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Hiking offtrail in the Franklin Mountains State Park

East side of the Franklin Mountains.

This route is a desert ramble in a strikingly urban environment. It was shaped by a late start, by poor interpretation of satellite imagery and by a thwarted attempt to ascend a small slot canyon on the flanks of the Franklin Mountains. In all, a great little excursion. It is included here because a civilized stroll in Chihuahuan terrain may interest newcomers, because thwarted attempts are by no means unusual and because there aren’t many ways to better spend a cool November day than by rambling footloose in the desert.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter I-25 South.
  • After 2.9 miles the interstate merges with I-10 East.
  • After 16.9 more miles, take Exit 162 for NM-404 (signed for Anthony/Chapparal).
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto NM-404.
  • After 8.1 miles, just a few feet short of a traffic circle, go right on a connector that merges into NM-213 (War Road) going south.
  • After 2.6 miles, at the Texas border, the road becomes Farm To Market 3255/Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Continue straight.
  • After 4.9 more miles, at a traffic light, turn right onto Jon Cunningham Road.
  • After 0.4 miles come to a T-intersection with Officer Andrew Barcena Drive. Straight ahead is the entrance for the parking lot for a city park.  Park in the parking lot.

Looking at Google Maps you will see a number of roads extending from Martin Luther King Jr Blvd west toward the Franklin Mountains, north of Jon Cunningham Road. These are private roads, however, and not open to the public. I stopped at one of these ranch roads and talked with Richard, a cattleman, who was very cordial. His first concern was for the oil pan of my low-slung Camry on such roads. He pointed out that his road was in such bad shape that he was having it graded, then invited me to come back after the grading was done. (The grader drove past while we were talking). Since this guide is not private I had to decline his very kind offer.


trailhead for Franklin Mountains Desert Ramble

The mighty Camry (actually, the incapacitated Camry) poised in its native heath.

The trailhead is a parking lot for the Chuck Heinrick Park in the North Hills neighborhood of El Paso. I did not see any trailhead services other than the parking spaces. The location is very popular with both mountain bikers and folks out walking the dog. On nice weekend days you may find it necessary to park along the flanking streets.

Although the city park is free, entrance to the Franklin Mountains State Park is not. After walking about a quarter mile from the parking lot you will enter the state park. There you will have to fill in a form on an envelope (it is a good idea to bring along a pencil) and pay. On this date the fee was $5.00, but check the state website for up-to-date information.


  • Starting Elevation: 4140 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 5220 feet
  • Elevation Gain: 1080 feet
  • Distance: 8.7 miles
  • Maps: USGS North Franklin quadrangle

Hike Description:

03 south along the dam

Head uphill  from the parking lot towards the sloping concrete reinforcement-walls of a flood control dam. Just before reaching the dam, turn left and follow a path up onto the top of this embankment. Your destination is to the northwest, but first you must dodge around the flood control basin uphill of the dam. Head south on the embankment top (the first righthand path dead-ends in the basin), and follow the dam as it curves uphill . At 0.3 miles from the trailhead, reach the border of the Franklin Mountains State Park. Fill out the deposit envelope and leave your entrance fee. The road returns north until you are back parallel with the trailhead and then bends to the west. This part of the trip is a road ramble and very popular. Runners, dog walkers and bicyclists are thick on the ground.

hiking, scrambling near Anthony's Nose Franklin Mountain

View to Anthony’s Nose and the north Franklin Mountains

Take a moment to get oriented as you ascend the lowest skirts of this mountain range. To the north lies the highest point of the Franklin Mountains in New Mexico, a prominence named Anthony’s Nose. This peak, shaped like the schnoz of a reclining man, soars over the end-point of this route. To get there you will be roving over the ribs and weaving up the arroyos that sculpt the bajada.

View of the southern Franklin Mountains.

View of the southern Franklin Mountains. Navigation Hill is the green prominence in the mid-ground.

To the south you will see Mundy’s Gap and North Franklin Mountain. In the mid-ground is a small foothill, labeled on the topo-maps as point 4857. Here it is referred to as as Navigation Hill. Study this foothill as you hike since it is a very useful marker of near-the-trailhead terrain. As you ascend the slopes the road starts to bend south towards Mundy’s Gap and away from the northern reaches. So, when the road points itself at the north flank of Navigation Hill, depart from the road to the right (north) to cross a wide arroyo and rise to a rib top on the far side. On this date I scared up four jack rabbits and a lizard. This would be the only reptile noticed on the hike; a rare instance where sightings of warm-blooded organisms out-numbered the cold blooded.

flora on the Franklin Mountains hike.

Well camouflaged cacti, appearing to be burrowing into the terrain.

