Hike Name: Guadalupe Peak Trail
Area: Pine Springs
Difficulty Level: Strenuous
Distance: 8.4 miles round trip
Time Needed: 5-8 hours
Elevation Start: 5830 feet
Elevation Gain: 2950 feet
Best Time to Hike: Spring and fall
Most people aren’t aware that the Lone Star state has a peak almost 9000 feet tall, but there it is, at the heart of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas. It’s the “top of Texas!”
The peak stands 8751 feet high, and can be reached with a day hike. Hiking there is challenging, but the views are remarkable.
The Guadalupe Peak Trail is actually the most popular hike in the national park, according to the NPS, despite the fact that it’s very challenging.
This article will tell you everything you need to know to take on one of the best hikes in Texas! I’ll include some personal tips and trail photos from my own experiences reaching this summit.
Hiking the Guadalupe Peak Trail
The Guadalupe Peak hike starts at the Pine Springs Trailhead, like many other hikes. There’s a parking lot here, but since this is one of the most popular hikes in the park, you should plan to arrive early to make sure you get a spot.
Trail Length and Difficulty
Guadalupe Peak is one of only a handful of hikes in the national park classified as “strenuous.” While the total distance – 4.2 miles each way – isn’t too bad, the real issue is the 2950 feet of elevation gain.
That’s a lot of elevation gain over four miles. The visitor center sits at 5830 feet, rising to 8751 feet at the summit.
The first mile includes close to 1000 feet of elevation gain, as you’ll be ascending a series of switchbacks. The remaining three miles are easier, but still challenging, with 700, 700, and 600 feet of gain, respectively.
Folks who do mountain hikes in places like the Pacific Northwest can tackle a 3000-foot vertical gain, but casual hikers who are used to flat terrain will find this a very challenging trek.
Since the entire hike takes place more than a mile above sea level, be sure to pace yourself and bring lots of water.
If you’re coming here from sea level, you will likely notice a difference in your breathing capacity as you get closer to the summit. It shouldn’t be a major issue for healthy folks in good hiking condition who take their time.
Best Time to Hike
This hike can technically be done any time of year, but spring and fall are much more ideal. Temperatures are more pleasant at that time of year.
Start early in the day, not just because it’s easier to find parking, but because you want to avoid the hot late afternoon hours if possible.
Doing this hike in summer would be a challenge since temperatures regularly exceed 90 F, but if you come on a cooler day and get an early start, it’s doable.
I like to begin this hike around 7 am, since the sun is already out but the heat hasn’t taken over. At that hour, you’ll likely encounter fewer than 10 cars in the parking lot.
A winter hike at Guadalupe Peak is possible, but not advised, as winds can get brutal from November through March and temps can get down into the 30s F.
There are tragic stories of folks who tried this hike in winter and didn’t make it, including one on New Year’s Eve 2023.
Trail Description and Highlights
As the trail branches out and splits into those four hikes, you’ll notice that the Guadalupe Peak Trail is the one that starts going up right away.
The path traverses the steep hillside in front of you as you begin walking up. The gain is about 1000 feet in just the first mile. That is a serious incline!
The rocky switchbacks are tough, but as you climb the ridge, you’ll start to get great views of the valley behind you. You will be looking back at the campground and visitor center from above.
Most of the hike is sun-exposed, but if you start early, you will be able to find some shade on this hike, since the sun will be low enough to remain behind parts of the mountain.
There’s one section on the way up where you’re walking around a corner on a narrow ridge with a big dropoff. It looks scary, but it’s really not. This section is just a few feet long.
After 1.4 miles and 1000 feet of elevation gain, you’ll reach the top of the first ridge. Don’t be surprised to be hit with a blast of cold wind rushing up from the other side of the canyon.
The last time I hiked Guadalupe Peak, the forecast called for a high temperature of 90 F. Yet, once I hit this windy side of the trail, I had to scramble to put on a knit hat and wind jacket because it was so cold. Be prepared for any type of weather!
The air is very dry here, even when it’s not super hot. Bring a lot of water. Maybe even Hall’s cough drops to coat your throat as you walk — I found those useful.
