From exploring natural sand dunes to observing 200-million-year-old fossils to hiking the four highest peaks in Texas, you can find so many unique things to do at Guadalupe Mountains National Park!
Although this isn’t one of the most frequently-visited American national parks, visiting here is worth it. The hiking is especially good, with varying landscapes from flat desert trails to forested, high-elevation treks.
The park also has a bit of history. Did you know that 260 million years ago, this part of Texas was underwater? This whole area was a tropical ocean. It’s possible to see fossils and other ancient geologic features from that era on some of the hikes.
If you’re considering a visit, keep reading to check out our full list of the best activities in Guadalupe Mountains National Park!
Basic Info About Visiting the Park
Established in 1972, Guadalupe Mountains National Park covers roughly 86,000 acres in western Texas. The park resides within the Chihuahuan Desert.
While much of the park experiences typical hot desert conditions, other high-elevation areas are cooler and have more vegetation and wildlife.
The park is home to nine of the ten highest peaks in Texas, including the tallest, Guadalupe Peak, which stands 8751 feet high.
The closest airport is El Paso International. From there, it’s a 2-hour drive to the park. The park is only a one-hour drive from another popular national park, Carlsbad Caverns.
Because of extreme heat in summer and cold in winter, the best times to visit the park are spring and fall. The park sees about 220,000 annual visitors, with March, April, and October being the most popular times to visit.
Guadalupe Mountains NP is split into a few different regions:
Pine Springs. This is the center of the park. It’s where you’ll find the main visitor center, park headquarters, the most popular hiking trails, a campground, and the park welcome sign.
Frijole Ranch. Just a short drive north of Pine Springs, Frijole Ranch is the site of old ranch buildings dating back to the late 1800s, which now serve as a museum.
McKittrick Canyon. Further north is McKittrick Canyon, a scenic, forested section of the park that includes the Permian Reef Trail, where you can see 200-million-year-old fossils.
Dog Canyon. Tucked away in the far northern part of the park near the New Mexico border, Dog Canyon has a campground and a few rarely-traveled hiking trails.
Salt Basin Dunes. In the far west of the park, there’s a section of gypsum sand dunes up to 40 feet high. You can drive a gravel road to a trailhead and walk to the sand dunes.
The 10 Best Things To Do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Presented in no particular order, these are the 10 best activities in the park for first-time visitors.
1 Stop By the Pine Springs Visitor Center
The main visitor center is at Pine Springs. Pick up your park maps, fill your water bottles, grab a magnet or a National Parks Passport stamp, and ask any questions of the rangers.
Hours vary, but this site is generally open from 8 am to 6 pm during peak season (spring and fall), and from 8 am to 4:30 pm the rest of the year.
It’s a good idea to stop by and check out the informational boards for any warnings or nuggets of trivia. On my last visit, the signs reminded guests that rattlesnakes were becoming active, and noted that ringtails had also been seen recently.
These little tidbits are always nice to know before you head out to explore the park.
2 Hike to Guadalupe Peak
The best hike in the park is the one to Guadalupe Peak. Getting to the highest summit in the park takes 6-8 hours round-trip.
The panoramic views from up there are remarkable. You can see mountains and desert landscape for miles and miles.
Be warned that this hike is quite strenuous, gaining around 3000 feet of elevation over 8 miles. If you’re not an experienced hiker, skip this one and try something more moderate. See our full list of hiking trails for more ideas.
3 Hike to Devil’s Hall
The best hike for casual tourists is Devil’s Hall, which is just over 4 miles round-trip. It leads to a narrow corridor that makes for cool photos.
This hike also includes a climb up a natural staircase that was formed when the area was underwater.
If you only have time for one hike, Devil’s Hall is the best option.
The Devil’s Hall hike is doable for just about anyone in good shape. The only challenge is that there are a number of rocks and boulders you have to climb around on the trail.
But this hike is a great way to get to know the different aspects of Guadalupe Mountains NP.
