Monday, November 1, 2010

Pine Springs to McKittrick Canyon - Guadalupe Mountains National Park

A couple of weeks ago two friends and I headed out to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park for three days and two nights of backpacking. We started off at the Pine Springs trailhead and planned to finish at the McKittrick Canyon trailhead. Before us lay 19 miles of trail that traversed the heart of the Guadalupe Mountains allowing us to sample everything that makes this place unique.

Fall Colors in McKittrick Canyon


Friday morning we woke up at the Pine Spring base camp. First order of business was taking a shuttle car 12 miles north to the McKittrick Canyon trailhead. We then brought our other car back to the Pine Springs Trailhead were we would begin our adventure. We loaded up our heavy packs weighing close to 50 pounds. Due to the fact that there is no water in the Guadalupe backcountry it was necessary for us to pack in three days worth of water. The National Park system recommends one gallon of water per person per day…so that is what we packed. We actually only consumed about 2 liters per day and poured water out each morning to lighten our loads. We all agreed that had it been warmer we would have drunk more water. Take less than the National Park recommended amount at your own risk!!

My Friends with heavy packs at the Pine Springs trailhead
The Base of Guadalupe Peak as seen from the Tejas trail.
Halfway up the Tejas Trial



From Pine Springs we started up the Tejas trail climbing 2,000 feet over 3.6 miles to the top of Pine Spring’s northern rim. This section of the Tejas trail offers outstanding views of Guadalupe Peak, Shumard Peak, as well as Devils Gate and the entrance to Devils Hall. We started seeing fall color across the valley along Shumard’s northern canyons. The fall colors are what we came to see. I have often heard the foliage is spectacular in late October and we were not disappointed. As we continued north along the Tejas trail we entered into an entirely new world. Thick forest mixed with ponderosa pine and colorful oak trees greeted us in the upper reaches of the Guadalupe Mountain’s “Sky Island”. Beginning with weak yellows and slowly merging into rich oranges and reds we finished the next 2 miles in awe of the fall beauty.

Fall Color across the valley from Tejas Trail



At the top of the Tejas climb we entered into a "sky island" of pines, oaks, and maple trees.

The deeper we walked along the Tejas trail the more colors we began to see.

Along the upper Tejas Trail

Along the upper Tejas Trail

Fall Color on the Tejas Trail



Tejas trail





Tejas Trail


We arrived at the Tejas campsite around 5:00 that evening. One lone hiker had beaten us to the campsite. Happy the site wasn’t crowded we pushed on past him and picked the highest and furthest tent pad from the trail. Guadalupe Mountains National Park forbids camping any where other then the designated backcountry sites. In the fall these sites can fill up rather quickly and can only be reserved in person no more than one day in advance. Tejas is not as popular as other backcountry sites and no other campers joined us the first night.
As we began to set up camp my friends and I were talking and joking rather loudly. Suddenly someone whispered “deer” as we all turned to find two does coming up on camp. We stopped everything and stood very still. The first doe didn’t see us until she was about four feet away. She jumped as if startled before nearly running into us. Not long after about 6 more does showed up. Our presence didn’t seem to bother them…in fact we seemed to be in their way. We noticed there was a faint game trail that seemed to go straight through our campsite. The deer slowly approached…getting closer and closer as if to ask “are you going to get out of our way?” My friends and I stood impossibly still trying not to laugh at their confusing behavior. The deer lingered for awhile before eventually finding another way around.

Entrance to the Tejas Back-country Campsite


Our Tejas Campsite


Some deer that acted like they had first dibs on our campsite!!


The next morning we each dump out nearly 4 liters of water leaving 5 liters each for the next two days. The first day was our hardest hike gaining the most elevation and each of us only consumed 2 liters each. Again I warn you to take less then the National Park’s recommended amount (3.8 liters per day) at your own risk!!

As we began leaving the Tejas trail she treated us to a few more colors and great views of the upper Guadalupe Mountain Peaks. Just before joining with the McKittrick Canyon Trail we passed by West Dog Canyon. An unbearable wind raced up the Canyon hitting us with 100 mph gusts that nearly knocked us over. The Guadalupe’s are notorious for high winds year round. We squinted in the face of the wind at distant New Mexico Mountains beyond the canyon. As we rounded the bend, leaving West Dog Canyon behind us, McKittrick Canyon lay open before us. From here we would continue along the McKittrick Canyon northern rim. As we hiked along the open rim we could see only faint fall colors that remained in the valley floor.

