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Backpacker Magazine – June 2010

Secret Hikes: Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Climb from sublime desert to pine forests and peaks with 100-mile views.

by: Michael Lanza

Valley cacti in bloom. (Mark W. Lisk)
Valley cacti in bloom. (Mark W. Lisk)

Packing for a hike in this west Texas park is a challenge: Do you prepare for the open desert, rugged canyons, or high mountains? All three, actually, which is why some aficionados call this the best-kept secret in the national park system. Stay overnight in the backcountry, and you’ve found the secret inside the secret. The park’s remote location and lack of water (it’s strictly BYO for backpackers) mean you’ll have the place virtually to yourself. Make the weekend traverse from McKittrick Canyon trailhead to Pine Springs, and you’ll sample all of Guadalupe’s diversity: yucca- and agave-dotted desert; breezy limestone and sandstone ridges overlooking sheer-sided, multifingered canyons; and cool-air mountaintops with Texas-size vistas. It’s 19.1 miles via the most-direct trails, but choose a slightly more circuitous, 24.1-mile route—linking Blue Ridge, Bush Mountain, Bowl, and Bear Canyon Trails—for the best of everything. Camp at the McKittrick Ridge campsite the first night—it has sunset views of the range’s highest peaks. On day two, traverse narrow ridges and forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir to reach the Pine Top campsite. Pack binoculars and scope for some of the park’s 300 bird species. Posthike, allow time for two must-do day trips: Climb Guadalupe Peak, the highest in Texas at 8,749 feet, and explore Devil’s Hall, a nearby slot canyon with steps carved into the rock.

›› Magic Moment You pitch your tent at the end of day one’s 2,500-foot climb over dozens of switchbacks: The remote site on McKittrick Ridge–empty and view-packed–will rank as one of your all-time favorites.

›› Local Knowledge Elk in Texas? Believe it. Hike the Bowl Trail from the Pine Top campsite at dawn or dusk, and pass through Douglas fir where elk hang out in September and October.

›› Do It
Start at McKittrick Canyon trailhead (3.5 miles off US 62/180, 108 miles east of El Paso). End at Pine Springs trailhead, .25-mile off US 62/180 (seven miles southwest on 62/180). Map Trails Illustrated Guadalupe Mountains #203 ($12; Contact (915) 828-3251;

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Mar 12, 2014

Every hike in this park is worthwhile. After half a dozen visits, I can't get enough of it. And when you're in the area, be sure to check out Big Bend Ranch State Park. It's National Park quality PLUS, without the National Park attention.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Sep 23, 2013

You still have more FEE- FREE NATIONAL PARK DAYS this year! September 28 and November 9-11 weekend. When hiking with kids, teach them how to stay found without using a compass or map by reading "Felix the Sugar Glider: Be Safe. Hike Smart." (Amazon). This book uses a fun approach to staying found on or off the trail. And for anyone wanting to know how to use a compass, this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Before you hit the trail, be sure to calibrate your compass to the declination of where you will be hiking. Go to: A compass doesn't need satellites, a signal, or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it. Learn how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. Look for it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart". The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. Learn to stay found day or night by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, trail ethics, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing (for the car and for the trail) just in case you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors.

Star Star Star Star Star
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Star Star Star Star Star
Jan 18, 2013

I did a similar trip to this one in 1997; beginning at Pine Springs. Spent the first night at Mescalero, and the second at McKittrick Ridge. It required a car shuttle. I agree with others that this is much easier reversing the route, owing to the more gradual ascent up the Tejas trail relative to the trail up McKittrick Ridge. It's been over 15 years now, and I want to repeat this trip soooo bad!

Nov 15, 2012

My son and I just hiked from McKittrick Campground up to McKittrick Ridge. We stayed the night on the ridge at one of the backcountry sites and then hiked back down the next day. The hike up is very strenuous and I'm comparing it to hikes we have done in Glacier NP, Yosemite NP, Rocky Mtn. NP, and Big Bend NP. Also, the wind on the ridge was very strong at 60 mph gusts. However, the fall foliage was beautiful. We plan on returning to do Pine Top soon. I would not do this hike in the summer.

John Mc
Mar 25, 2012

Hike in to McKittrick Ridge from Dog Canyon and come out at Pine Springs through one of two routes. Nick is correct about the hike from McKittrick Canyon up to McKittrick Ridge. Straight up switchbacks... very steep and very strenuous carrying gear plus water.
Dog Canyon is a longer drive on the secluded north side of the park but it is a great campground by itself. Great views all around camping among the parks famous big toothed maples. Guadalupe is a great park for scenery and solitude.

Mar 22, 2012

Carry plenty of water! One gallon per person per day will leave you some for cooking in the fall or spring. I just finished the 19 mile loop with my son starting at McKittrick. We did it in two days, but I wish we had taken 3 so we could have enjoyed it more. It's very strenuous and I don't recommend it in the summer months.

J Robinson
Mar 22, 2012

Did this hike in reverse, Pine Springs to Pine Top, to McKittrick Ridge, and down in 1999. A ranger saved our lives the night before when she told us THERE IS NO WATER ON THE TRAIL! Had to carry over 3 gallons of water in addition to less than light weight gear. Kicked my Butt, but is still one of the most memorable backpack trips I have ever made (and that includes the AT, Continental Divide, and Colorado trails). Would recommend this trip to anyone who enjoys the southwest and solitude (didn't see another soul the three days of the trip).

Apr 19, 2011

Given the amount of water you have to tote, you would have to be a real glutton for punishment to go up to McKittrick Ridge from the canyon. Just getting to the Notch is tough, and it doesn't ease out above it. Reverse the trip and come down from McKittrick Ridge. Your knees will still hate you, but the rest of your crate will be happy.

Jul 09, 2010

Just finished an 18 month work assignment in SE New Mexico. During that time I hiked just about every trail in Guadalupe Mountains. Dog Canyon campground is out of the high traffic area and about the best stargazing I've ever seen. If you hike McKittrick you have to go at least to the notch - great views of the upper canyon.

Jul 08, 2010

I lived in El Paso for a few years and I drove just about every weekend to Guadalupe Mountains. It's well worth the couple hour car ride to get there! McKittrick is my all-time favorite hike. Visit it throughout the year to see the vegetation change with the seasons. It's most popular in the fall, so be prepared for lots of people within a couple of miles of the trailhead (thins out the deeper you go into the canyon).


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