Much of the magic on this hike, both black and white, lies in the needle-y, spiny, thorny, bristly, pokey, and saw-like natural flora. Here you will find all the Chihuahaun favorites: long leafed sotol, feathery mesquite and tall yucca. One genus that deserves particular mention is the stout-leafed and needle-pointed agave, sometimes called shin daggers. These grew to near lawn-like density on the tops of the lowest ribs – the sort of lawn that would force croquet to be played with medicine balls and war hammers. Another striking plant is a species of cactus (shown above) that is four or more inches in diameter but only rises an inch or two above the soil line. An online search showed some similarity to Enchinocactus horizonthalonius, also known as “Eagle Claw Cactus”. Boots make it possible to move amidst these plants. The sneaker footed will want to stay on bike trails.

Possible fossilized burrows

Possible fossilized burrows

Steer toward Anthony’s Nose. Even in November the desert is still scattered with flowering plants in yellow, white and purple display. The bushier of these tend to cluster in the arroyos where some of the geology of the Franklin Mountains is also on display. The fossil shown above is composed of a dense array of bumps arranged hexagonally. This seems to be the mineralized record of burrows formed by an ocean dweller named Paleodictyon nodosum, which apparently survives to this day in the deep oceans. Here in the state park, cacti and sea bottom co-exist.

A deep gully points straight at Anthony's Nose on ascent.

A deep gully points straight at Anthony’s Nose on ascent.

At 2.1 miles from the trailhead intersect an obvious bike trail that makes long, S-shaped switchbacks as it ascends a rib between two large arroyos. Follow it uphill until it intersects an old road and turn right on the road to head north along the foot of the Franklin mountains. At 2.6 miles the road descends into a major drainage. Looking uphill you will see that this drainage collects the water from the ridgeline south of Anthony’s Nose. Head uphill in this arroyo on a pleasant, sandy bottom. Soon, however, the terrain steepens and the once broadly-sloped banks rise high and vertical as the waterway becomes a trench-like gully. Be wary. Where water has undercut the banks a loose matrix of soil is holding bowling-ball sized rocks over thin air.

View towards the ridgeline, with the walls of a slot canyon gleaming in the sunlight.

View towards the ridge line with the walls of a slot canyon gleaming in the sunlight.

Several canyons descend from the ridge line to feed into the gully. At the confluence of these canyons, find a high road cut into the mountainside that crosses the waterway. Find an exit from the gully bed and stroll on the high road to the south bank of the gully. Looking up-canyon, scan for what may be a rising system of grass covered ledges or, possibly, a road abandoned long-long ago. This apparent road stays along the south side of the canyon as the canyon rises and furrows into smaller streams. Above the furthest visible point on the road there seems to be a slot canyon. Experienced scramblers may want to ascend the slot canyon. Others will have a better time taking in the views, having a bite to eat and returning as described in the paragraph after next.

scrambling a slot in the Franklin Mountains

Blocked slot canyon with brush covered chock stone (double click for greater detail)

Leave the high road by climbing over an embankment and find the grass-covered ledge/road. Follow it along the canyon wall and note how the vegetation has changed. On the bajada there was some space between plants. Here they are firmly entangled, if no less thorny. Each little open grassy space is a major improvement in your circumstances. In just 0.2 miles this ledge/road system runs into a side canyon and ends. Descend into the main waterway on sloped, but solid, terrain. Push past the dense brush in the bottom of the stream and ascend steep and loose gravel to the north bank. Let the upper walls of the slot canyon be your guide as you ascend. You are almost in the slot canyon when you come to a watercourse carved into the north wall that is packed with a virtual river of prickly pear. Ascend on the sloped north wall until you reach a point where you can ford this virtual river. The next watercourse also looks pear-packed, but it is navigable. Descend to the canyon bed and you will be in the floor of the slot. A mere 50 feet up the slot there is a large vertical chalkstone with dense bushes growing on top. Skillful climbers might find a way around this blockage (there is an apparent weakness on the south side). On this date, however, this formed the turn-around point.

hiking the Franklin Mountain State Park

Navigation Hill (left) as seen from the high road.

Return down canyon to the high road. On the high road, turn south and enjoy easy ambling on a wide tread with the Franklins towering over your right and views into suburban El Paso on your left. The road will strike a rib and make a long contour to the east, double back into a canyon, and then return to the front of the range. Here, five miles from the trailhead, leave the road southeast along a gently inclined rib that is pointed a little east of Navigation Hill. As you near its foot, swing directly towards Navigation Hill, cross a large arroyo and arrive at a dirt road. Cross this road and rise directly onto the next rib. Scout to the east and find a wide bike trail heading due south towards Navigation Hill. After hiking 6.1 miles from the trailhead, come to a signed intersection with the road back to the trailhead. Head east on the road as it rounds Navigation Hill, and follow the road back to the trailhead.


