Hiking the Permian Reef Trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Hike Name: Permian Reef Trail
Area: McKittrick Canyon
Difficulty Level: Strenuous
Distance: 9.9 miles round trip
Time Needed: 5-7 hours
Elevation Start: 5013 feet
Elevation Gain: 2380 feet
Best Time to Hike: Late fall through early spring

Overview

The Permian Reef Trail is one of the least-traveled hiking trails in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. That’s not because it’s a bad trail. It’s just a little out of the way from the heart of the park.

Geology lovers will find this to be one of the coolest hikes in the Guadalupe Range. That’s because this hike reveals a lot of fossils and other geologic features from the Permian Age more than 200 million years ago, when Texas was submerged under a tropical ocean.

It offers hikers a chance to leave the crowds behind and ascend to the top of Wilderness Ridge with spectacular views into McKittrick Canyon. You can even walk right to the New Mexico border!

permian reef trail
Hiking up McKittrick Canyon on the Permian Reef Trail (NPS).

Hiking the Permian Reef Trail

Starting Point

Access the Permian Reef Trail in the McKittrick Canyon section in the northeast corner of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The trailhead is just across from the McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center.

Trail Length and Difficulty

The Permian Reef Trail is a strenuous hike that takes 4.8 miles each way, if you go all the way to the New Mexico border. There’s also a 0.3-mile loop near the start that brings the total trip to 9.9 miles. The full hike has a challenging 2380 feet of elevation gain.

Many hikers stop and turn around at the Wilderness Ridge Campground. That would shorten the hike to 8 miles round-trip and 2000 feet of elevation gain.

The trail rises sharply for the first 3 miles, then essentially levels out as you hike along the ridge for another 1.5 miles or so.

Give yourself 5-7 hours to complete the full hike. There isn’t much shade, so sun protection and lots of water are essential.

Best Time to Hike

The best time to hike the Permian Reef Trail is during the fall and spring months when the temperatures are mild. Fall offers the bonus of the leaves changing colors, especially in October and November.

Summer temperatures can be far too hot. Winter conditions can be unpredictable – sometimes the weather is pleasant, while other times it can snow.

Trail Description and Highlights

The trail begins in McKittrick Canyon and goes straight up, ascending 2000 feet in three miles to the top of Wilderness Ridge.

From there, you’ll be looking down into McKittrick Canyon. It’s a gorgeous view for most of the route.

Along the way, expect to pass through a variety of habitats, including riparian areas, oak woodlands, and juniper forests.

The trail also features a number of geologic highlights. Many of them have numbered signs so you can follow along. It’s remarkable to hike here and realize that this whole area was once part of an ancient ocean.

If you want to know what you’re looking at, purchase a guidebook at the visitor center that features descriptions of the fossils by the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology.

Most of the fossils are subtle and will require looking carefully at the rocks to notice them. These include the fossils of sponges and single-celled ocean organisms.

See this NPS brochure (pdf) for examples of some of the fossilized remains you may see. Additionally, the NPS has a very detailed page that goes into the geologic history of the park.

The Permian Reef Trail is home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, gray foxes, and black bears. Any number of bird species can be visible here, depending on the time of year.

Important Things To Know

The McKittrick Canyon section of the park closes at night. They lock the gate at 5 pm (4:30 in winter), so come here early in order to give yourself plenty of time to make it back out!

The parking lot here is fairly small, so during peak season (spring and fall), it’s wise to arrive early to start the hike. This is the same trailhead used by the McKittrick Canyon Trail.

The Permian Reef Trail has a lot of loose rocks, so watch your footing. It may be slightly overgrown in some areas as well. Trekking poles are a good idea, as are long pants, to provide protection from thorns and shrubs.

See our list of important things to take on a desert hike.

Make sure to pick up the fossil guidebook in the visitor center if you want to follow along with the marked geologic features on the trail.

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