Once you hit that first ridge, you can see Guadalupe Peak in the distance, and you realize it’s still very far away.
The good news is that on this side of the trail, there are a lot of trees and places to take refuge from the sun and wind.
Two hours into the hike, I had gone 2.5 miles and gained 2000 feet of elevation. Keep in mind that I kept stopping to take photos and enjoy the scenery. You could move more quickly if you want to.
I encountered a lot of chipmunks and birds at the higher elevations. Hearing the flapping of their wings is very loud in the silence of the forest. Other than an occasional car or plane in the distance, the hike was very quiet.
At 2.8 miles, you leave the forest into a more open landscape with rocks and tall grasses, and more switchbacks.
That’s when the view becomes incredible, as you can see way out into the distance, with miles and miles of Texas land in front of you.
A half-mile from the top, you’ll reach one more forested section, which is very welcome at this point to escape the direct rays of the sun.
After 3 hours, I had traveled 3.8 miles and gained about 2850 feet in elevation.
Eventually, the summit will be in sight, which will help you push through a final steep section to the top.
The summit is marked with a large stainless steel pyramid. Enjoy your achievement!
Surprisingly, this pyramid has some interesting history. It was erected by American Airlines in 1958 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route.
The Butterfield Route was an 1850s stagecoach route that passed through several states, including the southern end of what is now Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
You can still walk part of this historic route today on the Salt Basin Dunes Trail.
Bring lunch to eat at the summit, as the panoramic views are incredible. As long as it’s not too windy, you’ll definitely want to linger a bit to enjoy being on the top of Texas!
There’s no shame in taking lots of water and rest breaks, especially because of the high elevation. You will be breathing heavier over 8000 feet.
It took me 3.5 hours to reach the summit, and 2.5 hours to go back down. Because I started so early, I only encountered about 10 people on the way up, but passed a few dozen on the way back down.
I did run into several people who were clearly not in good enough physical shape to complete this hike. Perhaps they hadn’t done enough research to understand how difficult it was.
None of them actually finished. Most turned around and went back to the beginning once they accepted that the trail was too strenuous.
At the summit, my cell phone changed time zones. This park straddles the Central and Mountain time zones, so your phone may flip back and forth. Wear a watch to avoid getting confused!
Continuing past Guadalupe Peak to the Top of El Capitan
El Capitan may be the most striking peak in the national park, even if Guadalupe Peak is higher.
The problem is that no formal trail goes to the top of El Capitan. The misleadingly-named El Capitan Trail just hugs the base of the peak without going up.
So hikers who insist on getting to the top of El Capitan have to complete the entire Guadalupe Peak Trail, then proceed across a narrow, up-and-down ridge through cacti and thorny shrubs to get to the El Capitan summit.
This extension adds another 1500 feet of elevation gain in just 2.2 miles, bringing the total gain to more than 4400 feet. Going to the El Capitan summit is dangerous due to the unstable rock faces and steep drop offs on each side.
Though going to El Capitan is not recommended, there is a trail description for those who insist on doing this longer hike. Just remember it’s extremely difficult, and there have been tragic mishaps here too.
You’ll see where the side route to the top of El Capitan is when you get close to Guadalupe Peak. You’d have to pick your way down this hill and across to the other side, without any established trail:
The last time I hiked Guadalupe Peak, I only saw one person attempt the side trail to the top of El Capitan. Most were content to stay on the Guadalupe Peak Trail.
Important Things to Know
Check on the weather forecast before beginning this hike. No, really. Every hiking guide says to check the weather, but here, it’s crucial. Check on predicted wind speed in addition to temperature.
The extreme weather on the Guadalupe Peak Trail can range from relentless sun and sweltering heat to snow and sub-zero wind chills, so it’s imperative to know what the conditions look like on the day of your visit.
Bring layers to plan for unexpected high winds as you go up the mountain. And it goes without saying that sunscreen and plenty of water and snacks are essential.
If you have trekking poles, this hike would be an ideal time to use them. Three-thousand feet of elevation gain is no joke!