I would estimate that Guadalupe Mountains National Park is simply a scenic byway for 90% of the “visitors” who happen to pass through driving between El Paso and Carlsbad. Those who visit with intention, however, will discover some of the finest desert hiking in the south.
Be warned that this is not a park you explore by vehicle! While you will see the majestic Guadalupe Mountains from the highway, the National Park is essentially a variety of hiking trails that meander throughout the range.
I would guess that this “hiking required” ethos, coupled with the remote location, is the reason that Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the 6th-least visited in the lower 48 states… and you’ve probably never even heard of the other 5!
Prior to my visit, I was completely unable to find any comprehensive guides to the park to help plan my trip. So, as always, I decided to write it! If you are new to this page, you should know that I always travel with photography in mind and you can expect a lot of recommendations to be focused on how photogenic I feel a place is. Beyond that, I will do my best to include any information that could prove useful to planning a trip of your own. If you have a specific question, use the Table of Contents below to navigate.
Where to Next? Queue up these travel guides to other nearby destinations:
- Big Bend National Park Comprehensive Guide: Everything you need to know for exploring Big Bend NP.
- Big Bend Photography Guide: Where, when, and how to photograph Big Bend NP.
Disclosure: In order to keep providing you with free content, this post may contain affiliate links. If you make a booking or purchase through one of these links we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. So a HUGE thank you to you if you click one of these links 🙂
Quick Facts About Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Location: Texas, USA
- Established: September 30, 1972
- Size: 86,367 acres (134.9 sq mi; 349.5 km2)
- Annual Visitors: 151,256 (2020)
- Visitor Centers: Pine Springs (year-round), Dog Canyon Ranger Station (open intermittently depending on staff availability), McKittrick Canyon (restrooms open daily; visitor center staffed on weekends and during peak seasons in the spring and fall) and Dell City Contact Station (the facility is generally unstaffed, but brochures and information are available out of hours)
- Entrance Fee: $10 per person aged 16 and older; National Park Annual Pass accepted and allows free admission for passholder and three guests.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park Overview
If you know nothing about the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, this is the place to start.
First, I find it easiest to think about the park in three sections:
- Guadalupe Salt Basin Dunes
- Dogwood Canyon
- Highway 62
The Salt Basin Dunes requires about 11 miles of dirt-road driving to access. 4WD is recommended, but only the final 2-3 miles are very rugged. I was able to get there in a standard minivan with no issues. Be warned that it is only open from sunrise to sunset!
Dogwood Canyon is actually only about 15 miles from the visitor center as the crow flies. However, you need to drive 2-3 hours out and around to get to this section of the park as it is located on the opposite side of the mountain range. Accordingly, only the truly dedicated will see this part of the park.
The major section that we will focus on is all located off of Hwy 62. As discussed, the entire park is essentially a series of hiking trails, which all begin at either the Pine Springs campground, Frijole Ranch, or McKittrick Canyon. If you are only planning on spending 1-2 days in the park, as most visitors will, this is where your time will be spent.
Map of Guadalupe Mountains National Park
You will find useful maps for your visit to Guadalupe Mountains NP below.
Official Guadalupe Mountains National Park Map
Below is the official park map. You can find a downloadable version of this map and others for Guadalupe Mountains on the NPS website.
Interactive Google Map of Guadalupe Mountains
We’ve also put together an interactive Google Map of Guadalupe Mountains, featuring all of the sights and places we mention within this blog post. Click here or on the image below to open the map in a new tab.
Top Sights in Guadalupe Mountains NP
Below is a collection of the must-see destinations in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. If you are short on time, plan wisely and focus on these top sights.
Standing tall at 8,751 feet (2,667m), Guadalupe Peak is the highest peak in Texas and offers breathtaking views over the Guadalupe Mountains. Reaching the top of Guadalupe Peak is one of the best things to do here and is particularly popular with those “highpointing”. For outdoor enthusiasts, highpointing in the US involves reaching the tallest points in each state… and to achieve this goal, ascending Guadalupe Peak is a must!
The hike is 8.4 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 2,930 feet. It is advised to allow 6-8 hours to complete this hike, depending on your level of fitness and how often you’ll be stopping for photos!
Anything with “devil” in the name will always be worth a visit! Devil’s Hall is a 4.2 mile roundtrip hike up a dry river wash that takes you to a geographic marvel of thin-layered strata.