♦Do this hike on a nice winter’s day. If you’ve not been out in the Chihuahuan Desert before, then you could hardly ask for a better opportunity to ramble. There is enough company (joggers and bikers) that you will not feel totally on your own. Navigation problems are obviated by the mountains on the west, the extensive housing tracts on the east, and the mass of Navigation Hill near the trailhead. A heavy dust storm could be problematic, but that just means paying attention to the weather and weather forecasts.

♦Enjoy the back country of this state park in heavy boots and long pants. The desert is not kind to people in sneakers and shorts. I was glad to have on ballistic-fiber gators. These gators are usually sold as protection from snakes, but they also armor your shins against thorns and spines.

♦The bikers I encountered were unfailingly polite and seemingly expert. Still, even the best bikers have moments of poor bike management – it is smarter to stand aside just as you would for a horse rider.

♦As with all desert sojourns, take along some extra water. Surprisingly, I got through almost all of the 4 liters that I had brought with me. Next time I’ll bring along six.

♦The short scramble up to the slot canyon could be very uncomfortable for a new hiker; the terrain is steep and loose and prickly. It is poor location to learn climbing moves.


♦Desert hikes get very little attention and the terrain adjacent to the Franklin Mountains is no exception. A terrific overview of the biking, hiking and climbing opportunities has been posted by Outdooraholic on the Summit Post site.

♦On-Walkabout has an extensive description of hiking in similar terrain on the west side of the Park (aiming for Anthony’s Nose) that includes some very useful photos of the terrain.

♦Greg at the Greg’s Running Adventures site celebrates the terrain in the Franklin Mountains State Park from a runners perspective.

♦Devon, at Southern New Mexico Explorer, has several brief posts in which he illustrates the terrain and comments on the difficulties sometimes encountered in steep desert desert terrain and sometimes encountered in near-urban environments.


North Franklin Peak (on left) and the big rib forming West Cottonwood Canyon (right)

North Franklin Peak (on right) and the main ridge line of the Franklin Mountains (extending to the left)

This is a road walk in a Texas state park, reaching the highest point in the Franklin Mountains. It is completely enjoyable and a great way to get some vertical if your hours are limited. This might be an especially good choice for a hot day in mid-summer since the initial stretch is on the west side of the range and protected from the morning sun. There is no other source of shade, however, so a very early start would be recommended. From the summit there are views south down to El Paso and across the Rio Grande into Mexico. (There are some big mountains in our southerly neighbor). To the west you will see the Potrillo Volcanic Field (including Cox Peak) and to the north you’ll have an excellent view of the southern end of the Organs. I had hoped for, but did not find, a view east to the very distant Guadalupe Mountains.

Driving Directions:

  • From Lohman Ave in Las Cruces, enter I-25 going south.
  • After 4.8 miles, where I-25 ends, merge onto I-10 going east.
  • After 24.9 miles, in Texas, take Exit 6 for Loop 375 / Transmountain Road / Talbot Ave. The exit ramp merges almost immediately with South Desert Road, a frontage road.
  • After 0.2 miles, at a stoplight, go left onto Loop 375. The Loop is undergoing extensive construction, so the initial road is limited to a single lane. Follow it straight up towards the mountains. Because of the construction you will be directed to go past the Franklin State Park entrance and continue for short distance (estimated 0.8 miles) to a left-hand exit that allows you to U-turn and go back to the park.
  • After 5.0 miles from the start of Loop 375 (and after looping back), go right into Franklin Mountains State Park.
  • After 0.8 miles, turn right at a sign for Mundy’s Gap.
  • After 0.4 miles, the road ends at the trailhead

On return, as you drop down the Transmountain Road and come close to I-10, you will re-enter a thicket of orange traffic barrels. I’ve been through the thicket three times recently, and have been struck but the fact that there are signs for I-10 East, but no signs for I-10 West. To return west, wend your way through the barrels staying to the right. You will approach a stoplight at an intersection with North Desert Road and go right onto this frontage road. There is an entrance for I-10 West just a few hundred feet down the frontage road.


The mighty Camry, below Mundy's Gab (left), "the big rib" (forming West Cottonwood Canyon, in middle) and North Franklin Peak (right)

The mighty Camry, below Mundy’s Gab (left), “the big rib” (forming West Cottonwood Canyon, in middle) and North Franklin Peak (right)

The trailhead is paved, there is a trash receptical and a trail sign. There are no other amenities at the trailhead, but downhill, at a picnic site about half a mile away, there is a pit toilet. I did not see any water. There is a day use fee for the park, currently $5.00. The pay station is on the right as you enter the park.


  • Starting elevation: 4890 feet
  • Ending elevation: 7192 feet
  • Next elevation: 2300 feet
  • Distance: 4.1 miles (one way)
  • Maps: The start of the hike begins on the Canutillo quadrangle and, at Mundy’s Gap, moves onto the North Franklin Mountain quadrangle and stays there to reach the summit.

