Salt Basin Dunes

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Trip Date: Thursday, February 14th, 2019
Last Updated: Thursday, March 7th, 2019
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★☆(4/5)
Overall Difficulty Easy
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 2 miles roundtrip
Time 1 hour
Terrain A few hills
Best Seasons Spring, Fall, Winter
Family Friendly Yes
Dog Friendly No
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

Although the Salt Basin Dunes are over an hour away from the main part of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the trip is worth the extra travel. Not only can you enjoy the white sands of this unique gypsum dunefield (similar to White Sands National Monument in nearby New Mexico), the Salt Basin Dunes have one of the best views of the mighty Guadalupe Mountains soaring 3,000 feet above the desert floor. Don't miss this special place when you visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park!

The hike begins by following the old road to the dunes. The Guadalupe Mountains create a dramatic backdrop, as pictured below (this is one of my favorite pictures from my entire trip to this national park). In the distance, you can see the subtle rise of the dunes.

The Guadalupe Mountains rising above the desert as seen from the old road

The Guadalupe Mountains rising above the desert as seen from the old road

The old road ends at a previous parking lot, after which the trail narrows. During this straightforward bit, you'll observe the variety of plants that call the Chihuahuan Desert home, like the yucca and staghorn cholla pictured below.
Yucca is the most iconic plant of the Chichuahuan Desert

Yucca is the most iconic plant of the Chichuahuan Desert

Staghorn cholla is one common variety of cactus in the Chihuahuan Desert

Staghorn cholla is one common variety of cactus in the Chihuahuan Desert

Staying on the trail is especially important in this environment. Though the barren dirt between the plants and shrubs seems like a good place to walk, the soil is actually alive with thousands of microorganisms growing in what's called cryptobiotic crust. As pictured below, this bumpy brown and black crust is composed of lichens, algae, microfungi, and bacteria and prevents erosion (why it's often called "desert glue") while increasing rainwater absorption and contributing nutrients to the soil. The crust is extremely fragile and simply stepping on it completely destroys it -- it can take upwards of 7 years for the crust to regrow!
Cryptobiotic crust is a unique feature of the desert soil

Cryptobiotic crust is a unique feature of the desert soil

Eventually, the trail reaches a crossroads with the Butterfield Stage Route, a trail following the historic route of the Butterfield Overland Mail that brought supplies from St. Louis and Memphis across the desert to San Francisco (you can find a monument commemorating this stagecoach route on top of Guadalupe Peak). To the right, you'll see two poles marking the trail heading to the dunes, as pictured below. After climbing a steep hill, you'll be on top of the dunes.
These poles indicate the route to the dunes

These poles indicate the route to the dunes

Over a million years ago, a shallow lake covered this area known as the Salt Basin. Because this flat, low-lying area at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains has no outlet for water, deposits of salt and gypsum built up over time as the warming climate dried the lake. Powerful westerly winds blew (and continue to blow) the grains of gypsum from the Salt Basin to this dunefield, and the dunes are still growing up to one third of an inch each year. The result is this spectacular pile of sand with a Guadalupe Mountains backdrop as pictured below.
The white gypsum dunes with the Guadalupe Mountains beyond

The white gypsum dunes with the Guadalupe Mountains beyond

As you freely traverse the dunes, you'll find unspoiled areas like pictured below with rippling sand and endless views to the flat horizon. This remote area is astoundingly quiet, so take a moment to hear the sound of nothing. Don't venture too far into the dunes or you may get lost in this sand that extends for miles. When you're ready to return, follow your footsteps back through the sand and back to the trail.
Waves in the untouched sand dunes

Waves in the untouched sand dunes

The trail to the dunes may not be the most exciting, but the ultimate views are one-of-a-kind. Visiting the Salt Basin Dunes is a must do on any trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

Like most national parks, dogs are not permitted on any trails in Guadalupe National Park. This is a fun trail for kids: after a short mile, they can play on the dunes while you enjoy incredible views. Spring, fall, and winter are the best seasons for this hike, which should be avoided during hot summer days -- there is absolutely no shade anywhere and temperatures regularly top 100 degrees. No matter the season, you must bring ample water (none is available anywhere nearby) and wear sun protection. Beware of rattlesnakes, and be sure to stay on the trail until you reach the dunes. Since this trail is over an hour from the main part of the park, not as many people visit it.

Directions

From El Paso, take U.S. Highway 180/62 east out of town. After about an hour and a half, turn left onto Ranch Road 1437 towards Dell City. Turn right onto Broadway Street/FM 2249, then turn right onto Ranch Road 1576. Turn left onto Williams Road, indicated by a brown sign for Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Continue straight on the narrow dirt road (manageable in a sedan), going slowly in case another car is coming. The road dead ends at the parking lot.

From the Pine Springs Visitor Center, take U.S. Highway 180/62 west. Turn right onto Ranch Road 1576. Continue on this road as it bends left and right, then turn right onto Williams Road, indicated by a brown sign for Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Continue straight on the narrow dirt road (manageable in a sedan), going slowly in case another car is coming. The road dead ends at the parking lot.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Park entrance fees are $7 per person aged 16 and older and are valid for 7 days. Fees are payable either at the trailhead in cash only using provided envelopes or at the visitor center using card or cash. Annual passes for Guadalupe Mountains National Park are available for $30 and admit the pass holder plus 3 others. All interagency passes are also accepted and admit the pass holder plus 3 people. More information about fees and passes is available on the park's website. Park staff regularly patrol the lot, so don't forget to pay your fee!

The trailhead has pit toilets and picnic tables but no water.

External Links

Nearby Hikes

Guadalupe Peak

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
★★★★★(5/5)

Smith Spring Trail

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
★★★★☆(4/5)

Natural Entrance Trail

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
★★★★★(5/5)

Big Room Loop

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
★★★★★(5/5)

Comments