Texas may not be known for its parks, but they are full of beautiful mountains in west Texas, and the best ones are open to the public. I took the time to visit most of the west Texas mountains during a week-long trip this spring, where I hiked more than 120,000 steps! This journey from the Guadalupe Mountains to Big Bend National Park includes four national parks and four state parks. Come along with us dog friendly adventurers from the highest peak in Texas, to the Rio Grande in Big Bend, and you will see why the mountains of west Texas are worth visiting.
The Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas
The Guadalupe Mountains run through New Mexico and Texas, but the national park is located in west Texas. Here is where you will find the highest point (Guadalupe Peak) in the state. Guadalupe Mountains National Park contains a giant wilderness where several mountain peaks exceeding 8,000ft reach into the sky and are visible for miles. Guadalupe Peak is the highest point you can hike to in Texas. We decided to conquer this hike on the first day of the trip. It’s easy to point out Guadalupe Peak from several miles away, as well as El Capitan to the south.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The challenging hike to Guadalupe Peak is full of switch backs, rocky terrain and steep elevation gains. Before reaching the top you will travel four miles and climb approximately 3,000ft, but the views and experience are worth the hike. Although my dog, Abbey, appears in the photo above, she did not hike to Guadalupe Peak.
Do you love traveling with your dog(s)? You may enjoy our article, “Where Are Dogs Allowed in Big Bend?“
Dogs are not allowed on the trails at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, with the exception of the Pinery Trail near the visitors center. The Pinery Trail is a quick, 15-minute hike which provides views of the Butterfield Station Ruins, Pine Springs Canyon, mountain peaks, and it is dog friendly. Abbey did hike the Pinery Trail, but not before we conquered Guadalupe Peak.
El Capitan exceeds 8,000ft, but you can see the top of it from Guadalupe Peak which reaches an elevation of 8,751ft. The view toward the south is far reaching. However, you will see nothing but mountains if you face the other direction. Surprisingly, it is difficult to tell you are standing on the highest point while facing north. Some of the other mountain peaks exceed 8,600ft and look like they may be higher! We did not have the opportunity to capture the views from those peaks during this trip. After conquering the highest peak in Texas (5 hours and 20,000 steps), it was time to hike to Devil’s Hall.
The hike to Devil’s Hall is much easier, and much faster. This trail is only two miles long, but the last mile runs through Pine Springs Canyon. The canyon is full of large boulders and the average person may need to use their hands to get through some areas. Children will need to do some bouldering to make it to Devil’s Hall. Go between two “pillars”, up a narrow “staircase”, and follow the boulder wash to a sharp right turn. You will be unable to miss Devil’s Hall after the final right turn. Walls of rock seem to close in on you as you continue to hike through Pine Springs Canyon. The hike to Devil’s Hall (and back) is not difficult and took less than two hours.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park has more than 80 miles of trail distance. It might be nice to hike around El Capitan, into the Salt Basin Dunes, or to other peaks in the mountains, but this will take multiple days of hiking. Guadalupe Peak and Devil’s Hall are the two hikes I wanted to get done on our first visit. However, there is much more to see and do in the Guadalupe Mountains. After exploring the highest point in Texas, we went 75 floors beneath the surface and cooled down in the caverns in Carlsbad.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is about 35 miles north in New Mexico, but it’s worth mentioning here. Although this national park is not in Texas, it is close enough to visit from Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Do NOT miss the caverns while in the area because the views from underneath the mountains are unforgettable. We have many beautiful caves in Texas, but Carlsbad Caverns is far more spectacular. Our “hour long”, self guided tour lasted about three hours.
The Entrance Trail leading down into the caverns will be wet and steep. Although it is paved, shoes with good traction are necessary on this trail. Follow the trail for 1.25 miles and you will descend into another world about 750ft below the surface. However, the tour does not end there. Once you are at the “bottom” of the cavern you can hike for another two miles!
