert mountain, as well as desert ocotillo, lechuguilla, and sotol — all characteristic of the northern Chihuahuan desert. The drive up the mountain to the tramway station — separate from the main Franklin Mountains State Park entrance — offers a scenic view in itself.
Climb 425 feet up Texas’ pink granite dome, a rock that was formed in the Precambrian era more than 1 billion years ago — before life emerged on earth. Known in geological circles as a batholith, this dome was formed from molten magma deep below the earth’s crust; the surrounding limestone eroded away over millennia. Twice during history, ancient oceans covered the granite dome, but today Enchanted Rock stands tall above the surrounding landscape at 1,825 feet — and claims the title as the best view in the Hill Country.
“Enchanted Rock is like an endorphin,” says Gail McClanahan, president and founder of Friends of Enchanted Rock, a nonprofit group that helped revamp the Summit Trail, install backcountry toilets, as well as other conservation and education efforts around the park. “It puts you in such a positive mood. You can go out there feeling down about life and as soon as you hit that place, it just has a very positive effect on you.” She joins many others who flock to the rock.
I forgo rock climbing for the easier way and walk the Summit Trail. It takes less than an hour to reach the top — although it’s the equivalent of a 30- or 40-story building. The early part of the trail goes past mushroom rocks — weathered ped-estal rocks that have eroded less around their top than at their base. The climb starts steep but is relatively short — just over a half-mile. Enchanted Rock itself contains beautiful crystals of granite — which is made of pink feldspar, white oligoclase, grey glassy quartz and black mica. On its surface, beautiful lichens grow in colors of white, lime green, black and grey.
Reaching the top, I explore until I find the metal plaque demarcating the highest point. Recent rainfall still fills several delicate vernal pools at the top, known as weather pits, which create their own little ecosystems with ferns, mosses, algae and even fairy shrimp. The solid granite is completely impermeable, so the rain can only evaporate — as opposed to leaching through tiny pores as it would in other rock types.
I head to a lonely spot on its western edge, with a view of the neighboring “Little Rock.” For an hour, I sit alone with my thoughts, watching the sun set, before heading back down.
Since Texans like to claim they do everything bigger and better, it seems fitting that Texas — not Washington, D.C. — claims the world’s tallest monument column. The 570-foot tall monolith marks the spot on the San Jacinto River where General Sam Houston famously cried out “Remember the Alamo!” — a month after the tragic battle in San Antonio. Houston’s army launched a surprise attack on Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his army on April 21, 1836, in the boggy marsh and tallgrass prairie near the coast. The defeat of Santa Anna marked the end of the Texas-Mexico war that claimed many lives but turned Texas into an independent nation. (Yes, six flags really did fly over Texas throughout its history, including the Republic of Texas’ own flag.)
Today, the battleground spot lays claim to the tallest vantage point on the Texas coast at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site. The recently reno-vated elevator shoots to the top in seconds flat, emerging on an observation floor, under a gigantic Texas star. Gaze down on the hallowed battleground of years past, but also on the Houston skyline in the distance as well as the Ship Channel, which lies at the lower end of the San Jacinto River before emptying into Galveston Bay.
Below, a self-guided walking tour takes you through all the important sites in the battle for Texas independence — Santa Anna’s camp, the Texans’ camp, where the fighting began, and the surrender site, to name a few. The Marsh Restoration Boardwalk traverses through coastal prairie, tidal marsh and bottomland hardwood forest along the San Jacinto River.
Pronghorn antelope graze in tawny fields of grass, with layers of soft mountains edging toward the horizon behind them. Blazing yellow fall leaves on the soapberry trees line Limpia Creek west of Fort Davis, while a family of collared peccaries scurries off the roadside. The incredibly scenic drive to the McDonald Observatory along the Texas Mountain Trail — part of the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Heritage Trails Program — offers views and wildlife spotting comparable to any national park.
Take Spur 118 — officially the highest paved highway in Texas — to the top of Mount Locke at 6,791 feet, where the observatory provides a starry-night respite for budding and professional astronomers alike. The observatory has nine telescopes, including the Hobby-Eberly, the world’s fourth largest, with its space-age silver dome providing a unique silhouette on the Davis Mountains as you drive to the top of Mount Locke.
While astrophysicists study the birth of stars, amateur sky-watchers can take part in thrice-weekly Star Parties hosted at the Frank Bash Visitors Center, opened in 2002. Watch blazing stars at the observatory with some of the darkest skies in the continental United States. Sitting outdoors on sandstone benches, Program Coordinator Frank Cianciolo and his staff show everyone the planisphere, a circular star chart that uses the date and time to locate the sky’s most notable constellations, such as Cepheus and Cassiopeia, the king and queen, and the northern cross (part of Cygnus the swan). Peer through telescopes at moon craters and other astronomical wonders, such as the Ring Nebula — affectionately known as the Cosmic Cheerio.
The Astronomers Lodge offers moderate-cost, albeit spartan, accommodations to the public in the same bunks where astronomers from around the world stay. The glass wall in the dining room peers down on the live-oak-dotted Davis Mountains below, a spectacular mountain view. In the morning, watch the sun rise over layers of misty mountains from the deck of the 107-inch telescope tower next door.
“One of the things I enjoy the most is hearing the expressions of awe and wonder from people who see the Milky Way for the first time or who haven’t seen it since childhood,” says Cianciolo. The observatory works with locals to minimize regional light pollution caused when homes turn outdoor lights on at night. “Many people truly don’t know what we’ve lost by lighting up our night skies.”