One of the few unhyped wonders of Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park covers the rugged peaks that rise along the New Mexico border, 110 miles east of El Paso. Formed as part of the same Capitan Reef of 250 million-year-old limestone as the great caverns of Carlsbad, the Guadalupe Mountains, a cool contrast to the surrounding desert, rise in sheer faces more than 2,000 feet above the desert floor and offer the chance to experience many different and contrasting ecosystems side by side, within easy reach of the highway.
Even if you’re not prepared to do any serious hiking—which is the best way to experience the grandeur of the park or to see signs of the abundant wildlife (including mountain lions)—the quickest way to get a feel for the Guadalupes is to walk the half-mile nature trail that runs between the main visitor center (915/828-3251, daily, $5 park entry fee) and the remains of a Butterfield stagecoach station, passing well-signed specimens of all the major desert flora. If you have more time, head to McKittrick Canyon, off US-62/180 in the northeast corner of the park. From the ranger station at the end of the road, a well-marked, well-maintained, and generally flat trail winds along a stream, through a green landscape that changes gradually from the cacti of the Chihuahuan Desert to the oaks, madrones, and maples of the inner canyon. Rated by many as the most beautiful spot in Texas, it is best in spring, when the desert wildflowers bloom, or in autumn, when the big-leaf maple hardwoods turn color.
If you’re feeling fit, climb Guadalupe Peak, at 8,750 feet the highest point in Texas, via a steep 8.4-mile round-trip trail from the main visitors center. Be aware that the change in elevation makes the mountains subject to serious weather, with great booming thunderstorms in late summer.
Camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis at Pine Springs Campground, near the main visitors center, and at numerous sites in the backcountry.