Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Breathtaking Hikes in the Desert

Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Breathtaking Hikes in the Desert

In May, we took a road trip out to Guadalupe Mountains National Park from our current base here in Dallas. The drive is about 9 hours, and you change time zones so you gain an hour on the way there (Central Standard Time to Mountain Time). The weather was hot but I’m sure it wasn’t near as hot as it gets during the summertime. Guadalupe Mts NP was one of our favorite road trips we’ve done so far and was unlike any other place we’ve been. The desert heat was so dry, especially compared to the obscene humidity here in Dallas. My throat was so dry it would sometimes make me cough, and my nose bled a handful of times in the few days we were there. People always tell you do drink water there, but you don’t realize just how much you’ll need to drink until you can practically feel your skin drying out.

But with the heat and dryness came exceptional flora and fauna that you don’t typically see (unless you live in the desert) – different varieties of cacti and wildflowers scattered the area and almost everything had thorns. We joked that none of the plants were exactly “cuddly” since you had to be careful with each step. Possibly my favorite plant was the Texas Madrone, an evergreen tree with various shades of pink/orange/red bark that was so smooth it made you want to reach out and touch it. The only thing that seemed to look cuddly was the wildlife – the area was full of deer, elk, rabbits, and rock squirrels. But there was also rattlesnakes and scorpions to bring you back to reality.

We loved being in the desert, and we really enjoyed the hikes and scenery the area had to offer. We were only there for a few days, but we plan on going back to see the rest of the area. There’s lots of trails to hike and they all range from short and paved to long and arduous. There’s also some awesome opportunities for off-trail hiking, rappelling, and rock climbing.

Here’s our recap and favorite things we did.

Hiking

Guadalupe Peak

Guadalupe Peak is the highest peak in Texas, coming in at about 8,750 ft above sea level. The trail to the top, Guadalupe Peak Texas Highpoint Trail, was an extremely strenuous but extraordinarily beautiful hike. Websites list the distance as anywhere from 7.5 to 8.5 miles, but my dad’s hiking GPS said we did about 9 miles. There’s 3,000 feet in elevation gain, for a total of 6,000 feet in elevation change. The trail head is in the RV parking lot at the Pine Springs Campground (which has bathrooms) but there are no facilities after that point.

Tips for a successful hike:

  • Pack lots of water! Rangers recommend about one gallon per person per day for that area because of the dry, extreme heat and high UV index. We each packed about 3 liters and ended up running out in the last 2 miles.
  • Wear appropriate clothing. Wearing long pants, long sleeves, and a hiking hat helps a ton with staying cool and water retention. If you wear short sleeves or shorts, you’ll find that you feel roasted by the sun within the first couple of hours.
  • Sunblock. Whatever skin you do have exposed, lather up with sunblock – and reapply at least every 2 hours.
  • Wear hiking boots with ankle support. The day we hiked, we saw a guy who made it the whole way wearing Chacos. We also encountered someone who wore hiking shoes without ankle support, but I can say from experience that ankle support is the way to go. The trail is very rocky and uneven, and my boots saved my ankles more times than I can count.
  • Take a mini first aid kit. When we were a quarter of the way through the hike, we started getting blisters. Even wearing broken-in hiking boots, the hours of uphill can wear down your heels. Pack a little baggie with some mole skin, advil, and bandaids just in case.
  • Plan on not peeing very often. Men have it easy; they’ll have no problem. But being a lady is a different story. There was one section of the hike where I found some greenery that was thick enough to hide my bum for a squat and that was about 3 miles up (right after the bridge). Otherwise, the bushes are either too small or too sparse. Plus, the trail is busy enough that you can’t just pop a squat anywhere.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. As with anywhere in the wilderness, it’s important to keep an eye out for dangerous plants and wildlife. We talked to some fellow hikers who had seen a rattlesnake sunning itself on the trail.

This hike was definitely one of the longest, most strenuous hikes we’ve ever done. But it was also one of the most rewarding. With each switchback, the view just gets better and better the whole way up. At the top, the air is so clean and you can see so far that the curvature of the Earth starts to affect how far you can see (fact taken from a sign at the visitor center). It’s just simply incredible.

McKittrick Canyon

Just like how the Guadalupe Peak hike just gets better and better the farther you go, the same goes for McKittrick Canyon. The trail is out and back, so you could spend a couple of hours or all day to reach the high ridges. The beginning of the trail parallels a dry riverbed and meanders its way through the canyon for about 2 miles. Then you start seeing water and this trend continues until it actually seems to flow downstream. And that’s when you start seeing all the maple trees. You’ll notice that the classic dessert fauna of cacti and Texas madrones fades into a more lush forest of maples trees that come in all shapes and sizes. This is the area that makes this a very popular fall hike – and I can see why. I can only imagine what all those trees look like in their peak. Plus, the weather will be much more tolerable!