While I did not find the landscape overly photogenic, it was quite interesting to see up close! However, I will say that the hike felt far longer than 4.2 miles.
The Smith Spring trail is a 2.3 mile loop trail that delivers you to a small desert oasis hidden in the stark Guadalupe Mountains.
Not only is the Smith Spring trail the shortest hike in the park (excluding some basic nature trails), but it is my favorite as well. While the stream may be small by most standards, it is amazing to see it in this dry climate and to observe the impact it has on the surrounding environment.
Of course, I don’t love long-distance hiking which certainly factors into my top ranking for this trail.
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Salt Basin Dunes
Getting to the Salt Basin Dunes can be a bit of a headache as they are located about an hour away from the Pine Springs area where the majority of visitors will be camping and spending their time. Beyond that, it requires up to 11-miles of dirt road driving and is only open during daylight hours with camping and overnight parking strictly prohibited.
Still, this probably was the area with the most potential for landscape photographers. The sand dunes provide a unique texture to serve as the foreground in your images unlike anything you’ll find in other parts of the park.
After driving to the trailhead, the hike to the dunes themselves will be another 3-4 mile roundtrip journey. If you are going to put forth the effort to visit, I recommend staying through sunset as the light on the sand and mountains is simply magical.
Located 3.4 miles from the McKittrick Canyon trailhead is a strange natural occurrence dubbed “The Grotto.” I don’t know how to explain it, so I’ll let the picture above say 1000 words.
While The Grotto itself is probably not worth the time and distance alone, the McKittrick Canyon itself is a lovely hike, particularly in autumn when the colors change.
Bonus: El Capitan Lookout
This is technically outside of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park boundaries which is why it is listed as a bonus, but it is my favorite place in the entire area to photograph sunrise and sunset. Once you get into the park, the sun will disappear behind the mountains long before sunrise and sunset, leaving you in a dark valley during the magic hours.
El Capitan Lookout provides a straight on view with amazing side-lighting. There are picnic areas on both sides of the highway to pull into, no hiking required, and plenty of cacti to pose as a subject for your foreground. All in all, this location outside the park was my favorite place to view the Guadalupe Mountains!
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Best Things to Do in Guadalupe Mountains NP
Hiking is the main thing to do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. In fact, unless you have your own horse, it’s really the only thing to do! With over 80 miles of hiking trails and home to 7 of the 10 highest peaks in Texas, there’s something for everyone from gentle nature walks to more strenuous multi-day hikes.
Just a few of the most popular hikes include:
- Guadalupe Peak: 8.4 miles round trip (6-8 hours). Elevation gain 2,930 ft.
- Devils Hall: 4.2 miles round trip (3-5 hours). Elevation gain 400 ft. Undeveloped trail, very rocky.
- Smith Spring: 2.3 miles round trip (1-2 hours). Elevation gain 220 ft.
- McKittrick Canyon: 4.8 miles round trip to Pratt Cabin or 6.8 miles round trip to the Grotto (3-5 hours). Elevation gain 300 ft.
- Pine Top: 4 miles one way (2-4 hours). Elevation gain 1,980 ft.
- Dog Canyon: 11.9 miles one way (7-8 hours). Elevation gain 2,050 ft.
- The Bowl Loop: via Bear Canyon. 8.5 miles round trip (6-8 hours). Elevation gain 2,380 ft.
- Salt Basin Overlook: 7.8 miles round trip (4-6 hours). Elevation gain 740 ft.
- El Capitan: 11.3 miles round trip. Elevation gain 1690 ft.
Guadalupe Mountains is a great spot for backpacking… although really this is just an extension of “hiking”! There are 10 designated wilderness campsites and permits are required to camp overnight here. Some of the most popular backpacking routes include Bush-Blue Ridge Loop, Tejas Trail hike-thru, Pine Springs to McKittrick Canyon and Guadalupe Peak. More information on safely backpacking in Guadalupe Mountains can be found on the NPS website.
Of the 80 miles of trails in Guadalupe Mountains, about 60% of them permit horseback riding if you have your own horse. The trails that allow horses are available for day-use only and, unlike Big Bend National Park, horses are not permitted overnight in the backcountry. However, camping for those with horses is available by reservation at Pine Springs and Dog Canyon.
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Guadalupe Mountains National Park 1-Day Itinerary
For many, time is precious and you want to see as much as you can in as little time as possible. This section explains my personal recommendation for the perfect one-day itinerary for the Guadalupe Mountains NP.
