Autumn at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

STORY AND PHOTOS BY GIL POTTS

In the far northern reaches of Culberson County lies one of America’s little talked about hidden gems. It’s a place that garners little attention, even though it is home to one of the most recognized landmarks of West Texas.  

More than a landmark, it also hosts the highest point in all of Texas. It’s a place where hiking and backpacking opportunities abound. It’s been referred to as a birders’  paradise and a pristine wilderness area, home to an abundance of wildlife, both large and small. A place where adventurous souls can freely relate to the marvels of a protected wilderness. 

A place where one can possibly realize a memorable wildlife sighting, such as an antelope, a variety of snakes, or even an unusual sighting of a wayward Osprey.  But most certainly, the experience of every visitor to Guadalupe Mountains National Park will in some way involve an everlasting encounter with the visual wonders of Mother Nature.  

For history buffs, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the world’s premier example of a fossil reef, dating back to the Permian Era. Evidence indicates the first humans to live in the area were hunter-gathers. They followed large game herds that roamed the region, and collected edible vegetation. Artifacts that support this include projectile points, baskets, pottery, and rock art. 

Archaeologists indicate that people lived more than 10,000 years ago in and among the many caves and alcoves of the area. Most certainly though, El Capitan, as we refer to it today, has served peoples of the region as the most distinguishable landmark in the territory throughout the centuries past. And yet, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of the newest national parks in America, established as a National Park in 1972. 

For the imaginative photographer perpetually chasing the “Golden Hour of Light,” there’s a thrilling opportunity at every bend of the trail and changing minute on the clock. The ever shifting evening light, the single hour before sunset, brings with it a constantly varying color wheel at the slightest change of aperture on the camera. But for the purest, the artist at heart, there’s nothing more valuable than the first fifteen minutes of morning light, complimented by the clean air of the Guadalupe Mountains. 

The rich colors in the first picture above is an excellent example of how dramatically morning’s first light can influence the portrayal of a landscape when the sun first casts it’s glow on the mountainside. The angle from which the abrupt face of El Capitan captures the direct sunlight produces a brief view of true color only viewable for a fleeting few moments during sunrise.

For some, it’s the commencement of a daily love affair with the visual glory of life. It’s sometimes thought of as God’s gift to a new day. But as in any true love affair, variety is indeed the spice of life. Thus, the cloudy skies, the rain, the snow, each usher a differing new and equally wonderful perspective to the otherwise same, longstanding subject of focus.  

As a photographer, the spice of life is realized through the variety of light as it changes throughout the seasons, as much as the time of day. Clearly, pictures two and three were captured in the fall of the year. The brilliant colorful foliage is the obvious give-away. But maybe not so obvious is the time of day. 

There are certain times when you put aside the hard rules of natural landscape photography, and take the picture anyway. For non-photographers and amateurs, there’s a general rule in landscape photography worthy of remembering. When its lunch time, put the camera down and eat your lunch! The light is terrible when the sun is directly overhead.
 
Not always. Numbers 2 and 3 were both captured just after high noon on October 25, 2013. (Without lunch.)  The dark spotted cloud cover produced an unusual defused light over McKittrick Canyon about three miles up the trail, allowing for the capture of the fully saturated colors. Life is good, even without lunch.

In the desert grasslands of the southern region of the Park, is Williams Ranch. The two or three hours it takes to negotiate the four-wheel-drive road in from the highway is an adventure into history and solitude. 

For those with an active imagination of times past, it’s easy to conjure up a tale or two of the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach traversing the same two-rut trail across the desert. Most likely, the only real visual difference from a hundred years ago is that the grasslands that were so attractive to ranchers  has been overtaken for the most part, by creosote or greasewood bush, one of the oldest living organisms on Earth. 

Image five is framed from the front porch of the ranch house, looking southwest on a late mid-June afternoon. The high contrasts of the late afternoon light are enhanced by the high cloud reflections and low cloud shadows of an approaching storm. 

As expected, the quickly encroaching storm darkened the skies and by 8 p.m., provided a spectacular display of electrical activity behind the horizon of clouds, so heavy with moisture they appeared to be falling out of the sky. 

The clean morning air and high vantage point enhances an already beautiful view to the east, but as the day progresses, the stage is set for a repeat performance, with just a slight change of background and characters. In full bloom, the beautifully contrasting colors of an ocotillo stand are center stage to the majestic El Capitan, while just up the trail, remnants of a past civilization are evident in and around the rocks, as the ominous mountain signifying the southern reach of the Guadalupe Mountains stands grandly in the background.     

Yes, it’s that time of year again, to make the annual pilgrimage to view the spectacular fall colors of McKittrick Canyon. Take your camera and harness the dramatic light of autumn to capture for yourself the incredible colors of an unforgettable love affair, yours for the taking.