Hike Name: McKittrick Canyon Trail to the Grotto & Hunter Line Shack
Area: McKittrick Canyon
Difficulty Level: Moderate
Distance: 7 miles round trip
Time Needed: 2-4 hours
Elevation Start: 5013 feet
Elevation Gain: 455 feet
Best Time to Hike: Spring and fall
The McKittrick Canyon Hiking Trail at Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a picturesque out-and-back trail known for its canyon views and vibrant fall foliage.
The trail winds through a narrow canyon lined with towering cliffs. Unlike many GMNP hikes, this one has some shade, thanks to the canyon walls that offer respite from the desert sun.
This hike includes three noteworthy attractions along the way: Pratt Cabin, the Grotto, and Hunter Line Shack.
Hiking the McKittrick Canyon Trail
The McKittrick Canyon Trail is in the northeast corner of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, just a couple miles from the New Mexico border.
The trail starts at the McKittrick Visitor Center. This part of the park has a locking gate that rangers typically don’t unlock until 8 am, so you won’t be able to start before that.
Trail Length and Difficulty
Like many trails in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the McKittrick Canyon Trail in its entirety is very long, but hikers usually don’t go all the way.
The full length of the trail is 10.9 miles one way, running from the McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center all the way to Tejas Trail.
This article covers the portion of McKittrick Canyon going as far as the Grotto and Hunter Lane Shack. That portion is 3.5 miles each way, making this a 7-mile hike round-trip.
There’s only about 500 feet of elevation gain on this hike, unless you continue past the Grotto. The trail moves sharply upward at that point, rising about 2000 more feet in just 2.5 miles.
Going from the Grotto to the Notch adds an extra 500 feet of elevation gain, and going to McKittrick Ridge adds an extra 1700 feet of elevation gain beyond that (for a total of 2700 feet of gain).
The NPS site has a good page showing a 3D map of the trail as it winds up into the mountains past each waypoint.
Best Time to Hike
Spring and fall provide the best weather – not too hot, and not too cold. Autumn is ideal because of the captivating display of fall foliage.
This is one of the more forested sections of the Guadalupe Mountains, and in October and November, the canyon is transformed into a kaleidoscope of colors as the maple and oak trees showcase vibrant hues of red, orange, and gold.
Autumn weekends are among the busiest time of year, since everyone wants to see the colors. Visit on a weekday if possible during late October and early November.
Trail Description and Highlights
This entire trail follows through a canyon with high walls on both sides. Expect to spend a lot of time looking up as you hike.
Portions of the walk will be in heavy tree cover, but there are some sections that are slightly more open and offer good views of your surroundings.
The McKittrick Canyon Trail is not one of the most heavily-traveled hikes in the park, so you may get some solitude on this trail. Once inside the canyon, you’re far away from cars and tourists, so the atmosphere will be more serene than elsewhere in the park.
Along the way, keep your eyes open for wildlife. Mule deer, squirrels, and rabbits roam and scurry about. Black bears and mountain lions live here too, though they tend to be more elusive.
At the 2.4 mile mark, you’ll reach the historic Pratt Cabin, built in the early 1900s. The cabin was named after geologist Wallace Pratt, who lived at a cattle ranch here and built this stone cabin in 1932.
This cabin was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. It’s usually closed, but you can still peer inside. Take advantage of the picnic tables to rest and imagine what life was like in the canyon many years ago.
Next up is the Grotto, which features the exposed face of an old cave wall, as well as stone picnic tables that makes for a remarkably scenic lunch setting.
Just past the Grotto is the Hunter Line Shack, another old ranch building from the ’30s made of stone walls. Judge JC Hunter hosted guests here for decades.
Whether you choose to hike all the way to McKittrick Ridge or turn back at the Grotto, the McKittrick Canyon Trail is worth the time, even if most park visitors often overlook it. The trail is well-maintained and relatively moderate in difficulty.
Important Things to Know
The McKittrick Canyon section of the park closes at night, and they’re serious about it. They actually lock the gate to the road at night!
The designated hours for this part of the park are 8 am to 5 pm Mountain Time (and sometimes 4:30 pm in winter). Plan your hikes to finish early, so there’s no chance of getting locked inside the park overnight.
As with all hikes in the park, try to go early to avoid the hottest hours of the day. Bring lots of water and some snacks.