McKittrick Canyon is big on bragging rights, even for supersized Texas. It beat out a route in Utah's famed Canyonlands in a poll of reader contributors. Teri Landrum (next page) says, "The approach is bleak desert, but once in the canyon, you’re surrounded by a forest that looks like New England. Then you climb the ridge, and you are on top of the world. There’s no other place in the Southwest like this." Start this four-day, 24.8-miler at the visitor center (1). Follow the McKittrick Canyon Trail as it drops down into the canyon, crisscrossing a wash until it reaches a stream gurgling over limestone boulders. The water harbors Texas's only self-sustaining population of rainbow trout. In 2.5 miles, reach the Pratt Homestead (2), a stone hut where geologist Wallace Pratt lived until 1957. Up the canyon, scrub gives way to maple, ash, and oak that turn brilliant red and gold in late fall. At mile 3.4, the trail cuts left and reaches the Grotto (3), where shady alcoves are lined with stalactites (good lunch spot). Next up: a series of relentlessly steep switchbacks nicknamed The Big Sweat (4). Huff up 1,600 feet over 1.2 miles to reach The Notch (5), a pass with well-earned views over the precipitous twists and turns you just climbed. Continue .8 mile to the sheltered McKittrick Ridge backcountry camp (6) at 7,716 feet. On day two, continue 6.4 miles atop the ridge—the spine of the Guadalupe Mountains rises an abrupt 5,000 feet from the desert floor—feasting on a Texas-size vista that goes on and on as you hike. Hang a right at the Tejas Trail junction (7) to descend 1,500 feet into Upper Dog Canyon, passing through stands of maple and ash. The developed Dog Canyon campground (8) has running water and a ranger station. Unless you have arranged a shuttle at Dog Canyon (accessible via NM 137), tank up on water here and retrace your steps to McKittrick Ridge and then McKittrick Canyon trailhead on days three and four.
Get there From El Paso, drive east 100 miles on US 62/180 to park headquarters. McKittrick Canyon trailhead is eight miles farther north on US 62/180. Note: The gate is closed from 6 p.m. (4:30 p.m. in winter) to 8 a.m.
Permit Required for all camping: McKittrick is free; Dog is $8. Pick up within 24 hours of your hike. (915) 828-3251; nps.gov/gumo
Gear up Academy Sports Outdoors, El Paso; (915) 842-1500; academy.com
KEY SKILL: Avoid a snake bite
The Western diamondback rattlesnake slithers throughout the Chihuahuan Desert, but is especially abundant in riparian McKittrick Canyon. Rattlers warm themselves on boulders, feed on a plentiful supply of rodents, and stay well-camouflaged in the forest duff. Keep a sharp eye on the trail, so you don’t startle a snake. In camp, zip tent doors shut (snakes looking for warmth have been known to crawl inside empty sleeping bags) and keep rodents away by hanging food bags. What to do if you spot a snake? Read its body language to decide.
Agitated A tight coil with a raised head and upper body indicates a snake is poised to strike, regardless of whether or not it rattles. Diamondbacks here can grow to six feet long, and can strike anything within range of its body length. Back up slowly 20 feet, and maintain this minimum distance as you choose an alternate path. Canyon too narrow? Wait for the snake to continue on its way before resuming your hike.
RestingA loose coil with head relaxed, most likely seen when a snake is sunning itself. Do not disturb it or make any sudden, jarring movements. Continue on your path, slowly and calmly, giving the snake a berth of at least 10 feet.
Bitten Anyway? 1) Don’t panic.
2) Disinfect the wound with drinking water and antiseptic; apply antibiotic ointment and a bandage.
3) Immobilize the bitten limb with a splint and keep it raised above the heart to reduce swelling and minimize the spread of venom. Do not apply a tourniquet.
4) Hike out calmly, giving your partners your pack weight. Seek medical attention asap.
The rugged, 8,000-foot Guadalupe Mountains were once submerged beneath an ancient ocean. Geologists come here to study the Capitan Reef, a 265-million-year-old rock formation and one of the best-preserved Permian period reefs on the planet. The many impressions you see in the cliff faces and on boulders in McKittrick Canyon are the skeletal remains of ancient sea life (like sponges and trilobites) pressed into the reef and fossilized over time.
Local photographer Laurence Parent’s favorite times in the Guadalupes are spring (wildflowers) and fall (maples change colors). His advice: Since leaves in McKittrick Canyon reach their peak a few weeks later than northern trees, wait until late October or the first week of November to catch the most vibrant reds and golds. To experience the colors without the crowds, he says, “Hike the park’s Upper Dog Canyon and Smith Spring Trails, both accessible from the Dog Canyon trailhead—you get a great show, while most leaf peepers stick to trails closer to the visitor center.” For lion heart and prickly pear flower displays, hit McKittrick Canyon in March and April; temperatures are mild, and visitors are few and far between.
THE EXPERTSTeri Landrum, 42, of Hickory Creek, Texas, has hiked 600 miles in the last 14 months, 540 of them solo. “After a long day,” she says, “nothing beats swinging in my hammock, watching sunset streak the desert at dusk.”
ON THE MENU
Breakfast 1 On the road
Breakfast 2, 3, & 4 Granola with pecans
Lunches 1 & 3 Bagel, PB, Nutella
Lunches 2 & 4 Bagel, salami/cheese
Dinner 1 Teri’s Soft Tacos
Dinner 2 Southwest Pesto
Dinner 3 Soup and potatoes
Snacks Peanuts; energy bars; Twizzlers
Teri’s Soft Tacos
A tasty meal for dry camping; no water is wasted.
1 packet Uncle Ben’s Whole Grain Ready Rice Santa Fe
7-ounce chicken pouch
4 whole wheat tortillas
Tabasco to taste
Empty rice and chicken into pot. Stir, cover, and heat over low flame. Add water if necessary. Add Tabasco. Fill tortillas. Serves 2.
A carb-packed, one-pot meal
4 ounces angel hair pasta
1 packet Knorr Pesto Sauce mix
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 ounces sun-dried tomatoes
3 ounces pine nuts
Boil pasta until al dente; then add sun-dried tomatoes and boil one more minute. Drain. Add pesto mix and olive oil. Garnish with pine nuts and Parm to taste. Serves 2.
The Grocery List
[ ] bagels (1)
[ ] Nutella (1)
[ ] peanut butter (1)
[ ] jalapeño jack cheddar cheese (refrigerator 1)
[ ] salami (refrigerator 1)
[ ] energy bars (3)
[ ] peanuts (3)
[ ] pine nuts (3)
[ ] sun-dried tomatoes (3)
[ ] Texas pecans (3)
[ ] Twizzlers (3)
[ ] granola (4)
[ ] French onion soup (5)
[ ] pesto Sauce mix (5)
[ ] pouch chicken (5)
[ ] Uncle Ben’s Whole Grain Ready Rice Santa Fe (5)
[ ] tortillas (5)
[ ] angel hair pasta (6)
[ ] mashed potato flakes (6)
[ ] powdered milk (7)
Pack Olive oil, Tabasco, mayo, mustard
808 North Canal St., Carlsbad, NM
PIT STOP Hit Carlsbad’s primo BBQ joint, Danny’s Place, where meat is slow-smoked overnight. Go for the beef and rib dinner with a choice of sides (okra, beans, coleslaw, and mashed potatoes). 902 South Canal Street; (575) 885-8739; dannysbbq.com