In my last post, I suggested that it might be a good time of year to visit Dinosaur National Monument  as well as other outdoor locales in the American Southwest. Although autumn snowfalls are possible in higher elevations, sometimes resulting in temporary road closures, the milder temperatures can make most desert parks incredibly desirable for travelers not fond of summertime heat.
Another such place is the year-round Guadalupe Mountains National Park  (400 Pine Canyon Rd., Salt Flat, TX 79847, 915/828-3251, park 24 hours daily, Pine Springs visitor center 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily Sept.-May, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily in summer, $5 adults, children under 16 free) in western Texas. Established in 1972 and situated about 35 miles southwest of Carlsbad Caverns National Park , Guadalupe Mountains is ideal for bird-watchers, wildlife enthusiasts, long-distance hikers, horseback riders, stargazers, and overnight campers. Besides embracing such popular outdoor activities, photographers might also appreciate the park's fall colors, which are currently emerging in vibrant contrast to the stark desert mountains.
While summers here can be fairly hot, and fog, high winds, freezing rain, and snowstorms are possible during the winter and spring months, autumn is typically a wonderful time to visit Guadalupe Mountains, where visitors will find low desert brush, high evergreens, and a rugged mountain range marked by sheer canyons and steep slopes – a landscape, in other words, that many passing travelers might dismiss as simply a barren desert. Within this diverse terrain, however, amateur botanists, bird-watchers, and wildlife enthusiasts are bound to spot a cornucopia of plants and animals. In fact, this park supports thousands of species that thrive amid the extreme climatic and topographical shifts. Some of these species include golden eagles, rattlesnakes, javelinas, desert coyotes, and vivid plants like the Indian paintbrush. Nature lovers may also encounter fascinating fossils of the assorted marine animal and plantlife that dwelled here 265 million years ago, when this desert was actually a marine reef beneath a vast tropical sea. Though Guadalupe Mountains – with an annual visitation of about 192,000 people – is one of the national park system's less visited units, geologists and scientists come here from all over the world to study this phenomenal example of an ancient, fossilized marine reef.
The best way to experience Guadalupe Mountains National Park is, of course, by embracing the more than 80 miles of hiking trails that stretch across this 86,400-acre preserve. As with most parks, the trails range from relatively easy nature walks, such as the 0.9-mile McKittrick Canyon Nature Trail, to strenuous all-day treks, such as the steep, 8.5-mile Guadalupe Peak Trail. No matter which trail you choose, however, you should always endeavor to protect the park's resources by staying on the designated path (and thereby avoiding unnecessary erosion), packing out all litter, and leaving all resources (even flowers) where you find them. Given the unpredictable climate and varied terrain, you should also pack such items as sunscreen, a hat, a detailed trail map, rain gear and other protective clothing, plus food and plenty of water. Even during the cooler autumn months, dehydration is a possible danger.
To get the most out of your visit to Guadalupe Mountains, you should consider camping overnight in the park. During the fall months, you'll especially enjoy sleeping beneath clear night skies and waking up to gorgeous fall colors; just remember that evenings and early mornings can be cold in the desert, no matter the time of year. Though many visitors opt for established places like the Pine Springs Campground ($4-8 nightly) – which offers 20 tent sites with picnic tables, a paved lot for 19 RVs, plus potable water, flush-toilet restrooms, a utility sink, and pay telephones – those seeking a true wilderness experience may prefer to stay at one of the park's 10 backcountry campgrounds, several of which offer incredible vistas. Just remember that most of these aren't easy to reach, and all backpackers must obtain a free backcountry permit before embarking on any long-distance hike. Also, if you choose to stay in the Pine Springs Campground, be advised that there are no showers, RV hookups, or dump stations and that all campers must store food in their vehicles, dispose of trash and dishwater properly, and refrain from starting campfires (due to the dry desert conditions). In addition, pets must be kept on a leash at all times, and owners must always accompany and clean after their animals; unfortunately, pets are not allowed on most of the park's trails – mainly because they may disturb wildlife or be harmed themselves by wild animals.
For more ideas about exploring the outdoor pleasures of the Lone Star State, consult Andy Rhodes's Moon Texas  – and enjoy your next trip into the great outdoors.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Laura Martone is Moon’s American Nomad  and the author of Moon Michigan , Moon Florida Keys , Moon Baja RV Camping , and the upcoming Moon New Orleans, which will be published in Fall 2012.