A Walk on the Wild Side: The Texas 3 Peaks Challenge

Hikers came from across the state for the Texas 3 Peaks Challenge with Far West Texas Outfitters. Photo by Shelby Loveland.

Trivial as it may sound, I like to think of myself as an informal ambassador for Texas’ mountain ranges, particularly the big three: The Guadalupe Mountains, the Davis Mountains, and the Chisos Mountains. I love adventuring across these beautiful ranges and sharing these magical places with others. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve climbed to the tops of their high points, those being Guadalupe Peak, Baldy Peak, and Emory Peak, respectively. These are some of my favorite places on earth, and they’re proof that, no, our state is not all flat and hot, and that indeed there are mountains in Texas. Even after eight years of adventuring in these ranges, sometimes I still have to pinch myself. Yes, this is Texas. 

This past summer I fortuitously bumped into Mike Naccarato at a bar in Marfa. Mike and his fiancée, Sage Keith, own and operate Far West Texas Outfitters, and they guide top-notch river trips along the Rio Grande, the Devil’s and the Pecos rivers. Mike approached me to start up a hiking and backpacking program to broaden their offerings. Having been turning over the idea of guiding hikes commercially, and realizing Mike had already jumped through all the hoops required to set up a guide service, I eagerly accepted. And then I realized I finally had the chance to bring into fruition an idea that had been simmering for quite some time: the Texas 3 Peaks Challenge. 

For my first commercial hiking experience, the idea was admittedly ambitious, but it was simple: lead three hikes in three days to the tops of Texas’ three highest mountain ranges. I knew this trip would bring together some powerful elements: community, adventure and physical challenge, all in our three stunning sky island mountain ranges in Far West Texas. And I knew the days would be long, but rewarding. I sold Mike on the idea. But now I needed to spread the word. So I created a promotional video on Instagram with this caption: 

“Three big days. Three challenging hikes. Three incredible peaks. The Texas 3 Peaks Challenge is October 7, 8 and 9. Join our crew for an unforgettable experience in Far West Texas.” And as the buzz was generated and signups began trickling in, I realized it was going to happen. 

My co-guide, Shelby Loveland, couldn’t have been better suited to help me pull off this adventure. About five years ago she joined a small group of mutual friends who summited all three of these peaks in a 24-hour push. Unable to get out of work commitments for that adventure, I suffered through a serious case of FOMO. But their journey was in part what planted the seed in my imagination for this experience. And now that seed was sprouting. 

El Cosmico in Marfa was the ideal place for our “base camp” where most of our hikers stayed. We met at the outdoor kitchen early each morning where we provided coffee and breakfast before hitting the road. We’d then shuttle our team of hikers to the trailhead for a full day of hiking, providing lunch for a picnic on the peak, and then a charcuterie board back at the parking lot after each hike. 

On day one we climbed 3,000 vertical feet to the top of Texas, Guadalupe Peak. On day two, our longest day, we trekked to the top of the Big Bend, scrambling up Emory Peak. And on day three, all eight of us finished with Baldy Peak on Mount Livermore in the Davis Mountains Preserve, which completed our 3 Peaks experience. Three hikes in three days to the highest points of Texas’ three highest mountain ranges. As one hiker said in our debrief survey, “It’s life-changing.” 

One of the amazing things about finishing with Baldy Peak was the view to the north and the south. Despite some haze from the Permian Basin, the visibility that day was great. Looking to the north some 100 miles, we could just make out the sheer white limestone face of El Capitan with Guadalupe Peak rising up behind it, which we’d climbed two days prior. And looking 100 miles to the south we could see the squared right angle of Casa Grande and the point of Emory Peak which we’d summited just the day before. 

It seemed almost impossible that we’d covered so much ground in such little time. But there we stood on our third of three peaks, having an expansive mountain range pretty much all to ourselves. After taking it all in, we scrambled down and handed out Texas 3 Peaks caps to each of our hikers, congratulating them on completing the big challenge. It was a literal and figurative mountain top moment. But reflecting back on our three big hikes over three long days, our experience had a bit more depth than simply hiking and bagging peaks. And perhaps it was Steven’s story that best represented that meaning.  

Back at our welcome dinner at El Cosmico the night before our first hike, all eight of our core group of hikers showed up. I was kind of surprised, I was humbled, and I was stoked for the adventures ahead. It was really happening now. 

As we sat around the picnic tables, we broke the ice and I asked the group, “What’s your why for this trip?” As several had already hiked one or two of the peaks before, there was a shared love for these mountains and a draw to this unique challenge. But a guy named Steven was on his first visit to this region, having traveled all the way from deep East Texas. And as he shared his why, it tugged at our hearts and brought a new dimension of significance to our trip. 

Just a few years ago Steven had reunited with a friend of 20 years named Jake. And Jake had recently turned his life around. He’d sobered up from alcohol and quit smoking and got into running and became a vegetarian. And Jake was always inviting Steven to join him on his adventures, but regrettably Steven was never able to take him up on it. Jake’s newfound passion for trail running had taken him up to the very ranges and peaks that we were hiking that weekend. 

But unknowingly, Jake was bagging peaks and running ultramarathons with terminal cancer. When he was finally diagnosed, doctors couldn’t believe what he’d been doing. Despite all the strength he’d been summoning, Jake’s health quickly declined and he passed away. 

But Jake’s journey didn’t end there. Steven was on a pilgrimage to the tops of these peaks with the blessing of Jake’s wife, to spread some of his late friend’s ashes in the mountains that Jake had come to love in his final years.  

Steven thought, Surely if Jake could run up these mountains with terminal cancer, I can hike them. And even while recovering from a back injury, he did. And along the way, Steven was blown away by the beauty of the mountains of our state. And he came to understand Jake’s love for these places. It was a powerful thing to witness. 

And when you’re standing on Baldy Peak, seeing in the far distance the two mountain ranges you’d summited in the two days prior, with Steven quietly sprinkling his friend’s ashes into the gentle breeze, that’s when it hits you. This isn’t just about hiking. 

This is about life. 

Based in Fort Davis, Tyler Priest is a hiking guide with Far West Texas Outfitters. He leads adventures by day and bartends by night. He can be reached at [email protected]

The next Texas 3 Peaks Challenge with Far West Texas Outfitters is slated for Easter weekend, March 29-31. More information can be found at farwesttexasoutfitters.com/hiking-and-backpacking/