It goes without saying that if you are hoping to attempt the popular Guadalupe Peak hike, you will need at least 6-7 hours for this alone, which will likely be the entire itinerary for most. Instead, I will focus on shorter trails, lookouts, and options.
Also, as has been noted, there is no food or services available in the park so be sure to arrive prepared!
Sunrise in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Start your day in the park at either the El Capitan Lookout or the Pine Springs Visitor Center. Both of these areas saw beautiful morning light each day during my visit.
Of the options, I prefer the compositions from El Capitan Lookout. However, I will be recommending this same location for sunset as well, so if you want some diversity in your photo album it is probably better to shoot “El Cap” at sunset and Pine Springs area for sunrise.
The reason I find the Pine Spring visitor center appealing is that during my visit, this stretch of mountains always seemed to have interesting cloud cover which collected some beautiful morning light. In contrast, the El Capitan Lookout was completely devoid of any sky interest.
Guadalupe Canyon “Trailhead”
You will not see signs for this trail! This has something to do with property lines regarding a local farmer and the National Park, but the trail is public, and it is beautiful!
Just a mile north of El Capitan Lookout is a large dirt pull-off with a small sign for Guadalupe Canyon Road that you will likely miss. Just be sure to keep your eyes open.
Once parked, you will see a turn-style that leads to a trail up toward the mountain. This was once a road, but the desert has begun reclaiming it. That was actually my favorite part! It was amazing to see the wide variety of cacti that were absolutely thriving in this region, and having El Capitan in the backdrop of photos makes it a special place for a stroll.
This section is the most interesting part of the El Capitan Trail. You can walk as far as you like, up to 7 or 8 miles, but as this is a one-day itinerary I recommend just going up about a mile or so.
Pine Springs Trailhead
If you consider yourself physically fit and prepared for a day of hiking, the next stop will be at the Pine Springs trailhead to begin the 4.2-mile roundtrip hike to Devil’s Hall. While a hike of this distance should typically only take about 2 hours, expect it to be closer to 3 as it can be slow-going.
If you are not looking to hike more than a couple of miles on your visit, skip this hike and simply stop by the Pine Springs Visitor Center instead. They have some great displays on the local vegetation and wildlife, as well as a small nature walk.
Smith Spring Trail
You are going to be hungry at this point, but I promise you will want to avoid scarfing in the car and pack a picnic for the Smith Spring instead! Park at the Frijole Ranch History Museum and begin the loop trail to this enchanted oasis. You will enter a shaded area with benches and fairy pools just over a mile up.
I’m not sure how to explain why I enjoyed this little spot so much, but it has a feeling to it. You almost expect a fairy to pop out at any point!
When you are done eating and resting, it is just another 1.2 miles back to the car via the loop trail.
The Grotto at McKittrick Canyon
This last stop I would rank as very optional, unless you happen to be visiting during the Autumn season or just love hiking. I am including it so as to maximize your time on a one-day itinerary, but this was my least favorite of the hikes mentioned so far.
Still, it is certainly worth doing if you have the time and energy. Begin by hiking 2.3 miles to the Pratt Cabin, which is a beautiful stone and wood cabin tucked away in the canyon. From there, it is just over 1 more mile to otherworldly sight known as The Grotto. And since you’re here, you may as well walk another 200 yards (2 minutes tops) to the Hunter’s Cabin ahead.
Sunset in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
You’re going to be wiped from a full day of hiking and exploring, so reward yourself with dinner and a show at the El Capitan Lookout picnic area! You will not be able to see the sun set from anywhere within the national park interior as it will be disappearing behind the mountains long before setting.
The composition at El Capitan Lookout has been explained previously, but it is worth repeating that this was my favorite place to photograph the Guadalupe Mountains. The side-lighting that El Cap gets during sunset is beautiful and the nearby hills and mountains get some very interesting light as well.
Planning Your Visit to Guadalupe Mountains NP
Below is an assortment of information that readers who consider themselves “planners” will find useful. Be sure to at least skim this information to ensure your visit is safe and successful!
When to Visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Arguably, the best time to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park is in the spring or fall when the temperatures are milder. Spring is typically a little cooler and drier than fall. However, fall has the added bonus of vibrant foliage in McKittrick Canyon.
