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Web Extra: More Explorations in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park set to celebrate its 40th
Written by E. Dan Klepper.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park celebrates its 40th anniversary with a day full of activities on October 6. Until then, join the Park for the Peak Fitness Challenge, a collaboration among Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Franklin Mountains National Park, Texas Mountain Trail, and GeoBetty.com, which encourages both new and experienced hikers to hit the trails. Visit their sites for more information or to register for the challenge.

Guadalupe Peak Trail

The Guadalupe Peak Trail is a strenuous, 8.4-mile round-trip hike with a gain of 3,000 feet in elevation. Carry plenty of water (and drink it!); park staff recommend drinking at least one gallon of water per person per day. Wear a hat, sunblock, and sturdy hiking footwear; and watch for rattlesnakes. Be prepared for a series of long switchbacks in a continuous climb that does not falter until you reach the Peak. Remember, you must hike back down the same way. Avoid hiking during the heat of the day, especially in the summer months. Plan on spending six to eight hours on the trail. The trailhead is adjacent to the Pine Springs campground alongside the RV parking lot. Don’t forget to sign in at the trailhead kiosk before leaving and to sign out once you and your hiking companions have returned. This will let park staff know that you have returned safely.

 

Manzanita Spring and Frijole Ranch

Access to Frijole Ranch and the short, 0.4-mile, wheelchair-accessible Manzanita Spring Trail (part of the longer Smith Spring Trail) is located just off US 62/US 180 one-and-a-half miles northeast of the Visitor Center at park headquarters. You may enjoy the short Manzanita Spring Trail as an out-and-back hike or continue along the Smith Spring Trail, a 2.3-mile loop that begins and ends at Frijole Ranch. Only the stretch from the trailhead at Frijole Ranch to Manzanita Spring is paved. 

Entrance to the Frijole Ranch History Museum (located inside the historic ranch house) is free, but hours of operation depend on available staffing. The Frijole Ranch grounds provide shade trees and picnic areas and feature the sound of water flowing along small concrete and hand-dug canals emanating from the enclosed spring house. For animal lovers, members of the park’s mule herd occasionally stay in the Frijole Ranch corrals next to the ranch house. These hardworking animals, used for trail maintenance and mountain rescue, are real charmers. Say hello, but don’t enter the corrals. 

 

Williams Ranch Road

Access to Williams Ranch Road requires a key to unlock the entrance gates and is available for sign-out at the Pine Springs Visitor Center. The road is a rough, unpaved, one-lane rattle-and-roll negotiable only by high clearance, four- wheel-drive vehicles and drivers who know how to handle this kind of terrain. The first gate is 8.3 miles south of the Visitor Center at park headquarters along US 62/US 180 on the right side. Once you pass through this gate (lock it behind you), the next gate will be only 0.75 miles farther. Lock this gate behind you as well. Part of the drive to the Williams Ranch house follows the historic Butterfield Stage Route and is 7.3 miles one-way. Don’t let the short distance fool you; it takes more an hour to get there.

The trip from pavement to the ranch house unfolds in an incrementally slow (and lurching) progression, but the lack of speed provides plenty of opportunity to enjoy the desert flora, particularly if the plants are in bloom. U.S. Boundary Commissioner John Russell Bartlett, making his way across the region by mule and wagon train in 1850, wrote of the variety of plant species he saw, including one of the earliest descriptions of the ocotillo in Texas, a signature plant of the Chihuahuan Desert. “Many new forms of cacti were seen here,” Bartlett reported. “We observed in quantities the fouquiera covering the gravel knolls. This singular shrub throws up from just above the surface of the ground numerous simple stems, eight or ten feet high, armed with sharp hooked thorns.”

The preserved Williams ranch house, a handsome lumber construction with a steep gabled roof built just below the sheer cliffs of the Guadalupes’ southern face, may have been constructed in 1908 for rancher Henry Belcher and his wife, Rena. Folklore suggests the house was built for Henry’s brother and his new bride who, upon arriving at such a remote and austere place, left for good after only 24 hours. Henry, Rena, and their daughter, Bernice, lived in the house for about 10 years, ranching cattle along the mountain slopes and the foothills below. Although overgrazing and drought has transformed the landscape from grasslands to high desert, the view from the ranch house porch remains the same—a panoramic vista of mountain profiles, the salt basin below, and the setting sun.

 

Dog Canyon

A 100-mile, one-way journey from the Visitor Center at park headquarters is required to reach Dog Canyon, but it’s well worth the effort. From the Visitor Center, drive north on US 62/US 180. Nineteen miles from the Visitor Center, you’ll cross the Texas border into New Mexico. Another 16 miles brings you to White’s City, a small New Mexican pullout where gas, food, and lodging are available. This is also the turnoff to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Continue another 11 miles north on US 62/US 180, then turn onto County Road 408 (also called Dark Canyon Road). The 23 miles along County Road 408, a paved, two-lane adventure through Dark Canyon, brings you to an intersection with Texas 137 (also known as the Queen’s Highway). Turn left on Texas 137 and continue 30 miles through Lincoln National Forest to the highway’s end and Dog Canyon. Camp amenities here are the same as at the Pine Springs Campground—bathrooms, but no showers and campsites and available on a first-come, first-serve basis. The Dog Canyon Ranger Station can be reached at 575/981-2418.

 

Salt Basin Dunes

Accessing the Salt Basin Dunes requires signing out a key at the Visitor Center at park headquarters to unlock the entry gate. The drive to the entry gate takes about 45 minutes on paved roads with only the last 7.5 miles on an unpaved, bladed road. The route to the Salt Basin Dunes is well marked, so watch for the National Park signs along the way. From the Visitor Center, drive south along US 62/US 180 23 miles to FM 1576 at Salt Flat. Turn north onto FM 1576, and travel 17 miles to Williams Road (don’t be confused, this is the north end of Williams Road). Be aware that the Williams Road stretch is a flat, dusty drive, and, although accessible by car, it becomes slippery and impassable when wet due to its clay surface. Avoid it during and after a rainstorm. Drive 7.5 miles east along Williams Road to an unlocked gate. Close the gate behind you, and continue to a locked gate less than 100 yards farther. Lock this gate behind you, and continue on to the Salt Basin Dunes parking area. On foot, follow the old road from the parking lot for one mile to the dunes. Bring water despite the relatively short hike, as the basin tends to get hot. Stay on trails and non-vegetated sand dunes in order to avoid damaging this fragile environment. Watch for rattlesnakes.

John Russell Bartlett, writing in 1850 about his expedition through Guadalupe Pass and across the Salt Basin, offers an apt description of this unusual environment: “On reaching the summit of the line of hills, which completely surround the Guadalupe range on the western side, we looked down upon a broad plain, stretching out as far as the eye could see. The plain appeared level from the height at which we viewed it, and was interspersed with what looked like silvery and tranquil lakes, glittering in the sun, seeming, as it were, to tempt the weary traveler to their brink. Our young men cried out ‘Water!’ delighted with the idea of again enjoying this luxury after a long day’s ride. But the whole turned out a delusion; what appeared to be the glassy surface of a lake or pond, being nothing but the saline incrustations of a dried up lake. The vast plain, or desert, as it may with propriety be called, as far as the eye could reach, was dotted with these saline depressions.”

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