McKittrick Canyon, Texas  

TOPIC: McKittrick Canyon, Texas

== 1 of 1 ==
Date: Sat, Mar 29 2008 7:36 pm
From: "Edward Frank"


I want to take a trip on the Wayback Machine and revisit a place I have not bee to for years - McKittrick Canyon, in Guadalupe National Park, Texas. The park is located just south of the New Mexico border in western Texas between El Paso and Carlsbad.

McKittrick Canyon is cut into the Guadeloupe Mountains and contains a relict population of ice age flora growing along an intermittent stream. The trees include among others Big Tooth maple, Texas Madrone, Little Leaf Walnut, Honey Mesquite,, and Mexican Buckeye. At higher elevations are Juniper, Pinyon Pine, Douglas Fir, and Ponderosa Pine.

Texas Madrone (NPS Photo) - Cookie Ballou. The Texas madrone - a rainforest relict tree - grows to about 30 feet. It has a gnarled trunk with reddish bark that peels with age.

Bigtooth Maple in Fall (NPS Photo) - Cookie Ballou. Though much of the park is beautiful desert terrain, most park visitors prefer to hike trails that take them into the trees.

This is is sharp contrast to the Chihuahuan desert flora more common in the area. These include Prickly Pear cactus, Agave, Creosote Bush, Ocotillo, Choya, and a wide variety of other desert scrub and cacti.

NPS Photo - Cookie Ballou

The NPS website describes the canyon: "While the towering walls of McKittrick Canyon protect the riches of diversity, its precious secrets are hidden in riparian oasis. It is no wonder that it has been described as the "most beautiful spot in Texas." But for all its magical power that delights thousands of people each year, its fragility reminds us that our enjoyment cannot compromise its necessity for survival. It must survive - not for us, but for all that lives within. Thousands of visitors come to Guadalupe Mountains National Park to visit McKittrick Canyon each year, especially during the latter part of October or early November for the sensational fall colors. In this tiny part of west Texas, the foliage (brilliant reds, subtle yellows, and deep browns) contrasts dramatically with the flavor of the arid Chihuahuan desert that includes century plants, prickly pear cacti, blacktail rattlers, steep canyon walls and crystal clear blue skies. Whether you come for the fall show, or plan your trip for another season, the beauty of McKittrick Canyon is always breathtaking."

Having grown up in the Eastern United States, and seeing the fall colors here, I am afraid I must agree , the fall colors of McKittrick Canyon are among the most spectacular I have seen anywhere. There is the bright colors of the maples standing in sharp contrast to the stark surroundings. There are the strange juxtapositions of epiphytic prickly pear cactus and mistletoe growing among the tree branches. The Texas Madrone, a strange tree to 30 feet high, with reddish bark that peels off to reveal a white under-bark adds a further taste of exotic to the scene. I have many photos of the area, but unfortunately these are in slide format, and I have yet to scan them. I do have a couple shots I scanned from older (faded) prints below. I visited Guadalupe National Park and McKittrick Canyon many times during the period I worked at Carlsbad, NM.

Origin of the Park

The NPS website gives a brief history of Guadalupe National Park: "In 1921, a young geologist named Wallace E. Pratt came to McKittrick Canyon. He was captivated by its beauty and geology and began buying land in the canyon. In 1931-32, he had a cabin built at the confluence of north and south McKittrick. The magnificent structure, built only of stone and wood, was furnished with rough plank reclining chairs, four beds, an assortment of hammocks, and a special table to seat twelve. The cabin served as his part-time home and summer retreat."

NPS Photo - In 1957, Wallace Pratt donated 5,632 acres of his beloved McKittrick Canyon to the U.S. Government which formed the core of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

In 1957, Wallace Pratt donated 5,632 acres of his beloved property to the U.S. Government for the creation of a national park. His gift along with a 70,000 acre purchase from J.C. Hunter Jr.'s Guadalupe Mountain Ranch ensured that Guadalupe Mountains National Park was authorized by congress in 1966, and officially opened to the public in 1972. Wallace Pratt died on Christmas Day, 1981; he was 96 years old. As per his request, his ashes were spread over the canyon he loved. The Stone Cabin remains as a monument to this pioneer conservationist."


