Visiting the Guadalupe Mountains National Park: What to Know

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When planning a trip, have you added another destination due to proximity? It happened to us when researching our travels in southern New Mexico.  

Our primary goal was to visit the state’s two national parks: Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands. Then we discovered there was another national park nearby.  

Although located in Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is only 45 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns. We could not pass up this opportunity. Sometimes add-ons are lovely.  

We will cover everything you need to know about this little-known national park. Then, you can plan your Texas-sized adventure in the Guadalupe Mountains.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Basic Information

Guadalupe Mountains National Park welcome sign
Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Location and Directions

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is in west Texas, about 110 miles east of El Paso and 55 miles southwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico. Surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert, the park comprises 86,416 acres.

The park is accessible by U.S. Highway 62/180. Aptly named the National Parks Highway, the route also takes you directly to Carlsbad Caverns. We have included a map at the end of this post so you can view the area and plot your course.

Gas

Make sure you have plenty of fuel in the tank. The closest gas station to the park headquarters is 35 miles in either direction. Your last stop for gas will be Dell City in Texas or White’s City in New Mexico.

Fees and Passes

The park entrance fee is $10 per person (age 16+). Your pass is good for seven days, starting at the date of purchase. Or, you can purchase an annual pass to Guadalupe Mountains National Park for $35.

Consider an America the Beautiful park pass for $80. This annual pass is good for one year, starting at the date of purchase. It is valid at all our national parks.

Pets

With limited opportunities, there are better parks to bring your pet. Leashed dogs are permitted only in areas accessed by vehicles:

  • Established roadsides
  • Parking areas
  • Developed picnic areas
  • Campgrounds

Leashed pets are only allowed on two trails in the park:

  • Pine Springs Campground Connector Trail
  • Pinery Trail

Leaving your furry friend at home is best if these parameters are not a good fit for you.

Weather

From May through October, temperatures range from 80 degrees Fahrenheit to over 100. Lows can be between 40 and 60 degrees. November to April tends to be milder. Highs are between 50 and 70, and lows range from 30 to 50.

Please heed my warning. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is known for being windy year-round. Wind gusts can exceed 60 miles per hour.

During our visit, we experienced 30 to 40-mile-per-hour winds with 60-mile-per-hour gusts. We love hiking, but going against that wind is a challenge! Plus, the “real feel” temperature is considerably lower. Be sure to pack layers and a windbreaker.

What Time is it?

This place is in the zone. Nobody is sure what zone, though. 

One of the strangest things about the park is the confusion over the time zone. The park is in the Mountain time zone, but cell service comes from towers in the Central time zone. Your electronic devices will likely show the wrong time.

How Many Districts Does the Park Have?

Guadalupe Mountains comprises five park districts:

  • Pine Springs
  • McKittrick Canyon
  • Frijole Ranch
  • Dog Canyon
  • Salt Basin Dunes

Operating Hours and Seasons

Note that each park district has its hours of operation. It may be the land of confusion between the time zone issues and the different operating hours.

  • Pine Springs is open 24 hours a day, year-round.
  • McKittrick Canyon is open daily, with hours that vary based on the season.
    • April – October: 8:00 am – 6:00 pm Mountain Daylight Time  
    • November – March: 8:00 am – 4:30 pm Mountain Standard Time
  • Frijole Ranch is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
  • Dog Canyon is available 24 hours a day, year-round.
  • Salt Basin Dunes is open daily from sunrise to sunset.

Things To Do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Top Activities

  • Scenic drives
  • Hiking
  • Backpacking
  • Horseback riding
  • Observing wildlife

Let’s take a deeper dive into each of these.

Scenic Drives

National Parks Highway

One of the great things about many of our national parks is that you can take a scenic drive inside the park. Unfortunately, that is not the case with Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

The only real scenic drive here is the National Parks Highway itself. You can see the mountain ranges as you drive, but you will be outside the park. 

There are several short spur roads from the National Parks Highway. I would not classify any of these as scenic drives. These roads merely give you access to the park’s different sections.

Hiking

Trail to Pratt Cabin
Section of trail to Pratt Cabin

The Main Attraction

Guadalupe Mountains National Park may not have long scenic drives but it boasts extensive hiking trails.  

There are many challenging yet rewarding opportunities. You can hike:

  • Along rugged, beautiful mountains
  • Through rocky canyons
  • Up iconic peaks
  • Up a series of large boulders

Hiking is the main attraction at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The scenery may not be as majestic as the red rocks in Sedona, but it is beautiful. 

