Why Go: Within this rugged 86,416-acre park lies Guadalupe Peak (8,749 feet), the highest summit in Texas. At more than 5,000 feet above the desert floor, it seems that all the plains of the Lone Star State are sprawled beneath your feet.
Setting the Scene: Guadalupe Mountains National Park contains the southernmost, highest part of the 40-mile-long Guadalupe range. The mountains jut from the earth as a monolithic wall, with imposing El Capitan being the most prominent summit, though nearby Guadalupe Peak is 664 feet higher. Thick coniferous forest cloaks the park’s highland.
The lower elevations support creosote bush, sotol, yucca and other typical Chihuahuan Desert plants. Elk, mule deer, coyote, mountain lion, javelina, a few black bear and smaller mammals inhabit the area, as well as 70 species of reptiles and amphibians and more than 300 species of birds.
Where to Start: Your first stop should be the park headquarters’ Pine Springs Visitor Center and main campground, accessed off U.S. Highway 62/180 at Pine Springs.
Where to Camp: Two small, unusually inviting campgrounds exist in the park: Pine Springs and Dog Canyon. Pine Springs (elevation 5,822 feet) is open all year on a first-come, first-served basis. Drinking water is available, but all food and supplies should be brought in. The nearest facilities and services are 35 miles east of the park in White’s City, N.M. To visit a wilder, more isolated area, drive about 2.5 hours north to re-enter the park at Dog Canyon. From the seldom-used and remote campground here (elevation 6,280 feet), trails quickly take you into the high country.
Hiking Details: More than 80 miles of trails, ranging in difficulty from easy to strenuous, crisscross the park between the mountains and the desert flats below. The major trailheads are at Pine Springs Campground, including the one to Guadalupe Peak. The path to the top of Texas is a steep and strenuous 8.4-mile round-trip hike, with 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Make it to the rocky summit and you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of nearby El Capitan peak and the interior of the park. Other trails from Pine Springs Campground will take you to the ruins of a stagecoach station, small freshwater springs, through a narrow, scenic canyon, and to the base of El Capitan.
Don’t Miss: McKittrick Canyon, a sheltered, 2,000-foot-deep limestone chasm nourished by a year-round, spring-fed stream. Some call this the most beautiful spot in Texas. You’ll see why when you hike the canyon’s serpentine, 7-mile round-trip trail to the Grotto, where cactus and ferns grow side by side with hardwoods and ponderosa pine. The entrance road for McKittrick Canyon is 7 miles east of the park’s Pine Springs Visitor Center on U.S. Highway 62/180.
Backpacking Details: The majority of the park is a designated wilderness area, providing numerous opportunities for backpackers. Ten primitive campgrounds are sprinkled through the backcountry. If your goal is to reach the highest peak in Texas, an overnight at the Guadalupe Peak backcountry campground, 1 mile below the summit and a little more than 3 miles from the Pine Springs trailhead, is ideal. Backpackers willing to travel to other, more remote primitive campsites are likely to be the only humans for miles. Free backcountry-use permits are required. Note: Hikers must carry all necessary drinking water.
Local Wisdom: Stake your tent down. Winds in excess of 80 miles per hour are not uncommon in the park.
Did You Know? This darkened corner of West Texas is one of the best places in the country to stargaze. On a cloudless night, you might be tempted to lie awake for hours, enthralled by the galaxy’s immensity.
When to Go: Guadalupe Mountains National Park is open year-round, but spring and fall are generally the best seasons to visit. Except during mid-October to early November, when maple leaves turn and bathe McKittrick Canyon and other areas in red, orange and yellow, putting on a foliage show unrivaled in Texas, this is as lonely a national park as you’ll find outside of Alaska.
For More Information: nps.gov/gumo or 915-828-3251
Getting There: Guadalupe Mountains National Park is in far West Texas on U.S. Highway 62/180. The driving distance is 110 miles east of El Paso, Texas, or 56 miles southwest of Carlsbad, N.M.
LARRY RICE, who resides in Buena Vista, Colo., has written four books and more than 450 articles on wilderness travel and other related outdoor subjects.