4 Hike to The Bowl
The Bowl is a high-elevation plateau surrounded by mountains on all sides, so it really feels like you’re standing in the world’s most scenic bowl.
This part of the park is full of pine trees and other vegetation. It’s far more green than you’d expect from a hike in a desert national park.
You’ll also get incredible views here at Hunter Peak, where you’ll be able to look down and gaze for miles into the distance.
5 Try Some Shorter Walking Trails
If long hiking trails aren’t your thing, Guadalupe Mountains NP has several short walking trails as well.
Located by the Pine Springs Visitor Center, the Pinery Trail is a paved walking path (0.75 miles round-trip) to Pinery Station. That 1858 station was part of the original Butterfield Stagecoach Route, an early cross-country mail route.
Another short trail worth checking out is the Manzanita Spring Trail (part of the Smith Spring Trail). This paved route is only a half-mile and features a natural cold spring that attracts a lot of birds.
In addition, the McKittrick Nature Trail and Indian Meadow Nature Trail are both short, mostly flat trails that reveal the shrubs, trees, and cactus of this environment.
6 See the Frijole Ranch History Museum
The Frijole Ranch Cultural Museum is one of the best things to do in the park. The ranch is the most complete remnant of early farming and ranching efforts in the Guadalupe Mountains.
The Rader Brothers were pioneers who settled here in the 1870s, and their home is one of the oldest remaining buildings in the area. The Smith family then moved here in 1906 and created a small orchard.
They took the original ranch and added a kitchen, bedrooms, and a second floor. They also built a guesthouse and a red building that was used as a schoolhouse and bunkhouse.
The museum goes into more detail about this history, as well as the history of the Native Americans who lived in this area. Visitors can go into the original ranch house, now the museum, whenever volunteers are available to staff it.
If it’s closed when you visit, you can still walk around the grounds, see the buildings, and read informational boards on the property.
7 See Ancient Fossils
The full Permian Reef Trail takes 5-7 hours to complete, but you don’t have to walk nearly that far to start encountering Permian age geologic and trace fossils along the trail.
The trail has markers that highlight these features. You can see examples in this NPS guide (pdf), including fossilized remains of single-celled organisms, fragments of clam-like creatures, and lots of sponge fossils.
Purchase a guidebook at the McKittrick Visitors Center created by the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology. The book adds further context to the geologic features you’ll be looking at on the trail.
8 Visit Pratt Cabin, Hunter Line Shack, and the Grotto
The McKittrick Canyon Trail has more historic buildings. Pratt Cabin was named after geologist Wallace Pratt, who built and lived at the cabin in 1932. It’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hunter Line Shack is another stone building from the 1930s. It’s named after Judge JC Hunter, who regularly hosted guests at this ranch.
The Grotto is a natural formation that reveals the exposed face of an old cave wall. You can see all of these features on a four-hour hike.
If you visit during October or November, this is the hike you want to take for the best fall foliage experience and the most vibrant colors.
9 Check Out the Sand Dunes
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of the few national parks with sand dunes. It’s cool to walk around on the sand and enjoy the solitude while taking in the distant view of the mountain’s tallest peaks.
Getting to the Salt Basin Dunes area of the park is challenging, because it’s in the far western edge of the park and requires a length drive. So if you only have one day in the park, this may not be your best option.
But for anyone with a multi-day visit, consider spending some time in the dunes. Few visitors make it out this way, so you’ll have plenty of peace and quiet.
10 Watch the Sunset
One of my favorite things to do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park is take in the sunset. The sunsets here can be spectacular, especially when the skies are clear.
The mountain peaks are good spots to view a sunset, but then you’d have to hike back down in the dark, which is not ideal.
Instead, I suggest going somewhere like the El Capitan Viewpoint, a pullout where you can see the oranges and yellows in the sky above the mountains as the sun drops.
Wondering where to stay? See our guide to the best hotels near the park.
What’s your favorite activity in the park?