Hike Name: El Capitan Trail
Area: Pine Springs
Difficulty Level: Moderate
Distance: 9.1 miles round trip
Time Needed: 4-6 hours
Elevation Start: 5830 feet
Elevation Gain: 1650 feet
Best Time to Hike: Late fall through early spring
The El Capitan Hiking Trail is a challenging hiking trail located within Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Renowned for its rugged terrain and desert valley scenery, the trail covers about 9 miles round-trip.
The trail begins at the Pine Springs Campground, which serves as the starting point for various hikes in the park.
El Capitan is one of the prominent peaks in the Guadalupe Mountains, and this trail offers a unique opportunity to hike right along the base of the peak.
Important note: Confusingly, the El Capitan Trail does not go to to the summit of El Capitan. This trail stays well below the peak itself. You’ll be looking up at the peak the whole time.
If you want to summit El Capitan, you must hike the Guadalupe Peak Trail and then continue on to the El Capitan summit from there.
Hiking the El Capitan Trail
El Capitan is the most striking peak in the park, as it can be seen from more than 40 miles away. Although it may look like the tallest peak in the park from a distance, it’s about 700 feet lower than Guadalupe Peak, which stands behind it.
The starting elevation is more than a mile high, at 5830 feet. So don’t over-exert yourself, and take your time to avoid exhaustion.
This trail is located in the southern part of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The trailhead is located at the Pine Springs Trailhead, near Pine Springs Campground.
To get there, take US 62/180 to the Pine Springs exit and follow the signs to the trailhead. There’s a parking lot at the trailhead, but it can fill up quickly during peak season (spring and fall weekends), so arrive early.
While the El Capitan Trail can be completed in less than a day, you should start early in the morning. That will allow ample time to complete the hike and to avoid the hottest hours of mid-day sun.
Trail Length and Difficulty
The El Capitan Trail is a moderately challenging route that can be completed in 4 hours, but it may take more than 5 if you’re stopping for lunch and photo-taking (as you should be!)
The elevation gain of 1,650 feet is somewhat difficult, but not too bad for anyone who is used to mountain hiking. The trail itself is rocky and uneven, so it’s important to wear sturdy footwear and be prepared for some steep climbs and descents.
There are virtually no trees on this hike, so shade is at a minimum. That’s one of the reasons we don’t love this hike as much as some others in the park, like Devil’s Hall, the Permian Reef Trail, or the Bowl Trail.
Best Time to Hike
The best time to hike the El Capitan Trail is fall or spring, when temperatures are mild and the weather is dry. Summer temperatures can be extremely hot, making the hike more challenging and potentially dangerous.
Winter can be fine if the weather cooperates, but storms can bring cold and snow. Check the forecast before you go and dress accordingly.
Weather conditions in the Guadalupe Mountains can be unpredictable, so be prepared for changes in temperature, wind, and precipitation.
Trail Description and Highlights
The El Capitan Trail is an out-and-back trail that takes you to the base of El Capitan, the iconic peak of the Guadalupe Mountains. The trail is rocky and uneven, so it’s important to wear sturdy footwear.
You’ll start by hiking through a desert landscape, with views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. As hikers embark on the El Capitan Hiking Trail, they are greeted with captivating desert landscapes, vast expanses of rugged canyons, and towering cliffs.
The trail hugs the base of the El Capitan peak for much of its length. As you get closer to El Capitan, the trail becomes steeper and more challenging, with switchbacks and steep drop-offs.
At about the 3.5-mile mark, you’ll encounter a spur trail to the Salt Basin Overlook. You should definitely follow this spur, as it only adds about a half-mile to the total trip and reveals amazing views of the giant salt basin off in the distance.
The full El Capitan Trail actually covers 9.4 miles each way if you go all the way to the end of the trail at Williams Ranch. That would make it a 19-mile round-trip, which is way too long!
We’re calling it a 9-mile round-trip hike, because most hikers turn around at the 4.5-mile mark, once the trail wraps around the backside of the El Capitan peak. There’s not much else to see if you continue going past that point, so head back to the start from there.
Along the way, hikers may encounter all kinds of desert wildlife, including mule deer, snakes, and various bird species.
Important Things To Know
As noted, this is a rocky trail. It’s also covered with lots of cacti and prickly thorns. For that reason, long pants are highly recommended to avoid getting scratched up.
This trail also has very little shade. Since it’s almost entirely exposed to the sun, wear sunscreen and a shade hat. Carry plenty of water, as the arid climate can be unforgiving.
This national park, and this hike in particular, can be very windy at times. You may want to check with rangers at the visitor center and keep an eye on the forecast to make sure the weather will be acceptable for your journey.
While the El Capitan Trail is cool, if you’re visiting the national park for the first time, you may find other trails to be more worth your time. See our list of the 10 best hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.