The historic Pratt Cabin in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
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How to Day Hike The McKittrick Canyon Trail in Guadalupe Mountains

For those that love hiking in rugged seclusion, Texas’s OTHER National Park should definitely be on your radar! Guadalupe Mountains National Park epitomizes the diversity of this region:  it has mountains, forests, deserts, sand dunes, and canyons, all intricately and seamlessly blended together!  For mountain hiking that traverses desert floors to forested peaks, look no further than the highest point in Texas at Guadalupe Peak For those looking to explore another unique ecosystem in the Guadalupe Mountains, namely its stunning canyons, look no further than the McKittrick Canyon Trail, and the surprises that are in store for those who take on a McKittrick Canyon day hike!


McKittrick Canyon

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Guide to Hiking the McKittrick Canyon Trail


To hike the entire McKittrick Canyon Trail, most would consider a multi day, overnight backpacking trip.  If you are looking to day hike the McKittrick Canyon Trail, then this is the ideal recommended itinerary!  You won’t be missing out – this shorter version of the McKittrick Canyon hike is brimming with things to see and experience, unlike anywhere else in the state of Texas!  Discover why McKittrick Canyon is one of the top 5 canyons in Texas!


This guide to the McKittrick Canyon Trail includes:

  • Location of the McKittrick Canyon Trailhead
  • What to Know Before You Go
  • What to Expect on a McKittrick Canyon Day Hike
  • Quick Facts on the McKittrick Canyon Trail
  • Trail Map and Route
  • Full Report on Trailhead to the Grotto
  • Gear Recommendations


Navigating the McKittrick Canyon hike



Location of the McKittrick Canyon Trail



The McKittrick Canyon Trail is located in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  Any Texas or southwestern U.S. road trip wouldn’t be complete without experiencing all the outdoor adventures in Guadalupe Mountains National Park!  This National Park can be found in far west Texas, about an hour from New Mexico’s southwestern town of Carlsbad, including its resident iconic Carlsbad Caverns.



In fact, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is part of the same mountain chain that houses the other worldly depths of Carlsbad Caverns!  Check out the 100 mile backpacking trek that connects the Caverns with Guadalupe Mountains National Park!


*Insider Tip:  if basing your trip to McKittrick Canyon out of Carlsbad, New Mexico, know that the time zone is the same in both Carlsbad and Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  Guadalupe Mountains National Park observes mountain time.


Location of the McKittrick Canyon Trailhead in Guadalupe Mountains National Park



What to Know Before You Go


For planning purposes, there’s a few things you should know about accessing Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and the McKittrick Canyon hike.


  • FEES:  it is $10 a person to enter Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  You can pay at the McKittrick Canyon Visitors Center, or bring cash and self pay at the trailhead.  Simply put your cash inside the green envelopes provided at all the trailheads in Guadalupe, and place your stub on the dashboard of your vehicle.


  • HOURS:  Guadalupe Mountains National Park is open daily.  The entrance gate to access McKittrick Canyon does close and lock at 6PM April through October, and at 4:30PM November through March, so day hikers should ensure they maintain proper timing and pacing in order to end their activities in McKittrick Canyon accordingly.


  • PARKING:  there is ample space to park at the McKittrick Canyon Visitor’s Center, which has direct access to the trailhead of the McKittrick Canyon Trail.  There is also an additional overflow parking lot.  During peak visiting times, which is typically the fall months, both these parking lots can fill up on weekends and holidays by 8 am.


  • FACILITIES:  there are bathrooms and a small outdoor educational viewing area at the McKittrick Canyon Visitors Center.  There is also a water spicket at the trailhead of the McKittrick Canyon hike.


  • CAMPING: there are 2 developed campgrounds in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the Pine Springs Campground, and the Dog Canyon Campground.  You can reserve these campsites online HERE. Camping here is spectacular, but it is best to have a backup plan for lodging, especially during the peak autumn months.  For those looking to make a longer venture in McKittrick Canyon, there is a backcountry campsite at McKittrick Ridge Campground, 7.4 miles into the hike.  There are 8 primitive sites located on this ridge, and a backcountry permit is required and can be obtained from the main Visitor’s Center in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  If McKittrick Ridge Campground is your goal, know that it is a very challenging and steep ascent of over 2,000 feet to reach this backcountry campground.


  • ACCOMMODATIONS outside the park: there are vacation rentals and hotels in Carlsbad, New Mexico, or Dell City, Texas, the 2 closest major towns.  Both are approximately 1 hour driving distance from the McKittrick Canyon Trailhead.  There is also Whites City, a small hotel and RV park, located at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and about a 30 minute drive to the McKittrick Canyon Trailhead.




Views along the McKittrick Canyon Trail
Views along the McKittrick Canyon Trail



What to Expect on a McKittrick Canyon Day Hike


It is possible to experience all of McKittrick Canyon in multiple, overnight days, but this itinerary is specifically designed for those looking to make the most out of a day hike on the McKittrick Canyon Trail.