McKittrick Canyon in the far background. View from the Tejas Trail



Approaching McKittrick Canyon

West Dog Canyon with faint NM mountains in the background

Leaving Tejas trail behind...some fall colors left in the valley


Starting to see the rugged nature of McKittrick Canyon

McKittrick Canyon


A fellow hiker on the McKittrick Canyon trail

McKittrick Canyon Trail

McKittrick Canyon Trail

McKittrick Canyon Trail


That night we arrived at McKittrick Ridge campsite. Several backpackers were present having hiked in from the Dog Canyon and McKittrick Canyon trail-heads making this site somewhat crowded. Unlike the Tejas campsite (which sits in a valley), McKittrick Ridge is on the north sloping side of the canyon rim. Because of this the infamous Guadalupe winds were piercing through the campsite. Luckily for us none of the other backpackers had seen the best tent pad. Just past site number one is a ten pad with a wind break built out of downed trees and rocks. We set up camp pushing our tents up into the wind break leaving just enough room for us to crawl back there to cook and eat dinner. It was nice to get out of the wind. We ate a delicious meal of Chicken and Dumplings before heading back out to the Canyon Ridge to watch the sun set.

McKittrick Ridge Back-Country Campsite

Our McKittrick Ridge Campsite with man made windbreak...as you can see in the background it was crowded for a back-country campsite. (both tents in the foreground are ours.)

Eating Chicken and Dumplings under the windbreak

McKittrick Canyon at Sunset


The next morning we had our longest hike (7.6 miles) before a 3 hour drive home. We started early begrudgingly enduring the cold morning wind. We set out on the trail taking in our last views of McKittrick from above. One of the highlights of the McKittrick Canyon Trail is “The Notch” a small saddle that offers panoramic views to the west and behind you to the northeast. “The Notch” has been described as the prettiest place in Texas. This description (and photos) below do not do it justice.

Our first view of McKittrick the morning we left the McKittrick Ridge campsite

"The Notch" is the small saddle ahead

View to the west from "The Notch"

View to the East from "The Notch"


A park ranger crossing "The Notch"



Just past "The Notch" is a long series of switchbacks that take you down nearly 800 feet into the canyon below. The trail is very steep and has been described as treacherous. At one spot in the trail “steps” have been blown out of the side of the rock with dynamite. Down down down we went following the trail along the side of the mountain. All along the way we would stop to take in views of the canyon walls. Once we reached the turn off for the Grotto we knew we had reached the bottom of the canyon. Here the fall colors return in abundance.

Decending into McKittrick Canyon

Descending into McKittrick Canyon

Steps blown out of the rock with dynamite


McKittrick Canyon

McKittrick Canyon...Pratt Lodge can be seen among the trees.

A spring along McKittrick Canyon Trail

Inside a small cave on the McKittrick Canyon Trail



Fall Colors near the Grotto

Fall Colors near the Grotto


Entering lower McKittrick Canyon



I recommend taking the short hike over to the Grotto which looks like some sort of above ground cave complete with stalactites and stalagmites. Past the Grotto is the historic Hunter Line cabin which is also worth checking out. We stopped and ate lunch on the large, historic, stone pick nick tables before continuing. Another mile down the trail we had the opportunity to see Pratt Lodge. Wallace Pratt bought this area in the 1930’s and donated most of the land that is now Guadalupe Mountains National Park. At the convergence of north and south McKittrick Canyon Pratt built a small summer home completely out of stone (including a very heavy stone roof).

The Grotto

The Grotto

The Grotto

Hunter Line Cabin

Hunter Line Cabin

Hunter Line Cabin

Lunch at the Grotto's stone pick-nick tables...Bridgeford Ready to Eat Sandwiches

Pratt Lodge

Pratt Lodge

Pratt Lodge


About the time we passed Pratt Lodge we began to see the only permanent water source in the Guadalupe Mountains. A shallow intermittent stream stable enough to support rainbow trout follows along the trail. There are three water crossings before you leave the canyon. The park asks that you not touch or step in the water so as not to disrupt the delicate ecosystem. Just past the last stream crossing we began to leave the riparian woodland ecosystem and crossed back into the desert. As we rounded the last mountain ridge we thought how strange of a place McKittrick is. From the looks of the canyon entrance you would never guess she hides such amazing treasures. It is amazing anyone ever found it at all.

Rainbow Trout in McKittrick Canyon

Stream Crossing in McKittrick Canyon


It is possible to see McKittrick canyon without hiking 19 miles with tree days of water. Most people begin their journey at the McKittrick Canyon Trailhead. From there it is only 4.8 miles round trip to Pratt Lodge and 6.8 miles round trip to the Grotto. “The Notch” is 9.8 miles round trip from the McKittrick Trailhead.
McKittrick Canyon
McKittrick Canyon

The Hike:
18.9 Mile Shuttle
Start: Pine Springs Trailhead
Finish: McKittrick Canyon Trailhead
5.5 Miles to Tejas Campsite
11.3 Miles to McKittrick Ridge Campsite
14 Miles to "The Notch"
15.4 Miles to The Grotto
16.5 Miles to Pratt Lodge
 
Resources:
I use both the Map and Guide book featured below when planning my many trips to the Guadalupe Mountains. I highly recommend them to anyone wishing to hike there. Purchase them through these links and help support MyLifeOutdoors.


