How to Make the Most of One Day in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
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Well, Guadalupe Mountains is a hiker’s park, after all, the man said, speaking to another couple in the cool and quiet museum of the Guadalupe Mountains Pine Springs Visitor Center. If you don’t want to hike, there’s not as much to do here.
Let me be clear: I don’t think this man was speaking poorly of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, nor should this deter you from visiting. Guadalupe Mountains is great for one thing: hiking. There are other things to do, but hikers will by far have the best time during a visit to this special corner of America.
Luckily for my friend Marissa and I, we like hiking, and after the several national parks trips we’ve done together where I know she hasn’t gotten in as much mileage as she’d hoped, I was excited at the prospect of spending one day in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to hike our hearts out.
Maybe you’re like us; you want to stretch your legs but you’re short on time because of American PTO systems or because of wanting to visit other parks in the area (like Carlsbad Caverns). Whatever the reasons, you can absolutely make the most of just one day in Guadalupe Mountains whether you want to scale a mountain or explore geological wonders with minimal elevation change. Here’s how…
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Mescalero Apache and Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Planning Your Visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Before jumping into the step-by-step itinerary I recommend for one day in Guadalupe Mountains, here are a few important logistical details to cover first – and which make sense for my suggestions later.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park Entrance Fees
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a fee-collecting site within the National Park System. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.
Here are your options:
- The cost to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park is $10 per person.
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver. The America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it, and I buy one every year!
You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Guadalupe Mountains NPS website.
Driving & Parking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
I’m gonna share a scary stat real fast: Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the deadliest park in America. This is because US62/180 runs through the park, and the intersection with the park road is particularly treacherous; vehicular death is notably higher in this park than in others. All that to say: please be careful when turning in/out of the Pine Springs area (the main part of the park) or from any of the other turns off the highway into the park (like McKittrick Road).
Beyond that, driving and parking in Guadalupe Mountains is actually quite easy: it’s a small and lesser-visited national park (#51 of 62!) with limited roads and plenty of parking. You should have no problem finding a spot to park at any of the trailheads; it’s always a good idea to arrive early in the day on weekends during the peak summer and autumn seasons, just so you don’t have any issues at all.
What to Do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)
One day might not seem like enough to really experience Guadalupe Mountains National Park, but I found it more than sufficient to get a sense for what makes this park special – and what it has to offer.
More advanced hikers might plan for a 2-3 day visit and multi-day trek up into the Guadalupe Mountains; those of us who are more beginners can make the most of one day in Guadalupe Mountains National Park with a day hike or two. Here’s a simple guide to help you tentatively plan your day.
Start at the Visitor Center
As with all national parks, I recommend starting out your day in Guadalupe Mountains at the visitor center, specifically the Pine Springs Visitor Center. This is where the majority of day hiking trails set out; you might instead start at McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center if you’re doing a hike in that part of the park first.
(Pine Springs is still a worthy visit even if you start at McKittrick Canyon since it has the gift shop and museum to accompany your visit.)
In either case, start by visiting the rangers to learn about any news in the park – from wildlife to weather, park rangers are a wealth of knowledge and can help you ensure you have the best day possible. They can advise on trail conditions and wind, which are essential depending on which trails you plan to trek. After that, you can come up with a final plan for your day and set out on foot.
Hit the Trails
As I said at the top, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a hiker’s park – it’s the thing to do! So if you’re planning to spend one day in Guadalupe Mountains, strap on those good hiking boots, and hit the trails.
Now, being a hiker’s park with some 80 miles of trails, you have some choices. If you’re a completionist who likes to reach the ends or tops of trails just to say you’ve done it, check out option A (Guadalupe Peak). If, instead, the idea of climbing a mountain to the top just to have to go all the way down sounds awful to you (as it does to me), there are plenty of other trails to choose from – and that’s where option B comes in.
Option A: Hike Guadalupe Peak (All Day)
I’ll admit it: I’m not a huge climbing hiker – elevation is not my friend – but even I can see the appeal of saying you’ve stood atop the tallest peak in Texas. While Guadalupe Peak’s 8,751 feet in elevation might not seem impressive compared to other places (Colorado, Alaska, okay, basically anywhere else that has mountains…), it is still an accomplishment in its own right – and that is super appealing to some hikers.
If you’re one of those hikers, it’s best to spend your entire day in Guadalupe Peak on a summit attempt. This isn’t a particularly technical hike, but it does require a few things planned in advance:
- Guadalupe Peak Trail is 8.4 miles long with 3,000 feet in elevation change. You need to be prepared for that, which may include hiking poles but definitely means sturdy shoes to support your knees and ankles.
- It takes most people 8-9 hours to do Guadalupe Peak Trail. This means you should plan ahead with plenty of water (1 gallon per person, minimum) and food for the 1-2 meals and 1-2 snacks you’ll need to stay properly fueled on the trail.
- The trail is almost entirely exposed – you need to be ready for sunshine. Sunscreen and a hat are essential; be sure to cover those parts you can’t easily shield from the sun, like the backs of your hands, backs of your arms, and neck.
As Guadalupe Mountains National Park is in a desert, you typically don’t need to worry about any other weather than sun when planning your trip/hikes; you do need to be aware of the wind. Strong winds are common in the Guadalupe Mountains, and hikers have been blown off the mountain to their deaths. I recommend keeping an eye on the wind forecast for mountain elevations above 7,000 feet from the National Weather Service, and consulting with the rangers before you set out so you know what you’re in for.
This sounds like a lot, but don’t let all this put you off hiking Guadalupe Peak – if you want to reach the top of Texas’ tallest mountain, do it! You’ll just have much better memories if you plan ahead, bring the right equipment, and practice safe hiking for the level of difficulty this hike offers.
