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AARP’s Guide to Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Easy nature walks, quad-busting hikes and views from ‘the Top of Texas’ are a few of the highlights

El Capitan

In Far West Texas, in the Chihuahuan Desert, the tallest mountains in the Lone Star State rise like a blocky fortress in stark surroundings at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The mountains, part of a 400-mile, mostly buried fossilized reef, jut from the desolate scrubland like the jawbone of a giant skeleton. Jagged and imposing, the 3,000-foot peaks are the main attraction of the remote, 86,416-acre park. But once you peel your gaze from the imposing skyline and explore the nooks and crannies of this rugged outpost, an array of other features comes into focus.

Sand dunes from a dry salt lake shimmer like waves on the park’s western side, sheer-walled clefts of rock splice its center and hardwood forests put on a blazing color display each fall in its northern corner. Bobcats, javelinas and mountain lions roam these parts, 16 species of bats live here, and the fragrance of juniper drifts through the air in the high country. 

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Even with all that, GMNP ranks as one of the country’s least-visited national parks, attracting about 243,000 recreational visits in 2021. Most days, you’re more likely to spot a mule deer than another human once you’ve ventured away from park headquarters.

​More than 270 million years ago, the dramatic landscapes began forming when a shallow sea covered the region and a reef formed. The sea eventually evaporated and tectonic forces lifted a section of the fossilized reef upward about 80 million years ago, creating towering peaks. 

The stark outline of a 1,000-foot limestone cliff called Capitan, the park’s most iconic feature, has served as a wayfaring point for humans who lived and explored this rugged country for centuries. The scenery hasn’t changed much since those days. And at 8,751 feet, Guadalupe Peak looks down on the rest of this vast state. 

“The mountains were the last stronghold of the Mescalero Apache in the 1870s and 1880s, and this land is sacred to them,” says Chris Barr, GMNP’s former acting visitor services manager. “White ranchers saw this as a place of opportunity, where you could own land and make a name for yourself.”

​Amenities are scarce. A highway skirts the park’s eastern fringes, and a smattering of spur roads lead to trailheads and access points within park boundaries. You won’t find a single restaurant or hotel, but venture into the windswept landscape and you’ll discover rewards as big as the views. 

Guadalupe Mountains
Getty Images/AARP

Facts Box

​Location: Far West Texas

Acreage: 86,416

Highest peak: Guadalupe Peak, 8,751 feet

Lowest point: Salt Basin Dunes, 3,640 feet

Miles of trails: More than 80

Main attractions: Hiking and leaf-peeping

Entry fee: $10 per person 16 or older for a seven-day pass (with a senior pass, free entry for up to three adults)

Best way to see it: Hiking the trails

Best time to visit: Fall, when temperatures are mild and the leaves in McKittrick Canyon change color; and spring, before the heat kicks in

Plan Your Trip 

GMNP lies just south of the New Mexico-Texas border, about 32 miles southwest of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. You can fly into El Paso (103 miles west of the park) or Midland-Odessa (about 180 miles east), then make the drive to this remote park. 

​You’ll find GMNP’s main headquarters on the park’s east side at the Pine Springs Visitor Center. Here you can pay fees, chat with rangers, and shop for books, maps and travel guides. A second visitor center at McKittrick Canyon, on the park’s northeastern side, is staffed during peak times, including April, when students go on spring break, and late October and early November, when the leaves change color and the park sees a bump in visitors. 

​From the park’s low point at the Salt Basin Dunes to its high point at Guadalupe Peak, weather conditions can vary substantially. In summer, for example, temperatures range from the 60s to 90s; in winter, the 30s to 50s. In spring and fall, they typically hover in the 60s and 70s, usually making for perfect hiking conditions. Plants bloom and wildlife is active in the spring, and fall foliage starts its show from mid-October to early November. But brace for winds, which can whip up to 70 mph, and occasional light snowfalls in winter and early spring. 

​“Every time of year is a different experience here,” Barr says. “In summer you have the place to yourself, but it’s hot. Anybody hiking needs to carry at least a gallon of water per person. And summer is monsoon season, so we get thunderstorms in the afternoons. The last place you want to be is the Top of Texas (Guadalupe Peak) in a lightning storm.”

Where to stay and eat 

There are no hotels in the park, just three developed campgrounds. The Pine Springs Campground, near the base of Guadalupe Peak and the main visitor center, has 20 tent and 13 RV sites among scrubby junipers and oaks, with a splendid mountain backdrop. One tent site is accessible, as is one RV site.

