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A Rite of Autumn: Fall Colors in McKittrick Canyon

Thousands of hikers travel to Guadalupe Mountains National Park each year to witness the display of fall colors in McKittrick Canyon.

The man who once owned it said it was “the most beautiful place in Texas.” It’s a West Texas place where desert meets flowing water and where the plants of the arid grasslands – sotol, lechuguilla, prickly pear, agave – grow beneath pines and tall maples.

For many visitors to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, an autumn walk in McKittrick Canyon is an annual tradition.

McKittrick Canyon is a spectacular hike in any season, but for a few weeks each fall, the canyon can feel like an outpost of New England. For those weeks, bigtooth maple trees paint the canyon the colors of a cornucopia – orange, yellow, apple-red and burgundy wine. Late October and early November are typically the best time to see the fall colors.

“The shortening of the day lengths is something that triggers color change in the leaves,” Park Ranger Michael Haynie said, “but it's thought that the reds come out more when we get those kind of bright sunny days – and we get plenty of those – and those cold, but not freezing nights.”

The McKittrick Canyon trailhead is a 10-mile drive north from the park's Pine Springs headquarters. The trail itself is only moderately difficult, and the park’s staff recommends allowing three to five hours to hike the canyon. Day hikers typically walk to Pratt Cabin, for a 4.8-mile round trip, or to the Grotto, for a 6.8-mile round trip.

First setting out on the rubble-strewn path, the hiker is greeted by a tall fin of exposed limestone atop the canyon's north wall. Though majestic, the formation only hints at what lies within. The Guadalupes are an exposed portion of the Capitan Reef, formed from the fossil material of ancient sea life. The colors and textures of limestone distinguish the Guadalupes from other major West Texas ranges like the Chisos and Davis, which are made up of volcanic rock.

About a mile up the trail, the interior range and the tree-carpeted mountains come into view. The trail crosses the flowing water of McKittrick Creek, a perennial spring-fed stream, and the first tall maples are clustered near its far bank.

In general, the eastern ramparts of the Guadalupes can mislead. Few highway travelers would guess that these humps conceal springs, streams, and stairways to alpine meadows. Of course, the indigenous residents of the region knew otherwise.

“There's definitely a history of human use of this area going back thousands of years,” Haynie said. “They harvested the agaves or century plants. There are a number of ring middens where those were roasted, underground ovens, and there are hundreds of those throughout the park, including in McKittrick Canyon.”

Soon, the trail is passing through canopies of maples, their leaves in autumn casting a mellow glow on the path. The maples entwine with Texas madrones. With their smooth red bark, the madrones are a signature of these mountains. By early fall, many of these trees have shed their bark, and bear bright red berries.

Two-and-a-half miles in, the hiker arrives at the center of a vast natural amphitheater. The Guadalupes rise 2,000 feet above the canyon floor, in cliffs and glinting peaks. In autumn, the mountains' slopes are blanketed in fall colors.

From here, a short side trail leads to Pratt Cabin. Benches outside the stone structure provide a perfect place for a pause and a picnic. Wallace Pratt was a vice president at Standard Oil who once owned this land. It was an enviable retreat from his busy life. He donated the McKittrick Canyon property to the park service in the early 1960s, and it became a cornerstone of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

The day visitor can turn back here – or continue another mile to the Grotto.

“Old winter knows what spring forgets,” sings Butch Hancock, the West Texas musician. But perhaps a colorful November walk in McKittrick Canyon is the season to remember.

“Out here, with the red maples and the mix of cactus and agaves, it's a really special time of year at a special place,” Haynie said. “I never tire of the fall color season.”

McKittrick Canyon is not the only hike for fall colors in the Guadalupes. The Smith Springs and Devil's Hall trails, as well as hikes from the remote Dog Canyon trailhead, offer views of the bigtooth maples. For up-to-date information on trail conditions and the timing of fall colors, visitors can call Guadalupe Mountains National Park or visit the park's website.

(This episode originally aired on Oct. 23, 2014.)