Carlsbad Caverns is simply amazing. We did not expect to see such a sight when we arrived. In addition to the caves, you can also hike several trails, or follow the unpaved scenic drive through the park. This unpaved loop will take approximately 30 minutes if you do not stop. As you enter the scenic drive there should be a good view of El Capitan. Beyond this point you will merely see the nearby hills and trails.
Carlsbad Caverns is not dog friendly. However, there are a few options if you are visiting with your dog. You can leave your dog in your room, with a sitter in Carlsbad, or use the parks $10 kennel service. Do not leave your dog inside a vehicle! Although cave temps are down around 50 degrees, it can reach 100 degrees at the surface. We chose to tour the cave one afternoon and returned the next morning to take the scenic desert drive with Abbey. After driving through Carlsbad Caverns we continued south to the Davis Mountains.
The Davis Mountains in West Texas
The Davis Mountains may be the most underrated in Texas. Each time we visit this area it is never crowded and always dog friendly. This mountain range contains a state park, an observatory, a fort and nature preserve. The Davis Mountains are a good central location to setup camp when visiting the mountains of west Texas without staying in multiple areas. You can reach the Guadalupe Mountains, or the mountains in Big Bend from the Davis Mountains in approximately two hours.
Davis Mountains State Park
At Davis Mountains State Park you can hike, or drive, up to one of the higher points on Skyline Drive. From here you will see the highest peak (Mt. Livermore), the Indian Lodge, McDonald Observatory and the town of Fort Davis. You can also hike to Fort Davis National Historic Site, or hike to the other side of the park. Davis Mountains State Park has 15 miles of trail distance and about 100 campsites.
McDonald Observatory is located 17 miles northwest of Fort Davis, and is typically open to the public. Here you can check out the visitors center and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Although you can see the telescope through a viewing window, you will not be able to use the telescope. You can also stop at a few of the points of interest along the highest road in Texas. If you are visiting during a special viewing night, you may be able to reserve a pass to see the dark skies through one of these telescopes. Passes are $100 – $150 per person.
Fort Davis National Historic Site
Fort Davis was originally a military outpost positioned on the east side of the Davis Mountains in the mid 1800’s. Soldiers at this outpost helped keep travelers safe on the long road from El Paso to San Antonio. The fort was abandoned multiple times and outlived its usefulness by the late 1800’s. However, a small population of people have lived in this area about 5,000ft above sea level, making it known as the highest town in Texas. In the mid 1900’s, the fort became a national historic site and is currently open to the public.
Fort Davis is an incredibly peaceful place with a population of not much more than 1,000. Driving through the Davis Mountains during the daytime is a joy, and stargazing at night is a humbling sight. The Davis Mountains are also much more dog friendly than the other mountains in west Texas. Hike with your dog through the state park, or Fort Davis National Historic Site. The old military outpost is continuously being renovated where you will see what it was like to live and serve in the 1800’s.
Davis Mountains Preserve
The Davis Mountains Preserve is another area of interest within the mountains, but its open days are few. When this park is open you have the option to hike to Mt. Livermore, which is the highest peak in the Davis Mountains. There is more than 30 miles of hiking to be done on the trails, but most are not dog friendly. However, the Madera Canyon Trail is a lovely two-mile loop trail which is dog friendly, and it is accessible year-round. You can only access the other trails inside the park during open day events. Check the Davis Mountains Preserve calendar to register for an open day if you are planning to visit.
West Texas Mountains in Big Bend
The Big Bend area of west Texas contains a very popular national park, a state park, and a state natural area. Big Bend National Park is the most popular park in Texas. The beautiful Chisos Mountains rest in the middle of this national park, which may be the best mountains to visit in Texas. Big Bend Ranch is the largest state park in Texas, but receives fewer visitors by far. Chinati Mountains State Natural Area is not yet open to the public, but we will keep an eye on their website for opening day.