Hike Description:

View north across bajada to Organ Mountains

View north across bajada to Organ Mountains

From the trailhead, look straight east and pick out the broad pass called Mundy’s Gap. The trailhead is situated in the bed of West Cottonwood Canyon. This canyon initially climbs to the foot of the Gap, but then swings south around an enormous rib and climbs high in the direction of North Franklin Peak. Head uphill from the trailhead on a gravel road aimed directly at the pass. At 100 feet, come to an unsigned fork. The eastward fork is West Cottonwood Trail and the southerly fork is the Agave Trail. Bear to the south (right) to stay on the Agave Trail. The trail rises as it bumps across coalescing alluvial fans at the base of the range (the “bajada”), reaching a broad slope at 1400 feet from the trailhead.

View of boulder field as it snakes down the big rib

View of boulder field as it snakes down the big rib

At this point the trail swings east and heads directly towards Mundy Pass. Find yourself entering a canyon populated with cacti, chaparral, yucca and sotol. This classic Chihuahuan community will accompany you almost all the way to North Franklin Peak summit. A big rib descending from the south guards the entrance into the canyon. At two-thirds of a mile, cross a 100 foot wide stretch of boulders in an unusually tall and narrow boulder field. It is just a guess, but there may be a high spring on the rib that contributes to an aggressive release of large stones.

Sunrise striking the big rib and a view into upper West Cottonwood Canyon

Sunrise striking the big rib and a view into upper West Cottonwood Canyon

At 0.8 miles find a second intersection of the Agave Trail and the West Cottonwood Trail, directly under Mundy’s Gap. Here the canyon swings sharply south. Surprisingly, the original road engineers chose to cross the canyon bed and leave it heading north, clinging to the uppermost reaches of the bajada at the base of steep cliffs north of Mundy’s Gap. The road does not gain much elevation on this portion of the route, but ambles steadily along, passing a number of inexplicable orange traffic cones, until at 1.4 miles, it makes a deft switchback and lunges for the Gap.

View from Mundy's Gap east into a canyon named here (unofficially) as Mundy's Canyon.

View from Mundy’s Gap east into a canyon named here (unofficially) as Mundy’s Canyon and into Northeast El Paso.

At 1.8 miles, reach the Gap and pause to soak in the views to the east. At your feet lies the headwaters of a canyon containing Mundy’s Spring. It is not named on the maps, but assume for now that it is “Mundy’s Canyon”. In the middle distance lies Northeast El Paso. Going north along the near edge of the city is US Route 54, which soon bears off a bit more to the east and goes arrow-straight to the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico. South of that lies the western-most wedge of Texas and a great deal of northern Mexico.

Signed fork offering choice of peak or canyon destinations. (Go right!)

Signed fork offering choice of peak or canyon destinations. (Go right!)

Continue onward, cross the headwaters of Mundy’s Canyon and reach the outmost point of a rib at 2.3 miles. A sign at a trail junction points uphill for North Franklin Peak, and downhill for “Tin Mine”. (Wikipedia says that the mine was not commercially successful, but has the distinction of being the only tin mine in the United States. The latter claim might be incorrect, as tin mining camps have been set up in Alaska as well).

Indian Peak (on left) an unnamed knob, and the final col, below the summit block of North Franklin Peak.

Indian Peak (on left) and an unnamed knob viewed from East Cottonwood Canyon.

As you rise into East Cottonwood Canyon the vegetation becomes more sparse and new prominences become evident to the south. These appear quite tall, but this is a trick of perspective. The dark, distant and cliff-faced summit is called Indian Peak. At 6330 feet it is quite bit lower than North Franklin. The true summit is more nearly south (to the right of Indian Peak).

View to switchbacks below the final col.

View to switchbacks below the col between Indian Peak and the summit block of North Franklin Peak.



Clamber up and out of East Cottonwood and enter a new canyon (unnamed) that is quite broad in its upper reaches. The trail begins ascending more steeply as it aims for a col between North Franklin and Indian Peak. This is very open terrain and would be a warm struggle on a hot June afternoon. Come at last to the col, at 3.1 miles. Pause to read a sign with strict injunctions against messing around with unexploded missile parts and other forms of live ammunition. (The Castner Range is a military firing range reported to be closed but one where unexploded ordinance is a major issue. It is located at the southeast foot of North Franklin Mountain).

South Franklin Peak from the summit of North Franklin Peak

South Franklin Peak from the summit of North Franklin Peak

Rather, cross the col to the south, enter a shallow drainage, and begin addressing the summit block of North Franklin Peak. The trail switchbacks frequently as it rises up the drainage. Arrive at the ridge line at 3.8 miles and follow the trail as it turns south on a mellow incline. Finish on the broad, flat summit at 4.1 miles. From the summit enjoy great view of the Potrillo Volcanic Field, Organ Mountains, Juarez Mountains and several ranges whose names I do know, but appear to be part of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Oriental. Locally, pick out Loop 375 as it crosses the Franklins at the foot of North Franklin Peak, intersects US54, and heads west across Northeast El Paso and into the Fort Briggs Military Reserve. At this time of year the Rio Grand is in its “Rio Sand” phase and is not easily found.

