At Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the park rangers routinely debate what is the most popular hike, Guadalupe Peak or McKittrick Canyon. McKittrick Canyon might not have the extensive views, but the scenery is equally breathtaking. The canyon has been described as the most beautiful spot in Texas, and that is not too much hyperbole. One of the few year-round streams in the area flows down the canyon, allowing it to support a wide range of flora and fauna from both the low desert and the high alpine mixed ponderosa pine and deciduous tree ecosystems. In the fall, it boasts a brilliant (for the Southwest) display of color. If you have an interest in geology, the exposed cliffs will fascinate. McKittrick Canyon, below the Grotto spur trail, is also far more accessible to a wide range of hikers than Guadalupe Peak given that the trail is relatively flat. It remains flat after Pratt Lodge, but it narrows to a singletrack trail. Past the Grotto Spur Trail, the character of the trail changes. It becomes the steepest trail in the park as it climbs to McKittrick Ridge. This section isn’t covered in this easy hike.
The three major attractions along this lower portion of the McKittrick Trail, besides the fantastic desert riparian scenery, are the Pratt Lodge, the Grotto, and Hunter Line Cabin. Wallace Pratt loved this canyon, and with deliberate foresight he bought much of the surrounding land and built a modest but stunning lodge to protect the area. He later donated it all to the state to be included as part of the new national park. The Grotto is a small open cavern in the local limestone complete with stalagmites and stalactites. Hunter Line Cabin was built in 1928 by Jesse Hunter to be used as a line cabin and hunting retreat. Both buildings are in excellent condition and stunning in their use of local materials in their construction.
This portion of the trail is an easy 8-mile in-and-out hike to Hunter Line Cabin and back. The trail tread is good, and there is only about 315 feet of elevation gain. The hike begins just beyond the McKittrick Canyon visitor center at the trailhead information sign (31.97721, -104.75205). Be sure to pay the day use fee of $5 per person that is good for seven days. Note, access to the trailhead is via a road that crosses private property. The park service closes it in the evening and reopens it in the morning. Check the park website to find the actual times, which vary during the year. There are several trails at the visitor center, so make sure to follow the McKitterick Canyon Trail. After about 2.3 miles you will come to the short spur trail to the Pratt Lodge ( 31.98316, -104.77977). Go right and explore the lodge.
Retrace your steps back to the main trail and turn right to continue to the Grotto. The wide trail narrows to singletrack. You will notice the rapid transition of the forest from desert to one filled with more deciduous trees and ponderosa pines. In fall, the colors are fantastic. After about another mile you will come to the spur trail to the Grotto (31.97108, -104.78784). Go left and you will come to the Grotto with its small overhanging cavern in the limestone and dripping water forming the stalagmites and stalactites. This a great spot for lunch using the rock picnic tables on the far side of the Grotto. A few hundred yards beyond the Grotto is the Hunter Line Cabin. Here the spur trail ends at the edge of the closed Research Natural Area. Turn around and retrace your route back to the trailhead.