The Guadalupe Ridge Trail: 102 Miles of High Desert Hiking in West Texas
Agave. Prickly Pear. Catclaw. Lechuguilla. Acacia. All abound on the Guadalupe Ridge Trail, one of America’s most challenging yet rewarding desert hikes within the National Parks system. And listen: I can’t quantify those superlatives with any hard data but, at the same time, I know deep down in my heart of hearts that it’s mostly true.
This is some seriously rugged terrain, y’all. If you’re not bushwhacking down the side of a mountain, you’re negotiating a trail composed of ancient fossils from back in the days when Texas was underwater. The high desert of the Guadalupe Mountains forgives nothing. But the views, the solitude, and the sheer idiosyncrasy of this trail are what make it an unforgettable experience.
The GRT is one of the best hikes in Texas. The GRT shouldn’t even exist. The GRT gave me Stockholm Syndrome.
The Guadalupe Ridge Trail was officially designated as a National Recreation Trail in 2019, and it does not appear that such a designation has done much to change the landscape. The network of shorter trails and forest roads that link this trail together are largely overgrown, abandoned, and altogether unmaintained. Especially on the Sitting Bull Falls Loop.
Perhaps some of this overgrowth was due to the vegetation explosion that the park experienced after this year’s monsoon season, or perhaps nobody has been on some of these trails since the CCC cut them 80 years ago. It was honestly hard to tell at times. But if you packed the right attitude, all of these things can add up to a GREAT and totally unique time, depending on how much you like treading off of beaten paths.
The Guadalupe Ridge Trail at a Glance:
- Length: 102 miles with the Sitting Bull Falls Loop, 65 miles without
- Elevation Gain: ~22,500 feet
- Expected Completion Time: (4-6 days)
- Location: Southeast New Mexico to Far West Texas
- Best season(s) to hike: October-December with mid-November being peak foliage in McKittrick Canyon. It may still be quite hot in September, and January is the beginning of “windy season” in the Guadalupe Mountains.
- Trail Type: point-to-point (Carlsbad Caverns NP, New Mexico to Guadalupe Mountains NP, Texas)
- Scenery: Exposed ridgelines, riparian canyons, an unbelievable amount of spiky plants
- Difficulty: Strenuous with long water carries, steep bushwhacks and basically all very rocky and uneven trails/roads
- Navigation: This may be the biggest deterrent to folks wanting to experience this trail, but I’m confident that it’s still very doable. There are no maps yet on FarOut (formerly known as Guthook), so I imported the .gpx file from the FKT website into CalTopo here. If you plug it into Gaia, all of the marked waypoints with water and relevant info will show up as well. This file was recently updated to reflect a more accurate route on the Sitting Bull Falls Loop. But regardless, you should absolutely be prepared & comfortable with wayfinding and potentially extensive bushwhacking. Not all of the routes on this file follow actual trails or cairned routes, and the “trail” in many places is so overgrown that you are effectively wayfinding anyways. Some other maps that might provide a good overview of the trail, but range in usefulness, can be found here or here or here.
Why Hike the Guadalupe Ridge Trail?
Everything about this trail was so unexpected. So in that sense, it will always keep you guessing. From the views at Guadalupe Peak to some of the most spectacular sunsets and sunrises of your life. From swimming in the pools of a desert waterfall to peeping some of the best fall foliage that Texas has to offer. There were so many ecosystems and so much variety smashed into just 100 miles. Plus all of the permits and parking are free (with a national parks pass).
And if this doesn’t sound like enough, GUMO (Guadalupe Mountains National Park) and the backcountry of Carlsbad Caverns are two of the least-visited national parks in America. The solitude was intoxicating, and although the sufferfest of bushwhacking and wayfinding was occasionally frustrating, the sense of reward felt afterward always canceled it out.
OK but how am I supposed to get there?
GUMO and Carlsbad Caverns are way way out there. There’s pretty much nothing around for miles and miles except for Jeff Bezos’ private space tourism compound and a bunch of under-utilized ranch land. You may find your eyes often wandering to the edge of the horizon. Regardless, the best & effectively the only way to reach both trailheads is by car. There is no transportation system in or around each of these parks, and as far as I know, a shuttle doesn’t exist (and would be prohibitively expensive if it did). Hitchhiking in Texas is essentially illegal, and I wouldn’t count on getting a ride from anyone in this area within a reasonable timeframe anyway. The good news is that both Pine Springs Visitor Center in GUMO and the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center are happy to let you park a car at either or both ends of the trail.
Which way should I hike it?
Since the southwestern terminus of this trail is at Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, the intuitive way to hike this route would be from Texas to New Mexico. I think that this would be a fine plan if you wanted, but actually, I really enjoyed walking it from New Mexico into Texas for a few reasons:
- The elevation difference isn’t really that much. Less than a thousand feet over 100 miles.
