In all of Texas’ 268,597 square miles, there are only two outdoorsy national parks: Big Bend, known far and wide for its rugged border landscape; and Guadalupe Mountains, which features Texas’ tallest peak. Visitors who make the trip to far West Texas to visit the Guadalupes are rewarded with some of the most stunning sights in the state.
Pine Springs Visitor Center
No matter what adventure lies ahead, start here—not only to get a permit and let the rangers know where you’re headed, but also to learn about the park’s amazing diversity. Interpretive displays cover the plants, animals, and history found in the Chihuahuan Desert and the mountain range, an ancient fossil reef. Plenty of taxidermied animals on display show what you might encounter in the park. And don’t miss the paved Pinery Trail behind the center, which serves as an educational warmup.
Summiting the state’s highest peak and standing on the “Top of Texas” isn’t for the faint of heart. This 8.4-mile round trip is marked by 3,000 feet of elevation gain, numerous false summits, and the ever-present perils of cacti, snakes, and scorpions. After winding through the dry lowland desert, the trail takes hikers through pine forest and grassy valleys. Three to five hours in, hikers get to stand 8,751 feet above Texas and look out over its Lone Star grandeur.
At the northeastern edge of the park lies an area described as the “most beautiful spot in Texas.” This tree-covered canyon is a treasure trove for birders, wildlife watchers, and plant lovers. In the spring, flowering prickly pear cacti and wildflowers paint the hills in stunning colors. Hikers can choose between short loops and tough climbs that give trekkers a view of the entire canyon. The small open cavern called the “Grotto” is an especially great spot to grab a snack and rest a minute.
Frijole Ranch Cultural Museum
This outlying pioneer site engenders appreciation for how easy life is nowadays. Ranchers first settled this area on the south side of the Guadalupe Mountains in 1876, but evidence shows Native Americans used the nearby springs for centuries. The ranch changed hands a number of times before J.C. Hunter Jr., an oilman from Abilene, inherited it. He purchased additional land and then sold it all to the National Park Service in 1966 at a bargain price. The historic stone ranch house and small red schoolhouse date to the late 1800s.
Salt Basin Dunes
Visiting this under-traveled yet beautiful destination—featuring windswept gypsum sand dunes and the towering Guadalupe Mountains as a backdrop—feels like landing on an alien planet. Dunes nearly 60 feet high lured me into an epic tuck-and-roll tumble to the bottom. I highly recommend it, if you don’t mind shaking sand out of your clothes for the rest of the day.
So whether you follow my footsteps or forge your own path, I hope to see you on the road.