Hiking the Salt Basin Dunes Trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Hike Name: Salt Basin Dunes Trail
Area: Salt Basin Dunes
Difficulty Level: Easy
Distance: 3 miles round trip
Time Needed: 1-2 hours
Elevation Start: 3645 feet
Elevation Gain: 40 feet
Best Time to Hike: Late fall through early spring

Overview

Did you know that Guadalupe Mountains National Park has sand dunes? In fact, it’s one of only a handful of U.S. national parks with sand dunes.

The sand dunes section here is overlooked and little-traveled, even though it provides some awesome views, with several of the park’s distant peaks all in sight at the same time.

The dunes themselves reach as high as 60 feet tall. Once you reach the sand, there’s no trail, so you can wander around and have fun in the sand wherever you like.

Hiking the Salt Basin Dunes Trail

Starting Point

The Salt Basin Dunes Trail is located in the far west section of Guadalupe Mountains NP, more than an hour from Pine Springs. Getting here can be quite difficult.

Navigate to the small town of Dell City. This town has a gas station and places to pick up food, so it’s a good spot to gather supplies for the day.

From Dell City, follow Broadway Street three miles east to Ranch Road (Route 1576.) Make a right and head south for one mile.

Then you’ll run into Williams Road, a dirt road. Follow that for 8 miles to the trailhead and parking lot. The dirt road is not always in the best condition, so drive carefully.

Having a high-clearance vehicle would be ideal, though plenty of folks have made it here in small cars. During times of heavy rains, the road is impassable, so be mindful of the weather forecast.

The walk to the dunes is 1.5 miles from the parking area.

salt basin dunes directions
Map to the Salt Basin Dunes Trail in the Guadalupe Mountains (NPS.)

Trail Length and Difficulty

It’s a flat 1.5-mile walk from the trailhead to the dunes themselves. From there, it’s up to you how much further to go.

The trail rates as Easy because of its short distance and lack of elevation gain, but it can become a difficult hike if you’re not prepared. Have lots of water and sun protection, and avoid coming during the hot afternoon hours.

There likely won’t be many other people around, so be as self-sufficient as possible.

Best Time to Hike

Spring and autumn provide the most ideal temperatures, but you can also hike here in winter or summer if you’re prepared.

Summer hikes here should be done as early as possible, so you can be back to your car before noon.

salt basin dunes trail
Aerial view of the Salt Basin Dunes (Google Maps.)

Trail Description and Highlights

The trail begins by walking down a dusty trail through the desert terrain. The rugged Guadalupe Mountain peaks in the distance will be visible.

As you continue along the trail, you’ll notice a transition from desert scrub vegetation to grasses. Yucca and staghorn cholla cactus are common here. Very soon, you’ll see the sand come into view.

For easiest access to the sand dunes, continue hiking until you reach the Butterfield Stage Route. This trail won’t be marked, but it’s a dirt trail that intersects with the main trail.

The Butterfield Stage Route was an early cross-country route that connected St. Louis and San Francisco in the 1800s.

At that point, the dunes will be accessible on your right. Look for the metal poles guiding you to the base of the sand.

The Salt Basin Dunes are composed of gypsum sand, which is softer and cooler than traditional quartz sand. So you may be able to walk around barefoot if you choose.

It’s the same kind of sand found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico, about 3 hours to the northwest of here.

These dunes do have a bit more vegetation than many other sand dunes. Grasses and shrubs dot the landscape as you wander through the white sand.

It’s fascinating to see the gentle ripples on the dunes. Winds from the west carry sand grains from a dry lake bed over to these dunes.

The dunes only formed in the last few thousand years, making them young, geologically speaking. They’re still growing up to one-third of an inch per year.

The tallest dunes (60 feet) are in the northern end of the dune field, while they drop down to 3 feet high in the south. Learn more about these interesting dunes.

From the sand, you can get cool views of the rest of the park. There are only 7 peaks in all of Texas that stand higher than 8000 feet, and you can see 5 of them here! Look for Bush Mountain, Bartlett Peak, Shumard Mountain, Guadalupe Peak, and El Capitan in the distance.

The sand dunes are quite a contrast to the desert and forest canyon areas that take up most of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Don’t expect to see much wildlife in this part of the park. But you may very well see tiny footprints from rodents, lizards, birds, and other small animals that come out on the sand at night. Rattlesnakes do slither around these parts, so watch your step.

It would be difficult to fit the dunes into a one-day Guadalupe visit, but if you’re staying in the park for at least two days, consider checking out the Salt Basin Dunes Trail.

Important Things to Know

This part of the park used to have a permanently locked gate that required hikers to drive all the way to Pine Springs to pick up the key from rangers. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. You can drive right here.

Still, the park limits access to daylight hours. Tourists may only visit from sunrise to sunset. There are pit toilets at the trailhead, but no water.

Bring a lot of water, especially if it’s a hot summer day. Take note of where you’re going so you don’t get lost in the dunes (though the peaks in the distance should help you maintain a sense of direction.)

As with any outdoor adventure, practice Leave No Trace principles. Stay on the trail, where the trail exists, to minimize your impact on the fragile ecosystem.

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