In Guadalupe National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National park immediately to the north, and the Guadalupe Mountains in beyond Carlsbad Caverns in an exposure of one of the most extensive fossil reef complexes in the world. The core of the reef is made of the Capitan Reef Formation, a limestone deposit dating from the Permian Period around 250 million years ago. This reef formed around a vast tropical sea covering much of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

In terms of scale think of it as being similar nature to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's eastern coast today. When people think of reefs, they see hoards of fish swimming among corals. That is true, but the vast bulk of the calcite deposited in reefs are deposited by the much less spectacular calcareous sponges, algae, and other lime secreting organisms. The Permian reef ran parallel to the coast for 400 miles. The Texas version of El Capitan, Guadalupe Peak, the tallest mountain in Texas, and Carlsbad Cavern in New Mexico are all exposures or developed within the core reek itself. The "complex" represents the reef itself and deposits behind the reef and in the central basin itself. This area in the center is called the Permian Basin and is the foremost oil producing section of western Texas.

Cross section showing shelf-to-basin correlations of the Capitan Formation and equivalents. Blue areas are dominantly carbonates and evaporites, and yellow areas are mostly sandstone. Modified from Garber and others (1989).

The above diagram is a simplified cross-section of the major geologic formations in the reef complex. The actual interfaces between the various units are more complex, but this is a fair generalization of the geology of the area. More detailed descriptions of the reef complex can be found at the link above and at this site: - An Introduction and Virtual Geologic Field Trip to the Permian Reef Complex, Guadalupe and Delaware Mountains, New Mexico-West Texas by Peter Scholle.

The NPS Website reads: "During the late Permian Period, a reef developed near the border of the Delaware Sea. This was the Capitan Reef, recognized as one of the premier fossil reefs of the world and best exposed in the Guadalupe Mountains. Growth of this massive reef ended near the close of the Permian Period. For several million years, the reef had expanded and thrived along the rim of the Delaware Basin, until events altered the environment critical to its growth. The outlet to the ocean was restricted and the Delaware Sea began to evaporate faster that it could be replenished. Minerals began to precipitate out of the vanishing waters and drift to the seafloor forming thin bands of sediments. Gradually, over thousands of years these thin bands entirely filled the basin and covered the reef."  This massive evaporation led to the deposition of the Castille Formation. This deposit is an amazing 1500 to 2000 foot thick mixture of interbedded gypsum and salt deposited in a period of about 100,000 years. I found a photo of a sample from the unit at:

Each of the layers in the rock represents the deposition of one year of sediment. The darker layers are those that incorporate some terrestrial sediment washed in during the wet season into the semi-enclosed basin. For the most part the unit was deposited as gypsum with some salt layers as well. There is no real parallel to this process gong on today, but the closest would be some of the fingers off the Red Sea. As sea water evaporates the components dissolve in the water precipitate out in a certain order. First precipitated is calcite CaCO3, This precipitated near the inlet of the basin and served to further restrict water low inward. The next component that drops out is gypsum CaSO4 2H2O. With further evaporation the next to precipitate is salt NaCl. Finally with complete or near complete evaporation the most soluble components, KSO4, MgSO4, KCl, and MgCl, collectively known as potash precipitate. There are deposits of these minerals in eastern New Mexico that have been deep mined. One of these sites was used to house the WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project to house low level nuclear waste - items such as gloves used by people handling radioactive materials and the like. In the short period of time of Castille deposition the basin deepened as more material was deposited. This sagging under the weight of the mineral deposits allowed the accumulation of such a thick deposit in what was a very shallow sea basin. The Castille Formation is interesting. Hundreds of cores have been drilled through the rock in search for oil. Near the base the layers are often contorted and twisted looking much like a marble cake. This is a result low grade, low temperature, and low pressure metamorphism of the gypsum CaSO4 2H2O to anhydrite CaSO4 . In this process the mineral recrystalizes into a different crystal form expelling the water from the mineral structure. The downside is that the volume of the anhydrite plus the expelled water is larger than the gypsum was originally. Therefore the pressure created by increased volume causes the layers to swirl to relieve the pressure. Uplifts and tilting of this region It is a really great place geologically.