After about 2.4 miles (one-way), you’ll come upon Pratt Cabin, a historic building finished around 1940-1950 that housed Wallace Pratt, the man who donated his land that became what is now Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Add another mile to your hike and you’ll reach the Grotto – a small, exposed cave that features stalactites and stalagmites. While this feature is wildly popular, after visiting nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we found the area to be quite underwhelming. It’s a cool stop if you’re continuing down the canyon to The Notch and the backpacking campground; but if you’re just walking there and back, it may not be worth the extra 2 miles.

My favorite wildlife sighting of this trip was on this hike. We were hanging out by the riverbed and an owl flew by. That’s the first time I’ve seen an owl in the wild. Pretty cool!

This hike was pretty flat and had very little elevation change. I would still recommend appropriate hiking footwear though because most of the trail was quite rocky. The trail was well marked and if you had to cross a dry riverbed, there were rocks to guide your way. The ease of this hike makes it quite family-friendly and is a great warm up (or cool-down) from some of the area’s more difficult hikes.

Camping

We camped at the Pine Springs campground, specifically site #18, which we could argue was the best site in the whole campground. It was far enough from the toilets that you didn’t get the smell, but close enough that it wasn’t too far of a walk. It was the most secluded of the sites, as most of them are quite close to each other. There’s only 20 sites and 2 group sites, so it was relatively small. All the sites were booked on Friday and Saturday night, which wasn’t surprising based on the number of sites but was surprising in the sense that it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. The bathrooms had flush toilets and running sinks, but no showers. The lack of showers is an unfortunate feature because I really would have like a cold one after our 9 mile hike up Guadalupe Mountain. Luckily, we had family staying in an inn nearby in White’s City so we were able to use their showers and eat at the cafe in town.

If you’re camping, you should note that there’s no campfires allowed. And during an extreme drought (like when we were there), any gas fueled item (such as lantern or camp fuel stove) is also prohibited. We happened to have a backup stove that ran on canisters and a battery powered lantern, but that would have really sucked if we didn’t have those. The closest store (besides a tiny shop in White’s City) is in Carlsbad, NM, which is about an hour away from the campsite. So make sure you bring everything you’ll need because there’s no “I’m gonna run to the store real quick.”

There’s also Dog Canyon campground, although it’s quite out of the way. If you’re interested in more extreme seclusion, I would recommend it. Otherwise, Pine Springs had nice amenities and was within a reasonable distance to the area’s major hikes.

Non-Campers

The closest town is White’s City, which I would hardly call a city. It has one inn, a cafe, a grocery store (which is tiny), and rv hook ups. That’s it. You could blink and miss it if you drive by too fast. The cafe had decent food, which especially tasted amazing after a long day’s hike. The Rodeway Inn is nowhere near 4 stars, but it gets the job done and was clean. The “breakfast” was a Texas-shaped waffle maker, but there was nowhere to sit. The pool had a slide and looked like fun, but unfortunately it was closed when we were there.

Other

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

If you’re close enough to visit Guadalupe Mountains NP, Carlsbad Caverns is a MUST DO while you’re in the area. Simply put: the caves are amazing. It’s truly unlike anything you’ve seen before, especially in just sheer size and grandeur. I’ve been in caves before, but none measure up to Carlsbad. Do not just take the elevator down and up. While the elevator is a great convenience, especially for the elderly or handicapped, I would definitely recommend walking from the natural entrance at least one direction (either starting or ending there). We walked down from the natural entrance and took the elevator up at the end of the walk.

Don’t underestimate the walk either. It’s about 1.25 miles down, then the Big Room is another 1.25 miles. Take your time and soak in your surroundings. Year-round it’s a constant 56 degrees F with 96% humidity. It’s cool enough for a sweater, but the humidity makes it feel warmer. It’s a nice break from the merciless sun waiting for you on the outside.

Pro Tip: Bring your own headlamps / flashlights. There is lighting inside the cave, but there’s so much more to see than what the installed light allows. You’ll be able to look closer at the various cave formations, investigate the quartz seen in some of the rock, and shine your light into the crystal clear pools of water. In addition, the visitor’s center has kennels available for those who travel with their pooches.

Williams Ranch Off-Road Drive

On the older maps of Guadalupe Mts NP, there’s a road that winds through the vast plains beneath El Capitan and Guadalupe Peak. You have to drive through two gates to get there and you might see a note about getting the keys at the visitor’s center. Apparently they’ve taken this adventure off the newer maps, but it’s still an option for those who know about it. Go to the visitors center and get the keys from the front desk, then drive down to the gates that are right off the highway. It’s a short drive, but it offers an amazing perspective looking up at the mountains. Off-road vehicle with decent clearance is definitely a must – my 4runner made it just fine. Do not go here after a rain, as there are multiple washes that could get dangerous.

 

Overall, we had a great long weekend trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The hikes were great, we had great weather, and the stars were incredible! We made sure to go on a weekend with no moon, and we could see the Milky Way. What an amazing experience! If you’re looking for your next road trip or summiting hike, we recommend the area for sure. Already been there? We’d love to hear what you think! Use our contact form and shoot us a message.

About the Author

Ashley Vitiello

Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, hiking, wildflowers, and mushrooms. If she isn’t writing content for Know Nothing Nomads, she’s probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.

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