Return the way you came.


Author in foreground, Anthony's Nose in middle ground, and Organ Mts faint on the horizon

Author on summit in foreground, Anthony’s Nose in middle ground, and Organ Mountains faint on the horizon.

As mentioned in the Overview, this hike could be done in the summer provided that you get an early start. It was very pleasant in late March as well. Other than the possibility of a snowfall in midwinter, it looks like a great, year-round training hike.

The trailhead parking lot was full when I got back at about noon (this was on a Saturday). I don’t know if the State Parks Department is tolerant of people parking alongside the road. In the worst case, I imagine that you could always find a parking spot in the picnic area. That would add about 0.4 miles to the length of a one-way hike.

Following trail signs, I tried to find the Tin Mine that is supposed to lie somewhere in the canyon below Mundy’s Gap. I only went as far as the bed of Mundy’s Canyon before turning around. The USGS map says I turned around too early, there are open pit mines a little more than a mile from the Gap.


Mountains of Franklin Range, depicted at Franklin Park Headquarters on the east side.

Mountains of Franklin Range, depicted at Franklin Park Headquarters on the east side.

Texas Parks and Wildlife has information about fees, closures, some basic maps and other data. I owe a debt of gratitude to the kind hiker who found my camera and gave it to the Park rangers and to the rangers for getting it over to the Lost and Found where I could easily retrieve it. Thank you, all! (This post would have been considerably less colorful without their essential help).

The trail attracts mountain bikers (this link has a map recommending use of the West Cottonwood Trail) and fitness fans (this link has an endorsement of a nearby microbrewery).

William Musser, writing on Peak Bagger, has a good description of the hike.

There are those who regard unexploded munitions as an acceptable risk. This link has a great picture of a collared lizard as well as closeups of the summit on Indian Peak.

The University of Texas has an approachable geological overview of the Franklins.




Summit Marker on Guadalupe Peak

Summit Marker on Guadalupe Peak

This ascent takes you to the top of Guadalupe Peak in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Once again, it seems a little odd to be describing a Texas hike on a website devoted to New Mexico hiking, but the trail has enormous attractions. For one thing, there is the trail itself. It represents a huge commitment in park-hours. There are engineered steps wherever the terrain might otherwise wash out, innumerable water-control features, rock towers spanning gullies that would not otherwise support a tread and in several places rock has been drilled out (presumably blasted) to give trail users a place to place their feet. Some backcountry hikers might regard this as overkill, but for a vastly popular tread in a National Park it seems very sensible. Kudos the the Park Service! The trail ascends 3000 feet from trailhead to summit so it is a genuine workout. During that ascent you leave the chaparral growth of lower Pine Canyon, ascend over cliff bands, traverse high ridges and rise into a sky-island forest. It is tremendously popular. If you want solitude then avoid holiday weekends and seek out a mid-week expedition.

Driving Directions:

  • From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter I-25 heading south.
  • After 3.0 miles, merge onto I-10 heading east
  • After 25.1 more miles, in Texas, take the exit for Texas Loop 375, the exit ramp merges immediately onto South Desert Blvd (a frontage road)
  • After 0.4 miles, go left at a stoplight onto Texas Loop 375.
  • After 24.6 miles, take the Montana Ave / US-180E / US-62E exit, the exit ramp merges immediately into Joe Battle Blvd (a frontage road)
  • After 0.3 miles, go left at a stoplight onto US-180E / US-62E.
  • After 95.1 miles, go left onto Madrone Circle and enter the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
  • After 50 feet, go left onto Pine Canyon Drive.
  • After 0.6 miles, at the end of the road and in an RV campground, park at the trailhead.
02 Top of El Cap from park headquarters

Top of El Capitan seen over a ridge line from the trailhead at dawn.

Here are a few notes on the drive as experience on this outing. First, road signage was scant in the El Paso area. You may want to have a GPS running or to stick closely to the planned route. Second, “sticking to the route” was tricky since there was considerable construction activity along the length of Loop 375. After exiting I-10 and turning left, you will immediately encounter a profusion of orange barrels that keep you shunted to the extreme right side of what seemed to be a dilapidated back road rather than a major arterial. Nevertheless, stay on this rough road as it rises straight up to the mountains. It will eventually unfurl as a major road, as originally expected. After ascending up over the pass and descending back into a flanking part of El Paso, you will be forced off the main road due to another construction project. The detour puts you onto Woodrow Bean Transmountain Road, which parallels the main road. After innumerable stoplights and a bit more than 3 miles you are allowed to re-enter Loop 375. Of course, all of this is transient and what you encounter will vary with the state of the State’s construction plans.


