One Day in Guadalupe Mountains National Park: The Ideal Itinerary

guadalupe mountains one day
Sunrise, seen from the Guadalupe Peak hiking trail.

Looking for suggestions for how to fill one day in Guadalupe Mountains National Park? That’s a common question, since a lot of tourists only spend a single day in this underrated west Texas park.

Guadalupe Mountains NP is different from many other U.S. national parks in that most of the top attractions here are hiking trails. That’s great news if you like hiking! If not, you may find it harder to fill an entire day. In either case, we’ve got you covered.

Because there are only a few historic points of interest in the park, one day is actually enough to see a majority of the park’s highlights. Read on to check out two different itineraries for exploring this unique desert park.

Two Itineraries For Seeing the Park

There’s only one main road running through Guadalupe Mountains NP. So most park visitors pretty much follow the same itinerary. The main difference is which trail(s) you may want to hike.

By far the best activity in the park is hiking to the top of Guadalupe Peak. At 8751 feet, it’s the highest point in Texas! But it’s a strenuous, steep, and long trek, covering 8 miles roundtrip with about 3000 feet of elevation gain.

guadalupe peak viewing

If you’re not an experienced hiker, you may find this trek too difficult. It’s hard, but not impossible — dozens of people complete this hike every day.

Our first itinerary is for folks who want to give Guadalupe Peak Trail a shot. That hike will take up most of your day in the park, but it’s worth it.

Itinerary number two is for those who don’t want to tackle Guadalupe Peak. In that case, you can do a couple shorter hikes instead, while seeing all of the park’s points of interest.

A few other important notes before beginning:

-Bring lunch and snacks. There are no stores anywhere in the park, or even near it. You’ll want to bring along a sandwich and plenty of filling snacks to get you through the day.

Desert hiking can be very draining, so bring more food and Gatorade than you think you’ll need, to replenish those calories!

-Have plenty of gas in your vehicle. The park has no gas stations. The closest place for gas and food is the town of Whites City, which is about 35 minutes away from the heart of the park.

guadalupe mountains activities

-Bring desert hiking essentials, including layers of clothing, because the higher elevations can get quite windy and chilly, even when it’s scorching hot at the visitor center.

-Remember that the entrance fee for the park is $10. There are no fee booths at the park entrances. You are expected to go into the Pine Springs Visitor Center and pay the fee to the rangers there.

-Bring an old-school wristwatch if you have one! This park is in the Mountain Time Zone, but the closest cell towers are in the Central Time Zone, so phones often display the wrong time here. Sometimes they even bounce back and forth between time zones. It can be very confusing, but having a watch set to Mountain Time will solve that problem.

-Book your lodging early, since there aren’t many options in this area. The park has only one easily-accessible campground at Pine Springs. You can find hotels near Guadalupe Mountains NP in nearby towns like Whites City, Carlsbad, and Van Horn.

One Day in Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Recommended Itinerary

8 am: Pine Springs Visitor Center
8:30 am: Guadalupe Peak hike (bring lunch and eat on trail)
3:30 pm: Walk the Pinery Springs Trail
4:30 pm: Visit the Frijole Ranch Museum, Manzanita Spring
5:30 pm: Walk to Smith Spring
7 pm: Watch the sunset

If you’re a national park junkie, this itinerary may surprise you. Why would I want to spend most of my day on one hiking trail?, you may ask. 

But trust us… the Guadalupe Peak hike is by far the best thing to do in this park. The views are remarkable, and the hike will reveal every side of GMNP, from the rocky hillsides to the dry desert floor to the forested high-elevation areas.

You’ll still have time to drive to the other attractions after your hike.

Let’s tackle each of these activities one by one.

8 am: Pine Springs Visitor Center

visitor center

The Pine Springs Visitor Center opens at 8 am. It’s always wise to check in with rangers before a long hike like this, to check the weather forecast and see if any warning signs have been posted.

Viewing the exhibits and learning about the history and geology of the park will make your day in the park more enjoyable, since you’ll be more educated about what you are seeing.

8:30 am: Guadalupe Peak Hike

guadalupe peak marker

Hiking to the highest point in Texas is the coolest thing you can do in this national park. It’s a really fun hike, passing through rocky hillsides and forested terrain in the higher elevations.