Day hiking on the McKittrick Canyon Trail



Quick Facts on the McKittrick Canyon Trail


Overnight Backpacking Length (Entire Trail): 21.3 miles roundtrip


This lengthy and arduous hike extends from the length of McKittrick Canyon’s floor to the top of its ridge at the McKittrick Ridge primitive campground!  It is best suited for those wanting to make the trek a multi day, overnight, backpacking and camping trip.  Please note that a backpacking permit is required from the main Visitors Center in Guadalupe National Park to do this entire portion for overnight camping.  There are 8 primitive campsites at the McKittrick Ridge Campground.  It is also a challenging and steep ascent of over 2,000 feet in elevation gain to summit the ridge and reach the campground.


*Recommended Day Hike Length (Trailhead to Grotto/Hunter Line Cabin):  6.8 – 7 miles out and back roundtrip


This is the distance to the Grotto, a reasonable turn around spot for those looking for a doable day hike that can be achieved in under 8 hours.  This 3.4 miles one way covers multiple landmarks, including the Pratt Cabin, the Grotto, and the Hunter Line Cabin.  The Grotto and Hunter Line Cabin are adjacent to each other on the same spur trail, which will be described further in more detail.  However, this particular post will not cover hiking past the Grotto and Hunter Line Cabin.


Estimated Time to Hike to the Grotto/Hunter Line Cabin Roundtrip: 4 hours


Elevation Gain: 456 feet

McKittrick Canyon Trail to the Grotto Elevation Chart
McKittrick Canyon Trail to the Grotto/Hunter Line Cabin Elevation Chart


Rating:  Easy to Moderate


I would rank this shortened version of the McKittrick Canyon hike on the harder side of easy, and the easier side of moderate.  The elevation gain to the Grotto is minimal, at just around 450 feet elevation gain.  Most of the elevation on the McKittrick Canyon Trail comes immediately after the Grotto and adjacent Hunter Line Cabin spur trail.  In fact, hiking on towards the McKittrick Ridge primitive campground is the steepest portion of not only the entire trail, but the steepest incline in the entire park!  There is a touch of moderate hiking involved in reaching the Grotto, but that is mostly due to short portions of gravely terrain, some stream crossings, and brief moderate inclines.


Dog Friendly?:  Nope!  Dogs are not allowed on trails in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  Pets are only allowed in areas that are accessible by vehicle, such as established campgrounds and parking areas.  The one trail exception is the short Pinery Nature Trail located at the Visitor Center.  You can check out the park’s full pet policy HERE.


Views in the heart of McKittrick Canyon
Views in the heart of McKittrick Canyon



Guide to Day Hiking Trailhead to Grotto


Below is a map of the recommended day hiking route from the McKittrick Canyon Trailhead to the “Grotto” / Hunter Line Cabin:


Route of the McKittrick Canyon Trail from the trailhead to the “Grotto”



As previously mentioned, it is 6.8 miles roundtrip from the McKittrick Canyon Trailhead to the fascinating Grotto formation, making this an ideal length for a day hike.  It is worth noting that while not on the main trail, the short spur trail that leads to the Grotto also leads just past the Grotto formation to a historic cabin, the Hunter Line Cabin, that will push your total roundtrip just slightly closer to an even 7 miles roundtrip.  But it is completely worth it to see this remnant of frontier history still existing in the shadows of Guadalupe’s peaks!


To get started on your day hike in McKittrick Canyon, access the trailhead just behind the McKittrick Canyon Visitors Center.  There is a self pay box at the trailhead, as well as a registry that all hikers should fill out for safety purposes.  There are several other trails that branch off from the main McKittrick Canyon Trail, like the McKittrick Canyon Nature Trail, so be sure to follow signs to stay on the main path.


The initial start into McKittrick Canyon is deceptive.  The rumors of this supposed ripe, lush, canyon oasis do not appear to exist yet.  The first mile or so of the McKittrick Canyon Trail wind through the open and shrubby environment of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert, through empty washes dotted with minimal, characteristically desert, vegetation.


Empty washes along the McKittrick Canyon Trail
Empty washes at the start of the McKittrick Canyon Trail


Towering peaks amidst the desert at the onset of the hike
Shrub laden peaks emerging from the desert floor at the onset of the hike


After this initial departure, as the trail continues on and the resident peaks of Guadalupe begin to converge around the trail, it becomes more apparent that a rare and mesmerizing environment exists here.  Uniquely lush and vibrant trees, including juniper, pine, and ash, begin to emerge and line the trail, surprisingly verdant.  Towering ponderosas began to dot the landscape.  One of the most fascinating examples of flora and fauna appears, the striking Texas madrone, with its trademark reddish-orange bark.


The year round creek begins to gurgle, making appearances as it runs parallel to this portion of the hike, providing an opportunity for several stream crossings.  It is apparent here that McKittrick Canyon hosts a rich environment, bordered by increasingly striking mountain peaks on the horizon.