- The climbs in this direction are actually easier and more gradual (descending into Pine Springs instead of climbing out of it, and descending the Permian Geology Trail instead of climbing out of it).
- It was a nicely rewarding feeling watching Guadalupe Peak get closer and closer for four days. Plus we got to leave all our stuff in the car at Pine Springs Visitor Center and slackpack to the top of Guadalupe Peak at the end instead of the beginning. Ending at the peak during sunset, and doing a very straightforward night hike was one of the highlights of the trail, and just felt like a much larger culmination of the hike. Ending at the GRT trailhead/visitor center in Carlsbad Caverns would definitely be a bit more low-key.
Climate and Weather
You’ll sweat. You’ll swim. You’ll shiver. You’ll suffer. The Guadalupe Mountains are an ancient coral reef that has been pushed up in the middle of the Chihuahan Desert. As such, it can be brutally hot and unbelievably windy. Even if you are doing this hike in the high season (October-December) there is still the possibility that it could be much hotter OR colder than expected. It definitely helps to keep an eye on the forecast. On our first day hiking out of Carlsbad it was over 80 degrees in hot, exposed desert in the afternoon. Four days later, when we finished at Guadalupe Peak at sunset, it was near freezing.
The cantankerous voice of experience says that you’re going to need long pants on the Guadalupe Ridge Trail. If you wear shorts, your legs will end up even more shredded than a half pipe at the x-games or a garbage bag full of sensitive political documents.
The catclaw mimosa is explosive and everywhere. Plus the agaves, yuccas, prickly pear, acacias, and pretty much everything else are trying to stab you. And trust me, that shit hurts so bad that native tribes would use the leaves as the tips for their spears.
Even if there is no rain in the forecast, it could still be a good idea to bring a rain jacket to use as a windbreaker. As the name of the trail implies, this is a lot of ridge walking that can sometimes be quite gusty. Plus, these mountains are particularly unpredictable. Earlier this year, I was camping on McKittrick Ridge with a 5% chance of rain and woke up to almost an hour of thunderstorms.
In other unsurprising news, I gotta say that I’m definitely a convert to the sun hoodies or sun shirts when hiking in the desert. On some of the exposed sections, especially in Carlsbad, they could potentially be what keeps you from getting dehydrated even when it’s only 70 degrees out.
Last, unless you are planning on camping up near Guadalupe Peak, it might not be necessary to carry a puffer if your bag is warm enough. I sometimes felt like even my mid-layer was overkill. And also bring a swimsuit or shorts to swim at the falls!
Carlsbad Caverns actually allows free dispersed desert camping with your permit, which I didn’t know about until arriving there. This is good to know, because some of that section can be slow going, and you might not end up making it as far as you thought you would. Don’t bother looking for a pre-established spot though, because it looks like nobody has been out there since the 20th century. Either way, it shouldn’t be too hard to kick something out.
The section through Lincoln National Forest is also free dispersed camping, without a permit required. There were tons of pullouts and campsites along the entire Sitting Bull Falls Loop, so you wouldn’t ever have to walk too far to find something.
In the Guadalupe Mountains, you can only camp in designated campsites, which are also free to reserve. This is why it may be useful to plan your itinerary beforehand and let the rangers know where you are planning on camping each night that you’re in the park. We only spent one night inside the park, at McKittrick Ridge, but you can also camp at Wilderness Ridge, Mescalero, Tejas, Pine Top, or Guadalupe Peak, so there are plenty of options.
Guadalupe Ridge Trail Highlights
A longstanding argument in some corners of the internet is that the view of McKittrick Canyon along the GRT is the best view in Texas. And I’ve heard others argue that it’s sunset/sunrise from Guadalupe Peak. All I know is that I loved both. But I also loved catching the sunrise at Dark Canyon Lookout Tower.
The Queen Cafe in the middle of Lincoln National Forest was also a highlight. Major props to the folks there, who are serving up some seriously bangin’ green chile cheese tots in the absolute middle of nowhere. Last we spoke with them, they were planning on being open every day of the week during high season, which they have no fiscal right to be doing because I don’t have any idea how this place could ever be busy. But I love it. Regardless, this could very well be liable to change, and honestly, it might be worth planning your whole hike around hitting this place on a day when it’s open. You could do a very limited resupply there (some bars, chips, a box of pop tarts, etc.), and it offers a fantastic reprieve from the mid-day heat. They also had potable water.
