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Beyond the Peak: Guadalupes Superintendent Tells New Stories at the Top of Texas

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Eric Leonard fell in love with Far West Texas as a ranger in Big Bend, and became superintendent at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in August 2020. Drawing the complex stories out of special places is his passion and his speciality, and he's bringing that skill to his work at the “Top of Texas.”

There's a “solace in open spaces,” as the title of Gretel Ehrlich's memoir of life in Wyoming would have it, and Americans appear to have found that especially true in the midst of a pandemic, when outdoor vacations beckon as both restorative, and safe. Forty-four of the nation's 63 national parks set records for visitation in 2021, and in West Texas, that included both Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains national parks.

For Guadalupes Superintendent Eric Leonard, it's a challenge. Surging visitation has strained the park's infrastructure. The impacts are particularly acute around Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, which, increasingly, is the sole focus for many visitors.

But it's also an opportunity. As more visitors discover the Guadalupes, Leonard is working to connect them to the richness of this singular Texas place, beyond its famous summit.

“We are successful,” Leonard said, “and, as a visitor, you are successful in a visit if, during the course of it, you see America in a way you hadn't seen it before. And here at Guadalupe Mountains, you see Texas in a way you don't anywhere else.” 

There's no denying it – elevation is part of that singular experience. As Leonard notes – gloating only a bit – there are minor summits here that surpass Emory Peak, Big Bend's highest point. The heights of the Guadalupes, and the immense views they offer, are without parallel in Texas. 

But a single-minded focus on elevation, and on “bagging” Texas's highest peak, has its limits, and its costs, Leonard said.

The Guadalupes saw 243,000 visitors in 2021 – an almost 30 percent increase from 2019. For many of those visitors, the peak was the point. The Guadalupe Peak campsite has become the park's busiest wilderness campground – with unsightly impacts. Campers there are now required to use toilet bags, to pack out their waste. 

Rangers have added traffic control to their duties – in busy times, it's a “one-in, one-out” rule for vehicles at the peak trailhead. And intensive use of the Pine Springs campground, near the trailhead, has tested the limits of the park's water supply.

The “Top of Texas” certainly has its appeal. But Leonard said peak-preoccupied visitors are missing out.

“For those visitors that are coming here to have the personal challenge and achievement of hiking to the top of Texas,” Leonard said, “if I was their friend, I would give them an itinerary to explore the park that would, quite frankly, not include the peak. The peak is a thing to do here – it's not the reason it's a park.” 

The place to start, Leonard said, is McKittrick Canyon. It's not a strenuous hike – but there's a reason it's been called “the most beautiful place in Texas.” From open desert, hikers soon enter a hidden oasis, and walk in the shade of Texas madrones, alligator junipers and bigtooth maples, and then towering pines. All of it is framed by soaring limestone cliffs.

Then, Leonard said, there are two “secret places” in the park.

West of the mountains themselves, the Salt Basin Dunes are at the park's lowest elevation. The heat here can be daunting, even dangerous. But the dunes epitomize austere desert beauty. Like those at White Sands National Park, they're of white gypsum, and visitors can walk the shining sands, beneath the Guadalupes' sheer escarpment.

The next stop on Leonard's itinerary is Dog Canyon. Visiting this remote place requires a long backroad drive – but the reward is a desert Elysium. Dog Canyon is a wilderness portal, and the foothills here are blanketed in golden grasslands, studded with oaks, junipers and pines, and crowned with bright limestone outcrops.

In broadening visitors' connections to the Guadalupes, Leonard is well-situated: drawing out the complex stories in special places has been at the center of his park-service journey.

That journey began in childhood. Family vacations centered on the parks, and Leonard said he “literally learned to read” from park maps and literature. And his father – a veteran, and junior-high science teacher – worked summers as a ranger in Yellowstone. America's oldest national park, and its rangers, cast a spell.

“Many of the park rangers that my father worked with were my first heroes as a small child,” Leonard said, “and this is so small an organization that in the course of my career, and at the end of some of theirs, I got to work with some of them – and that's a pretty neat experience, that you get to actually work with the people you sort of worshipped as a small child.”

History was another early passion – and it's been central to Leonard's career. His first park jobs were at frontier forts – Fort Larned, in Kansas, and Arkansas' Fort Smith. A pivotal posting came in 2004 – when he began a four-year stint at Big Bend. Leonard came of age with the internet, and he put his digital fluency to work at Big Bend, developing the park's website into a valuable visitor resource.

In 2010, Leonard moved to Georgia, and Andersonville National Historic Site, a Civil War prisoner-of-war camp. Amidst starvation and poor sanitation, 13,000 Union soldiers died here in 14 months. Telling this painful story – of atrocities committed on Americans, by Americans – was a test of a park ranger's skills, Leonard said.

Leonard took his first superintendent job in 2015, at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Here too, history was central. This South Dakota site preserves a decommissioned nuclear missile silo – and tells the story of the Cold War.

But Leonard had fallen in love with Far West Texas in Big Bend, and when the Guadalupes position opened, he applied. He was selected for the job in August 2020.

Like Leonard's earlier postings, the Guadalupes too are at the center of complex and difficult history. The mountains are sacred to the Mescalero Apache, and were one of the tribe's last strongholds against the U.S. military. Bloody episodes occurred in what's now the national park.

This land too was the focus of the 1877 Salt War, in which the area's longtime Latino residents and new Anglo arrivals vied – violently – over access to natural salt deposits. 

These are essentially “unplumbed histories,” Leonard said – and ones that the park should engage with and share with visitors.

Leonard sees another invitation for new storytelling here. The park celebrates its 50th anniversary in September, and Leonard said it's a chance to celebrate the West Texans who cared for this place for decades, in anticipation of its becoming a park. They believed its value lay in its raw, primitive quality, and they're the reason the Guadalupes remain the state's ultimate “high lonesome,” Leonard said.  

“I see the anniversary as an opportunity to talk about the legacy of the mountains,” Leonard said, “what brought the park to creation, the hopes and aspirations behind it, and to talk about the future. How do you mark a 50th anniversary of a park in the midst of a pandemic? Well, stay tuned.” 

Hiking Guadalupe Peak is a challenge, and an achievement. But beyond that increasingly well-traveled trail, there's much to discover in this West Texas place.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.