Despite its massive size, the state of Texas has just two national parks — Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Big Bend National Park — and they are within about 3 and a half hours from one another.
Both located in West Texas, the two parks have a number of striking similarities, including their ruggedly beautiful mountain terrain, big deep-blue skies, and remote locations.
Still, there are plenty of differences as well. True to its name, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is characterized by massive peaks and plunging canyons, while Big Bend National Park is known mostly for its location along the Rio Grande, the wild and scenic river that separates the United States and Mexico.
On a recent road trip between the two, I took in the main attractions of the two parks and also noted a number of things that set them apart. Based on my travels, here are eight main differences between the two Texas national parks.
1. Big Bend Is Nearly 10 Times Larger
When it comes to landmass, there is no contest between the two parks. At more than 800,000 acres, Big Bend is the 15th largest park in the nation — larger than massive parks like Joshua Tree and Yosemite. Guadalupe Mountains, on the other hand, covers about 86,000 acres.
Big Bend’s size is part of its appeal. The national park bills itself as offering “splendid isolation,” and you certainly feel that as you drive between the distinct regions of desert, mountains, and river. But, thanks to well-organized scenic routes, such as the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, you can take in a lot of the park in a relatively short amount of time. The Big Bend website offers great ideas for one-day, three-day, or week-long itineraries.
Despite its smaller size, Guadalupe Mountains National Park also delivers in the isolation category. In fact, I often felt more in the middle of nowhere in the rugged Guadalupe Mountains than I did at Big Bend. For suggested itineraries, see 12 Amazing Experiences At Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
There are no two ways about it — both of Texas’s national parks are remote. The two parks are at least a day’s drive away from major population centers like Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
Driving to Guadalupe Mountains from Dallas is an 8-hour trip while getting there from Houston takes 10 hours. Likewise, getting to Big Bend from Dallas is an 8-hour drive, and getting there from Houston is about 9 hours.
Making Guadalupe Mountains a bit more accessible is its proximity to El Paso, the West Texas home of the El Paso International Airport. From El Paso, drivers can get to Guadalupe Mountains in about 2 hours, and to Big Bend in about 4 and a half hours.
Regardless of where you’re driving from, getting to either Big Bend or Guadalupe Mountains will take you over remote Texas highways bordered by open ranchland.
Pro Tip: While the remoteness is a part of the fun of visiting Guadalupe Mountains or Big Bend national parks, it also requires vigilant travel planning. Be sure to fill up on gasoline when you can and have plenty of water and snacks on hand.
3. Big Bend Gets More Visitors
Big Bend is the clear winner in visitation, with about 464,000 visitors in 2019, compared to about 189,000 for Guadalupe Mountains in the same year.
Still, both of the Texas parks have visitor numbers well below the millions that flood the top 10 U.S national parks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the nation’s most visited park in 2019, had 12.5 million visitors that year, while the second most visited national park, the Grand Canyon, had 6 million visitors.
According to online sources, Guadalupe Mountains was the 48th most-visited national park in 2020 out of the 63 U.S. parks, while Big Bend was the 36th most visited. Both have the feel of fairly sparsely populated parks — especially during off-peak seasons.
Pro Tip: The two Texas national parks see a peak in visitation in the spring and fall, when temperatures are at their mildest, so visiting in the summer or winter generally means fewer crowds.
4. Big Bend Has More Amenities
If you like your national parks with plenty of places to buy supplies, fill up with gasoline, and sleep in well-developed campgrounds, Big Bend is the place to find that experience.
Five visitor centers are spaced throughout Big Bend National Park, and it also has several convenience stores that sell camping supplies and groceries, as well as two service stations that sell gasoline. In addition, the southern Texas park has four nicely equipped campgrounds with flush toilets, running water, and dump stations. (Campsite reservations are required at Recreation.gov.) For those who prefer a more luxurious setting, Big Bend also features the Chisos Mountains Lodge.
