Where to stay and eat
There are no hotels in the park, just three developed campgrounds. The Pine Springs Campground, near the base of Guadalupe Peak and the main visitor center, has 20 tent and 13 RV sites among scrubby junipers and oaks, with a splendid mountain backdrop. One tent site is accessible, as is one RV site.
For more solitude, head to the Dog Canyon Campground on the park’s north side, in a quiet, tree-filled canyon beneath cliff walls that provide a break from the wind. It has nine tents and four RV sites. Frijole Horse Corral Campground is a group campsite close to the highway with corrals for the use of equestrians.
All campgrounds lack water or power hookups, and they have restrooms but no showers. They often fill up, especially in spring and fall, so reservations (recreation.gov) are recommended. Individual sites cost $20 per night at Pine Springs and Dog Canyon; $60 per group per night at Frijole Horse.
In addition, 10 back-country campgrounds have 60 campsites. You must get a permit to use them at the main visitor center. There’s a $6 reservation fee and a $6 per person, per night recreation fee.
Things to Do
Go hiking: Hiking is one of the most popular activities in GMNP, and lacing up your boots will give you the quintessential park experience. You have plenty of options, with 80 miles of trails crisscrossing the terrain. Take your pick from an easy nature walk to an all-day, quad-busting hike up Guadalupe Peak, where the payoff is huge — a view from the Top of Texas.
“For a lot of visitors, what makes the park special today is the challenge it represents. They want to prove to themselves what they can and cannot do,” Barr says.
Periodically, special guided hikes are offered, including moonlight hikes to the Salt Basin Dunes, as well as guided history and nature walks. Check the events schedule online and at the park headquarters.
For something short and easy, set out on the Pinery Trail, a wheelchair-accessible paved path that starts just outside the Pine Springs Visitors Center. The trail leads to the ruins of an old Butterfield Overland stagecoach station, once a relay stop on the 2,800-mile mail route from Tipton, Missouri, to San Francisco. Standing next to the remnants of the rock walls, it’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like to drive a stagecoach back then. At an average speed of 6 mph, the trip took three weeks. Signs along the trail describe the surrounding desert plant life, a prickly assortment of vegetation that looks ready to stab, scrape or poke anyone who gets too close. This is the only trail open to pets (if they’re leashed.)
Another easy paved trail, the half-mile, out-and-back Manzanita Spring Trail, starts at the parking lot of Frijole Ranch, an old cattle ranch 1.5-miles northeast of the main visitor center, within GMNP’s boundaries. The trail cuts through an old fruit orchard and leads to a shallow pool that attracts birds year-round. Keep going as the trail turns to dirt, and in less than a mile you’ll reach Smith Spring, with shade and more birdlife.
One of GMNP’s most popular draws is McKittrick Canyon, a day-use-only area in the park’s northeast section with the 10.9-mile McKittrick Canyon Trail. For a few weeks each fall, visitors flock here to admire maples, oaks and other trees as they show off gaudy cloaks of crimson and orange. For the first four miles, the trail follows a streambed, usually dry, as it winds through a canyon. You’ll feel like you’re leaving one world and entering the next as you transition from prickly desert terrain dotted with cacti and yucca into a shady thicket of junipers, bigtooth maples and pines sandwiched between encroaching hillsides. It’s damper in the canyon, and cooler, too. About 2.3 miles in, you’ll pass an old cabin. Keep going and you’ll see pools of water, another abandoned cabin and a grotto dripping with knobby formations that look like someone stacked handfuls of mud there. Settle in at one of the picnic tables in the shady alcove and soak up the lush setting, which feels nothing like the park’s desert floor. Many day hikers turn around at the grotto, but the trail continues, turning steep and rugged as it climbs more than 2,000 feet on its way up to McKittrick Ridge. Eventually, it joins another long path, the Tejas Trail.
For another unique hike, opt for the easy trail to the sparkling white sands of the Salt Basin Dunes. You’ll have to drive around to the park’s southwest side to get to the trailhead, and the last mile of the Williams Road that gets you there is clay. From the parking lot, it’s a mile and a half on a sunbaked and exposed trail to the dunes, which might remind you of one of the desert scenes from the Star Wars series. (Don’t worry, no wookies here.)
Eat your Wheaties if you decide to tackle the Guadalupe Peak Trail, an all-day trek up the tallest peak in Texas. You’ll gain 3,000 feet during the 8.4-mile round-trip hike, which starts near the main visitor center. The first stretch is the steepest, but the increasingly eye-popping views mitigate the discomfort. Photography buffs like to pitch tents at the small campsite a mile from the summit, then wake up early to take in sunrise from the top. When skies are clear, the desert spreads out in all directions like a rumpled gray-green blanket far below. While you’re up there, think about this: Three paraplegic men made the trip in 1982, rolling their rugged, custom-designed wheelchairs (and crawling in some sections) all the way to the state’s highest point.