Most people don’t necessary think “mountains” when they hear “Texas”, so the lesser-known Guadalupe Mountains National Park might come as a surprise to some. The park is on the smaller side at just over 86,000 acres, but has a rich history and is home to the 8,750 ft. Guadalupe Peak, the tallest in Texas. Guadalupe Peak might be the highest, but the more recognizable “signature peak” of West Texas is also found in the park—El Capitan, which was a landmark for pioneers traveling west along the old stagecoach route.
But the history of the Guadalupe Mountains doesn’t start there. Archaeologists have found evidence of petroglyphs and other artifacts in the caves around the park that prove hunter-and-gatherer cultures existed in the area as far back as 10,000 years ago. The Spanish arrived in the 16th century, introducing horses to the nomadic Mescalero Apache tribes in the area. The Apaches stayed in the mountains until the mid-1800s, which is about the time when people started passing through the area en route west. In 1858, the Pinery Station, which visitors today can see the ruins of near the visitor center, was built for the Butterfield Overland Mail to pass through. After many raids by the Apache, the 9th Cavalry Regiment came in and drove them out to reservations. The first European settlers moved into the area in the 1870s, building ranches, a community center, and a post office, and then in the early 1900s a geologist named Wallace E. Pratt donated about 6,000 acres of McKittrick Canyon towards what became Guadalupe Mountains National Park in September 1972.
Even more fascinating than its human history is the history of the land and what visitors get to enjoy at the park today. Once part of a 400-mile long limestone reef in the ancient Permian Sea, the Guadalupes came into existence 10-12 million years ago. Since then, the mountains have been battered and weathered, now varying between 3,000 and 8,750 feet in elevation, with three different ecosystems. The west side of the park is desert land and salt flats, then there are the McKittrick, Bear, and Pine Springs Canyons, and lastly the alpine uplands.
Most people visit the park to explore the land and look for animals. Because of the diverse ecosystems found at the park, there is a wide variety of wildlife, but most are nocturnal, so it can be difficult to see anything. The best chance of spotting an animal is near a permanent water source, such as Smith Springs, Manzanita Spring, or McKittrick Canyon. Mule deer are the most often seen, but also keep an eye out for elk (in the winter), coyotes, gray fox, desert cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbits, ringtails, and rock squirrels. In the warmer months, look for reptiles and watch out for rattlesnakes that are often found along the trails.
By far, the most popular activity at the park is hiking and backpacking, with over 80 miles of trails that range from an easy walk to a strenuous adventure. For something on the easier side, try the easy Pinery Trail. This nature walk is just less than one mile along a paved route, with signs identifying the plants, that leads visitors to the 1858 Old Butterfield Stagecoach Route Pinery Station. Another shorter trail is the 2.3-mile Smith Spring Trail, a loop with amazing views of the mountains and beyond. A really cool trail is Devil’s Hall, which requires some scrambling over boulders, and is 3.8-mile round trip that heads into a rocky wash leading to a natural staircase in a “hallway” between the canyon walls.
For more of a challenge, check out the 8.5-mile Guadalupe Peak Trail. The trail climbs 3,000 feet through a conifer forest to summit the tallest peak in Texas. At the top, hikers will have panoramic views of the park and the surrounding desert landscape. For backpackers, one of the ranger-recommended trips is the Bush-Blue Ridge Loop. The trail is almost 17 miles in total, but there are several side trails that can be taken to extend the mileage. There are four backcountry campgrounds along the way, so it’s easy to take it at a relaxing pace without having to worry about where to stop.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is also home to the Salt Basin Dunes, bright white dunes formed from gypsum grains and covering about 2,000 acres. They range from three feet to 60 feet high, and it’s about a half-mile hike to get to them. Once there, you can explore the non-vegetated dunes, but watch out for venomous snakes.
Secrets of the Park
While most people explore the main trails found within McKitterick Canyon, it's worth a look at the the surprisingly quiet Permian Reef Trail. Over 8.4 miles, hikers will see just about everything the park has to offer—from boulders to sheer walls, scenic views and desert plants, but the most exciting part (and is also what draws geologists to the the trail) are the remains of ancient ocean life etched in the limestone along the way.
If you are looking for solitude, go to Dog Canyon. At an elevation of 6,300 feet and at the edge of a wilderness boundary, the place is perfect for a quiet vacation. There is the easy, 0.6-mile Indian Meadow Nature Trail, the moderate 4.5-mile Marcus Overlook with a wonderful view of the canyon, and the 6.4-mile Lost Peak Trail. Lost Peak connects with the McKitterick Ridge Trail if you want to add on a few more miles.
Even though the park is small, there is quite a bit to explore. The historic Frijole and Williams Ranches are worth a stop, and you have to go see the glistening white Salt Basin Dunes. Pick a couple smaller hikes, or hit the trails for a whole day (or more) to see the best geology and landscapes of the park.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit
- There are two primitive campgrounds and several backcountry campsites. Reservations are not required, and they are first come, first served.
- There is no water in the backcountry, so bring plenty with you.
- Spring and summer are the best time to visit—the temperatures are in the 80s and there is an occasional rainstorm to sustain blooming wildflowers. During the fall, colors rival even the best New England scene. Winter brings cooler temperatures, high winds, and even snow. Don’t forget that hiking at the higher elevations can be 7-10 degrees cooler than other areas, and much windier—come prepared.
- Pets are only allowed in areas that you can get to in your car (roads, campsites, etc.) and must be on a leash.