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Salt Basin Dunes frame West Texas's Guadalupe Mountains at sunset. (Photograph by Witold Skrypczak, Getty Images)
TravelInsider's Guide

A Park Ranger's Guide to Guadalupe Mountains National Park

The Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas were once a reef growing beneath the waters of an ancient inland sea. That same vanished sea spawned the honeycomb of the Carlsbad Caverns, just 40 miles north across the New Mexico border.

From the highway, the mountains resemble a nearly monolithic wall through the desert. But drive into one of the national 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.

Keene Haywood—on Twitter @keeneh—has been a frequent visitor to Guadalupe Mountains National Park for the past 20 years, having formerly worked for The Nature Conservancy in the nearby Davis Mountains Preserve, the Lone Star State’s largest.

Keene currently directs a master’s program in exploration science at the University of Miami, but his previous work has involved documentary filmmaking, conservation science, and using geospatial and multimedia technologies to help discover and document the world. He’s also a frequent expert with National Geographic Expeditions. Here’s his insider’s guide to this natural wonder.

Guadalupe Mountains Is My National Park

Fall is the best time to visit my park because visitors are treated to cooler temperatures and vibrant fall colors in McKittrick Canyon.

My park’s biggest attraction is Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, but a visit isn’t complete without seeing the bigtooth maple trees of McKittrick Canyon change color during the fall.

If I could offer one practical tip for optimizing your visit, it would be to avoid springtime, when the winds can be punishing.

My favorite “park secret” is hiking up to “The Bowl” and then over to Bush Mountain.

Watch out for the occasional rattlesnake and be sure to bring water and sun protection when you come to the park.

Head to McKittrick Canyon if you want to see wildlife. If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot a rainbow trout in the small stream that runs through the canyon.

For the best view, head to the summit of Guadalupe Peak. This highest point of Texas feels like the top of the world.

McKittrick Canyon is the best trail in the park and driving from south to north along Highway 62/Highway 180 is the most scenic drive.

If you’re up for an adventure/physical challenge, try hiking The Bowl or Guadalupe Peak Trail.

To experience the park’s cultural side, ha ha! You are many miles from anywhere here. El Paso or Carlsbad, New Mexico, are the closest culture. Do note that relics found in the Guadalupes suggest that humans first visited the mountains some 12,000 years ago, hunting the camels, mammoths, and other animals that flourished in the wetter climate of the waning Ice Age. The region was later home to the Apaches, who were driven out in the 19th century.

Pine Springs Campground is the best place to stay while you’re visiting and your tent, picnic table, or along the trail is the best place to eat (there are no restaurants here).

If you only have one day to spend in the park, make sure to hit Pine Springs Campground, a little bit of Devil’s Hall Trail, and as much of McKittrick Canyon as you can squeeze in.

If you’re interested in a guided tour, I recommend taking advantage of the ranger talks. There are no guiding services in the park, so pull out a National Geographic Trails Illustrated map and plan your own guided tour. This place is truly an adventurer’s dream!

The most peaceful place in the park has to be the trails up in the Bowl area of the Guadalupes. The pine forest there is very peaceful.

Author Alan Tennant is an “unsung hero” of my park because he wrote about the Guadalupe Mountains in such an eloquent and thoughtful way.

Hiking to the tallest point in Texas could only happen in my park.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss McKittrick Canyon. It is relatively flat and has large shade trees.

Just outside park boundaries, you can visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park just up the road in New Mexico.

If my park had a mascot, it would be the peregrine falcon, which nests in the Guadalupe’s high, remote canyons and soars over its desert mountain landscape.

The biggest threat to this park’s future is drought and adverse climate change.

In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my park because this truly wild country plays by its own rules. You will need to learn them to visit the backcountry.

Before you visit (or when you arrive), make sure to check out these great resources (books, films, and websites):