Upon approaching Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the mountains and surrounding desert flats appear very rugged and desolate. There are no trees visible- only boulders, cacti, and a few hardy shrubs. Once you hike up into the mountains, you will find an extremely different environment with temperate and alpine forests, streams, grassy meadows, and a wide variety of plants and animals. Views of the mountains are stunning from the parking lots, but by far the best views are to be had atop the mountains, with views of over a hundred miles common.
The Guadalupe Mountains, or “Guads” in local parlance, are formed of limestone laid down in a vast, prehistoric reef and subsequently fossilized. The most prominent summit is El Capitan (no connection to the feature of the same name in Yosemite National Park, but similarly imposing) at the southern end of the range; nearby Guadalupe Peak is higher (the highest mountain in Texas), but less conspicuous. The limestone composition of the Guads creates challenges for the hiker, as the rock tends to break into chunks that are rapidly worn smooth and behave like ball bearings underfoot. This is a good park in which to wear sturdy hiking boots when you’re on the trails. The Guads continue north into New Mexico and contain a great number of caves, including the famous Carlsbad Caverns; Guadalupe Mountains National Park contains a few of these caves, but in general they’re smaller and less spectacular than the ones on the New Mexico side of the state line, and in any event are not generally open to the public.
The park is largely covered with the usual flora of the Chihuahuan desert (prickly-pear cactus, ocotillo, various yuccas, etc.), but one of its more startling features is a significant stand of native maple trees, quite an outlier in this ecosystem. The maple leaves turn a brilliant red in late fall and can be seen to good advantage from McKittrick Canyon and vicinity. Higher up in the mountains significant remnant forests of ponderosa, pinon and spruce exist, most notably in the area known as “the bowl”.
Top predators of the park ecosystem are mountain lion and black bear, but neither are frequently seen. Encounters with coyotes, gray fox, raccoon, and ringtail cat (one of the characteristic species of the park) are more common. Mule deer and elk are the largest herbivores and mostly stay in the mountains, but javelinas are more typical of the desert floor. While bat populations are not as concentrated or as famous as in the “Bat Cave” section of nearby Carlsbad Caverns, there are still 15 or so species of bats that take refuge in the smaller caves of the park.
Over 300 bird species are known from the Guadalupes, although many of them are rare visitors. Large birds include golden eagle, various species of hawk, turkey vulture and sandhill crane. Many species of finch and warbler are present. There are few waterfowl except for accidental visitors during migration season. The largest venomous snake of the park is the western diamondback rattlesnake, but other rattlesnake species are also present. (Not to worry; your chances of a rattler encounter aren’t high, although some caution is indicated when out on the trails around sunrise or sunset.)
The park is also home to three different species of the unusual horned lizard.
The Guadalupes have more rugged and variable weather than their desert setting might suggest. During the summer, temperatures are typically above 100 °F (38 °C) on the desert floor, and deadly electric storms are common in the mountains. The mountains occasionally experience blizzards during the winter. The park is one of the windiest spots in the country, with winds well in excess of 100 mph (160 km/h) not unknown in the spring.
The nearest city with major air service is El Paso, about 80 miles west. US highways 62 and 180 lead from El Paso to the park, on good road. Carlsbad (New Mexico) has commuter air service and is about 50 miles from the park on the east side, also along US 62/180; Carlsbad Caverns National Park is along the route from the city of Carlsbad to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Visitors to the Dog Canyon park entrance should be sure to fill up in Carlsbad (or Artesia), as the two-hour round trip between these towns and the park is somewhat fuel-intensive (due to alternating grades) and devoid of filling stations. Take care on the road to Dog Canyon and do not drive it in the dark — New Mexico seems to think guardrails are for sissies.