The NPS website reads: "According to archeological evidence unearthed in and near the canyon, the earliest inhabitants occupied the area over 12,000 years ago. Only stone-chipped tools, bone fragments and bits of charcoal remain to reconstruct the ways of their lives. More recent discoveries, such as mescal pits and pictographs, help weave a more complete story of prehistoric life in the Guadalupes. Much later in history, around the early 1500s, the Mescalero Apaches inhabited the canyon. The Guadalupes provided ample supplies of game, water, and shelter locations, and remained their unchallenged sanctuary until the arrival of settlers, cattle drovers, and stage lines. As the land was taken from the Indians, conflicts arose. Skirmishes turned to bloody battles. Settlers demanded protection. The Mescalero were forced from the area as cavalry troops penetrated the Guadalupes, raiding and destroying Apache rancherias, rations and supplies. By the late 1800s, nearly all of the surviving Mescalero Apaches in the U.S. were on reservations. Eventually the rugged land was tamed for ranching and farming. Grazing and hunting activities took their toll as fences went up. Wildlife disappeared - Merriam's elk, desert bighorn sheep, and blacktail prairie dogs were all extirpated from the Guadalupes as a result of extensive hunting and trapping. Though settlement occurred slowly in the Guadalupes, people were here to stay. McKittrick Canyon was named for one of those settlers - Captain Felix McKittrick, a rancher who moved to the mouth of that canyon in 1869."

McKittrick Canyon Trailhead

There are a number of places you can visit at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I will concentrate on the McKittrick Canyon area.

The signature peak of the Guadalupe Mountains, 8,085-foot El Capitan. (NPS photo by Cookie Ballou)

At the McKittrick Canyon trailhead there are three trails to choose from. The first is the McKittrick Canyon Nature Trail. This is a no-brainer to visit. It is a short trail that everyone should explore before moving onto longer trails. The NPS website reads: "McKittrick Canyon Nature Trail - An intermittent seep lies hidden within junipers, shrubs, and grasses that cling to this tiny ecosystem. Trailside exhibits describe common plants, reference wildland fire, and explain Permian Reef geology. The trail is .9 miles round trip, is rated moderate, but takes less than one hour to complete."

The next choice is between the McKittrick Canyon Trail and the Permian Geology Trail. The Permian Geology Trail leads eastward and upward toward Wilderness Ridge. The trail includes a series of interpretive displays and sign explaining the geology of the park as well as spectacular views from atop the ridge. The trail is 8.4 miles round-trip, and is rated strenuous with 2,000 feet of elevation gain.. The McKittrick Canyon Trail follows along the course of an intermittent stream along the bottom of McKittrick Canyon before rising to McKittrick Ridge and points farther west.

The mouth of the canyon starts out in the Chihuahuan Desert. The NPS website reads: "The mouth of McKittrick Canyon is predominately scrub desert where yuccas like the "Spanish bayonet" (Yucca faxoniana), sotol (Dasylirion leiophyllum), and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) thrive. To the untrained eye, it seems impossible for anything to grow in such harsh conditions, yet the plants have evolved to meet the challenge."

Torrey Yucca

Ocotillo- the plant only has leaves when there is wet weather. Individually they resemble barberry leaves. During dry periods the ocotillo oses its leaves and flowers and resembles a bouquet of dried sticks standing upright in the desert.

Several species of prickly pear cacti (Opuntia sp.) live in the canyon as well. Their beautiful yellow-orange blossoms can be observed across the landscape in late spring, and if your timing is right, you may also enjoy the brilliant red-orange blossoms of the claret cup cacti (Echinocereus triglochidiatus).

Cactus bloom - photo by Edward Frank

Cacti and other desert succulents avoid drying out by storing water in their succulent tissues. To protect from water evaporation, the stems have a thick waxy coating. Their leaves, reduced to needles, provide protection from predators while reflecting the radiant heat of the sun."

From this entrance area the trail takes you under the trees of the main canyon itself. The NPS website: and provides a description of some of the more prominent trees and shrubs that you will encounter on the trip. It is also worthwhile to pick up a guidebook for the area before arriving that identifies a broader range of plant species and you can also carry it with you as you explore.

Pratt Cabin NPS Photo - Cookie Ballou. During summers when Houston, Texas is hot and humid, the Pratts and their three children spent time in the Guadalupes, sharing the cabin with friends.

