Overview

View from lower McKittrick Canyon into GMNP

View from lower McKittrick Canyon into GMNP

This trip takes you along a canyon bottom with surface water (rare along the border of New Mexico and Texas). Then it switchbacks up the dust-dry canyon walls and gains the canyon rim. From the rim the options are constrained only by the the sun’s position in the sky and the water in your pack.  Here I simply kept to the rim until  early afternoon and returned by the same path.

This report is being written up two months after I actually made the trip. Be extra skeptical. My driving notes have been lost, so the driving directions are simply taken from Google.

Admittedly, it is a little odd to have a Texas hike in a blog called New Mexico Meanders. That sort of technicality, however, is going to be resolutely ignored for the greater purpose of hiking the high terrain in the desert southwest.

Driving Directions

  • From Las Cruces, enter I25 from Lohman Av (Exit 3) heading south.
  • After 4.9 miles, merge onto I10-E (towards El Paso, TX).
  • After 24.8 miles, take exit for Tx-375/Woodrow Bean Transmountain Road (avoids downtown El Paso)
  • After 24.6 miles (climbing into Franklin Mountains and crossing portions of Fort Bliss) take the US-62/US-180/Montana Blvd exit.
  • After 0.3 miles on the exit ramp (possibly signed Joe Battle Blvd) go left onto US-62/US-180
  • After 103 miles, turn left onto McKittrick Road (paved)
  • After 4.3 miles, at road end, arrive at trailhead and McKittrick Canyon Contact Station.
01 Sunrise over hills east of Fort Briggs

Sunrise crossing Fort Bliss on road to Guadalupe National Park

When I did this in late March there was quite a bit of construction on TX-375, which slowed things down a bit on the morning drive. On the return that afternoon I tried taking US-62/US-180 all the way to I10 and driving through El Paso. The traffic on I10 in El Paso was extremely heavy, so perhaps the Transmountain Road is the way to go.

Trailhead

31 Car at trailhead in afternoon duststorm

The mighty Camry in an afternoon dust storm

This trailhead is in a national park. You will need a park pass or else pay a registration fee.  At this writing, the Park Service fees and registration page is calling for a fee of $5.00 per adult, good for seven days. If you have exact change you can pay the fees using envelopes at the trailhead. Otherwise stop at the Pine Springs Visitor Center on US-62/US-180 and pay at there.  The McKittrick Canyon Contact Station has picnic tables, potable water and toilet facilities.  There is a large amount of paved parking.

This trailhead is designated for day use only!  When I was there the trailhead was open until 6:00, but at other times of year the trailhead gates are closed at 4:30. Check the McKittrick webpage for exact times.

Data

02 view of El Capitan in Guadalupe Natnl Park

El Capitan on drive to McKittrick Canyon

  • Starting Elevation: 5000 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7700 feet (depends on where you go)
  • Net Gain: 2700 feet
  • Trail Length: 7.5 miles one way (again, depends on where you turn around)
  • Map: Guadalupe Peak, Tex (if you’re going to go north, take “El Paso Gap” as well)

Hike

29 Big Fang (distant)  and Little Fang  (nearby)

View up South McKittrick Canyon from trail above the Grotto junction

The trailhead parking lot lies over the outwash from McKittrick Canyon.  Cross the breezeway in the McKittrick Canyon Contact Station and follow the path northwest, directly towards the mountains.  In about a quarter mile cross the canyon bed for the first of about seven crossings. When I was there all but two of these crossings were completely dry (but in a high-snow year it could be quite different). The canyon walls quickly rise and steepen about you.  In half a mile make a second crossing and count yourself inside the canyon proper.

05 water over rock shelf in lower McKittrick Canyon

Surface water in McKittrick Canyon

You’ll see that you are on a backcountry road rather than a trail.  This road persists up to the Pratt Homestead at about 2.4 miles. This is not exactly a wilderness experience, not with a power line overhead! Still, the canyon is strikingly beautiful. Even in a drought year there were grassy areas and even occasional swampy spots. The stream flow is largely sub-surface, but from time-to-time rocky ledges will force the water back into view. It was cool and clear, although I never saw any of the promised rainbow trout.

09 McKittrick Canyon dry bed

Dry canyon bed and sheer canyon walls

The tread turns to due-west and then begins to head south-west for a while. Where it is close to the stream it tends to be rocky – good ankle support is appreciated in this part of the hike and it can be a good idea to bring along a hiking pole.  Sheer walls adjacent to the stream reveal how the water has been eating away at the old fossil reef.

At 2.4 miles pass the junction to the Pratt cabin, which lies about 100 feet away. It is easy to see why Pratt (a geologist) might be taken with this spot. It lies at the confluence of the North and South McKittrick Canyons, has a terrific little forest, reportedly the only reliable year-round water in the mountains, and access to an infinity of rock. The cabin (including the roof) is itself an exercise in repurposed sedimentology.

17 stalagtites in grotto

View out of grotto, past stalactites

The trail crosses the North McKittrick Canyon bed and stays above the bed of South McKittrick Canyon. About a mile past the cabin there is a junction where the side trail leads down towards the canyon bed. This will take you to a grotto and, further on, another rock walled building that was once used by hunting parties.  The picnic tables near the grotto made of limestone, although apparently sized for NBA players.

Chihuahuan vegetation arrayed in garden-like lines near rim

Chihuahuan vegetation arrayed in garden-like lines near rim

Past the grotto the main trail starts to rise. At first it is a gentle incline. Below the path you will see a busted pipe system. I am guessing that it was once used to collect water from one of the wetter canyon branches. In fact, you enter that wet branch in about half a mile past the grotto. Where you cross the stream bed the ground is quite damp (even after years of drought conditions). There was even a small puddle. If you look downhill from the bed you can see where the pipe used to run into the ground to reach the spring.This is the last hint of water along this trail, however. As you exit this side canyon the number of trees begins to fall off and more typical Chihuahuan flora (yucca and prickly pear) appear at trailside.

"Knife edge" col becomes an attention getter in high winds.

“Knife edge” col becomes an attention getter in high winds.

The trail along the rim is in good shape (thanks to all those Park Service folks who do the trail maintenance!) but in places the trail hits rather sharply inclined rock or crosses a knife edged col. Under most circumstances this is not a problem. On this hike, however, the wind started picking up in the afternoon. There were a few occasions where it seemed advisable to “hunker down” and let the gusts go by. In fact I wound up turning around a little early just because the winds were making it uncomfortable to be up on the edge of the canyon.

30 Dusty views of Guadalupe after windstormReturn the way you came. Don’t forget, as I forgot, that the trailhead is day-use only. It was a good thing for me that the wind was so pushy!  I wound up making it back to the car just 45 minutes before closing. They say that dust storms are common occurrences  in the Chihuahuan Desert. As the photo to the left shows, a day that started bluebird-blue ended sandy-brown. The Camry was really bouncing around on the return drive along US-62/US-180.

Recommendations:

16 me in McKittrick Canyon grotto (inside shot)

Grotto dweller.

I climbed to the high point in the park, Guadalupe Peak, about 24 years ago. That was another great hike, but McKittrick Canyon is the real “highlight” of the park. What a difference a stream makes.

The section of trail that switchbacks to the rim is unshaded and steep. Don’t count on getting any further water after the junction to the grotto. It seems likely that almost everyone camping on the rim would need to have a gallon of water for each day of camping.

The distances you can travel without seeing a gas station in West Texas can be impressive.  It might be a good idea to fill your gas tank before leaving the El Paso area.

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