Naturally-created staircases, slot canyons, a fossil reef, and the highest mountain peaks in Texas are just some of the unexpected highlights I discovered while visiting Guadalupe Mountains National Park in western Texas.
This underappreciated park may not have iconic attractions like Old Faithful in Yellowstone or Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, but it does have good desert hiking, a bit of history, and a bit of geology.
Fun fact: Did you know that Texas was underneath an ocean 260 million years ago? You can see evidence of this on hikes like Devil’s Hall, which has a natural staircase that was formed from water trickling over the rocks for centuries.
Guadalupe Mountains NP isn’t located near any big cities except El Paso, which is two hours west. Because of its somewhat remote location, it’s one of the least-visited national parks in America.
Here’s everything you need to know to plan your visit, including information about weather, hiking, camping, wildlife, and much more!
Basic Info About Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Location: Western Texas
Established: September 30, 1972
Size: 86,367 acres (ranks 42 out of 63 national parks)
Annual Visitors: 219,987 (ranks 51 out of 63 national parks)
Directions & Transportation
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is located in western Texas, right along the New Mexico border. It’s a two-hour drive east from El Paso to reach the main visitor center of the park.
You have to be really motivated to make it to this part of Texas. You could stop here on a road trip from Los Angeles to Austin.
Or, do what I did and fly into El Paso International Airport (ELP). The airport serves 9 major airlines and has direct flights from Dallas, Phoenix, Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.
Guadalupe Mountains NP is actually just a 45-minute drive from Carlsbad Caverns, the much more popular national park in New Mexico.
Many people visit Carlsbad Caverns without making it down to Guadalupe Mountains NP. I was guilty of that the first time I visited the caverns. But I made up for it with a belated visit this year. It’s so easy to combine both into a single trip!
There are no shuttles or public transportation in the park. This is a park where you’ll need to drive from point to point.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park Map
The park is 86,367 acres, which makes it the 22nd-smallest of the 63 official national parks. The park has very few roads going through it.
In fact, there’s only one main paved road in the entire park. That’s route 62/180, which leads to the Pine Springs Visitor Center and the Frijole Ranch area, the most popular sections of the park.
There are no gas stations within 35 miles of the park in either direction. So stock up on gas before going!
The closest gasoline can be found in Dell City, Texas (if you’re coming from the west) or Whites City, New Mexico (come from the east.)
There are no restrictions in terms of RV driving within the park. RVs can navigate all paved roads that travel through the park.
Fees and Passes
As of 2023, the entrance fee is $10 per vehicle. That one-time fee gives you access to all areas of the park for up to 7 days.
Unlike other parks, Guadalupe Mountains NP has no fee collection booths. Visitors are expected to stop into the visitor center to pay their entrance fee and pick up a receipt to display on their dashboard.
You can avoid this fee by presenting the America the Beautiful pass, the annual pass that costs $80 and provides free admission to every unit in the national park system.
Guadalupe Mountains NP has two main visitor centers. The primary one is Pine Springs Visitor Center, which serves as the park headquarters. It’s more than a mile above sea level, at 5730 feet elevation.
It’s open from 8 am to 4:30 pm every day, except for major holidays. The visitor center has some exhibits related to its mountains and wildlife.
The McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center in the northeast corner of the park is open 8 am to 5 pm every day. It’s only staffed during the spring and fall. It does have bathrooms, which are always open.
There’s also a Ranger Station at Dog Canyon. But it has no regular hours and is rarely open.
The park website says, “The Dog Canyon Ranger Station is open intermittently depending on staff availability.” This station has park brochures and maps when open.
Entrance Welcome Signs
You gotta take photos with the welcome signs, right? Guadalupe Mountains NP has multiple park signs.
One is along highway 62/180. You’ll spot it coming into the park from the west. There’s a small gravel pullout area where you can stop for pics.
A second welcome sign can be found a short distance away, just before the Visitor Center. This one is cool because it has the mountains in the background.
There’s a third welcome sign in the very remote Dog Canyon section of the park as well.
Operating Hours and Seasons
The park is always open 24 hours a day throughout the year, even if the visitor centers and ranger stations have more limited hours.
Certain sections of the park are only open during daylight hours. The road to McKittrick Canyon has a gate that is locked at night, so plan accordingly! Frijole Ranch and the Salt Basin Dunes are both open from sunrise to sunset only.