As one of the least visited national parks you don’t really need to worry about crowds, although you will find it is slightly busier during spring break.
How Many Days to Spend in Guadalupe Mountains
If you do not plan on undertaking one of the major hikes, such as Guadalupe Peak, one day should be enough. Depending on your desire and level of fitness, you should be able to get a few select hikes in and, if possible, enjoy a sunset from the El Capitan Lookout just outside the park.
How to Get to Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The majority of the park will be accessed via Highway 62 that runs from El Paso to Carlsbad. This includes the trail heads and visitor centers at Pine Springs, Frijole Ranch, and McKittrick Canyon.
Dog Canyon is reached by driving about 2.5 hours through Carlsbad, then taking the 408 west through the Sitting Bulls Falls recreation area before going south.
The Guadalupe Mountains Salt Basin Dunes require an hour detour from the Pine Springs area with 11 miles of dirt-road driving.
Getting Around Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The only way to get around the park is on foot (or by horse if you have one)! There are no paved roads in the interior of the park so you will need to park at one of the visitor centers or trailheads and walk from there.
Gas and Supplies
You will need to be prepared when visiting Guadalupe Mountains National Park as it is very remote. There is no gas or food available within the park. In fact, there’s no gas available for 35 miles in either direction from the visitor center.
In the direction of El Paso, Dell City is the closest town with amenities including gas and food. In the other direction, towards New Mexico, Whites City is the closest place you can find gas and food supplies.
Where to Stay in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Options for staying within Guadalupe Mountains National Park are extremely limited, with only two campgrounds within the park or the option of backcountry camping.
There are no lodges within Guadalupe Mountains NP.
There are technically two developed campgrounds within the park, but don’t be fooled – Dog Canyon Campground is only accessible by driving 2-3 hours around to the backside of the park! Instead, you will be looking to get a spot at Pine Springs Campground near the visitor center.
Individual camping is offered on a first-come, first-serve basis for $15 per site per night for both tent and RV camping. Spaces at Pine Springs fill up very quickly, so be sure to get there early, particularly on weekends.
There are two group sites at Pine Springs and one at Dog Canyon which can be reserved up to 60 days in advance for groups of 10-20 people. The group sites cost $3 per person per night, with a minimum charge of $30 per night.
Both sites offer potable water, a utility sink for dishwashing and flushing toilets, but no other amenities. There is also no cell service or internet connectivity at either campground.
There are also 10 designated backcountry wilderness campgrounds within Guadalupe Mountains. Backcountry permits are required to camp at any of these. They are free of charge and must be obtained at either Pine Springs Visitor Center or Dog Canyon Ranger Station.
Where to Stay Outside Guadalupe Mountains NP
If you don’t require access to a bathroom, there are some places you can park and sleep along Highway 62 as well. Much of the highway falls just outside the National Park boundaries, so look for one of the many pull-offs that do not explicitly prohibit camping. Signs will alert you when you have entered the National Park, at which point it becomes illegal to freedom camp.
About 30 minutes north of the park is the Chosa Campground, which is a free option for those who don’t mind the extra drive. This is on BLM land and no services will be available, so be sure to follow standard leave no trace principles and pack out everything you pack in!
If you need RV hook-ups, the closest option is the Whites City RV Park about 30 minutes north of the Guadalupe Mountains visitor center. If this is full, the next option is the Carlsbad RV Park another 15 minutes from there.
Those of you who prefer hotels and amenities will find them by driving a little less than an hour from the park to the city of Carlsbad. While the city is not exactly rich with charm, it does have everything you need in the way of stores, hotels, and restaurants. Click here for current availability and prices in Carlsbad.
The small town of Dell City to the south of the park also has camping, lodging, and basic services available, though it is far smaller and more limited. Still, it is a fine option if this makes more sense for your particular itinerary!
Where to Eat in Guadalupe Mountains
There are no restaurants or convenience stores within the national park, so be sure you bring any food you need for the time you’ll be there with you.
Useful Tips for Visiting Guadalupe Mountains NP
- Plan ahead: Camping is extremely limited and is first-come-first-serve, so plan to arrive early if you need a space!
- Temperatures vary wildly: Be sure to bring warm clothes and blankets for the nights as the temperatures can drop significantly. During the day, the dry desert heat can quickly cause dehydration and the sun can be intense. Additionally, the frequent winds can disguise the intensity of the sun. Carry plenty of water for all hikes and always wear sunscreen.
- Leave no trace: Please be respectful of the park. Keep to the trails, dispose of waste properly, and leave any plants etc. that you find.
- Let wild animals be wild: Much of the wildlife in the park is nocturnal, making wildlife spotting somewhat rare. However, there is the possibility you may encounter many different animals including cougars, javelinas, mule deer, jack rabbits, and coyote. Please do not feed or disturb them. Feeding wildlife can alter their behavior with humans, making them less fearful and more aggressive. This can lead to wildlife having to be euthanized.
- Desert critters: The desert is home to venomous snakes, scorpions, spiders and centipedes. Check your shoes and bedding just in case one thinks your stinky shoes smell like home!
- Drive carefully: The roads can be busy and you may share them with wildlife. Please adhere to speed limits and drive responsibly on Highway 62 through Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Fun Facts About Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas, reaching 8,751 feet (2,667m).
- The lowest elevation in the park is 3,640 feet (1,109m) in the Salt Basin Dunes.
- There is evidence of people living in the many caves here 10,000 years ago.
- It is the 6th least visited national park out of the 47 national parks in the 48 contiguous states.
- The hottest recorded temperature in Guadalupe National Park was 105°F in 1994.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where are Guadalupe Mountains?
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is located in West Texas, 110 mile east of El Paso.
Is Guadalupe Mountains National Park worth visiting?
This is always subjective, but I feel that Guadalupe Mountains National Park is worth working into an itinerary as part of a road trip through the south. As the detour distance is minimal when traveling between Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Big Bend National Park, it makes sense to stop in and enjoy some scenic views on your way.
Conversely, I would not recommend this park as an isolated destination for anyone who doesn’t have a specific goal in mind on their visit, such as “highpointers” hoping to cross Texas off their list. If you are wanting to do some desert hiking, I found Big Bend National Park provided similar landscapes while offering more diversity, and it is only a couple hours down the road.
Can you drive through Guadalupe Mountains National Park?
Technically speaking, nearly the entirety of Guadalupe Mountains National Park is located in the mountains, meaning there are no roads through the park. Hwy 62 will deliver you to the main trailheads at Pine Springs, Frijole Ranch, and McKittrick Canyon, as well as to El Capitan Lookout, and technically part of the highway is within the National Park borders. However, to really explore the park you will need to do some hiking.
How many days do you need in Guadalupe Mountains National Park?
This depends entirely on how much hiking you plan on doing! If the answer is somewhere between “none” and “moderate”, one day should be plenty! Consider our 1-day in Guadalupe Mountains National Park itinerary above if this is you!
If you are hoping to undertake Guadalupe Peak in addition to some of the other popular trails, you will need at least two days. You will also need extra time if you hope to visit the Salt Basin Dunes and/or Dogwood Canyon.
Is Guadalupe Peak the highest point in Texas?
Yes, Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas standing at 8,751 feet (2,667m).
How long does it take to hike to the top of Guadalupe Peak?
The hike to Guadalupe Peak typically takes around 6-8 hours. It is an 8.4-mile round trip with an elevation gain of 3000 feet (914m).
What animals live in Guadalupe Mountains?
Guadalupe Mountains is home to a huge number of animals, including 60 species of mammals, 289 species of birds, 55 species of reptiles and 9 species of amphibians. Some of these include javelinas, coyotes, black bears, cougars, gray foxes, rock squirrels, porcupines, mule deer, bats, porcupines, rattlesnakes, and various lizards.
Are dogs allowed at Guadalupe Mountains National Park?
It is advised not to bring dogs to the park as there are very few areas they are allowed. Leashed pets are restricted to areas accessed by vehicles, including established roadsides, parking areas, developed picnic areas and campgrounds. They are also allowed on the Pine Springs Campground connector trail and along the Pinery Trail from the visitor center to the Butterfield Stage Station.
Pets are not permitted on any other trails, park buildings, restrooms or in the backcountry.
Final thoughts on Guadalupe Mountains National Park
I truly hope you have found this travel guide to Guadalupe Mountains National Park useful and/or inspirational to help plan a visit of your own. Personally, I was more impressed with the park than I had expected to be based on the photos I had seen, but found it hard to avoid comparisons to the much-larger Big Bend National Park that I had just visited.
In the end, I was able to capture some photos and moments that I really enjoyed and found a unique love for this little mountain gem.