Getting There:
Pine Springs Trailhead:  31°53'47.48"N 104°49'42.92"W
McKittrick Canyon Trailhead:  31°58'39.67"N 104°45'7.96"W
Tejas Campsite:  31°56'15.47"N 104°51'3.35"W
Junction with McKittrick Canyon Trail:  31°57'40.17"N 104°50'41.94"W
McKittrick Ridge Campsite:  31°58'25.94"N 104°48'30.54"W
The Notch:  31°58'1.90"N 104°47'59.88"W
The Grotto and Hunter Line Cabin:  31°58'11.37"N 104°47'18.48"W
Pratt Lodge:  31°59'0.84"N 104°46'50.25"W

12 comments:

  1. Excellent article on your trip to Guadalupe. I frequent Big Bend Chat and saw your post over there so I thought I would take a look and really enjoyed it. I keep a small blog about my preparations for my January week long backpacking trip to Big Bend. I have been doing this for the last 25 years or so. If you would like to take a look it is at http://billkeith-theroadtobigbend.blogspot.com/2010/07/start-of-trip-to-big-bend.html. It is a little self indulgent but I enjoy making my occasional post.

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  2. Steven - outstanding report and photos. I'm really surprised at how much greener everything looks compared to when I was there. Did you guys get a lot of rain in Sept and early Oct?

    Looks like ole Pratt had one heckuva a place to live!

    Definitely need to return to visit McKittrick Canyon someday.

    Jeff

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  3. Billkeith,

    Thanks for the link...I look forward to hearing about your upcoming Big Bend trip.

    Smoky Mountain Hiker,

    I'm unsure of how much rain the park has received. The Higher elevations and McKittrick always seem greener to me then Devils Hall and Guadalupe peak.

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  4. Are those Rainbow Trout or German Brown Trout? I thought they were German Brown that Wallace Pratt had planted in the creek. If you ever get the chance look at the displays about Wallace Pratt in the McKittrick Visitors Center - he was an amazing person and the highest professional award any geologist can receive is the "Wallace Pratt Award". He fell in love with McKittrick Canyon after visiting it in 1932 when he negotiated the King Ranch lease for Humble Oil.
    Lots of interesting history, geology, topography, and wildlife in this area.

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  5. Anonymous,

    Thank you for reading...I went back to check and according to the GUMO NP website Rainbow Trout were planted in McKittrick Canyon in the 30's. It does not say by who. I assume Pratt.


    I hope to write a future post about Pratt, his cabin, and his legacy. Be sure to check back.

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  6. Awesome photos Steven! Very beautiful and looks/sounds like it was a great trip!

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  7. Kevin - FYI:

    http://hikinginthesmokys.blogspot.com/2010/11/mckittrick-canyon-in-fall.html

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  8. Was this hike on Nov. 1st or did you just post it on the blog on that day. I am planning a fall folliage backpack to Guadalupe this fall and not sure whether to go Oct 25, Nov 1, or Nov 8. The only thing I have done in Guadalupe is climp Guadalupe Peak last summer in 100 degree weather.

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  9. This trip was on the second to last weekend in October. The colors had not peaked yet, but the peak is different every year based on the years rainfall, average temperatures and the like. I believe the NPS website has foliage color updates on their website closer to time. But the Park Service rarely ventures up into the higher elevations, which is where we saw the most color. If you have to pick a weekend now, I would recommend anything in late October or early November. All your dates sound good. Its hit or miss this far in advance.

    I would pack for cold weather and high wind. The kind of wind the penetrates your clothing. If you have good wind blocking shells, I would take them.

    Thanks for reading, let me know if there is anything I can help you with.

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  10. I am all set(hopefully). I decided on Nov 1. I also plan on doing one or both of the wild cave tours in Carlsbad. I have done both of them before and they are absolutely outstanding. The person that is backpacking with me hasn't been to either park, so we're excited. I may very well do the same route you did. Haven't fully decided what I'm doing yet. I would like to make it to Dog Canyon sometime too, but probably not on this trip. Thanks for the info.

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  11. I am a little jealous of your upcoming hike. I haven't ventured deep into the Guadalupes since this trip, but sure would like to. I have never made it over to Dog Canyon, Like you, I hope to someday. Shoot me a line when you get back from you trip. If you would be willing, I would love to post some pictures and a short write up of your experience.

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  12. I have hiked McKittrick Canyon twice. Both times were right around November 1st. That, generally speaking, is the peak time. The trail is level all the way to the grotto (6.8 miles round trip from the trailhead). Gorgeous colors both times, but especially the first time, when the colors were so vivid that I figured people would think it was photoshoped. Regardless of the colors, this hike is worth it. I leave tomorrow for my third hike.

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