Big Bend National Park has more established campgrounds, over 100 miles of paved roadways, and many points of interest which are well marked. Big Bend Ranch State Park is more rugged and isolated. If you want to avoid crowds and don’t mind driving along unpaved roads, you may prefer Big Bend Ranch. If you prefer to make camping easier, need your roads to be paved, or want to see a densely wooded mountain range within the Chihuahuan Desert you will be drawn to the national park. Furthermore, the entrance fees and camping fees are higher at the national park.
Big Bend National Park
This national park is like no other place in Texas. Every time I visit I wish I could stay longer. It takes about an hour to get from one side of the park to the other. There is more than 100 miles of paved roads, unpaved roads and river inside Big Bend National Park! Mountains are visible from almost anywhere in the park and it might take two entire weeks to see everything Big Bend has to offer. In fact, our largest article to date is about Big Bend National Park and has over 10,000 words because you will find too much to do, making this park worth multiple visits.
Feast your eyes on 70 Things to Do in Big Bend National Park. Which attractions are your favorites?
We were visiting this national park for the second time during our trip through the mountains in west Texas. Time was very limited, but we were able to see the top of the window, the balanced rock, and every point of interest along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, including Santa Elena Canyon. On our first visit, we climbed Emory Peak, hiked Lost Mine Trail, entered both canyons on each side of the park and saw two black bears in the Chisos Mountains. Climbing to Emory Peak is my favorite thing to do in Big Bend National Park.
Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed on hiking trails in the national park. Dogs can camp with you, or travel with you in your vehicle. Big Bend National Park is not exactly dog friendly. You will need to leave your pup behind or with a sitter before hiking the trails. However, if you are merely camping or driving to the points of interest, feel free to bring your dog. Mountain lions, black bears, and javelinas do wander the wilderness. Please keep that in mind while hiking alone, or camping with your dog.
Big Bend Ranch State Park
This state park may not have the Chisos Mountains, but it’s much less crowded, has two dog friendly trails, and a spectacular drive along Camino del Rio. FM 170 follows the Rio Grande through the mountains of west Texas, and is the only way to get into Big Bend Ranch. This scenic drive is arguably better than the Ross Maxwell in Big Bend National Park. Additionally, you will be able to access Closed Canyon Trail, Hoodoos Trail, picnic sites and launch sites for kayaking.
Closed Canyon Trail and Hoodoos Trail are the only dog friendly trails in the park. Each are about one mile in length and not very difficult to hike. However, there are some larger step downs along Closed Canyon Trail which may be difficult for smaller dogs. It also gets very hot by late morning and the black dirt may be too hot for your dogs paws during midday. Aim for sunrise and sunset hikes if your dog is exploring with you. We hike these trails each time we visit Big Bend Ranch.
If you are not visiting with your dog, you can hike or bike any of the trails with a potential distance of nearly 240 miles. These long trails are not well shaded which makes biking a more favorable activity. This is one thing I have yet to try in Big Bend, but there is always next time. Kayaking the Rio Grande with our dog was on the agenda inside Big Bend Ranch. However, the river is low right now and hardly seems to be flowing. Consequently, kayaking will need to wait until the water level is much higher. If paddling is on your Big Bend agenda check the current temp and river levels before you arrive.
What About Those Two Other Parks?
Have you been keeping track of all the parks thus far? We visited two other state parks on this trip, but they are not in mountainous areas. On the way to the Guadalupe Mountains we stopped at Monahans Sandhills State Park to shift the sands with Abbey and get a break from the car. When our adventure was nearly complete we stopped at Seminole Canyon State Park, which is approximately halfway from Big Bend to San Antonio. All of the parks on this trip have great things to offer those with a heart for adventure.
Visiting All the Mountains in West Texas
The mountains in west Texas are quite a sight and we were able to visit them within a week. Our drive time and hiking time was about even because there is so much area to cover in the Big Bend of west Texas. Travel to the highest peak in Texas, 750ft beneath the surface, observe the galaxies, learn about life on a fort, hike with black bears and mountain lions on a sky island, or kayak one of the longest rivers in the country while water is still flowing. Yes, the mountains of west Texas are worth visiting whether you love to hike, bike, kayak, or explore the natural wonders of the earth.