Enjoy the shortest distance into the heart of the canyon by hiking to Pratt Cabin and return (a distance of 4.8 miles). Along this walk you will cross the stream twice before arriving at the historic structure. Enjoy a snack or lunch at the picnic tables near or at Pratt Cabin, or sit for a spell on the porch. Volunteers staff Pratt Cabin much of the year; take a look inside the stone structure.

Two McKittrick Canyon Views - photos by Edward Frank

The Grotto

As you continue your hike beyond Pratt Cabin to the Grotto, the forest becomes denser as the trail runs parallel to the stream. Rainbow trout are visible in the clear water. At the junction ahead (approximately 1 mile), take the left fork to go to the Grotto. There, the dripping water percolates through the limestone, methodically redistributing calcium carbonate into stalagmites and stalagmites in the tiny "cave." Rock benches and tables await you in the deep shade, a tempting location for a picnic. Follow the stone path from the Grotto to Hunter Cabin, a structure which was once part of a hunting retreat. Look up the canyon slope and see the steep switchbacks where the trail continues to McKittrick Ridge. Round-trip distance from the contact station to the Grotto is 6.8 miles.

McKittrick Ridge

If you have the endurance and the time, take the right fork at the Grotto trail junction and continue toward McKittrick Ridge. This arduous hike takes you up the steepest trail in the park. In a mile or so the trail passes through "The Notch", where there is a spectacular view of the canyon both directions. As you continue, don't be fooled by the false summits that make you think you've nearly reached the top! The hike from the contact station to the ridge and back is 14.8 miles. (7.4 miles one way to McKittrick Ridge Campground).

Creosote Bush - (NPS photo) Larrea tridentata is one of the most long-lived and abundant desert plants of North and South America. It is often found in pure stands. The small, leathery, evergreen leaves occur in pairs united at the base. When it rains, five-petaled flowers appear and the air is permeated with the fragrance of creosote bush. The fuzzy white seed balls are relished by rodents. When crushed, the resinous leaves smell like the petroleum.

You are likely to encounter a number of wildlife species on your travels. There are plenty of small lizards - skink, horned lizards, collard lizard. There are a variety of snakes including western diamondback.

There are a variety of birds and mammals also. Mammal, bird, and reptile checklists are available from the Natural History Association bookstore located at the Headquarters Visitor Center. There are over 50 species of mammals alone, and more than 300 bird species that live in, or migrate through the park. 40 of those have been known to nest in McKittrick Canyon.

I had an unusual encounter with collard lizard while photographing at Carlsbad Caverns. I was exploring a short trail just off the cave entrance. There was a collard lizard posing in the sun, so I squatted down to take a photo. I had a short 200mm telephoto lens on my camera and was snapping away, when the lizard started to approach. Soon it was within the minimum focal length of my lens. So I just sat there and watched. Eventually it approached within 3 feet. The next thing knew the lizard had launched itself at me and landed on my leg. I jumped and fell over defeated by an 18" long lizard. Oh well,.at least I lived to fight another day.

Edward Frank

TOPIC: McKittrick Canyon, Texas

== 1 of 2 ==
Date: Wed, Apr 30 2008 10:06 am


I spent a week in that part of Texas in 1986 when Halleys Comet paid its
last visit. I went to Big Bend NP because I figured it would be one of the
darkest places in the country to see it (because you had to go that far south to
even see it). I hiked to the top of the Chisos Mountains and sat at the edge
of the 1000 foot cliff and waited, and wasn't until I noticed
that what looked like a 15 watt light bulb in a refrigerator rising straight up
into the sky from the due south that it was going to be a bust. I ended up
spending several days in Guadalupe NP and I climbed both Guadalupe Peak and
hiked McKittrick Canyon...the thing that resonated with me the most was all the
species of trees that are found there as glacial remnants and in many cases
more than a thousand miles out of their modern range. You wrote an
exceptional report on a unique part of the country. The white pine trees in the
Guadalupe Mountains were nuked by major forest fires a few years ago.


== 2 of 2 ==
Date: Wed, Apr 30 2008 10:21 am
From: "Edward Frank"


I enjoyed hikes tat McKittrick Canyon numerous times, but haven't made it to Big Bend yet. I posted to try to expand the "range" of areas being discussed in the list. I thought the glacial remnant populations were an unusual subject to be broached on the list, but this is actually the first response to the McKittrick Canyon post. If you hear anymore about the Webster Sycamore live/dead status let us all know.