A Walk on the Wild Side: Finding fall colors in Far West Texas

McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains

It was just a year ago that my dad and I were reclined in rocking chairs on the porch of Pratt Cabin, enjoying a short break and a snack during our 8-mile hike. We were a couple miles down the McKittrick Canyon Trail where bigtooth maples were putting on a show of fall colors in what is known as “the most beautiful spot in Texas.”

I was taking my Dad on some of my favorite moderate hikes in Far West Texas, and this one was at the top of the list. As a native Texan who’s spent most of his life in the Hill Country and on the Gulf Coast, Dad had been skeptical about the actual scenic beauty that the Big Bend region supposedly held. And despite some clever marketing when I’d refer to it as “Far Best Texas,” there was still convincing to be done. But I could tell this trail was already working its magic on Dad. Looking out from the porch, he was in awe. “Ty,” he started in, then paused. “I don’t know what it was that got you into the outdoors. But I’m sure glad it did.”

Today we’re on the trail in search of fall colors in Far West Texas. And to be fair, skepticism like my dad’s is warranted here. A glance at our region’s landscape would make such a pursuit seem wishful at best. We’re in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, right? It can be a downright harsh and inhospitable landscape. But those who know just how varied the terrain in our parts can be also know that it holds surprises for those willing to explore. And thankfully we only have to travel a couple of hours from the Tri-County area to experience one of the high desert’s best surprises this time of year: the most colorful canopies in Texas.

While isolated pockets of color can be found in the upper reaches of the Davis Mountains and the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, we’re headed due north to even higher elevations than those two volcanic ranges. It’s where an ancient fossil reef has been uplifted into the blue Texas sky: the Guadalupe Mountains, Texas’ other national park. But this park holds much more than just Guadalupe Peak and the next three highest points in the state. This time of year, a good portion of foot traffic is diverted to the lower elevations that hold the best hikes of the season. And this holds true for my own foot traffic as well. Experiencing the delightful oases of fall colors here has become an annual pilgrimage.

Driving past the prominent Guadalupe range can no doubt be inspiring and even breathtaking. Route 62, the cross-country highway that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, brings us below the massive prow of El Capitan at the bottom of the range. Rising up from the desert, its prominence is on a humbling scale. But in terms of color, the landscape can look somewhat monochromatic: a dry spectrum of limestone and gilded grasses dominate. Muted green dots of juniper, oak and pine freckle the upper elevations. Yet hidden within the folds of these mountains are technicolor corridors never seen from the highway.

There are no scenic drives along Route 62 that will take us into the Guadalupes. In such a rugged topography, it’s only by hiking the park’s 80+ miles of trails that we can really access the park’s interior. And it’s here that sometime between late October to mid-November, a stunning display of fiery colors takes place in the dramatic canyons below some of Texas’ highest peaks. To really experience the fall colors here, the words of conservation icon Edward Abbey ring true: “You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the contraption.” So let’s lace up our  shoes for a hike that leads us to the most beautiful spot in Texas: McKittrick Canyon.

We’ll bypass the park’s bustling Pine Springs Visitor Center and head seven miles east, taking a left turn onto the winding McKittrick Road which brings us to the ranger station and trailhead. Thankfully this trail’s relatively gentle terrain can accommodate a wide range of hiking levels including families with younger hikers. With limited parking at McKittrick Canyon Contact Station, locals will want to either visit on a weekday, or arrive closer to 8 a.m. MST when the gate opens.

McKittrick Canyon Trail will gradually lead us from shrubby grassland into an enchanted forested canyon with vibrant reds, oranges and yellows, colors mostly due to an abundance of healthy bigtooth maples that line the creek. Other trees contributing to the show include walnuts and various oaks. And keep an eye out for the Texas madrone as well, a majestic and sturdy smooth-barked tree that can be laden with red berries this time of year. Set against a backdrop of bleach-white limestone creek beds and towering forested walls, the fall colors of the Guadalupes pop all the more brilliantly.

This out-and-back route has several good options for a turnaround point: Pratt Cabin (5 miles round trip), The Grotto (7 miles round trip, recommended), and for hikers looking for a challenging climb that provides a dramatic view of McKittrick Canyon below, the Notch (10 miles round trip). It can take at minimum three hours to really do this canyon justice. Hikers can expect a moderate hike with a few spring-fed stream crossings, gentle elevation gains, and a gradual transition from an exposed trail following the dry creek bed into a cooler forested canyon with intermittent streams and abundant shade.

During the early stages of color transition, the farther you walk up the canyon, the better it tends to get. This is because the higher elevations are exposed to cooler temperatures earlier in the season which, along with shorter days, triggers their preparation for winter dormancy. A reduction in chlorophyll production exposes the ever-present pigments hiding behind the shades of green. In a good year, this transition will gradually make its way down the canyon over multiple weeks.

The “most beautiful spot in Texas” wouldn’t be accessible today were it not for the generosity and selflessness of the late geologist and landowner Wallace Pratt who began donating such a cherished 5000-acre property to the National Park in the 1960s. Today hikers from all over the world are able to enjoy this special place.

While on a work trip to Pecos, Pratt, who was at that time the only geologist employed by Humble Oil in Houston, was initially skeptical of claims that McKittrick Canyon held an unmatched beauty in the state. But upon his first visit to the hidden oasis, he was truly taken by the canyon which he would eventually come to own.

