Located in West Texas, just across the border from New Mexico, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a mountainous desert landscape perfect for getting out on the trail. This park has more than 80 miles of trails, some easy day hikes and some difficult backcountry treks.
This park preserves the tallest peak in Texas, Guadalupe Peak, which tops out at 8,751 feet, as well as several other peaks, including the picturesque El Capitan. The park is full of canyons, rugged washes and even an area of sand dunes to the east.
The park is most popular in the spring and fall, mainly due to the weather. In the summer, temperatures easily reach into the 90s, even at elevation. In the late fall and winter, the temperatures drop but the winds can exceed 70 mph.
We ended up visiting in the winter and we experienced the wind firsthand. We visited once in the afternoon to go to the visitor center. The winds were gusting to more than 50 mph and it was miserable.
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Start at the Pine Springs Visitor Center
Pro Tip: Fill up your gas tank and pack any needed food or drinks before you head out to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. There’s not a lot in the way of anything near this park.
This is one park we highly recommend you start your visit at the visitor center. The apps for weather are not all that accurate compared to the real conditions at this remote park. Additionally, it’s a very remote park and you want to make sure you know what to expect while there.
We were able to speak to the ranger about conditions on the trails and what to expect weather-wise for the next day. We also got information about the closure of Williams Ranch Road. I was interested in driving this primitive dirt road leading to the historic ranch but, sadly, it was washed out in the summer of 2021.
There are some exhibits at the visitor center but we found them to be uncharacteristically small and dated for a named national park. Still, we made a point to check out the display on all the wildlife found in the park.
Hiking and Camping in the Pine Springs Area
The Pine Springs area of the park is home to some of the most popular trails in the park. That includes the Tejas Trail, which traverses the park through the mountains all the way to the remote Dog Canyon area on the north side of the park.
You can also pick up the trails to Devils Hall, which traverses a rocky wash through a narrow canyon, and Guadalupe Peak, both of which are considered strenuous.
If you are looking for something a bit easier, the Foothills Loop Trail takes you out to Frijole Ranch and back along the base of the mountains.
You can camp inside the park, but the campground is a bit primitive. The tent sites aren’t bad but the RV sites are simply a parking lot without connections. If we were camping, we would likely end up camping in either Carlsbad or White’s City.
Pro Tip: Be sure to head southwest Hwy 62 from the visitor center through the Guadalupe Pass and look for a picnic area on the right. You will find an excellent view of El Capitan, one of the most picturesque mountains in the park.
Visiting Frijole Ranch
If we were visiting during better weather, we would have hiked from the visitor center to Frijole Ranch. When we return, we are looking forward to hiking the 4-mile loop out there.
But, since winds were gusting to nearly 50 mph and the temperatures were in the low 40s before you counted the wind chill, we opted to drive.
The Frijole Ranch dates back more than 100 years. It preserves the headquarters of the ranch: a small stone house, along with a tiny one-room school house and a spring house.
This ranch was supported by a freshwater spring (which still flows). This spring provided the ingredients for long-term habitation in these desert mountains.
The house is open for visitation seasonally when the Park Service has folks available to staff it. Unsurprisingly, there was no one out there in the winter winds.
I always love visiting these frontier farms and ranches. It really brings to life what it took to make it in such a remote and difficult landscape.
Hiking McKittrick Canyon
The next day looked a LOT better, weather-wise, with only 20 mph winds. So, we decided to get out on the trail at McKittrick Canyon and hike out to Pratt Cabin along the excellent McKittrick Canyon Trail.
This 4.8-mile out-and-back trail took us just shy of two hours and only had a 400-foot elevation gain. The gravel trail wound among plenty of trees, offering a good amount of shade. It also had a lot of deciduous trees, which usually change colors from mid-October through mid-November.
The hike through the tall canyon walls crosses several washes and a couple of creek crossings before arriving at the Pratt Cabin, which was a summer residence for Houston geologist Wallace Pratt and his family from 1932 to 1964.
The Park Service continues to keep rocking chairs on the porch, making this an excellent spot for a picnic lunch. We rested here, munched on a PB&J, and enjoyed the views from the porch before heading back down the trail.
Typically, Bonnie and I make a point to hike loop trails so we aren’t crossing the same ground, seeing the same views, as on the way in. Delightfully, this trail was just as pretty going out as it was coming in.
Other Areas of Guadalupe Mountains National Park
There are two other areas you can access the park: Dog Canyon and Salt Basin Dunes.
Dog Canyon is located on the north end of the park. While it is remote from the Pine Springs Visitor Center, it offers several good hikes with moderate elevation changes. We are looking forward to getting up to this area of the park on a return visit.
The Salt Basin Dunes is located on the west side of the park. The area offers the opportunity to explore a remote area of gypsum dunes. This area is much like the dunes of nearby White Sands National Park.
Read more about White Sands National Park here.
Lastly, there’s the Williams Ranch Area but there is no telling when the road to this area of the park will be repaired.
Where to Stay and Eat Near Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The first thing to know is there is not much of anything near Guadalupe Mountains National Park. There’s a walk-in (tent-only) campground at Pine Springs which would be good for a couple of nights if the weather is moderate. The nearest campground with connections is White’s City, just outside Carlsbad Caverns National Park. To be fair, there’s not much more there than a small inn, a gas station and a couple of shops.
We stayed in Carlsbad, NM, which is about an hour north of the park’s visitor center. Carlsbad is a good-sized town with plenty of hotels and campgrounds.
Since we weren’t camping on this trip, we stayed at the Home2 Suites in Carlsbad, NM and used it as our base for exploring Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The hotel was quite comfy and we enjoyed our stay.
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Right across the street from the hotel is the Guadalupe Mountains Brewing Company. One night, we walked across the street for a couple of beers and a pizza. Both the food and the beer were great. That said, be careful if you order the Hatch Chili Beer… It was a bit too spicy for Bonnie’s taste! Of course, Grant loved it.
If you want something more upscale, head into town for the YellowBrix, an eclectic mix of Southwest and American flavors. I got the BRIX Mexican Burger, which was delicious! Bonnie got the meatloaf, which she really enjoyed.
Final Thoughts on Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park really is a hiker’s park. There are a ton of great trails here and we are excited to return to do a LOT more hiking and exploring.
We knew we didn’t have a ton of time to see and explore this park but we still wanted to stop and get a taste of it anyway. Still, if you were only going to spend one day in this park, I recommend doing basically exactly what we did: check out the visitor center, go to Frijole Ranch, and hike the McKittrick Canyon Trail out to Pratt Cabin.
I also recommend you pay close attention to the weather no matter what time of year you plan on visiting. The winds this area gets in the winter can be just as bad as the heat in the summer.
Personally, I really want to come back in the fall to see the leaves change. The timing of seeing the leaves and seeing the bats at Carlsbad Caverns might be a little tricky but there’s a ton to see and do in this area, like visiting nearby El Paso, White Sands National Park, and Albuquerque.
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