A hiker’s paradise – Guadalupe Mountains National Park
October 13, 2019
A hiker’s paradise.
A wilderness park.
The park you have to want to go to.
If any of those phrases make your ears perk up, then add Guadalupe Mountains National Park to your ‘must hike’ list.
- Why visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- When to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- What to do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Hiking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Camping in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Salt Basin Dunes
- Eating in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Lodging in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Tips for visiting Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park FAQ
- Fast Facts
Why visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Why visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park?
- The views. See the stunning peaks of Guadalupe Mountains and the vast Chihuahuan Desert all in one park.
- The hiking. 80 miles of hiking trails offer options from easy to strenuous.
- The solitude. It isn’t an unknown park but its location and design mean the tour bus crowd won’t be there.
The park ranger summed it up best. When we explained it was our first visit and we then asked for hiking advice, her face lit up and then she told us “Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a hiker’s paradise!” After sampling a few of the 80-miles of trails, we’d have to say she was right.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is not a front-country park. It’s best described as a primarily day-use wilderness park. The nearest major city is El Paso Texas (1.5 hours away) while the closest town with services is Carlsbad New Mexico (1 hour away). So, unlike other well-known national parks, there are no gateway cities into the park.
There is no scenic drive through the park. Thus, no busloads of tourists stopping to take a selfie at an overcrowded vista. The closest thing to a scenic drive is to drive by the park on its southern border US-62 and pull-off at the scenic viewpoint to snap a picture of El Capitan.
In the park, you won’t find food services, hotels, or cabins. Primitive campgrounds are your only lodging choice inside the park. The nearest hotel is easily an hour’s drive outside the park. Can you say remote?
And if you are a geology buff, this park is for you. 260 million years ago the area was part of the Capitan Reef. So the mountains you stand on in Guadalupe Mountains National Park used to be a marine fossil reef. Yep, the mountains were once an underwater reef.
When to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Choose your season based on your tolerance for weather factors.
- Winter. The trails can be snowy and icy.
- Spring. This season is known for its winds. 100+ mile hour winds along Route US-62 (which runs along the southern boundary of the park) frequently close that road to semi-traffic. I wouldn’t consider that to be ideal hiking or camping weather.
- Summer. It’s Texas which means it is HOT. You’d best be heat-tolerant or plan to hike early (like start before sunrise early). It’s always a good idea to carry water when hiking but during the summer, it’s mandatory if you want to survive. We visited during late summer and had to choose shorter hikes based on the temperatures and the storm clouds that appeared each afternoon.
- Fall. According to the ranger, the park is super-busy in the fall with crowds coming to see the leaves change colors.
Another timing consideration – if you plan to camp at either Dog Canyon or Pine Springs, plan your visit accordingly. All of the campsites are first-come, first-served. So arriving on a Friday evening is likely to leave you without a campsite.
What to do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Activities available include:
- Camping (primitive campgrounds and backcountry)
- Salt Basin Dunes
- Horseback riding (bring your own horse)
Hiking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
There are 80-miles of hiking within the park.
Hiking trails can be accessed via any one of the five entrances into the park:
- Salt Basin Dunes
- Pine Springs
- Frijole Ranch
- McKittrick Canyon
- Dog Canyon
Note that only Pine Springs and Dog Canyon have camping and visitor centers. All other entrances are day-use only.
Check out the park map for a list of all the hiking trails, their difficulty, and which park entrance to use for each trailhead.
Choose the type of landscape you want to hike. The park service categorizes the geography using different terms depending on whether you are looking at the park map or park signs. The regions (life zones) are:
- The Desert (or Desert Zone).
- The Canyons (or the Riparian Zone)
- The Highlands (or the Mountain Zone)
In addition to the park map, the following are useful items for planning a hike:
- Day Hikes pamphlet. It gives general descriptions of the day hikes including distance, difficulty and time duration to help you choose a route. The park office gave us this brochure.
- Guide/map specific to each hike. These can be found online. They include detailed descriptions of the route and a high-level map of each route.
Based on the 100-degree temperatures when we visited, we chose shorter hikes in the Desert and Canyon zones. It was astounding how much was blooming as we walked the trails.
Take plenty of water when hiking. A minimum of 1-gallon per person is recommended. On our hikes, there were not backcountry water sources.
Watch the weather forecast. If you are hiking up into the mountains, lightning is a risk. All of our hiking days had dark clouds looming but it never actually rained.
Guadalupe Peak Trail
If you are into strenuous day-long hikes, then check out this trail.
Based on time constraints and weather, we did not get to hike this trail. Thus Guadalupe Peak Trail is still on our to-do list.
Texas is mostly flat so reaching the highest point in Texas at 8,751 feet is a bucket list item!
Devil’s Hall Trail
This 4.2 miles round trip hike starts in the Pine Springs section of the park.
The park guide ranks it as a moderate hike. I’d say overall, it is moderate with some parts ranking as moderate-plus. The guide lists it as 2.5 to 3 hours round-trip. Climbing up-and-over boulders is a must so allow a little more time if you aren’t part mountain goat.
There is a fair bit of scrambling in the wash. While you aren’t technically route-finding (you are in a wash, where else would you go?), you do have to pick your own way up the wash. There isn’t a defined path to follow in the wash and whatever path you choose is rocky. Distracted hiking is not an option for this hike.
Another comment on the wash – I don’t know when water flows through it. Spring snowmelt? After a good rainstorm? It’s something to consider before you head out.
The “Hiker’s Staircase”, just before Devil’s Hall, is obvious once you see it. So if you think you missed it, you didn’t.
