El Capitan Trail
This trail climbs over 1,500 feet and takes a long day to complete, including the drive to Williams Ranch, which requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle. This is the only trail into the remote western part of the Guadalupe Mountains, and it offers little shade. The incredible scenery along the first 2 miles more than makes up for the long, slow, and usually hot climb up Shumard Canyon, where the trail has an elevation gain of over 1,300 feet. Stop occasionally to look back down the canyon to the west, and ahead toward Shumard Peak and the impressive escarpment of the Guadalupes. After Shumard Canyon, the hike takes you 3 miles around El Capitan, keeping in the shadow of the escarpment and climbing another 200 feet. After about 5 miles, the Salt Basin Overlook loop takes off to the right and you stay to the left, gradually dropping down into Guadalupe Canyon, where you meet the other end of the lower Salt Basin Overlook loop. From here the last 3.4 miles of the trail are fairly easy, level walking to Pine Springs. The trail can also be hiked out and back from Pine Springs, an arduous 19-mile overnight hike, which is why many hikers get lifts from friends to the ranch and hike back to Pine Springs. An alternative you may consider is to hike from Pine Springs to the Salt Basin Overlook Trail, hike around it, and then head back to Pine Springs, a trip of 11 miles. 9.4 miles one-way. Moderate to strenuous. Access: Williams Ranch.
Guadalupe Peak Trail
This trail is strenuous, climbing almost 3,000 feet, but the views from the 8,749-foot-high Guadalupe Peak are magnificent. The peak is the highest in Texas. If you are an average or better hiker and have only 1 day to explore the park, this is the hike you should choose. Start early, take plenty of water, and be prepared to work. When you've gone about halfway, you'll see what seems to be the top not too far ahead, but beware: This is a false summit. Study the changing life zones as you climb from the desert into the higher-elevation pine forests -- this will take your mind off your straining muscles and aching lungs. A mile short of the summit, a campground lies in one of the rare level spots on the mountain. If you plan to spend the night, anchor your tent strongly -- the winds can be ferocious, especially in spring.
From the summit, the views are stupendous. To the north are Bush Mountain and Shumard Peak, the next two highest points in Texas, with respective elevations of 8,631 and 8,615 feet. The Chihuahuan Desert stretches to the south, interrupted only by the Delaware and Sierra Diablo mountains. This is one of those "on a clear day you can see forever" spots -- sometimes all the way to 12,003-foot-high Sierra Blanca, near Ruidoso, New Mexico, 100 miles north. 8.4 miles RT. Strenuous. Access: Pine Springs Campground.
A moderate hike you can probably complete in a half-day, Lost Peak is especially good near dawn or dusk, when you may see wild turkey, deer, and other wildlife. A fire caused by lightning scorched the area in 1994, and although many plants have been recovering, the loss of the tall trees will be felt for a long time. After leaving the trail head, follow the Tejas Trail up Dog Canyon on a gradual climb for about 1.5 miles. Just before reaching Dog Canyon Springs, the trail starts to switchback up the west side of the canyon to a ridgeline, offering great views back to the campground. If you continue all the way to the peak, the next 1.5 miles climb about 1,100 feet, the steepest section of the trail. There's no sign for the peak, and it's easy to hike on by, so watch your topographical map carefully -- the peak is just a bit to the right of the trail. After scrambling up to the summit for a panoramic view, head back down the trail. The elevation change is 1,420 feet. 6.4 miles RT. Moderate. Access: Dog Canyon Trailhead.
McKittrick Canyon is one of the most famous scenic areas in Texas, and this trail explores the length of it. The first 2.4 miles to the Pratt Lodge are relatively easy, the following mile to the Grotto gains 340 feet in elevation and is considered moderate, and the strenuous climb to the Notch rises 1,300 feet in 1.6 miles. This is one of the most popular hikes in the park, though not everyone makes it to the Notch.
The canyon is forested with conifers and deciduous trees. In fall the maples, oaks, and other hardwoods burst into color, painting the world in bright hues set off by the variety of the evergreens. The stream in the canyon, which appears and disappears several times in the first 3 miles of the trail, is a unique, permanent desert stream, with reproducing trout. Hikers may not drink from, wade in, fish, or disturb the stream in any way.
The first part of the trail is wide and seems flat, crossing the stream twice on its way to Pratt Lodge, which is wonderfully situated at the convergence of North and South McKittrick canyons. About a mile from the lodge, a short spur veers off to the left to the Grotto, a recess with odd formations that look as if they belong in a cave. This is a great spot for lunch at one of the stone picnic tables. Continuing down the spur trail to its end, you reach the Hunter Line Cabin, which served as temporary quarters for ranch hands of the Hunter family. Beyond the cabin, South McKittrick Canyon has been preserved as a Research Natural Area with no entry.
To return, continue on the main trail, or head back down the canyon to your vehicle. In another half mile, the trail begins to switchback up the side of South McKittrick Canyon for the steepest ascent in the park, until it slips through the Notch, a distinctive narrow spot in the cliff. Sit down and rest while you absorb the beautiful scenery. The view down the canyon is magnificent, and dazzling in autumn. You can see both Hunter Line Cabin and Pratt Lodge in the distance. Remember to start down in time to reach your vehicle well before the gate is locked. 10 miles RT. Moderate to strenuous. Access: McKittrick Canyon Trailhead.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.