Option B: Take Two Other, Shorter Day Hikes
Personally, there are very few hikes like Guadalupe Peak that appeal to me – and the wind warning was extreme when Marissa and I visited – so I was excited to try some of the other hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park during our trip.
Other than multi-day hikes, there aren’t many single hikes as long as Guadalupe Peak, so you can probably fit two half-day hikes into your one day at Guadalupe Mountains. Here are the two we did.
Devil’s Hall Loop
Of the hikes that Marissa and I discussed in advance of our visit, I was most excited for Devil’s Hall. This out-and-back trail runs 3.6 miles in total, though Marissa and I took a bypass trail up onto the slopes of Guadalupe Peak for a taste of the summit trail; we gained 1,000 feet in that part of the loop, and extended the trail to 5 miles in total by doing so.
In any case, Devil’s Hall Trail is a must-do if you have the mobility for it. This trail is what my friends at UnCruise call a “goat” trail – you’ll be using all four limbs to climb over boulders and rocks, just like goats do. It’s not bouldering or rock climbing per se, though there are a few spots that have an essence of that; entering the Devil’s Hall area requires walking along a narrow path and using handholds, but other than that, it’s mostly picking your way up a dry creekbed.
The highlight is, of course, Devil’s Hall. This is a beautiful geological feature with incredible sedimentary layers. I love hikes that show me weird and wonderful parts of our planet, and this one definitely ticked that box for me. Making it a loop (even with the elevation) was even better since I prefer that to out-and-back trails.
Lunch on Your Own
When visiting Guadalupe Mountains, you will need to bring all your own food; there is no restaurant or even a snack bar to support your energy during your visit. Marissa and I swung by a grocery store on our way out of El Paso and grabbed easy, to-go lunches; after our first hike, we grabbed a picnic table to enjoy them in the shade. Just a pro tip: do the same!
McKittrick Canyon to Pratt Cabin/The Grotto
Everyone – and I mean everyone (Lonely Planet, readers, park rangers) – recommended hiking McKittrick Canyon during our visit. To be honest, it was not my favorite hike, and I’d be hard-pressed to do the hike again, even though there’s more I want to see further along the trail.
Marissa and I hiked the 2.3 miles along McKittrick Canyon to Pratt Cabin, which is a historic homestead within the park, created by geologist Wallace Pratt who was instrumental in getting the park established. The trail is flat, open, and heavy gravel. It is certainly less technical than Devil’s Hall, but also, honestly, way more boring. And the wind was up, pushing against us no matter which way we hiked. I was tired, footsore, and mostly annoyed by the time we reached the Cabin.
Maybe I was just at my limit from our morning hike, but I would gladly have not done this part of the trail, and I lament the idea of hiking it again to reach The Grotto/Hunter Line Shack, even though the section between Pratt Cabin and The Grotto (an additional 1.1 miles each way) is far more scenic and interesting.
Additionally, McKittrick Canyon is apparently at its best in the autumn when all of the trees change color; I hiked this trail in the spring, so that may have added to my general displeasure with the hike. If you’re visiting when the autumn colors are out, it might be a much better experience.
Enjoy Sunset & Call It A Day
If you’ve chosen option A, Guadalupe Peak, you might decide to stay up and watch the sunset atop the mountain. In that case, be sure you’ve got the essentials necessary to hike down in the dark – because you will be. A headlamp is necessary, and give yourself plenty of time to descend safely.
Either way, after hiking you’ll probably be bushed; unless you’re staying in the park, I recommend making your way up to your overnight accommodation in Whites City or Carlsbad. While I normally advise stargazing in national parks, I wouldn’t consider it an essential experience of Guadalupe Mountains National Park unless you really wanted to; you can easily stargaze in Carlsbad Caverns National Park too.
Where to Stay Near Guadalupe Mountains National Park
If you want to stay in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and enjoy a second day on some other trails, your best bet is to plan ahead and camp at the Pine Springs campground; there are tent and RV spots at this site and reservations are essential. If you’re more of a badass set on watching the sunrise from Guadalupe Peak, you could also climb up in the evening, camp at the off-grid Guadalupe Peak Wilderness Campground. Keep in mind, this campground is on a mountainside and offers no water. It isn’t even on the Guadalupe Mountains NPS site – it’s just on the map, so you might want to ask rangers about it before you plan on that.
Whites City is your closest hotel option; it’s a 30-minute drive from the Pine Springs Visitor Center area. As of writing, your only option is Whites City Cavern Inn, which is a nice motel in the heart of town and conveniently located for exploring the whole area and doing everything on this list. Marissa and I stayed here during our trip and our room was clean and quiet – exactly what we needed after each day of adventure!
For more options (or if you can’t get a room at the Whites City Cavern Inn), there are lots of chain and cheap hotel options in Carlsbad (another 30-minute drive). Here’s where we stayed as well as a couple of other options.
- We stayed at the Carlsbad Inn; this motel doesn’t look like much, but the rooms are recently redone, clean, and the most affordable in town. Book on Booking.com or Hotels.com
- I liked the look of the aptly-named National Parks Inn but it was a bit out of our budget for this trip. Book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- The Trinity Hotel in downtown Carlsbad is where I wish we’d stayed if we had the budget to splurge a little more; it’s located in a historic building with cute boutique hotel-style rooms. Book on Hotels.com.
Whites City (or Carlsbad) is a great option if you plan to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park too as part of your trip.
Have any other questions about how to plan your trip to spend one day in Guadalupe Mountains National Park? Let me know in the comments!