The mighty Camry at the trailhead. Above the cars rises the easterly knob of the eastern Guadalupe ridge

The mighty Camry at the trailhead. Above the cars rises the easterly knob of the eastern Guadalupe ridge

The trailhead is paved, there are running-water bathrooms, trail signage, and trash cans. Most of the parking area is taken up by long RV slots, but some parking spaces are set aside for hiker’s cars. The Park Service charges $5.00 for everyone over 16. You get a permit that is valid for 7 days. A number of factors complicate the situation, such as free-use dates and various pass plans. See the GMNP website for the details. On this President’s Day weekend the place was packed solid.


  • Starting Elevation: 5822 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 8751 feet
  • Net Elevation Gain: 2929 feet
  • Distance: 4.1 miles
  • Maps: USGS Guadalupe Peak, TX

Hike Description:

Trailhead and view of eastern knob.

Trailhead and view of of the knob at the east end of the approach ridge.

The RV campground at the end of Pine Canyon Road lies in the mouth of Pine Canyon. Look north into the canyon and take note of the height of land above and to your left (west). A broad band of cliffs dominates the face, and those cliffs are (surprisingly) your initial destination. This is not Guadalupe Peak, but rather the lowest knob at the eastern end of a ridge descending from Guadalupe’s summit. As mentioned in the introduction you will be switchbacking your way up this face, contouring north and then following the ridge that lies behind this face.

Cliffs on eastern slopes of the east knob

Cliffs on eastern slopes of the first knob on the approach ridge

Enter the trail going west from the northwest corner of the RV park. In about 100 feet reach  a trail intersection where the Tejas Trail departs towards the north (right). Go left on Guadalupe Trail. At about 500 feet come to the second trail intersection. The Devil’s Hall Trail also takes off to the north, so go to the left once again. At 1000 feet from the trailhead, come to the start of numerous switchbacks that will take you up through the cliffs soaring above you. This part of the ascent  makes real energy demands on the hiker. At 0.8 miles from the trailhead (warmed up considerably) encounter the last of the trail intersections. Coming in from the right is a trail for equestrians riding their mounts to the summit. Remarkably, there was no horse sign on the trail at all, which removes one of the cares from your hiking. All these intersections were signed and most are in sight of the trailhead. Most people will find the navigation issues are negligible.

View of north wall of Pine Canyon from canyon floor

View of north wall of Pine Canyon from Pine Cayon floor

At one mile from the trailhead the trail takes on a new character. Here the trail begins an extended traverse north (with minor switchbacks ) to carry you across the face of the eastern knob. It is a matter for wonder that horses would traverse such terrain. In fact, there are several places along the trail where horse riders are told to dismount and lead their charges. As you get higher and higher check the opposing wall across Pine Canyon. It looks like great hiking over there.

View into northern Guadalupe Mountains from the long, northerly switchback

View into northern Guadalupe Mountains from the end of the long, northerly traverse

At 1.5 miles reach the northern extreme of this long traverse, turn west and switchback up steep terrain, coming quickly into views of the northern Guadalupe Mountains. Study the far wall of Pine Canyon and find Tejas Trail as it contours around a huge rib and then switchbacks fervently for the PineTop back country. When rested, continue east as the trail makes a relatively mild traverse below Point 7520. The environment shifts, too, with pinyon and ponderosa becoming commonplace.

Meadowed terrain and view of Guadalupe summit

Meadowed terrain and view of Guadalupe summit

Eventually, the need for altitude takes over. Make a series of about 5 switchbacks as if you were going to go straight to Point 8115, but about 100 feet below this prominence contour beneath it into beautiful, meadowy terrain. The trail curves a bit south and then back a bit north in this terrain. Views open to the summit. At 3.2 miles encounter an intersection (signed) for the Guadalupe Campground. It seems like fine camping, nearly 7500 feet above sea level.

View down to the summit of El Capitan

View down to the summit of El Capitan

The next stretch is a wide swing near the rim of a remarkably steep sided bowl. Watch your step because there isn’t much “there” there on the right hand side of the trail. Several gullies along this part of the trail have waterfall aspirations. There are more signs telling horse riders to dismount. At 3.3 miles from the trailhead, find yourself standing at the headwaters of Guadalupe Canyon and fine views south. A little further and you will see the “back side” of El Capitan. Unlike the views from US 180, this view is not dominated by cliffs, and now the its summit below your feet rather than above your head.

