Add Some Color to Your Life: Autumn at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds.
Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

If you were to tell someone that you were going to visit the Chihuahuan Desert for its spectacular fall foliage, you would likely be greeted with puzzled looks and maybe skepticism. Surrounded by a region characterized by its aridity and sparse vegetation, Guadalupe Mountains National Park’s diverse habitats and their seasonal changes are a huge draw for those who know that stereotypes and assumptions about unexplored places are often wrong. Spending some time on the trails away from roadways and modern distractions opens a world of color waiting to be discovered.

A hiker wearing a blue backpack walks on a trail that winds through trees with yellow, orange, and green leaves. Sunlight streams through the branches and shadows of tree trunks and branches stretch across the ground.
The meandering path in McKittrick Canyon has minimal elevation change and each curve beckons further exploration (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

The lowest elevations of the park receive less than ten inches of precipitation annually, but the middle and upper elevations receive 15-20+ inches and that makes all the difference on what grows at these altitudes. It is possible to hike in one day from an area with vegetation typical of Mexico to one that is more typical of the Rockies several hundred miles to the north. A land of cacti, creosote bushes, agaves, and yuccas gives way to broad-leaved trees like madrones, ash, oaks, and maples. Even a few aspen grow mixed with Douglas-fir and ponderosa pines in isolated areas of the high country.

Pine trees stretch to blue sky above with white clouds. A white and dark gray peak is between the branches and a large boulder among trees with yellow and orange leaves is below.
The scenery found in McKittrick Canyon varies from Chihuahuan Desert to riparian woodland. Fall weather is typically mild (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

That transition from desert to woodland is starkest in McKittrick Canyon, which shelters a shallow stream of crystal-clear water that flows year-round and even during the worst of droughts. To see the best color, plan on hiking seven miles roundtrip to the Grotto and back in late October to mid-November. If that distance is too much, a five-mile hike to Pratt Cabin and back will still allow you to see the stream and some color. Maples will turn yellow, orange or red. Mild sunny days, with cool but not freezing temperatures, bring in the reddest leaves. Little walnut will turn yellow, sumacs red. Chinkapin oaks usually turn brown, but may be gold-tinged in some years. All these varied hues and leaf shapes highlight the biodiversity of the area and are a source of continual surprise for travelers who have spent hours, or days in some cases, traversing arid terrain.

Red, green, and yellow trees seen from a distance cover slopes below rocky cliffs.
The views from the high country allow hikers to look down canyons filled with fall foliage (courtesy of NPS/D. Bieri).

Maples occur in other canyons as well. For those who are looking for a more adventurous and strenuous hike, the Devil’s Hall Trail & Route in Pine Springs Canyon offers the opportunity to scramble around boulders scattered in a wash that ranges from five to fifty yards wide. The twists and turns below the slopes of the canyon create new scenes throughout the 4.2-mile roundtrip hike. An erosional feature at the end of the hike, the Devil’s Hall, has walls that are sheer and about fifteen feet apart.

White and dark branches spread upward. Green leaves of low-growing plants are below. Red and orange leaves of different trees are in the back.
The peeling bark of madrone trees contrasts beautifully with colorful leaves of deciduous trees like maples, ash, and walnuts (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

Those who do not mind making a longer drive to Dog Canyon gain options to hike shorter distances to see fall colors. The Tejas Trail is fairly level for the first mile and winds along and across a drainage that has many maples. The trail continues into the higher elevations and becomes strenuous, with incredible views into Dog Canyon and McKittrick Canyon. To gain these views expect strenuous hiking and a roundtrip distance of at least nine miles. The colors in Dog Canyon and along the Devil’s Hall Trail tend to turn before McKittrick Canyon.

White rocks in shadow and sunlight stretch through trees with orange leaves on the left and red and green on the right. A small sun with spreading rays is in the upper left.
After one mile of trail, the Devil’s Hall route turns into a rocky wash with areas of large boulders and erosional features like the Hiker’s Staircase and a narrow section called the Devil’s Hall (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

If you arrive later in the season or are looking for a shorter hike, the Smith Spring Trail (2.5 miles roundtrip) tends to change after the colors have peaked in McKittrick Canyon. The number of maples around the spring is more modest than what can be found in other canyons, but the meandering cascade through the boulders and travertine creates a delightful scene and makes it a place worth visiting.

Autumn’s flourish of color is something to be savored before the harsh, cold winds of winter make hikes more challenging and the landscape seem dormant. The scale of the color change is not as grand as that occurring in the East, but the mix of fall foliage under the cliffs of a fossil reef, and the sight of colorful leaves tumbling beside cacti and agaves, are defining characteristics of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and some of the things that make people wish they had allowed more time to explore. If you do allow more time, you will not be disappointed and you will join the many who have discovered that the desert is not always what you expect. Plan your visit today!

By: Michael Haynie, Park Ranger, Guadalupe Mountains National Park