Beginning early in the morning is a good way to beat the afternoon heat and beat the crowds. You may even want to start a bit earlier to catch the sunrise. The sunrise views are very cool!

As noted, the hike gains just under 3000 feet of elevation in four miles of ascent, so it’s a tough one. Take frequent rest breaks and bring double the amount of water you think you’ll need.

The first mile has about 1000 feet of elevation gain, via a series of switchbacks. That’s a lot of uphill walking. But if you can complete the first mile, you’re golden. The last three miles contain a more reasonable 700, 700, and 600 feet of gain.

Dress in layers, since high winds and chilly temperatures can take over when you start to ascend some of these highest peaks. It does snow up here during the winter.

The reward is seeing Texas from its highest vantage point!

I suggest bringing lunch and eating at the summit. You’ll likely be surrounded by a handful of other hikers as well.

Hiking Guadalupe Peak can take from 6 to 8 hours, so it will be the primary highlight of your day. Don’t feel as though you need to rush. Take your time and enjoy the experience. It usually takes me about 3.5 hours on the way up, and 2.5 hours back down, including breaks for rest, photos, and lunch.

3:30 pm: Walk the Pinery Springs Trail

pinery station

Ready to move on to some historic sites? From the Pine Springs Visitor Center, walk the short trail (0.75 miles) to the Pinery Station ruins

This was once a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, which stretched across the country in the 1850s. 

Part of the original rock building that served as the station has collapsed, but part of it remains. See the structure up close, but don’t touch it!

4:30 pm: Visit the Frijole Ranch Museum and Manzanita Spring

frijole ranch ruins

Another site with some history is the Frijole Ranch Museum. Farmers and ranchers lived here as early as the 1870s. Some of the buildings on their property have been preserved.

The main house is now a museum. The museum has irregular hours (depending on ranger availability), so you should expect that it may be closed. But even so, you can still read the display boards and see the historic buildings up close.

Then, take the short half-mile walk to see Manzanita Spring, one of a handful of natural springs in this area that allowed pioneers to settle here and which continue to support bird and animal life today.

5:30 pm: Walk to Smith Spring

smith spring

If you’ve still got the energy, add one last short hike to your day. From Frijole Ranch, embark on the 2.3-mile loop hike to Smith Spring

This is the largest of the springs in this part of the park. It offers a good amount of shade and cool air from the spring, so the walk is doable even during a hot summer day.

There’s a mini-waterfall at the spring. Combined with the tall trees, this area is so tranquil it almost feels like a Japanese Zen Garden. 

Note: If you run out of daylight, or you’re just too tired to tackle another hike, it’s fine to skip Smith Spring. This is the lowest-priority activity on our agenda.

7:30 pm: Watch the sunset

sunset - one day in guadalupe mountains national park itinerary

The sunsets in west Texas are pretty remarkable. My favorite place to watch is a pullout just south of Pine Springs, on the western side of southbound U.S. Highway 180.  

On Google Maps, it’s simply called “Guadalupe Peak Viewpoint.” There’s a parking lot here, so you can get out and revel in the views of the peak and the setting sun.

Once the sun has set, drive to your hotel or nearest town to grab dinner and settle in for the night. 

Backup Itinerary For Park Visitors

8:30 am: Pine Springs Visitor Center
9 am: Devil’s Hall Trail
1 pm: Visit the Frijole Ranch Museum and Manzanita Spring
2 pm: Hike to Smith Spring
4 pm: Drive to Salt Basin Dunes (if your vehicle can handle dirt roads)
7:30 pm: Watch the sunset

This is the itinerary for folks who decide to skip the strenuous Guadalupe Peak hike.

This schedule makes the Devil’s Hall Trail the primary activity of the day, with additional stops in other areas, including the rarely-visited Salt Basin sand dunes.

Once again, let’s go through each item one by one.

8:30 am: Pine Springs Visitor Center

As always, popping in to the visitor center is an ideal way to start any day at a national park. See what announcements have been posted and ask any questions you may have of the park rangers. 

9 am: Devil’s Hall Trail

devils hall hiking trail

This is the coolest hike in the park that can be done in only a few hours. The Devil’s Hall Trail doesn’t have any significant elevation gain, offering a chance to look up at the El Capitan peak for most of the way.

