Photo: Large rock formations tower against the sky

Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan jut from the Earth in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Photograph by Witold Skrypczak/Getty Images

Location: Texas

Established: September 30, 1972

Size: 86,416 acres

In West Texas, only about 40 miles southwest of Carlsbad Caverns, lies a gem of a park that few people outside the state have ever heard of, let alone visited. Guadalupe Mountains National Park contains the southernmost, highest part of the 40-mile-long Guadalupe range. From the highway, the mountains resemble a nearly monolithic wall through the desert. But drive into one of the park entrances, take even a short stroll, and surprises crop up: dramatically contoured canyons, shady glades surrounded by desert scrub, a profusion of wildlife and birds.

Some 80 miles of trails can lead the more energetic hiker to Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas (8,749 feet), and to mountaintops with scattered but thick conifer forests typical of the Rockies hundreds of miles to the north. The range's origins may be surprising too: The Guadalupe Mountains were once a reef growing beneath the waters of an ancient inland sea. That same vanished sea spawned the honeycomb of the Carlsbad Caverns.

Pottery, baskets, and spear tips found in the mountains suggest that people first visited the Guadalupes about 12,000 years ago, hunting the camels, mammoths, and other animals that flourished in the wetter climate of the waning Ice Age. When the Spaniards arrived in the Southwest in the mid-16th century, Mescalero Apache periodically camped near the springs at the base of the mountains and climbed to the highlands to hunt and forage. Both the Apache and Europeans spun legends of fabulous caches of gold in these mountains.

As American prospectors, settlers, and cavalry pushed west, the Apache made the mountainous areas their bases and fought to ward off encroachers. By the late 1880s, however, virtually all the Indians had been killed or forced onto a reservation.

Donations of ranchlands eventually gave impetus to the park. In 1998 the park acquired 10,000 acres adjacent to its then western boundary, including some 2,000 acres of white gypsum sand dunes and dunes of brick red quartzose, both deposits left by the ancient sea.

How to Get There

The main visitor center and most visitor activities are located in the Pine Springs-Frijole area, off US 62/180, 55 miles southwest of Carlsbad and 110 miles east of El Paso. For McKittrick Canyon, turn off US 62/180 about seven miles northeast of the main visitor center, then continue four miles to the parking lot. For Dog Canyon, either hike 12 miles from Pine Springs Campground or drive north on US 62/180, then west on Cty. Rd. 408, and south on N. Mex. 137, about 105 miles total from Pine Springs. Airports: Carlsbad, New Mexico; and El Paso, Texas.

When to Go

Year-round, but spring and fall are best. In spring, the foliage is fresh and, with enough rain, the blossoms abundant. In late October to mid-November, changing leaves provide splashes of red, yellow, and burgundy.

How to Visit

On a day trip, head to the visitor center and Pine Springs; take at least a short hike. On a second day, visit McKittrick Canyon for a stroll through a hidden oasis. To visit a wilder, more isolated area, where trails take you quickly into the high country, drive about 2.5 hours to reenter the park at Dog Canyon in the north.

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