Hiking the Bowl Trail and Hunter Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Hike Name: Bowl Trail to Hunter Peak (via Tejas Trail or Bear Canyon Trail)
Area: Pine Springs or Frijole Ranch
Difficulty Level: Strenuous
Distance: 8.5 miles round trip from Pine Springs to Hunter Peak; 7.6 miles round trip from Frijole Ranch to Hunter Peak
Time Needed: 5-8 hours from Pine Springs to Hunter Peak; 4-6 hours from Frijole Ranch to Hunter Peak
Elevation Start: 5830 feet (Pine Springs) or 5400 feet (Frijole Ranch)
Elevation Gain: 2560-2910 feet from Pine Springs depending on route; 2530-3035 feet from Frijole Ranch depending on route
Best Time to Hike: Late fall through early spring

Overview

The Bowl is one of the most fascinating and rewarding sections of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It’s essentially a depression or high-elevation plateau that is surrounded on all sides by mountains.

When you’re standing inside, it looks like you’re in a bowl, hence the name.

The Bowl is a forested landscape that teems with wildlife and plant life, unlike the dry, desert sections elsewhere in the park.

Getting here is slightly tricky, though, as the Bowl Trail itself is a trapezoid-shaped loop trail in the interior of the park. You have to hike other trails first to reach the Bowl Trail. That’s where things can get confusing.

The Bowl Trail also features a short spur trail going to Hunter Peak, an 8368-foot mountain that ranks as the sixth-highest in Texas.

Let’s go over the options for getting to the Bowl, and discuss what you’ll see once you’re there.

bowl trail hike view - guadalupe mountains NP
View of the Bowl at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. (NPS)

Hiking the Bowl Trail to Hunter Peak: Two Options

Starting Point

As noted, you can get to the Bowl and Hunter Peak one of two ways:

1. Start at the Pine Springs Trailhead and follow the winding Tejas Trail to Pine Top Junction, where it connects with the Bowl Trail.

2. Start at the Frijole Ranch History Museum, then take the Frijole Trail until it connects with Bear Canyon Trail, then follow Bear Canyon Trail until it connects with the Bowl Trail.

These two routes aren’t that far apart in terms of total distance and elevation gain. The Tejas Trail is more popular and the parking lot fills up faster. It’s also more exposed in terms of direct sun.

I prefer Route 2, because the Frijole Trail is less traveled and the Bear Canyon Trail has more shade. But Bear Canyon is quite a bit steeper.

bowl trail map

The Bowl Trail is a loop, but it’s not necessary to do the full loop. You can see the spur trail to Hunter Peak in blue on the map.

Many hikers just take the southern part of the Bowl Trail to Hunter Peak, and then return back to the trailhead without walking the Bowl Trail loop in its entirety.

Trail Length and Difficulty

Due to its distance and elevation gain, this is a strenuous hike. Portions of the trail (no matter which route you take) involve walking through washes with large rocks, so don’t expect a smooth trail.

The exact length depends on which route you choose, and also whether you do the full Bowl Trail loop, or just hike to Hunter Peak and then turn around.

bear canyon autumn foliage guadalupe mts
Look how gorgeous an autumn hike up through Bear Canyon can be!

Approximate trail lengths:

Start at Pine Springs, do the full Bowl Trail loop: 10.5 miles, 2910 feet elevation gain

Start at Pine Springs, only go to Hunter Peak and back: 8.5 miles, 2560 feet elevation gain

Start at Frijole Ranch, hike up Bear Canyon, do the full Bowl Trail loop: 9.1 miles, 3035 feet elevation gain

Start at Frijole Ranch, hike up Bear Canyon, only go to Hunter Peak and back: 7.6 miles, 2530 feet elevation gain (**my preferred route**)

The Frijole Ranch route is shorter, but steeper. The Bear Canyon part of that route gains about 2000 feet of elevation in two miles. So choose one of the Pine Springs options if that’s too much incline for you to handle.

You can also turn both routes into a single loop trail. For instance, start at Pine Springs and ascend to Hunter Peak, then descend down Bear Canyon and take the Frijole and Tejas Trails down back over to Pine Springs.

Tips for Hiking to the Bowl Trail Via Bear Canyon

I recently hiked this trail via Bear Canyon, and the sights were awesome. I arrived at 8 am on a Monday morning at the Frijole History Museum, and only 2 other cars were there.

It was somewhat difficult to figure out where to start the hike from the parking lot, because the beginning of the trail is not marked. I highly suggest using AllTrails and/or another GPS app to get yourself onto the right trail!

Walking up the hill was somewhat unnerving, because there were so few hikers on the trail, so I was really alone. I saw scat with berries in it on the trail a few times. I thought it was probably from a coyote rather than a bear, but I couldn’t be sure.

Ultimately, I saw a couple lizards and squirrels on this trek, but not other wildlife.

I went in November, so the colorful foliage in the canyon was in peak season.

bear canyon hike
Autumn colors on the Bear Canyon Trail en route to The Bowl.

A lot of times, in the desert, you rarely see colors other than brown and green, so it’s wonderful when the reds, yellows, and oranges of fall find their way in.

The hike gains 1800 feet of elevation in 1.7 miles, which is steep. But there are plenty of big trees around to get some shade, and a few large boulders to sit on and rest, if needed.

I was surprised how awesome the views were from up here as well. I highly recommend choosing the Bear Canyon route to get a great glimpse down into the heart of the park!

bear canyon views

I noticed a big difference in temperature as I ascended. Even in the short distance between 6700 feet and 7100 feet elevation, the breeze picked up quite a bit and the air got chillier.

Summary: Tips for Getting to The Bowl via Bear Canyon
1 Start early to avoid hot weather
2 Have a GPS app to find and stay on the trail
3 Rest during the steep ascent
4 Bring a jacket and knit hat since temperatures often drop drastically as you go up

Best Time to Hike

As this trail involves high elevations and a lot of direct sunlight, it’s not ideal for the middle of summer or the middle of winter. Like many Guadalupe Mountains hikes, the Bowl Trail is best traveled in spring or fall.

A winter hike can sometimes be fun here, but make sure to come on a good-weather day to be prepared for strong winds.

Trail Description and Highlights

Any path you take starts with a gradual ascent in desert landscape as you slowly work your way up to a higher elevation.

The steep Bear Canyon section has a lot of boulders and small rocks to work around, but they do provide some welcome shade.

And the Bowl itself has Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees that can’t grow in the lower elevations of the park. This is where you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the forest.

You’ll hear birds chirping in the Bowl. Though wildlife is plentiful here, it’s more on the bashful side. There are foxes, porcupines, skunks, bears, and mountain lions in these parts, but they prefer to stay hidden most of the time.

Deer are the most common mammal in this area, so it’s very possible you may spot a few.

bowl hiking trail
A forested portion of the Bowl Trail. (NPS)

A highlight of the Bowl Trail is the panoramic view into the bowl-shaped valley. You’ll want to pause to take some photos and enjoy the natural beauty of this section of the peak.

Meanwhile, the short extension up to Hunter Peak is steep, but totally worth it. The view from atop Hunter Peak is one of the best in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

You’ll have a great perspective of Guadalupe Peak, as well as miles and miles of vast desert land in front of you. This is one of those spots you really won’t want to leave.

Important Things to Know

Remember that these trails are steep, rocky, and exposed to the desert sun, so it’s recommended for experienced hikers who come prepared with sufficient water and snacks.

The Pine Springs Trailhead fills up very early. It’s good to get an early start anyway, in order to avoid hiking during the hottest hours of the day.

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