Fall Foliage in McKittrick Canyon

The fall foliage in McKittrick Canyon makes a great subject for nature photography. Now that it’s actually cooler than 90 degrees here in central Texas, I can finally wrap my mind around photographing Texas in autumn.

Below, you’ll find some info about one of my favorite autumn destinations. All are included in the book that my wife, Mary O. Parker, and I have coming out in spring 2016 (Texas A&M University Press).

Mary wrote the following text, which appears here pretty much as it will in our book. Enjoy!

ACTIVITY: Flora Fun; Nature Photography

REGION: Big Bend Country

NATURAL ATTRACTION: McKittrick Canyon Fall Foliage (Guadalupe National Park)

BEST TIME TO VISIT: October ~ November

WHY YOU NEED TO GO: This autumn oasis, located deep in this desert riparian corridor, offers one of the state’s most stunning fall-color displays. Limestone soils contribute to these singular surroundings by supporting the brilliantly enflamed big tooth maples. Velvet ash & Texas walnut (a.k.a. “nogalito”) also add colorful contrasts against pleasant palettes of ponderosa pines. Sights of rugged mountains rimming the canyon, & sounds of wind & water soothe as you walk trails laced with fallen leaves. When not “oohing!” and “ahhing!” at autumn’s audacity, take in the bark—or lack thereof. Yes, bark. Between juniper alligator trees & red-berried Texas madrones, character reigns here. Platt Cabin provides a neat history lesson in the midst of this magic, while a further walk into the forest delivers you to the deeply-shaded Grotto area. And, while you can’t actually see Guadalupe Peak from here, just knowing you’re near the highest point in Texas adds to the experience.

TRAVEL DETAILS: Awesome spot for landscape photography, but, unfortunately, gate closes before dusk’s sweet light so morning shoots best. Platt Cabin hike is 2.4-miles each way. Cabin makes good picnic place. The Grotto Trail totals 6.8-miles round-trip. Restrooms at Platt Cabin & interpretive center (near parking lot). Park’s about 100-miles east of El Paso. Except for camping (first come, first served; fills up quickly this time of year) no nearby lodging or food. http://www.nps.gov/gumo/planyourvisit/mckittrick.htm / (575) 981-2418. The national park provides a special web site for an update on the fall foliage.

LEARN: In late-summer, berry-like cones cover alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) trees, assuring an abundant source of food for birds and mammals. Come fall, coyotes, mule deer, black bear, and javelina especially appreciate the fruit. And years when berry crops blossom especially big, bigger bunches of birds overwinter here, including Western Bluebirds, Townsend’s Solitaires, and American Robins. Even the tree’s foliage feeds mule deer, particularly in fall and early-winter, as it contains less capricious oil than some junipers, making it more palatable for the ruminants.

As evergreens alligator junipers provide year-round shelter for mule deer, mountain lions, elk, black bears, ring-tailed cats, porcupines, coyotes, cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbits, bobcats, badgers, javelina, voles, woodrats, and more. The tree’s deeply grooved bark also serves to shelter and camouflage insects and reptiles.

The reddish-brown exterior bark of Texas madrones (Arbutus xalapensis) peels off each summer to make room for next year’s growth. This exposes a whitish under-bark which, by autumn, will turn rusty-red.

Its genus name means “strawberry tree” in reference to its sweet, edible red fruits that appear in late-summer. Birds and black bears are especially fond of the berries. As you hike, check out the Texas madrones you pass and you might see tell-tell claw marks indicating that a bear climbed there.

Texas madrones grow in the mountains of the Trans-Pecos and portions of the Edwards Plateau. Throughout their ranges, their overall numbers have declined alarmingly. No one knows exactly why, though low reproductive rates, livestock browsing, increased fungal issues, and habitat disturbance—especially the elimination of “nurse trees” that shelter young madrones—have all contributed.

e-Book Bonus: Texas Madrone Legends & More