Texas is not known by many to be an ideal roadtrip destination, due to its vastness and the flat natural of its large, central plains. However, West Texas will surprise anyone with that stereotype about the state. Here there are rolling hills, vast mountains, glittering rivers, and one of the world’s most biodiverse deserts. There are plenty of things to do in West Texas, but we’ve tailored this West Texas itinerary for hikers and nature lovers in particular… with a dash of history and culture on the side as well.
Day 0: Travel to El Paso, TX
Since El Paso, TX is the big city of West Texas and a unique destination in its own right, I would suggest planning your West Texas itinerary from here unless you are driving in from some other area of Texas and would like to jump onto the loop from your hometown. El Paso has its own international airport, the El Paso International Airport (ELP), so you may consider flying into there. For me, coming from Phoenix, I opted to drive over, which is about a 6 hour drive.
Day 1: Hiking in Guadalupe Mountain National Park
If you want to attempt the summit of Guadalupe Peak (8750 ft), I would suggest being flexible with Day 1 and Day 2. This will allow you to see which day will have better weather for your summit attempt. Even for a smaller summit like this one, you should always avoid bad weather days for safety’s sake.
It’s about a two-hour drive from El Paso, TX to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. So, take the morning to rest a bit before setting off your West Texas itinerary. Make your first stop the visitor center, where you can learn more about the park, chat with the rangers, and get the low down on any safety concerns that you need to keep in mind.
Spend the day enjoying nature and taking in the tallest peak in Texas. Like many national parks, Guadalupe Mountain is the perfect place for photography, picnics, day hikes, and simple relaxation in the natural world. In terms of West Texas vacation spots, it’s a bit more rugged, but for outdoor enthusiasts, it will be hard to beat.
The one challenge of taking two days here is that there isn’t a nearby town. You will need to camp at the National Park, and this is typically first-come-first-serve.
Day 2: Guadalupe Peak
The hike up to the Texas high point is 8.4 miles round trip and 3,000 ft elevation gain. So, this isn’t a hike that I would include in your West Texas Itinerary if you aren’t physically prepared. Although this isn’t a tall peak in comparison to Colorado, for example, you will also want to be very cautious about the weather. If there is inclement weather or excessive heat, don’t attempt.
But if the conditions are good, this is a great trail, and one that I really loved despite the challenge. On your way up, you will see the arid lowlands and trek up into the rolling forests at the top of the mountain. You will be battered by the wind as you cross over rocky outcroppings and the trail meanders along the face of the mountain. You will also deal with both heat and cold as you climb up higher. This hike was hands down one of my favorite things to do in West Texas.
Depending on your speed, you may finish the hike in about 4-6 hours, but I would still suggest getting a pretty early start to your day for safety’s sake.
When you are done, drive over to Fort Davis, and spend a lazy afternoon exploring the main street of this small town, before retiring for the night at the Historic Veranda Inn. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive from the national park to Fort Davis.
Day 4: Fort Davis
Fort Davis is the unsung hero of the West Texas vacation spots, as there is tons to do in the area in and surrounding town. Depending on what you are feeling like you might consider any of the following for this part of your West Texas itinerary:
- Learn about history at the Fort Davis National Historic Site
- Relax with some wine at Chateau Wright
- Hike the Davis Mountain Preserve
- Learn about natural science at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center
- Go stargazing and telescope exploring at the McDonald Observatory
Spend one more night in Fort Davis.
Day 5: Big Bend Day #1
It’s about a 2 hour drive from Fort Davis to the Panther Junction Visitor Center in Big Bend National Park. Panther Junction is one of several visitor centers, but it’s sort of central to everything in the park. When planning out my two days in the park, I wanted to spend a whole day exploring the higher mountains and forests, so I spent my first day in the lower elevation sections of the park, doing as many day hikes as I had the energy to do. Whether you are taking pictures, hiking, wildlife viewing, or just relaxing in the beautiful landscapes of Big Bend, this part of the West Texas itinerary is perhaps one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful.
If you follow my general plan, and hike the lower elevations, consider three different sections, the drive south, the eastern portion of the park, and the western portion. Any would be a great place to spend the day, but for this particular itinerary, we have a lot to pack in, so I will go through some of my favorite hikes.