The maple trees of both McKittrick Canyon and Sitting Bull Falls were a phenomenon. You can’t miss them. But something you might miss if you’re not looking for it is a little bit of fuselage. And no, sadly I’m not talking about the wreckage of Jeff Bezos’ satellite office at the nearby Blue Origin headquarters. Instead, I’m talking about GUMO’s historically rich & VERY mysterious relationship with aviation. The park has been the site of numerous plane crashes. After all, it IS situated quite close to Roswell. And as I understand it, the rangers at the visitor center have a super-secret binder that details the circumstances and locations of these crashes, some of which occurred right by where the GRT passes.
How much water should you carry?
A lot. Probably at least four liters at a time, with at least a 6L capacity.
But don’t let this discourage you! I could write an entire book on water strategies for this trail, but I’ll try to keep it as succinct as possible.
I think it’s very possible to do this hike while carrying mostly potable water. But keep in mind these are only suggestions. You should always know how much your body needs, and the weather/availability of seasonal sources will greatly affect the possibility of doing this trail without caching. That said, the most reliable strategy would be to:
- Cache at least a gallon of water at the bear box located at the GRT trailhead in Carlsbad Caverns NP. This is six miles down a very nice, easy, unsealed road.
- Do the six-mile road walk from the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center to this cache
- Pick up the cache, and carry it ~23 miles to the fountain at Guadalupe Admin Site. You will most likely be able to supplement/camel up more water at Horse Spring or Bearup Well along the way, but it’s wise not to count on these.
- Carry for four miles from Guadalupe Admin to Sitting Bull Falls
- Carry for ~11 miles from Sitting Bull Falls to Queen Cafe, likely being able to supplement/camel up in Last Chance Canyon
- This is the trickiest part, and where it may come in handy to cache if you are unsure of the water situation. There is a ~27-mile carry between the reliable sources of Queen Cafe and the McKittrick Visitor Center. But there was Black River Spring and numerous cattle tanks along the way, many of which still had water in them. They will all be marked on the .gpx file when you import it into Gaia. Apart from this, there is a box where you can cache water at Dark Canyon Lookout Tower, as well as a parking area on Klondike Road which seemed easy enough to access with a 4wd vehicle. It’s worth looking into these if you are not comfortable walking that distance with 4-5 liters.
- Carry for 18 miles from the McKittrick Visitor Center to Pine Springs Visitor Center. The only water sources on this stretch will be The Grotto, which is 2.5 miles from McKittrick Visitor Center, and its outlet stream which you cross less than a mile from McKittrick Visitor Center. So I don’t really see the point in filtering from these sources, as they’re so close to potable sources already. Although The Grotto is a pretty cool little side trip if you’ve got the time.
- Potable water at Pine Springs Visitor Center and the campground.
Did you resupply? Do you need to?
The only resupply point on this trail would be the Queen Cafe in the national forest, which is really just an outpost on an empty road in the middle of nowhere. They mostly sell very limited car-camping stuff, so if you wanted to resupply here then I hope you REALLY like s’mores.
You could always call and ask the lovely folks at the cafe about leaving food to pick up on the hike, but I don’t know the possibility of this. The cafe has just reopened under new management, and nobody in the store even knew what the GRT was, so I’m not saying they wouldn’t hold some food for y’all, because they were super nice, it’s just that this trail is so new that there’s zero infrastructure or policies in place about it.
Anyways maybe just plan on carrying all the food you would need (except for a meal there!)
A Closing Argument
This trail doesn’t receive nearly as much love as it gives. Even the agaves seem to stab with affection.
The Guadalupe Ridge Trail is one of the biggest reasons why I fell in love with the desert. I love the challenges it poses, and I love how rewarding the views are. I love the mystery, the hostility, the intransigence, and the history of the land as well. The Guadalupe Mountains were the last holdout of the Mescalero Apaches, and the wildness and solitude of the mountains speak volumes about what makes it such a special place. It feels like every time you look at the sky it’s doing something different and bizarre.
The bushwhacking and wayfinding on this “trail” (it’s more of a route, if we’re being pedantic) were a real challenge. But my spin team is telling me that I should be referring to this as an opportunity, because you can really learn a lot about a place by going off trail and getting a bit lost in it. Plus, the rangers in both parks actively encourage off-trail exploration! So why not? A bit of type 2 fun that’s completely outside of the smiles/miles binary is a totally useful test of character.
And although the portion of this trail that passes through the National Forest has some extremely overgrown sections, I think that being able to navigate things like this is a really important backcountry skill to have. It’s something that I never got to do on the PCT or CT, and I’m glad that I got to experience all of this in such a beautiful and remote place.
Featured image: Photo via J Taylor Bell. Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
Author’s Note: Huge credit and thanks to Rafael for his blog, and also the .gpx file & spreadsheet on the r/ULTexas subreddit. It’s an indispensable resource. Also, thanks a million to @nattytoos for taking all these ridiculous photos.
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