Although Guadalupe Mountains has several visitor centers as well, it has a limited array of supplies for sale. The park has two campgrounds, both with flush toilets and potable water. Unlike the campgrounds at Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains campsites are available on a first come, first-served basis, with no reservations.
Pro Tip: It pays to check ahead on visitor center hours in both national parks because several are open seasonally and are closed throughout the summer months.
5. The Mountains Are Higher At Guadalupe
In Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the peaks loom large — from the 8,085-foot high El Capitan, a landmark throughout the ages, to the Guadalupe Peak, the highest mountain in Texas. In fact, four of Texas’s highest peaks can be found in Guadalupe Mountains. Along with Guadalupe Peak, there is also Bush Mountain, and Shumard and Bartlett peaks.
While Big Bend also has soaring peaks in its Chisos Mountains, they tend to be at a lower elevation than Guadalupe Mountains’ peaks. Big Bend’s tallest mountain, Emory Peak, summits at 7,825 feet in elevation.
In general, much of Guadalupe Mountains National Park sits at a higher elevation than Big Bend. Guadalupe’s Pine Springs campground is at about 5,822 feet in elevation, while its Dog Canyon campground is at 6,280 feet. That contrasts with Big Bend’s Cottonwood campground, which is at 2,169 feet in elevation, and its Chisos Mountains campground at 5,400 feet.
6. Guadalupe Has A Cooler Climate
Owing to its higher elevation, Guadalupe Mountains National Park tends to have cooler year-round temperatures than Big Bend.
Guadalupe Mountains posts average highs in the 60-degree Fahrenheit range in April, May, September, and October, while at Big Bend, average highs are in the 70s and low 80s during the spring and fall.
During the winter months of December, January, and February, Guadalupe posts average highs in the 40s and lows in the high 20s and 30s. Big Bend’s winter months have average highs in the upper 50s and low 60s, and lows in the 30s.
Guadalupe Mountains’ summer months are mild with average highs in the 70s, while summers in Big Bend are known to be hot, with average highs in the mid-80s.
7. Big Bend Has More Hiking Opportunities
While both parks have plenty of hiking opportunities, Big Bend offers about 150 miles of trails to about 80 at Guadalupe Mountains.
At Guadalupe Mountains, the hiking opportunities are mostly mountain trails, such as the trek to the “Top of Texas” on Guadalupe Peak, although there are also canyon trails, such as McKittrick Canyon trail that follows an intermittent creek, and historic trails like the Pinery trail to the ruins of a stop along the Butterfield Overland Mail Route.
Both of Texas’s national parks are said to have plenty of wildlife, and I saw wild animals in both. But for its rich variety and easy accessibility, Big Bend was the standout for me.
Upon my arrival at the Chisos Basin campground, I was informed by a ranger that the area was a habitat for black bears. I didn’t actually expect to see one though, given the well-developed nature of the campground. But as soon as I had parked my car at the nearby Chisos Mountains Lodge, I spotted a bear cub scampering through the parking lot — seemingly oblivious to the people who were watching from afar. Then, on my way back to the campground, I saw an adult bear disappear into the wooded area alongside the road.
During my 3-day stay in Big Bend, I also spotted numerous deer, flocks of turkey vultures along the Rio Grande, and wild burros grazing on the rocky cliffs. It might just have been the luck of the draw, but I did not encounter the same variety at Guadalupe Mountains.
Pro Tip: If you’re camping at either of the Texas national parks, it is important to remember to never leave food or wrappings in your tent or lying around your campsite, because they can attract bears or other wild animals.
How To Choose Between The Two
Because of their proximity to one another, Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend make a great road trip combination. But if you have to choose just one, I recommend that people looking for the classic national park experience with plenty of amenities, guided tours, and iconic views head to Big Bend. Guadalupe Mountains is great for people looking for an uncrowded atmosphere with the possibility of hiking and exploring without encountering crowds. Also, for hikers who are intent on bagging the highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Mountains is the place to go.
While only having two national parks, Texas boasts a number of state parks to enjoy: