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Rip & Go: McKittrick Canyon

Soak up high-desert views amid the Lone Star State's tallest peaks.

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.

Capitan Reef
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 EXPERTS Teri 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.”

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