He later had a cabin constructed of only limestone and pine where his family would find cool respite from the hot and humid summers of Houston. Today visitors can enjoy the same beautiful views that Pratt and his family once did from the porch of the historic Pratt Cabin. It’s the perfect place for a snack, a picnic, or just a nice long sit.

A mile beyond Pratt Cabin, hikers will come to the Grotto where drippy rock formations have deposited calcium carbonate in the form of stalactites and stalagmites under the protection of a shallow rock shelter, creating a natural limestone shrine. Picnic tables here provide a beautiful shaded resting point. Just a bit further past the Grotto is Hunter Line Cabin, an often overlooked but beautiful stone structure set before a stunning backdrop of steep canyon walls. That brings us to the end of McKittrick Canyon Trail, where research and natural resource protection prohibits further travel in the canyon beyond that point.

But for those with the energy, the hiking doesn’t have to end there. A hike up to the Notch provides beautiful canyon views, and for a really big challenge, a journey all the way up to McKittrick Ridge will make even the strongest of hikers feel the burn. But upon looking down at the rugged canyon below, the climb will have been well worth it. The scale of McKittrick’s vertical canyon walls is staggering.

Eight miles through McKittrick Canyon was plenty for Dad and me that day. The day before, Dad had taken the Amtrak all the way from Houston and had arrived quite late the night before. His first time on a train wasn’t the most restful of rides. And as a golfer, he was used to doing a fair amount of walking, but that was on the flat coastal plains at sea level. Hiking for several hours at a mile high in an arid climate is a notably different experience. Thankfully we had snagged a campsite at the small Pine Spring Campground earlier that day and already had our tent set up. After a simple dinner, an early sunset, and a brief bit of stargazing, we called it a day. A really good day.

For the avid hiker who wants to keep exploring, two other nearby trails with fall colors should be mentioned. Smith Spring trail, a 2.5 mile loop hike, can pack a small but vibrant punch of color tucked away in a lush fold below Frijole Ridge. The small series of trickling waterfalls are as soothing as the sights. And Devil’s Hall Trail is a beautifully rugged canyon hike in the shadow of Texas’ highest peaks, best for the surefooted. After some sections of scrambling, it ends at Devil’s Hall, a brief but dramatic slot canyon formation near the end of the trail. This out and back hike is 3.6 miles roundtrip.

Perhaps you hear the mountains calling and you’re inspired to make a visit to McKittrick Canyon. A few notes should be mentioned. Firstly, know that as the global pandemic continues to unfold, the park’s operations are subject to change. Do your homework before driving out by checking the park’s website. Give the forecast a good look as well. The prominent Guadalupe range creates a dynamic weather environment that can get quite gusty and chilly in the colder months into springtime.

And know that fall foliage is a highly variable event year to year. A strong wind storm can drop the colorful leaves rather quickly, but thankfully McKittrick sits in a somewhat protected environment. Given the erratic weather this year, it’s been hard to tell if or when there will be peak colors. Thankfully the park maintains their Facebook and Instagram pages and at times makes important announcements there, even fall color updates. And in late October a park official confirmed that fall colors are now coming on strong in McKittrick Canyon after a recent cold front.

And as is true for any outing in this season, visitors should keep a face mask and hand sanitizer handy. While getting outside can be a great way to practice social distancing, there are of course pinch points and higher traffic at restrooms and along the trails, especially during this busy season. And note that the parking lot can fill up before 8:30 a.m. MST. Weekday visits are of course the best way to avoid both the parking challenges and crowded trails. While on the trails, the park encourages visitors to wear sturdy closed-toe hiking shoes, have sun protection, and bring plenty of water –– as much as one gallon per day –– and salty snacks for the trail.

Like El Paso to the west, the park’s clock is set to Mountain Standard Time — one hour earlier than the rest of Texas. The McKittrick Canyon gate is only open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. MST daily, after which it’s locked until the next morning. So don’t lose track of the time while you’re immersed in so much beauty. It’s easy to do. I’ve actually had to set a timer on my phone that reminds me when to start heading back to the parking lot.

If you have a valid America the Beautiful annual pass, you and the guests in your vehicle enter for free –– simply display the pass on the dash. Otherwise, it’s $10 per adult (16 and older) and those passes are valid for the next seven days. For those headed straight to McKittrick Canyon, note that there is only an “iron ranger” self-pay station located just through the breezeway where exact change in cash is needed, but you can also stop in at Pine Spring Visitor Center to pay with a card in person from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. MST. Expect a line there.

Whether you’re able to catch fall colors this year or not, McKittrick Canyon will continue to be one of the most beautiful spots in Texas almost any time of the year, worthy of a visit from everyone who lives within reach. And let’s be honest: there haven’t been too many pleasant surprises this year. So be sure to treat yourself to one right here in Far Best Texas. And until next time friends, keep walking on the wild side.

Tyler Priest is a park ranger and outdoor adventurer in Far West Texas. When he’s not at work, he can be found hiking, climbing, running, paddling or cycling his way across the Big Bend. He landed in Fort Davis in 2018 where he enjoys watching wildlife, catching sunsets, and hanging out with his cat Chico while plotting his next adventure.