McKittrick Canyon has been called “the most beautiful spot in Texas.” With good reason. It’s where Guadalupe Mountains National Park started. Hiking in the national park was one of the main reasons I made a trip to El Paso. I spent three days in El Paso exploring its missions, food, ancient pictographs in Hueco Tanks and a day in the Guadalupe Mountains.
I got to the national park late morning and didn’t think I had enough time to hike Guadalupe Peak, the highest peak in Texas. Instead I asked a ranger where to go so I could see multiple places in the park. He suggested three places: The Pinery, Frijole Ranch and McKittrick Canyon. The Pinery was an easy three-quarters of a mile round trip hike from the visitor center. It was on the Buttermilk Overland Stagecoach Route used in the 1800s. I made a quick stop at Frijole Ranch then drove to McKittrick Canyon Trailhead. From park headquarters, you drive 8 miles on US 62/180 then turn off and drive another 4.5 miles to the McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center. McKittrick Canyon is known for its diversity of plants and animals. It’s kind of like an island in the desert with its untamed nature. The canyon is named after cattle rancher Felix McKittrick, who settled near the mouth of the canyon in 1869.
As I was getting close to that visitor center, I noticed something crossing the street. It was a rattlesnake. I slowly went around it and noticed the white minivan behind me stopping to look at it. In the parking lot I asked if it was a rattler, and the family confirmed it. I was glad I didn’t stop to see the snake because the two boys were thrilled to see it. For me it was just a reminder to constantly be on the lookout for rattle snakes while hiking. We chatted for a few minutes and I found out they were from San Antonio, where I lived for ten years and now frequently visit.
I started my hike about 2:15 p.m., which is late to be hitting a trail. I decided I was just going to Pratt Cabin for a 4.8-mile round trip hike. The hike in McKittrick Canyon is fascinating as it takes you through desert, transition and canyon woodlands. The first part of the hike is fairly flat on a well-maintained trail surrounded by scrubby vegetation, that gets bigger and lusher as you hike towards where the canyon walls narrow.
It’s always a shock to see water in the desert. After about 1.3 miles I crossed a stream by walking on rocks. This is a desert rarity because it’s a permanent desert stream with a reproducing trout population. The stream disappeared from view as I hiked on, until it reappeared, and I cross it on rocks for a second time.
As the brush was getting thicker, I saw three deer. They stopped eating long enough to notice me, then let me pass of by about without even a skittish flinch. Guess they didn’t feel threatened by me at all.
I got to Pratt Cabin about 3:15 p.m. It’s built out of stone and wood. Wallace E. Pratt was a geologist with Humble Oil Company, now ExxonMobil. He built this cabin and lived here in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1957 he donated his property to the U.S. government for the creation of a national park.
About 3:40 p.m. I left cabin and with a little egging on from the father in the San Antonio family I’d chatted with the in the parking lot, I turned right to head to the Grotto, instead of just hiking back for a 4.8-mile round trip hike. I gave myself 20 minutes to the Grotto to ensure I still had a lot of daylight for the hike back, and there weren’t a lot of people on the trail that day.
This part of the trail is not as maintained as the trail was to Pratt Cabin and the forest is much thicker. The stream appeared again not far from Pratt Cabin. I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to find the Grotto, when I saw a spur trail sign and veered to the left. The trail narrows as you walk around a little ledge and the Grotto appears.
The surface cave is cool and humid as water percolates through the limestone transforming calcium carbonate into stalactites and stalagmites. There are tiny fern, ivy and moss in the unusual spot. I could hear and see the water dropping from the stalactites, almost creating music in this tiny cave.
At 4:20 p.m. I had to pull myself away from the Grotto and start hustling back down the trail. I did a combo of trail running and fast walk for the 3.4 miles back to the parking lot. I got back to Pratt Cabin at 4:37 p.m. and noticed the 8-10 people who had been there while I was there were now gone as I expected they would be. I picked up my pace even more knowing I was solo on the trail. I did stop to enjoy the beauty of the stream one more time and to look back at the canyon as I returned to where the forest transitions and widens out to the more arid desert landscape.
It was 5:25p when I signed out my return time on the trail ledger. As I walked to my car, I saw the minivan was still there too. The dad felt bad for egging me on to hike the extra mileage and the family waited to make sure I safely returned to my car. They had only been back about 15 minutes and I was really appreciative of their kindness.
As I drove out of Guadalupe Mountains National Park heading back to El Paso, I pulled over to enjoy the mountains soaring out of the flat desert terrain for a few more minutes before I drove back to downtown El Paso, a little under two hours away. I drove away with a smile on my face from a fantastic afternoon hiking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and looking forward to a return trip to hike Guadalupe Peak to the top of Texas.
Author Jennifer Broome has traveled throughout West Texas on multiple trips and is drawn to magical landscape of the vast and rugged desert. For more on this trip, read Experiencing El Paso: 3 Days in Sun City. Other West Texas blogs to check out are One Night in Marfa and Girls Weekend in Big Bend.