The Devil’s Hall itself is a narrow section of the Pine Spring Canyon. Seasonally, the area beyond Devil’s Hall is closed for animal protection. Check with the park rangers before your hike to see if the area is open or closed.
Return the same way you came in. Watch for the small trail sign that directs you out of the wash and back onto the defined trail.
Pinery Trail is a paved .75 mile round-trip hike. It starts behind the Pine Springs Visitor Center.
Two fantastic reasons to walk the Pinery Trail:
- Butterfield Trail stagecoach station ruins
The park ranger suggested the Pinery Trail as a good place to see elk at dawn and dusk.
We went for a sunrise hike and found elk grazing along the trail. The elk politely chose to eat breakfast near the bench that is located half-way down the Pinery Trail. On the return trip, we spotted another small herd in the distance on the hillside.
Butterfield Trail Stagecoach Station Ruins
Near the end of the Pinery Trail, the Old Pinery station ruins still exist.
The interpretive signs at the ruins provide a history lesson. Butterfield Overland Mail Route was the early ancestor of the postal service. This mail route even preceded the Pony Express and the transcontinental railroad.
In the mid-1800s, the options for getting a letter from the eastern US to the western territories were either:
- A boat going around South America. (Talk about snail mail!)
- The Butterfield Overland Mail Route. A promised delivery time of 25 days.
The Old Pinery station was one of the Butterfield Trails Stagecoach stations. Stations were located about every 20 miles along the route. This particular station was only in service for 11 months. Then the Civil War shut down the entire Butterfield route.
Less than 200 hundred years ago, it took a minimum of 25 days to send a letter. Today, we get annoyed if a text isn’t received and responded to within minutes. A different life, eh?
McKittrick Canyon Trail
Known for its fall colors, this trail is an out-and-back distance of your choosing. From the trailhead to Pratt Canyon is almost 5 miles round-trip. You can take the trail to the summit of McKittrick Ridge and beyond to connect with other trails.
There are restrooms and potable water at the trailhead. Use the McKittrick entrance to access the trailhead.
We hiked only a small portion of the trail. We did not get all the way into the canyon itself. But even the start of the trail has a variety of rock differences. If geology is your main interest, consider the Permian Reef Trail instead of the McKittrick Trail.
Camping in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Camping, both the primitive sites and the backpacking sites, is first-come, first-served. There isn’t any way to reserve a site in advance of arrival. We camped on a Monday night and by dark, the tent sites were full.
Primitive camping is available at both the Pine Spring and Dog Canyon entrances.
For tent-camping, there are designated sites with camp pads and picnic tables. These are walk-in sites so expect to carry your gear in a short distance from the car. The restrooms located closest to the tent area are pit toilets. There are potable water pumps near the tent area.
For vans or RVs, there is a paved parking lot. There are no hookups or dump stations. At Pine Springs, the flushable toilets and the water filling station were located near the RV sites.
We stayed at the Pine Springs campground. Surprisingly, we could hear traffic on US-62 all night. The upside? The star-gazing was amazing and the elk bugles serenaded us to sleep.
Backcountry camping is available with a permit. Check with the park staff for details.
Salt Basin Dunes
These gypsum sand dunes are located on the eastern edge of the park. We did not get to hike these but they are on our future to-do list.
We did hike similar dunes at White Sands National Monument. During a ranger-led hike at that park, we learned that the gypsum sand dunes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park are the second-largest known gypsum dune field in the world.
Eating in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Nope. There are no dining facilities in the park.
Bring your own food or be prepared to drive an hour outside the park to find food.
And speaking of bringing your own food, if you are coming from El Paso Texas, stock up while you are El Paso. Once you leave El Paso, there are no grocery stores between the city and the park.
Lodging in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Nope. The park has no onsite cabins or hotels.
Plan on staying at least an hour’s drive outside the park unless you scored a campsite in the park.
Tips for visiting Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Pine Springs Visitor Center
Stop in one of the visitor centers at Pine Springs or Dog Canyon to get a park map and advice from the rangers.
The Pine Springs Visitor Center has a small gift shop that has a few camping supply essentials. It also has a museum that takes about 20 minutes to explore and gives a great explanation of the geology of the park. On the other hand, skip the 12-minute video they offer in the conference room. The video doesn’t really enhance your visit at all.
There is WiFi available at the Pine Springs Visitor Center but the range does not extend to the campground.
Cell service was possible in the Pine Spring Campground depending on your carrier.
Bring your own food supplies. The closest town is an hour away.
Drinkable water and flush toilets are available at some of the entrances.
If you leave the park and drive east, you get into an oil boom area. Be prepared for TONS of semi-trucks and sand trucks and construction. The traffic has exploded beyond what the roads were designed for.
A park ranger from a Texas state park called it “a madhouse”. Allegedly there were 87 deaths in 90 days due to traffic accidents. It’s drivable – just expect the drive to be slower than expected speed and to have to navigate truck traffic.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park FAQ
We had some questions before our visit that we figure you might have too.
The park is located in western Texas, about 100 miles east of El Paso.
The park offers primitive camping at the Piney Springs and Dog Canyon entrances. There are no cabins or indoor lodging in the park. The nearest hotels are located about an hour’s drive outside the park
Day hiking is the primary activity. Horseback riding and backpacking are also options.
In 2019, the day-use fee was $7/person. Yearly park passes and most of the National Park Passes can be used here as well.
Nope. All camping in the park is first-come, first-serve
You bet! Check out Guadalupe Peak trail, El Capitan trail, or The Bowl trail.
Absolutely! Check out the Pinery Trail or the Manzanita Spring trail.
There are no restaurants in the park. Plan on bringing your own meals and snacks.
- Trip Date: September 2019
- Name: Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Location: Texas, USA
- Fee: $