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​For more solitude, head to the Dog Canyon Campground on the park’s north side, in a quiet, tree-filled canyon beneath cliff walls that provide a break from the wind. It has nine tents and four RV sites. Frijole Horse Corral Campground is a group campsite close to the highway with corrals for the use of equestrians.

All campgrounds lack water or power hookups, and they have restrooms but no showers. They often fill up, especially in spring and fall, so reservations (recreation.gov) are recommended. Individual sites cost $20 per night at Pine Springs and Dog Canyon; $60 per group per night at Frijole Horse. 

​In addition, 10 back-country campgrounds have 60 campsites. You must get a permit to use them at the main visitor center. There’s a $6 reservation fee and a $6 per person, per night recreation fee.

Guadalupe Peak Trail
Getty Images

​​Things to Do

Go hiking: Hiking is one of the most popular activities in GMNP, and lacing up your boots will give you the quintessential park experience. You have plenty of options, with 80 miles of trails crisscrossing the terrain. Take your pick from an easy nature walk to an all-day, quad-busting hike up Guadalupe Peak, where the payoff is huge — a view from the Top of Texas. 

​“For a lot of visitors, what makes the park special today is the challenge it represents. They want to prove to themselves what they can and cannot do,” Barr says.

​Periodically, special guided hikes are offered, including moonlight hikes to the Salt Basin Dunes, as well as guided history and nature walks. Check the events schedule online and at the park headquarters.

​For something short and easy, set out on the Pinery Trail, a wheelchair-accessible paved path that starts just outside the Pine Springs Visitors Center. The trail leads to the ruins of an old Butterfield Overland stagecoach station, once a relay stop on the 2,800-mile mail route from Tipton, Missouri, to San Francisco. Standing next to the remnants of the rock walls, it’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like to drive a stagecoach back then. At an average speed of 6 mph, the trip took three weeks. Signs along the trail describe the surrounding desert plant life, a prickly assortment of vegetation that looks ready to stab, scrape or poke anyone who gets too close. This is the only trail open to pets (if they’re leashed.)

​Another easy paved trail, the half-mile, out-and-back Manzanita Spring Trail, starts at the parking lot of Frijole Ranch, an old cattle ranch 1.5-miles northeast of the main visitor center, within GMNP’s boundaries. The trail cuts through an old fruit orchard and leads to a shallow pool that attracts birds year-round. Keep going as the trail turns to dirt, and in less than a mile you’ll reach Smith Spring, with shade and more birdlife.

​One of GMNP’s most popular draws is McKittrick Canyon, a day-use-only area in the park’s northeast section with the 10.9-mile McKittrick Canyon Trail. For a few weeks each fall, visitors flock here to admire maples, oaks and other trees as they show off gaudy cloaks of crimson and orange. For the first four miles, the trail follows a streambed, usually dry, as it winds through a canyon. You’ll feel like you’re leaving one world and entering the next as you transition from prickly desert terrain dotted with cacti and yucca into a shady thicket of junipers, bigtooth maples and pines sandwiched between encroaching hillsides. It’s damper in the canyon, and cooler, too. About 2.3 miles in, you’ll pass an old cabin. Keep going and you’ll see pools of water, another abandoned cabin and a grotto dripping with knobby formations that look like someone stacked handfuls of mud there. Settle in at one of the picnic tables in the shady alcove and soak up the lush setting, which feels nothing like the park’s desert floor. Many day hikers turn around at the grotto, but the trail continues, turning steep and rugged as it climbs more than 2,000 feet on its way up to McKittrick Ridge. Eventually, it joins another long path, the Tejas Trail.

Salt Basin Dunes
Getty Images

​For another unique hike, opt for the easy trail to the sparkling white sands of the Salt Basin Dunes. You’ll have to drive around to the park’s southwest side to get to the trailhead, and the last mile of the Williams Road that gets you there is clay. From the parking lot, it’s a mile and a half on a sunbaked and exposed trail to the dunes, which might remind you of one of the desert scenes from the Star Wars series. (Don’t worry, no wookies here.) 

​Eat your Wheaties if you decide to tackle the Guadalupe Peak Trail, an all-day trek up the tallest peak in Texas. You’ll gain 3,000 feet during the 8.4-mile round-trip hike, which starts near the main visitor center. The first stretch is the steepest, but the increasingly eye-popping views mitigate the discomfort. Photography buffs like to pitch tents at the small campsite a mile from the summit, then wake up early to take in sunrise from the top. When skies are clear, the desert spreads out in all directions like a rumpled gray-green blanket far below. While you’re up there, think about this: Three paraplegic men made the trip in 1982, rolling their rugged, custom-designed wheelchairs (and crawling in some sections) all the way to the state’s highest point. 

