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