Adiabatic cloud formation over the Guadalupe Mountains

Orthographic lift and cloud formation over the Guadalupe Mountains

At 3.6 miles, enter the top of a pocket forest tucked within the confines of a near-summit gully. The tread switchbacks in the forest, swings past a rib and begins the assault on the summit block. Switchbacks resume, but as you pass by the horse rails you are almost there. Achieve the summit at 4.1 miles, marked with a 5′ tall metal pyramid. Welcome to the highest point in Texas.


Author on Guadalupe Peak

Author on Guadalupe Peak

This is a secure, well maintained, yet demanding tread into high places. It could hardly be better for introducing strong young hikers to the joys and strains of mountain ascents. There are a few things for those young hikers and their guides to bear in mind. First, if you should meet equestrians then give them the right of way. If that means you have to back up, then back up. Also, find a place where you can get off the trail on the downhill side. That makes it easy for the horse to see you and is less likely to cause a nervous horse to shy. Second, there are a few spots where the danger from a trailside fall are real. The responsible guides should have a no-horseplay rule firmly in effect. I saw a couple youngsters, about 12 or so, ascending to the summit and they were having a great time. Their guides, however, looked like they needed a break. If you are out of shape or otherwise in ill health, then this is not a great place to test your limits.

On this mid-March day, only five days away from the vernal equinox and the start of spring, the sun was warm but the air was cold and the wind was howling. I wore a wool hat, ski gloves and had on a cotton shirt under a denim shirt in hopes that the denim would block the wind. It was almost a good idea. There was some balance between sweating in the sunny and wind-protected places and freezing in the shaded and wind-exposed places. The sunny summit was brutally cold. It was a huge relief to dig a jacket out of my pack. Winter is still with us. I drank only a liter of water. Of course, in mid-August the environment and the resulting needs are going to be rather different.


11 Mountains from US 180The National Park Service has a short and clear description (PDF) of the hike. There is also a potentially useful list of alternative hikes in the Park.

Texas Monthly has an amusing and detailed story of camping in the meadows of Guadalupe Peak.

Natural Born Hikers has a post, apparently put up on this very day, describing the ascent and showing numerous photos.

For great photos and a detail description of ascending Guadalupe in snowy conditions, check out the Texas Mountaineer post.


View from lower McKittrick Canyon into GMNP

View from lower McKittrick Canyon into GMNP

This trip takes you along a canyon bottom with surface water (rare along the border of New Mexico and Texas). Then it switchbacks up the dust-dry canyon walls and gains the canyon rim. From the rim the options are constrained only by the the sun’s position in the sky and the water in your pack.  Here I simply kept to the rim until  early afternoon and returned by the same path.

This report is being written up two months after I actually made the trip. Be extra skeptical. My driving notes have been lost, so the driving directions are simply taken from Google.

Admittedly, it is a little odd to have a Texas hike in a blog called New Mexico Meanders. That sort of technicality, however, is going to be resolutely ignored for the greater purpose of hiking the high terrain in the desert southwest.

Driving Directions

  • From Las Cruces, enter I25 from Lohman Av (Exit 3) heading south.
  • After 4.9 miles, merge onto I10-E (towards El Paso, TX).
  • After 24.8 miles, take exit for Tx-375/Woodrow Bean Transmountain Road (avoids downtown El Paso)
  • After 24.6 miles (climbing into Franklin Mountains and crossing portions of Fort Bliss) take the US-62/US-180/Montana Blvd exit.
  • After 0.3 miles on the exit ramp (possibly signed Joe Battle Blvd) go left onto US-62/US-180
  • After 103 miles, turn left onto McKittrick Road (paved)
  • After 4.3 miles, at road end, arrive at trailhead and McKittrick Canyon Contact Station.
01 Sunrise over hills east of Fort Briggs

Sunrise crossing Fort Bliss on road to Guadalupe National Park

When I did this in late March there was quite a bit of construction on TX-375, which slowed things down a bit on the morning drive. On the return that afternoon I tried taking US-62/US-180 all the way to I10 and driving through El Paso. The traffic on I10 in El Paso was extremely heavy, so perhaps the Transmountain Road is the way to go.


31 Car at trailhead in afternoon duststorm

The mighty Camry in an afternoon dust storm

This trailhead is in a national park. You will need a park pass or else pay a registration fee.  At this writing, the Park Service fees and registration page is calling for a fee of $5.00 per adult, good for seven days. If you have exact change you can pay the fees using envelopes at the trailhead. Otherwise stop at the Pine Springs Visitor Center on US-62/US-180 and pay at there.  The McKittrick Canyon Contact Station has picnic tables, potable water and toilet facilities.  There is a large amount of paved parking.

This trailhead is designated for day use only!  When I was there the trailhead was open until 6:00, but at other times of year the trailhead gates are closed at 4:30. Check the McKittrick webpage for exact times.