These hikes will test you, but they are so gratifying. We felt a great sense of accomplishment after tackling the rocky trails here. If you enjoy hiking, this park is calling your name!

Backpacking

Long Hikes and Campsites

Guadalupe Mountains National Park has plenty to offer you if you enjoy long hikes that require more than a day to complete. The park website has a list of suggested backpacking itineraries. It details the mileage, elevation change, and the number of campsites for each adventure.   

Guadalupe Mountains National Park has ten designated campsites in the wilderness. You will need to obtain a permit from the Pine Springs Visitor Center.

Horseback Riding

Bring Your Horse

Do you have a horse? If so, you can have a unique adventure in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. 

Riding is permitted on 60% of the trails and is limited to day trips only. The park website contains details on horseback riding, including routes and corrals. 

Observing Wildlife

Mule deer in Guadalupe Mountains NP
Mule deer

There are many different types of wildlife in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  Whether you enjoy birdwatching or observing animals, there are opportunities for you.

Common Birds of Guadalupe Mountains

Throughout the year, many different bird species will inhabit the park at one time or another, including:

  • Canyon towhee
  • Sparrow (various types)
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Loggerhead shrike
  • White-winged dove
  • Woodpecker (multiple varieties)
  • Roadrunner
  • Warbler (spring)
  • Oriole (spring)
  • Phainopepla (winter)
  • Pyrrhuloxia (winter) 

Best Places to Spot Birds

  • Frijole Ranch
  • Smith Springs 
  • McKittrick Canyon
  • The Bowl 
  • Pine Springs

Common Animals of Guadalupe Mountains

  • Mule deer
  • Elk
  • Coyote
  • Gray fox
  • Desert cottontail
  • Black-tailed jackrabbit
  • Ringtail
  • Rock squirrel
  • Mountain lion
  • Javelina
  • Bobcat

Sighting animals in the park is not easy since most are nocturnal.

We were fortunate to observe three mule deer feeding close to the Devil’s Hall trailhead. Although near the trail, the deer blended in with the environment and were extremely quiet. I must admit a sharp eye is needed to find them. In our case, it was sheer dumb luck.

Common Reptiles of Guadalupe Mountains

During the warmer months, you may spot reptiles like:

  • Chihuahuan spotted whiptail
  • Prairie lizard
  • Collared lizard
  • Mountain short-horned lizard
  • Western diamondback
  • Black-tailed rattlesnake

Tips for Observing Wildlife

  • Your best chance is near sunrise and sunset.  
  • Seek out permanent water sources.  
  • Look for tracks.

Best Places for Animal Sightings

  • Manzanita Spring
  • Smith Springs
  • McKittrick Canyon

Now that we discussed things to do let’s discuss the different park districts so you can better plan your adventure.

Places To Go in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

One of our biggest challenges when planning this trip was to figure out where to go. With five park districts, we needed to figure out where to spend our time. We saw names of trails and destinations, but we needed to determine where to find them.

We have details on each park district so you can decide where and how to spend your time.

Pine Springs

Devil's Hall in Guadalupe Mountains NP
Devil’s Hall

Pine Springs Visitor Center

Pine Springs houses the main visitor center and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park headquarters. It can be easily accessed by U.S. Highway 62/180.

You can obtain maps and brochures in the visitor center. The park store sells souvenirs, books, and other valuable items. It is smaller than other national park visitor centers but covers the basics very well. 

The park rangers here are very helpful. After describing our interests, they suggested which trails to hike and provided input on weather and conditions. 

I encourage you to talk to a park ranger whenever you visit any national park. You are getting tips from an insider. That may not fly in the stock market, but it is outstanding here.

Day Hikes in Pine Springs

  • Pinery Trail is an easy, paved 0.9-mile round-trip hike outside the Pine Springs Visitor Center. This path takes you to the Old Butterfield Stagecoach Route Pinery Station.
  • Foothills Loop is a moderate 4.5-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 2 to 5 hours. You will have a nice view of Bear Canyon and El Capitan along the way. Although not the tallest point, El Capitan is the most pronounced peak on the horizon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
  • Devil’s Hall is a strenuous 4.2-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 3 to 6 hours. The path starts at Pine Springs Trailhead.  
  • Guadalupe Peak is a strenuous 8.4-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 6 to 10 hours. Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in the state. As such, you can climb to the “top of Texas” on this trail. The elevation gain is 3,000 feet.
  • Hunter Peak is a strenuous 9-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 6 to 10 hours. This hike is a loop up the Bear Canyon Trail and down the Tejas Trail. There is a 2,700 feet elevation change with gorgeous views.