The landscape isn’t the only showstopper here in McKittrick Canyon.  Expect to see resident mule deer enjoying the peaceful serenity of the canyon.  Other imposing residents include elk and black bear, though they are less likely to be spotted.


Trees beginning to populate McKittrick Canyon


After traversing several stream crossings, the first landmark hikers will encounter off to the right of the trail is the Pratt Cabin, 2.3 miles into the McKittrick Canyon hike.  There is a short side trail to follow off the main path to visit the Pratt Cabin. 


This historic cabin is closing in on a 100 year old birthday soon!  Built by Wallace Pratt in the 1930’s, on the land he owned at the time, this entirely stone cabin was later donated to the National Park.  Somehow, though manmade, this cabin blends seamlessly into its environment, and is breathtaking in its humbleness.  Not only is it visually appealing, but it provides a glimpse of early Texas life in this wild and rugged region.


The historic Pratt CabinThe historic Pratt Cabin along the McKittrick Canyon Trail


Past the Pratt Cabin, the flora and fauna of McKittrick Canyon really begins to shine, and quickly becomes the star of this hike!  There is a reason that this portion of the trail is one of the most sought after fall destinations in Texas, during which season the heavy foliage here shifts into blazing and vibrant golds, reds, and oranges!  Regardless of the season you visit, it is hard to argue that any visitor wouldn’t be in awe at how much life is present here, hiding in this canyon surrounded by desert.


Vibrant colors of McKittrick Canyon's foliage during fall
Vibrant colors of McKittrick Canyon’s foliage during fall


Foliage in McKittrick Canyon


The next landmark along this portion of the McKittrick Canyon day hike is the aptly named Grotto.  To get here, look for signage directing off to the left of the main trail indicating “the Grotto”.  This short spur trail will take you to the Grotto formation, carved into a cliff wall along the right side of the spur trail. 


This seemingly dormant formation still shows signs of life upon closer inspection.  Less than an hour away from big sibling Carlsbad Caverns National Park, visitors to the Grotto can get a little taste of this mini cavern.  Look for the stalactites and stalagmites that are still glazed with dainty moss, or the indentations in the rocks, giving away hints at where life, and water, are still working their magic on the Grotto’s landscape.


The enclave of the GrottoThe enclave of “the Grotto”, a highlight of the McKittrick Canyon Trail


The Grotto marks 3.4 roundtrip miles along the McKittrick Canyon Trail, but I would highly recommend tacking on another minute to take the spur trail just past the Grotto to the third and final landmark on this day hike, the Hunter Line Cabin.  This cabin has similarities to the Pratt Cabin, though they were built separately. 


Built in 1928 by Jesse Hunter as a hunting retreat, this establishment is but a second amazing testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those who made Guadalupe Mountains their early homes.   The backdrop of this frontier cabin is just as impressive as the Pratt Cabin!


The Hunter Line CabinThe humble Hunter Line Cabin


This point in the McKittrick Canyon hike is considered an ideal turn around point for the average day hiker.  The elevation gain and steepness of the trail pick up considerably past the Grotto and Hunter Line Cabin, so those continuing on should be aptly prepared, or planning to camp overnight at the backcountry McKittrick Ridge Campground.



Recs for Day Hiking the McKittrick Canyon Trail


So what gear will you need to responsibly enjoy McKittrick Canyon?  For a day hike, you should prepare with the following:



  • water and water transportation system!  If you are hiking in the summer months, water becomes all the more critical!  No matter what season you plan to enjoy McKittrick Canyon, plan to bring plenty of water in a reliable water transportation system that you are familiar with!  I personally brought along my water in my favorite wide mouthed, easy to clean and dry, Platypus hydration bladder!






Day hiking in McKittrick Canyon was long on my bucket list of hikes, after having witnessed the surprising depth and diversity of other portions of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, including its state high point hike at Guadalupe Peak!  I knew I had to go back and explore Guadalupe’s canyons more, and I was equally impressed.  There is a reason why you will find McKittrick Canyon on the list of the 8 best hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park!


McKittrick Canyon holds many surprises, and it continues to be one of the most unique spots out of all the best Texas trails I have hiked!  And it doesn’t hurt that being one of the most underrated and least visited National Parks in the country, you are likely to have a lot of seclusion hiking here, unless, of course, you visit during the peak of autumn!  This hike is renowned for being a top fall colors hike in Texas!


The McKittrick Canyon hike



*Interested in Visiting BOTH National Parks in Texas on the Same Road Trip?  Find Out How You Can Explore the Best of Both Worlds at Once!


*Planning to tag on another nearby National Park?  See what else this Mountain Range is Home to at neighboring Carlsbad Caverns National Park!


*And since we’re on the topic of checking off National Parks, keep track of all the National Park gems you’ve been to, and still plan to visit, with this U.S. National Parks Checklist!








McKittrick Canyon

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