This is a rocky path, so you’ll want to wear hiking boots to avoid twisting an ankle. Eventually, you’ll reach two incredible natural features. One is a natural staircase that was created millions of years ago when this area was underwater.

The other is the slot canyon called Devil’s Hall. Look how the canyon walls tower over hikers. It’s a great place for Instagram photos!

You may want to bring lunch to enjoy somewhere along the hike. If not, at least bring a few snacks to get through the long walk.

1 pm: Visit the Frijole Ranch Museum and Manzanita Spring

If you haven’t yet eaten lunch, grab a seat at one of the picnic tables here. Then explore the historic museum (if it’s open) and take the short walk to Manzanita Spring to see how the early settlers of this region lived.

2 pm: Hike to Smith Spring

The Smith Spring Trail is only a 2.3-mile loop, so you can probably complete it even if you’ve already done the Devil’s Hall hike. 

Smith Spring is a natural water source for animals with a mini-waterfall and a shaded canopy with tall trees.

4 pm: Drive to Salt Basin Dunes

sand dunes dirt road
The dirt road leading to the sand dunes.

From the Pine Springs area, it’s a one-hour drive past the town of Dell City to the Salt Basin Dunes area in the western edge of the park. That includes an 8-mile dirt road to the trailhead.

From there, it’s a flat, 1.5-mile walk to the gorgeous gypsum sand dunes. This is a less-explored part of the park, but it’s one of the most fascinating areas.

The dunes reach as high as 60 feet. There are no trails here. You can just walk around on the sand wherever you like. 

If you are not comfortable taking your vehicle on a dirt or gravel road, you may want to replace this activity with a short visit to McKittrick Canyon (see next section), or a short walk on the one-mile Pinery Springs Trail, which starts at the Pine Springs Visitor Center. 

7:30 pm: Watch the sunset

As suggested in the first itinerary, try to take in the sunset at the Guadalupe Peak Viewpoint, a pullout just south of Pine Springs. If conditions cooperate, you’ll see brilliant orange, yellow, and red hues.

Then drive to get dinner, and your day is complete. 

Other Options: McKittrick Canyon

mckittrick canyon visitor center

If you find yourself with extra time to fill, the best option is to head to McKittrick Canyon section of the park. There’s an outdoor visitor center (unstaffed) with more information about the wildlife and plants of the park.

The McKittrick Canyon Nature Trail is a short, paved path that winds for one mile and has informational signs about the plants of the area.

That’s not to be confused with the longer McKittrick Canyon Trail that covers seven miles and passes by the Pratt Cabin (an old cabin from the 1930s), the Grotto (section with exposed cave walls), and Hunter Line Shack (a ranching building from the 1920s.)

There’s also the Permian Reef Trail here, a little-used trail that features a number of marine fossils in the rocks from its oceanic days.

Beware that the McKittrick Canyon section of the park closes early — usually at 5 pm, but it can be as early as 4:30 pm. There’s actually a locking gate on the road, which means that if you don’t get out of this section in time, you could find yourself stuck. Be very mindful of the time — and remember, you’re in the Mountain Time Zone.

Half-Day Itinerary for Guadalupe Mountains National Park

What if you’re just passing through western Texas and you only have a half-day to see the park? No worries, you can still see quite a bit. My first visit to GMNP was actually a half-day visit as well!

First off, stop in to the Pine Springs Visitor Center. View the exhibits, chat with rangers, ask for suggestions, and fill your water bottles. 

Then head to Frijole Ranch to see the historic ranch buildings. Take the short walk to Manzanita Spring. 

Finally, head back to Pine Springs and hike the Devil’s Hall Trail. This trail is just under 4 miles and takes roughly 2 to 3 hours. 

It’s not too long, but it allows hikers to get a good feel for the geography and scenery of the park, making it the perfect hike for a half-day visit. 

Other National Parks in the Area

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is within a four-hour drive of three other parks: Carlsbad Caverns, Big Bend, and White Sands. So you can do an entire road trip through Texas and New Mexico and knock out four parks at once!

Many people who are visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico add an extra day to their vacation to swing down and check out Guadalupe Mountains NP, since it’s just an hour away.

See our driving guide for a road trip between Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains NP.

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