02 view of El Capitan in Guadalupe Natnl Park

El Capitan on drive to McKittrick Canyon

  • Starting Elevation: 5000 feet
  • Ending Elevation: 7700 feet (depends on where you go)
  • Net Gain: 2700 feet
  • Trail Length: 7.5 miles one way (again, depends on where you turn around)
  • Map: Guadalupe Peak, Tex (if you’re going to go north, take “El Paso Gap” as well)


29 Big Fang (distant)  and Little Fang  (nearby)

View up South McKittrick Canyon from trail above the Grotto junction

The trailhead parking lot lies over the outwash from McKittrick Canyon.  Cross the breezeway in the McKittrick Canyon Contact Station and follow the path northwest, directly towards the mountains.  In about a quarter mile cross the canyon bed for the first of about seven crossings. When I was there all but two of these crossings were completely dry (but in a high-snow year it could be quite different). The canyon walls quickly rise and steepen about you.  In half a mile make a second crossing and count yourself inside the canyon proper.

05 water over rock shelf in lower McKittrick Canyon

Surface water in McKittrick Canyon

You’ll see that you are on a backcountry road rather than a trail.  This road persists up to the Pratt Homestead at about 2.4 miles. This is not exactly a wilderness experience, not with a power line overhead! Still, the canyon is strikingly beautiful. Even in a drought year there were grassy areas and even occasional swampy spots. The stream flow is largely sub-surface, but from time-to-time rocky ledges will force the water back into view. It was cool and clear, although I never saw any of the promised rainbow trout.

09 McKittrick Canyon dry bed

Dry canyon bed and sheer canyon walls

The tread turns to due-west and then begins to head south-west for a while. Where it is close to the stream it tends to be rocky – good ankle support is appreciated in this part of the hike and it can be a good idea to bring along a hiking pole.  Sheer walls adjacent to the stream reveal how the water has been eating away at the old fossil reef.

At 2.4 miles pass the junction to the Pratt cabin, which lies about 100 feet away. It is easy to see why Pratt (a geologist) might be taken with this spot. It lies at the confluence of the North and South McKittrick Canyons, has a terrific little forest, reportedly the only reliable year-round water in the mountains, and access to an infinity of rock. The cabin (including the roof) is itself an exercise in repurposed sedimentology.

17 stalagtites in grotto

View out of grotto, past stalactites

The trail crosses the North McKittrick Canyon bed and stays above the bed of South McKittrick Canyon. About a mile past the cabin there is a junction where the side trail leads down towards the canyon bed. This will take you to a grotto and, further on, another rock walled building that was once used by hunting parties.  The picnic tables near the grotto made of limestone, although apparently sized for NBA players.

Chihuahuan vegetation arrayed in garden-like lines near rim

Chihuahuan vegetation arrayed in garden-like lines near rim

Past the grotto the main trail starts to rise. At first it is a gentle incline. Below the path you will see a busted pipe system. I am guessing that it was once used to collect water from one of the wetter canyon branches. In fact, you enter that wet branch in about half a mile past the grotto. Where you cross the stream bed the ground is quite damp (even after years of drought conditions). There was even a small puddle. If you look downhill from the bed you can see where the pipe used to run into the ground to reach the spring.This is the last hint of water along this trail, however. As you exit this side canyon the number of trees begins to fall off and more typical Chihuahuan flora (yucca and prickly pear) appear at trailside.

"Knife edge" col becomes an attention getter in high winds.

“Knife edge” col becomes an attention getter in high winds.

The trail along the rim is in good shape (thanks to all those Park Service folks who do the trail maintenance!) but in places the trail hits rather sharply inclined rock or crosses a knife edged col. Under most circumstances this is not a problem. On this hike, however, the wind started picking up in the afternoon. There were a few occasions where it seemed advisable to “hunker down” and let the gusts go by. In fact I wound up turning around a little early just because the winds were making it uncomfortable to be up on the edge of the canyon.

30 Dusty views of Guadalupe after windstormReturn the way you came. Don’t forget, as I forgot, that the trailhead is day-use only. It was a good thing for me that the wind was so pushy!  I wound up making it back to the car just 45 minutes before closing. They say that dust storms are common occurrences  in the Chihuahuan Desert. As the photo to the left shows, a day that started bluebird-blue ended sandy-brown. The Camry was really bouncing around on the return drive along US-62/US-180.


16 me in McKittrick Canyon grotto (inside shot)

Grotto dweller.

I climbed to the high point in the park, Guadalupe Peak, about 24 years ago. That was another great hike, but McKittrick Canyon is the real “highlight” of the park. What a difference a stream makes.

The section of trail that switchbacks to the rim is unshaded and steep. Don’t count on getting any further water after the junction to the grotto. It seems likely that almost everyone camping on the rim would need to have a gallon of water for each day of camping.

The distances you can travel without seeing a gas station in West Texas can be impressive.  It might be a good idea to fill your gas tank before leaving the El Paso area.