McKittrick Canyon

Location: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Distance: 3.5 miles (5.6 km) to the Grotto, 5.5 mi (8.6 km) to where I stopped
Elevation gain: ~200 feet (61 m) to the Grotto, 1750 ft (533 m) to where I stopped
Date: November 4, 2012

McKittrick Canyon from above the Grotto

McKittrick Canyon has been referred to as the most beautiful spot in Texas. This canyon is located in the northeast part of Guadalupe Mountains National Park just south of the New Mexico border. The canyon is only accessible via the McKittrick Canyon Trail, most commonly via the trailhead at the end of McKittrick Canyon Road. The gate at the end of this road is unlocked only from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm during Daylight Standard Time and 8:00 am to 6:00 pm during Daylight Savings Time.

Wilderness Ridge at the entrance to McKittrick Canyon

The trail starts at the McKittrick Canyon Contact Station and parallels the wash, crossing it several times. When you first enter the canyon, Wilderness Ridge towers over the north side of the trail, but as you approach Pratt Cabin you begin to see deeper into the canyon. Pratt Cabin is 2.4 miles from the trailhead, and there were fewer and less colorful trees in this section of the canyon during my visit. Pratt Cabin was constructed in 1930 and was the summer home of Wallace Pratt, who donated much of the land to become the park.

McKittrick Canyon near Pratt Cabin

McKittrick Canyon contains a rare sight in west Texas: a semi-perennial stream. The stream in this canyon is intermittent in some sections and permanent in others. It also contains the only self-sustaining population of rainbow trout in Texas. However, no fish are native to this stream, and rainbow trout are only native west of the continental divide.

Past Pratt Cabin there were more trees, the color was much more intense, and the walls of the canyon were more impressive. It is 1.1 miles from Pratt Cabin to the Grotto. While there is only about 200 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead to the Grotto, parts of the trail are fairly rocky, and there are some minor up and downs in the trail. The Grotto is what remain of a cave that collapsed at the bottom of McKittrick Canyon. The Grotto is on a short spur trail from the McKittrick Canyon Trail. This spur also leads to the Hunter Line Shack, which is a very short distance beyond the Grotto. You cannot continue up through the bottom of the canyon from Hunter Line Shack.

McKittrick Canyon between Pratt Cabin and the Grotto

Looking up McKittrick Canyon from just above the Grotto

After taking a short break at Hunter Line Shack, I decided to continue on up the McKittrick Canyon Trail. Many fewer people use the trail past the Grotto because it begins to moderately gain elevation as the trail ascends McKittrick Ridge. It is about three miles and over 2,000 feet of elevation gain from the Grotto to the top of the ridge and another mile to the McKittrick Ridge backcountry campground. I went only about halfway up the ridge.

South McKittrick Canyon from just above the notch

Since the McKittrick Canyon Trail begins to gain elevation immediately after the Grotto, you begin to get better and better views of McKittrick Canyon. After about 1.3 miles the trail reaches the notch, where the trail crosses a ridge in a bend in the canyon walls. At the notch you can see not only the canyon that you have been hiking through but also a narrow part of South McKittrick Canyon with vertical walls that you were previously unable to see.

The view of McKittrick Canyon from about where I turned around
South McKittrick Canyon

After the notch, I hiked for about another two-thirds of a mile up the side of the canyon until I reached a bend in the trail where I was able to see all the way down McKittrick Canyon to Wilderness Ridge and up South McKittrick Canyon. I began my hike at 8:15 am and returned to the trailhead before 1:00 pm. If you continue on the trail to the campground, it is another 3.5 miles to the intersection with the Tejas Trail. From there it is 3.9 miles to Dog Canyon or 7.5 miles to Pine Springs.

View McKittrick Canyon in a larger map

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