Take a scenic drive: If you’re not a hiker, you can still get impressive park views from your car, but you won’t be traveling from one roadside turnout to the next. Rather, just five miles of U.S. Highway 62/180 cut through the park’s eastern fringe. Look out your window and across the vast, scrub-covered desert and take in nature’s eye candy. You’ll see big mountains — eight of the state’s 10 highest peaks rise in the distance, including El Capitan.

Go birding: Pack your binoculars because nearly 300 bird species nest in or migrate through the park. Most hang out near water, like the springs near Frijole Ranch (accessible via the Manzanita Spring Trail) or the stream that sometimes trickles through McKittrick Canyon (via the McKittrick Canyon Trail). Look for Western scrub jays, white-winged doves, canyon towhees and more. The area just outside the main visitor center and around the adjacent campground, which are within walking distance of one another, is also good for birding. 

Frijole Ranch
Alamy Stock Photo

Learn a little history: At Frijole Ranch, a small museum details the park’s history and offers insight into the people who lived here, from Native Americans to ranchers. In 1876, as the headquarters for their operation, two bachelor brothers built the main ranch house that now houses the exhibits. The museum is open during the park’s busiest times — in April, late October and early November — and when staff or volunteers can man it, but the grounds never close. You can picnic at a table beneath shade trees just outside the museum. “It’s just a nice place to sit and have a great view of the mountain. And you’re near springs, so you can hear water gurgling around you,” Barr says.

Gateway Towns 

Whites City, about 32 miles northeast of GMNP, offers the closest lodging to the park, at the Whites City Cavern Inn, which has accessible rooms on the ground floor. The inn also operates a nearby campground set amidst pine trees with RV sites (electrical, sewer and water hookups) and tent camping. Bathrooms, showers, barbecue grills and a laundry facility are among the campground’s many amenities.  

​Dine on Mexican food and standard diner fare (steak fingers, country fried steak) at the inn’s Cactus Café. And other than a grocery store and gift shop, you won’t find much else in this small town.

​To describe Van Horn as a gateway to GMNP is to use the term loosely, because it lies 63 miles south. Still, the quiet, dusty little town, which once attracted travelers driving Interstate 10 between California and Florida, is home to the historic Hotel El Capitan, designed by famed El Paso architect Henry Trost. The 50-room property opened in 1930 and operated for more than three decades, until I-10 was built and motorists started speeding past town instead of stopping. The structure was then converted into a bank but reopened as a hotel in 2007. A newly installed elevator provides easy access to rooms, one of which is accessible with a roll-in shower. Relax at the hotel by settling into a cushy chair in the lobby (eye-catching with its European tile and wrought-iron banisters) and sipping a cool drink. And dine in its restaurant, serving house favorites like pistachio fried steak and pecan salmon. If you’re an athlete of sorts, do like hearty cyclists who have stayed here and plot an El Cap to El Cap bike ride from the hotel to the park to see the hotel’s namesake peak.

Heading to the park from the north, you can base yourself in Carlsbad, New Mexico, about 51 miles away, and combine a visit to the top of Texas with a trip deep underground at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Inside the cavern system are formations that look like giant icicles, soda straws, draperies, columns and popcorn. Make reservations in advance for a 2.5-mile, self-guided tour (entrance fee $15 per adult; free 15 and younger). Each evening during summer, hungry Brazilian free-tailed bats put on an impressive show as they swirl out of the cave entrance hunting for their evening meal, insects. While in town, you’ll also want to visit the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park, whose most famous resident, a black bear named Maggie, creates abstract paintings sold at the front desk as a fundraiser.

​For Carlsbad lodging, settle into the Trinity Hotel, which opened as a bank in 1892 but now pampers guests in nine unique suites, one housed in the bank’s old second-story safe room. For the mobility impaired, two are easily accessed on the ground floor, and one is accessible.

​On the dining scene, Blue House Bakery and Café makes a good breakfast choice, serving pastries and breakfast sandwiches. For lunch or dinner, try the Southwestern fare at YellowBrix.

En Route

​If you’re coming from Albuquerque, make an otherworldly stop in Roswell, New Mexico. U.S. Army officials recovered metallic and rubber debris from a nearby ranch in 1947, wreckage that conspiracy theorists believe came from a flying saucer incident that the government covered up. Even if you’re a nonbeliever, you’ll likely find the city’s International UFO Museum and Research Center interesting.

If you’re coming from Midland, stop at Balmorhea State Park in Toyahvale for a dip in its 3.5-million-gallon spring-fed pool. Swim with catfish, silvery little Mexican tetras and two pinkie-sized types of endangered fish — the Comanche Springs Pupfish and the Pecos gambusia.

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