If you think you’d like to spend more time, consider adding a day or two to your trip. You could easily spend a whole day at Rio Grande Village and Castolon separately. But for this West Texas itinerary, we will stick to a fast schedule.
For the drive south, check out Dog Canyon Trail. This is a fairly flat 4.1 mile out and back trail, that is special for its trek into the steep-walled, stone canyon. The area here is very arid, so it’s extra interesting for people not as used to the desert landscape. (But be sure to drink lots!)
Rio Grande Village
Then head down to Rio Grande Village, and take the road that will continue taking you east to its end. Here, be sure not to miss the Boquillas Canyon Trail. It’s a short little 1.2 mile out and back walk, but the water in the Rio Grande here is AMAZINGLY blue. And the canyon itself is just… it has to be one of the most beautiful West Texas vacation spots. The warm canyon walls, the blue water… it feels like something from a fantasy game.
The one thing that I thought was a bit different about this trail is that there were many people crossing the river to sell things. No one bothered me, but hiking alone, it did put me on my guard since there were men I didn’t know scattered along the trail. I also got a little nervous when the border patrol came and people started running to get their stuff and cross back over before they got caught. I definitely understand why this was happening, particularly because the communities on the other side of the river usually make a living from travelers visiting. And this was stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the western side of the park, drive towards Castolon. There is a lot to do along the road on this side. So make sure to plan for at least a half day (or more) for this part of your trip. There are many trails to explore that dive into the desert, and some interesting side drives as well. But my favorite hike (maybe of this entire West Texas itinerary) is the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.
This is another short trail of only about 1.5 miles round trip (out and back), but it’s one of the most beautiful things to do in West Texas because the canyon is both stark and unimaginable. It’s like exploring a vast formation carved straight out of the rock (although carved by the hand of water). With the Rio Grande flowing through its depths, this exceptional place reminds me of a cathedral. It’s not to be missed.
Once you are done exploring the park, you will either be camping in the national park or staying in Study Butte/Terlingua. Please do not stay in the budget hotel in the ghost town area. Or if you do, check the reviews first. People have had many bad experiences there. As for myself they were completely unforgiving when I had to reschedule due to COVID-19 related problems, and refunded me nothing despite hardship. I’d suggest the Cosmic Cabin, or camping unless you can afford luxury resorts in the area. There is also a hotel in the Chisos Mountains, which would be ideal if you can afford a room there. But you will need to plan very far ahead to snag a room.
Day 6: Big Bend Day #2 – Chisos Mountains Basin
For my second day in Big Bend, I wanted to spend some time enjoying the greener pastures of the Chisos Mountains. There are some very intense day and backpacking hikes in this section of the park. So, it’s pretty easy to spend a day of your West Texas itinerary here.
If you are needing to rest after all the hiking from the days before, consider just spending the day resting. You can focus on photography, and take a few small walks to the nice overlooks surrounding the visitor center.
If you are looking for something more challenging in the form of a day hike, you might also consider Emory Peak trail. This is not to be taken lightly as it is a 10.4 mile out and back trail with 2,500 ft elevation gain. So, while the elevation isn’t quite as high as Guadalupe Peak, nor is the trail as steep, the length is more intense and the summit itself is more difficult. That being said, if you just want to go part of the way, the trail is a beautiful exploration of the forest. I myself didn’t summit Emory Peak because I was just too tired, and I listened to my body. But I loved hiking through the forest on this trail. It’s worth the visit if you have some energy for the elevation gain.
If you are interested in backpacking, this is also a great area to plan a trip for. But you will need to delve into the National Park information on backcountry camping and trekking beforehand to plan.
Stay another night in Study Butte, etc.
Day 7: Big Bend to El Paso
It is about a 5 hour drive from Study Butte to El Paso on the route that I would like to suggest to you. Because it is far more scenic and includes a few beautiful, short trails to experience. Specifically, instead of taking the 118 immediately north, take the 170 west towards the 67. This will take you along the river. There are some great views from the road, even if you don’t get out of your car.
If you only have time for one stop on the way, check out Closed Canyon Trail (if it’s not raining!). This is a very mild slot canyon, that’s quite beautiful. You will not make it down to the river, but the canyon itself is really peaceful and a worthwhile stop for any West Texas itinerary. It’s only 1.4 miles round trip- out and back.
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