In October and November, the leaves change color, and the scenery in the park becomes quite amazing. This is perhaps the most scenic time of year to visit.
Guadalupe Mountains Weather
The weather here varies a lot. The park is most comfortable during spring and fall. Winters get cold, and summers are very hot. High winds can be present at any time.
Elevation in the park ranges from 3000 to 8750 feet, so temps are often colder here than in most of the desert.
From May through September, average high temperatures are in the 80s F, with lows ranging from 58-64 F. On summer afternoons, hiking can be difficult, because it’s very hot, sunny, and dry.
From December through February, highs are only in the 53-56 F range, while lows can drop below freezing. These months also feature the strongest winds, which can gust to 50-80 MPH.
March-April and October-November are more comfortable, with highs in the 62-72 F range. I visited in March and found it mostly pleasant, with mild winds and a chilly breeze in the shade.
July through September are the wettest months, with 2-3 inches of rain per month. That’s still pretty dry, but it can come quickly in the form of thunderstorms.
What Time Zone is Guadalupe Mountains NP In?
Officially, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is in the Mountain time zone, the same as El Paso and Carlsbad Caverns.
The problem is that the park is right on the border between time zones. Drive one county east, and you’ll be in the Central time zone.
And unfortunately, most of the cell phone towers in the area are from the Central time zone. So if you have your phone set to automatically detect its time zone, your phone will likely display the wrong time. That can be a big problem!
As a visitor, it’s kind of a pain always trying to figure out the correct time. The best solution is to wear a watch, or look at the clock in your car to be sure you are observing Mountain time.
At last count, Guadalupe Mountains National Park gets 219,987 visitors per year. That makes it the 13th-least visited of the 63 U.S. national parks.
The park’s most popular months by visitation are: March, April, October, December, and November.
The park’s least popular months are August, June, and July, when summer temperatures make hiking uncomfortable.
Restaurants and Gift Shops
Unlike some other national parks, Guadalupe Mountains NP has no restaurants or grocery stores. So be sure to bring all the food you’ll need when you come.
There is a small gift shop in the Pine Springs Visitor Center where you can buy park souvenirs and magnets.
This is not a good park to bring pets, since dogs are not permitted on most hiking trails or in most public spaces.
The only park trails which allow dogs are the Pinery Trail and the Pine Springs Campground connector trail.
Is Guadalupe Mountains National Park Worth Visiting?
Some folks may find the park a bit more boring than other national parks. But if you enjoy desert hiking, then yes, Guadalupe Mountains NP is worth a visit.
The four highest peaks in Texas all reside within this park, and the park has attractive natural staircases and slot canyons.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend making a trip specifically to visit this park. But if you are already heading to Carlsbad Caverns or El Paso, I’d say it’s worth taking a day to stop by.
How Many Days Do You Need in the Guadalupe Mountains?
You can see the main highlights of this park in a single day, if you arrive in the morning. Hike the Devil’s Hall or El Capitan Trail, visit Frijole Ranch, and stop by the visitor center, and you’ll get a pretty thorough taste of the park.
Hardcore hikers or campers may want to extend their visit to 2-3 days, but the casual visitor will be satisfied with a single day.
Things To Do in Guadalupe Mountains NP
1 Hiking Trails
Hiking really is the primary recreational activity here. We’ve got an extensive section later on the best hikes in the park. You’ll definitely want to check out Devil’s Hall Trail, and possibly El Capitan, Smith Spring Trail, or the Permian Reef Trail.
Start your hike early in the morning if possible, to avoid the hottest sun of the day, and for the best chance of seeing wildlife.
2 See History at Frijole Ranch
Only 1.5 miles from the main visitor center, the Frijole Ranch Cultural Museum is one of the park’s highlights.
The ranch is a remnant of early farming and ranching efforts in this part of Texas. The Rader Brothers settled here in the 1870s and built this home, which remains one of the oldest surviving structures in the area.
The Smith family moved here in 1906 and turned it into a small orchard.
They added additional rooms, and a guesthouse and a bunkhouse that remains standing.
The museum explains all of this history. It’s open whenever volunteers are available to staff it.
If it happens to be closed when you visit, you can still walk around and see it from the outside. There’s a bathroom here, picnic tables, and the Smith Springs Loop Trail, a mostly flat, 2.5-mile walk.
This area is known for having a lot of birds, since they love the stream and spring running through the property.
3 Visit the Salt Basin Sand Dunes
Way in the western edge of the park are the Salt Basin Dunes, perhaps the most unique features of the park.
Getting here requires driving through Dell City and proceeding down an 11-mile gravel road. The road is generally in good condition, but gets bumpy near the end.
Driving a low-clearance car is not recommended, and the National Park Service warns that this road is impassible when it’s wet. So be sure to check the forecast.
Once you reach the end of the road, you’re looking at about a 1.5 flat walk to the dunes themselves. Bring plenty of water and a good camera, because the views are sweet!
This is one of only a few U.S. national parks with sand dunes, including Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska, Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, White Sand Dunes National Park in New Mexico, Indiana Dunes National Park, and Death Valley National Park in California.
4 Visit McKittrick Canyon
Located in the northeast corner of the park, McKittrick Canyon is a fun, off-the-beaten path destination. There’s a visitor center here (open seasonally) and a nature trail.
You can also find trailheads here for hikes like the Permian Reef Geology Trail and the McKittrick Canyon Trail to Pratt Cabin and the Grotto. This is a great place to see the fall colors in October and November.
Remember that the gate to McKittrick Canyon is locked every evening. This part of the park officially closes at 5 pm.
5 Explore the Dog Canyon Area
The Dog Canyon section of the park is in the far north and requires a long drive from the rest of the park.
You basically have to leave the heart of Guadalupe Mountains NP, take a winding loop all the way around Carlsbad Caverns, and then back south into Dog Canyon.
This section of the park provides solitude and lengthy mountain hikes in a forested portion of the park. There is a campground here with 9 tent sites.
6 Watch the Sunset
The sunsets in this part of Texas can be spectacular! That’s true no matter what part of the park you’re in.
I can personally recommend a good sunset spot. It’s just west of the Pine Springs Visitor Center. If you drive between Pine Springs and Route 54 toward Van Horn, you’ll spot a small picnic pullout as you head away from the mountain.
Wait here as the sun retreats behind the horizon, and you’ll see the brilliant red and orange hues.
See Visit Guadalupe Mountains for a more thorough explanation of the things to do at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Campgrounds at Guadalupe Mountains
Guadalupe Mountains NP has two main campgrounds: Pine Springs and Dog Canyon.
Pine Springs is far more popular and centrally located. You’ll want to book in advance in either case.
Pine Springs Campground
• Capacity: 35 sites (20 tent, 13 RV, 2 group)
• Reservations: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/258851
• Bathrooms: Flush toilets, but no showers
• Cost: $20/night
Dog Canyon Campground
• Capacity: 14 sites (9 tent, 4 RV, 1 group)
• Reservations: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/258852
• Bathrooms: Flush toilets, but no showers
• Cost: $20/night
These ten backcountry campgrounds can be reached via hike (all require at least 3 miles of walking to get there.)
You must obtain a Wilderness Use Permit to camp at backcountry campgrounds.
Wildlife of Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The most common wildlife in Guadalupe Mountains National Park are the birds. There are 289 different bird species here, according to the NPS.
There are also mammals of all size, including javelinas (which look like mini pigs), deer, coyotes, jackrabbits, and more.
And there are larger predators like black bears and mountain lions. In fact, park signs constantly warn hikers about the fact that mountain lions live throughout the park.
Mountain lions are the one animal you do not want to met in the wild. Although there hasn’t been a documented mountain lion attack in the park, rangers advise hiking with another person, to be safe.
There’s a small population of elk in the forested areas of higher elevation. It’s estimated that 30 to 40 elk currently reside in the park. They were brought here in 1928 by a rancher, after the native population had been eliminated via hunting in the 1800s.
Most visitors won’t see much wildlife other than birds or possibly deer or squirrels. Consider yourself lucky if you see a javelina or a jackrabbit.
Here’s a rundown of the most common animals found in the park. This is not an exhaustive list of every animal in the park.
Common Mammals of Guadalupe Mountains NP
• Black bear
• Mountain lion
• Kit fox
• Mule deer
• Rock squirrel
• Bats (16 different species)
• Rats and mice
Common Birds of Guadalupe Mountains NP
• Wild turkey
• Hawk (10 different kinds)
• Golden eagle
• Mourning dove
• Owl (9 different kinds)
• Hummingbird (11 different kinds)
• Woodpecker (10 different kinds)
• Blue jay
• Wren (8 different kinds)
• Warbler (27 different kinds)
• Sparrow (28 different kinds)
Other Animals of Guadalupe Mountains NP
• Desert centipede
• Rainbow trout
• Leopard frog
Where to See Wildlife in Guadalupe Mountains NP
You can see birds everywhere. Birding hotspots include Dog Canyon, Smith Spring, Frijole Ranch, Williams Ranch, McKittrick Canyon, and Pine Springs Canyon.
The Frijole Ranch area and Smith Spring Trail are good places to see animals like deer and javelinas.
Larger animals like elk and black bear are more likely to be found in the forests on the mountain, though visitors rarely see them.
For the most part, the animals here live underground, or come out mostly at night when temperatures are cooler, so sightings are not common.
Additional Tips for Visiting Guadalupe Mountains National Park
What time of year should I visit?
As noted earlier, spring and fall are best for moderate temperatures. Summer can get very hot. Winters are mostly fine, though snow can fall. October and November provide beautiful fall colors on the trees.
I visited in March and found the weather to be pleasant, and the crowds were still small. Next time, I’ll plan to visit in late October to catch the leaves changing colors.
Is there cell phone service at Guadalupe Mountains National Park?
Around the Pine Springs area, and on most of the main park road, you should be able to get a good cell signal.
If you venture onto any hiking trails, however, cell signals are more hit or miss. The Guadalupe Peak area usually has good service, but more remote areas like Dog Canyon and McKittrick Canyon are less likely to have cell service.
Where to Stay Near Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Unfortunately, finding lodging close to the park is difficult. Aside from campgrounds, there are not a lot of options.
The closest hotel is a 1-star hotel in Whites City, New Mexico (35 minutes from Pine Springs Visitor Center.)
A bit further are several hotels in Carlsbad, New Mexico (50 minutes from Pine Springs) and Van Horn, Texas (one hour from Pine Springs.)
Here are some of the best hotels in the area.
Whites City Cavern Inn (Whites City). The Whites City Cavern Inn is the closest hotel to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It gets solid reviews thanks to its affordability, its pool, and its location. Check pricing and availability here.
Sleep Inn and Suites (Carlsbad). One of the top-rated Carlsbad options, the Sleep Inn and Suites has an indoor pool, plus amenities like microwaves, fridges, and free wifi. Check pricing and availability here.
Hotel El Capitan (Van Horn). Hotel El Capitan is right in the center of Van Horn. It’s the most unique place in town, as compared to a whole bunch of national chains. Check pricing and availability here.
It’s worth noting that the famous Prada Marfa is a 30-minute drive south of Van Horn, so you may want to stay in Van Horn for that reason. Prada Marfa is the art installation designed to look like a Prada store in the desert.
Packing List for Guadalupe Mountains NP
The list of essentials you’ll want to bring to Guadalupe Mountains NP is pretty similar to the packing list for any national park. The special note here is that you want to bring lots of water (and food, since there’s nowhere to eat in the park.)
Wear sunscreen and have a sun hat. I’ve grown to love my Columbia Unisex Safari Hat, which keeps the sun completely off my face and neck while hiking.
As an avid hiker in the Pacific Northwest, I never hit the trail without hooded rain/wind jacket. Guadalupe gets summer thunderstorms, and strong winds all times of year. So this Columbia Rain Jacket is perfect.
National Parks Passport Book
I love getting a stamp from every national park unit I visit. My only regret is that I didn’t buy the official National Parks Passport Book sooner!
Brita Filtered Water Bottle
This Brita Filter Water Bottle is great because it’s insulated, so it keeps water cool. And it provides a filter, just like the Brita filter in your home kitchen. So you can use it in any random hotel sink or water fountain, and still get clean, good-tasting water.
Keep your devices fully charged with this Anker Portable Charger. It provides plenty of power, but it’s affordable and super small, so it can fit in your pocket!
Do you have any other tips or suggestions for visiting Guadalupe Mountains National Park?