Julie and I hiked Devil’s Hall, one of the park’s most popular hikes. The first half is a rugged but marked path, while the second half takes you along a rocky wash. 

You will do quite a bit of bouldering through the wash. Then you will come to a natural staircase, culminating in a narrow hall between two steep canyon walls. 

This hike is a bit of work as you make your way up the boulders through the wash. However, the “hall” is a nice reward after making your way up the staircase. 

We enjoyed this hike. Bouldering makes it feel like a full-body workout, giving you a sense of accomplishment. We recommend park visitors hike Devil’s Hall.

McKittrick Canyon

Pratt Cabin in Guadalupe Mountains NP
Pratt Cabin

McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center

The McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center is small. It is more of a contact station. You can grab park maps and brochures and view outside exhibits. The rangers in this district were top-notch, just like at Pine Springs, offering insight into weather and trail conditions.

Day Hikes in McKittrick Canyon

  • The Notch is a strenuous 9.9-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 5 to 6 hours. The trail goes through McKittrick Canyon and about halfway up toward McKittrick Ridge. 
  • Permian Reef Trail is a strenuous 8.4-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 4 to 6 hours. It is a long climb up the north side of McKittrick Canyon to the top of Wilderness Ridge. You get rewarded with fantastic views of the horizon and down into the canyon.
  • McKittrick Canyon Nature Trail is a moderate 0.9-mile loop trail of loose rock. Plan on 1 hour. At the top, you will have a view down into McKittrick Canyon.
  • The Grotto and Hunter Line Shack is a moderate 6.8-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 4 to 5 hours. There is a mild elevation gain. The Grotto is an exposed cave formation, while the Hunter Line Shack is part of an old 1920s ranch operation. Here you will find stone picnic tables. After seeing the cave features, you can have lunch or a snack.
  • Pratt Cabin is a moderate 4.8-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 2 to 4 hours. The trail crosses a stream and eventually takes you to a cabin. Be sure to sit in a chair on the front porch and enjoy the fantastic view of the mountainous horizon. You earned it!
Our Thoughts

Julie and I hiked to Pratt Cabin. It is a lovely hike yielding a fantastic view from the cabin. 

During the hike, we faced 30 to 40-mile-per-hour winds with gusts up to 60 miles per hour. For the first half, we were fighting against the wind. 

The temperature was in the 40s that morning. So, it was cold. Under pleasant conditions, this hike is easy to moderate. The winds and temperatures made it more difficult for us.  

We still highly recommend this hike. The views at the cabin are worth it.

Frijole Ranch

Manzanita Spring in Guadalupe Mountains NP
Manzanita Spring

Note that Frijole Ranch does not have a visitor center. It is just down the road from Pine Springs.

Day Hikes in Frijole Ranch

  • Smith Spring Trail Loop is a moderate 2.3-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 1 to 2 hours. The trail takes you to Smith Spring. Most park areas have desert or rugged mountain landscapes. Here you will find a beautiful pool of water surrounded by vegetation. It seems odd, if not out of place. This location is a literal oasis for wildlife.
  • Manzanita Spring is an easy 0.5-mile out-and-back trail. Plan on a half hour to an hour. You will find an expansive pool surrounded by tall grassy vegetation. It is an excellent location for potential bird and animal sightings.
  • Foothills Loop is a moderate 4.5-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 2 to 5 hours. This hike also has a trailhead in the Pine Springs district.

Our recommendation for this district is the Smith Spring Trail Loop. It is a nice change of pace to see shade trees and water. Plus, it is one of the best spots to observe birds and animals. Even if you do not see any wildlife, you will find this a good hike with beautiful scenery.

Dog Canyon

Note Dog Canyon is a two-hour drive from Pine Springs. Accessing this area on the opposite side of the mountain range would be best. In full disclosure, we did not visit this section of the park.

This area is more secluded and sits in a forested canyon. The elevation is 6,300 feet. With more solitude, you have opportunities for hiking and birding.

Dog Canyon Ranger Station

Dog Canyon Ranger Station is open intermittently. From everything we have seen, it is best to plan for this ranger station to be closed. Staff and volunteers are occasionally in the area.

Day Hikes in Dog Canyon

  • Lost Peak Saddle is a moderate 4-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 3 to 5 hours.
  • Marcus Overlook is a moderate 5.2-mile round-trip hike. Plan on 3 to 5 hours.

Both of these hikes provide beautiful views south into the Guadalupe Mountains.

Salt Basin Dunes

Important Things to Know About Salt Basin Dunes

Note Salt Basin Dunes is about an hour’s drive from Pine Springs. There is no visitor center here. The area is for day use only, and the National Park Service (NPS) prohibits camping in Salt Basin Dunes.

With a clay surface, the access road is slippery and unsafe for vehicles when wet. You will find parking, picnic tables, and pit toilets in Salt Basin Dunes. Water is not available.

The area has a vast landscape of rolling dunes. You can see sections of both white gypsum dunes and red quartz hills. Rangers ask that you stay on established roadways and trails.

Tips for Visiting Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains NP
Mountain vista in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
  • Decide which park districts you plan to visit – Pine Springs, McKittrick Canyon, and Frijole Ranch are all close. Pine Springs is considered the central hub. Dog Canyon sits in a forested canyon and offers more solitude, but it is two hours away. Salt Basin Dunes offers rolling dunes but is an hour away. We spent two days in the park and could hike in Pine Springs, McKittrick Canyon, and Frijole Ranch. If you plan to include either Dog Canyon or Salt Basin Dunes, you will likely need another day or two.
  • Choose which hikes you plan to take – The park offers many great hikes, but some will take up most of the day.
  • Wear light layers and a windbreaker – The park’s reputation for being windy is real. Do not underestimate the impact of the wind. Pack accordingly.
  • Wear hiking boots – Many of the trails are rugged and contain rocks. Some of the courses require bouldering. You will need good traction and support.
  • Fuel up before going to the park – The closest gas station in either direction is 35 miles. Be sure you have plenty of gas in the tank.
  • Bring food and water – With no gas stations near the park, there is no real opportunity to grab supplies. Be sure to pack water and healthy snacks before you hit the trails.

Plan Your Trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Where to Start

  • Check the Guadalupe Mountains National Park website for information and current updates.
  • Watch our video for more travel tips.
  • Use the map to view the area and plan your travels.
  • Pack light layers, a windbreaker, and hiking shoes.
  • Bring a camera to capture beautiful memories.
  • Consider making the loop.

Make the Loop

Locals asked if we were making the loop. Yes, we are! 

We already discussed two parks being near one another. There is a third national park nearby.

You can complete the loop, too, and you will be glad you did. Each park is unique and offers something very different.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is 45 minutes down the same road. You should take advantage of the opportunity and hit this park.

The enormous underground caves are mind-blowing! It is one of my favorite national parks. See our Carlsbad Caverns complete planning guide and watch the Carlsbad Caverns video.

White Sands National Park, located in Alamogordo, New Mexico, is about 3 hours from the Guadalupe Mountains. It is a massive field of rolling dunes where you can play, hike and go sand sledding. 

At Salt Basin Dunes, you must stay on established trails. You have more freedom to explore at White Sands. See our White Sands complete planning guide and watch the White Sands video.

Where to Stay

Carlsbad, New Mexico, is a great place to stay. There are plenty of hotels at reasonable rates. The city has lots of restaurants and things to do. See our Carlsbad post for restaurant suggestions

We stayed at Hampton Inn & Suites Carlsbad. The hotel has clean rooms, a hot breakfast, and friendly service. 

Hampton Inn & Suites Carlsbad is on the edge of town. It gives you quick access to the National Parks Highway, which takes you directly to Carlsbad Caverns and the Guadalupe Mountains. 

You can reach Carlsbad Caverns in about 25 minutes. The drive to the Guadalupe Mountains from the hotel is an hour.

Hampton Inn & Suites Carlsbad is a great home base for both parks. We did not need to use a map or a GPS. We pulled out of the hotel parking lot and drove until we saw signs for the parks. It was so convenient.

As someone who finds driving stressful, it was an easy, relaxing drive. It is a perfect place to stay with light traffic and simple directions.

Wrap-Up: Guadalupe Mountains National Park

One of America’s least-known national parks offers fantastic hikes in the mountains. Your Texas-sized adventure awaits you in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Check out our other national park guides:

About the author

We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.