It looks like an explosion in the Day-Glo factory -- trees in every direction saturated with vivid, iridescent color.
Some stand out like a Ferrari in a speed trap, every leaf glowing a cop-stopping red. Others blaze a more subtle bonfire orange or shimmer Fort Knox gold. A handful, still clogged with summer's chlorophyll, splash dollops of cool green into the firestorm of flaming hues.
Maples ignited by autumn -- it could be Vermont at its fiery best.
But, this isn't New England. It's West Texas, a vast, empty, parched, barren wasteland that's generally about as colorful as camouflage fatigues.
Out here, cattle wander, windmills whirl and pumps suck oil from the earth. Few towns survive between Pecos and El Paso, and signs warn motorists of the monotonous distance to the next gas station. Only the Guadalupe Mountains interrupt the topographical boredom.
A remnant of an ancient limestone reef, the broad plateau of the Guadalupes juts like Gibraltar from the desert floor. Long bands of naked cliffs buttress its gently rolling cap. Breaching the palisades, a scattering of chasms slice down from the high country. Some tout one of them, McKittrick Canyon, to be the most beautiful spot in Texas.
The 2,000-foot-deep gorge winds through the mountains' eastern escarpment. Along its final few miles, a small creek emerges, providing moisture to satiate luxuriant growth. In this oasis, geologist Wallace Pratt built a home where he and his wife recurrently resided for several decades. He ultimately deeded the house and much of his land to the US. Government, a gift that launched Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Roads barely penetrate the massive preserve, but 80 miles of walking trails allow visitors access to its interior. Some people enjoy challenging the steep track that snakes to the summit of 8,749-foot-high Guadalupe Peak, highest point in Texas. More, however, prefer simpler endeavors, like strolling up McKittrick Canyon, especially in the depths of autumn.
The walk begins at McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center, where rangers advise hikers of park rules. It then heads up the flat canyon bottom, eventually crossing the dry creek on a pathway outlined with stones. A Texas madrone towers beside the trail.
The tree, common in the Guadalupes, stands 20 feet high. Cinnamon-colored bark, which peels away like paint on an old barn, covers its twisted and gnarled, multiple trunks. Shiny jade-green leaves cap upper branches, sheltering clusters of vivid red berries. It's McKittrick's first touch of Technicolor magic.
After a twenty minute ramble, the route again intersects the stream bed, which now gushes with water. Rich in calcite, the peek-a-boo creek lines its base with the white cement-like substance. Where floods have erased the coating, the flow may dip below ground, only to reappear farther downstream.
Ahead, the canyon narrows and deepens, and vegetation grows more dense. Maples appear, providing the first splashes of autumn yellow. Around one corner, a rock wall lines the path, and a short side trail leads to Pratt's Lodge.
Frequently called "Stone Cabin," the structure features floors, walls and even a roof made from native rock. Forest-green wooden shutters add a homey feel. Surrounded by trees, the site exudes an aura of sequestered tranquillity. It's easy to understand why the Pratts delighted in dwelling deep in their canyon, and why Cookie Johnson loves living here now.
Johnson, a Park Service volunteer, stays at Pratt Lodge with her husband, Graham. "Over 400 people hiked up Saturday and another 250 on Sunday," she says. "We're here to help protect the resource."
She shows guests around the one-bedroom structure and relates a bit of its history. A pot of simmering soup fills the cabin with a tomato and basil bouquet. The aroma attracts more than hungry humans. Johnson says, "Some mornings when I'm cooking, I glance up and see a deer peering at me through the window."
By day, the Peeping Bambi retreats, driven off by incoming hikers. Pratt Lodge lies about 2¼ miles from the trailhead, and for many, it marks an ideal destination and turn around point. Others stride beyond.
The route continues up-canyon, generally staying away from water's edge. In the slightly higher, cooler altitude, autumn intensifies. Fallen leaves speckle the trail. Trees rustle. The air smells fresh, faintly perfumed with the woody scent of drying leaves.
Chinquapin oaks, a species common in the East, grow to 80-foot heights. As the season advances, their toothy, oval leaves fade lime green, then lemon yellow, providing the valley with splashes of juicy color.
More gaudy are McKittrick's bigtooth maples. Close relatives of the eastern sugar maples, local Texans use the sap for syrup. Like their Vermont cousins, the bigtooths erupt into shades of yellow and orange, the result of chlorophyll disintegrating to expose blond pigments from xanthophyll and carotin (the same agent that colors carrots).
Others blush from anthocyanin, the pigment found in beets and red cabbage. Plant sugars produced in daylight, become trapped at night. Unable to circulate, they linger, tinting leaves deep crimson.
In a canyon brimming with vegetation, Ranger Brent Wohler worries about wildfire. He says, "We recently had a big burn in Dog Canyon that threatened McKittrick. If a blaze started here on a windy day, it would devastate this enclave."
The main trail, which proceeds toward Dog Canyon, eventually climbs from the valley floor. A lower spur leads to the Grotto, a damp, limestone cavity perhaps 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep. Around the corner sits a picnic area. Tables and benches made from stone slabs rest beneath a canopy of gilded boughs. Several feasting and frolicking families share the site.
Shortly beyond, the route ends at a cattleman's line shack. Crudely constructed, its walls consist of rough cut rock, chinked with gravel and mortared with mud. The Park Service has screened the building closed and posted it as being unsafe.
The structure may be crude, but its grassy setting is exquisite. McKittrick Canyon veers leftward, and a lofty ridge looms ahead. Thin ribbons of dull orange highlight arroyos that plunge down the valley's gray walls. Although a breeze barely blows at ground level, the wind pulsates high overhead. It starts softly, builds to a eerie howl, then mysteriously calms, only to repeat the pattern a minute later.
A sign advises that the territory beyond is closed to all entry, and Ranger Thomas Morton reminds everyone that he locks the parking lot gate at 6 p.m. Out of trail and out of time, the walk back begins.
The creek seems to gurgle louder on the return. Morton claims trout live here. "They only grow to be four to six inches in length, hardly pan sized," he says. "Since much of the year, the stream intermittently dips underground, fish are confined to permanent wet sections like this one."
The journey out goes slowly. Trees warmed by afternoon light appear to glow with more fervent intensity. It's as if autumn accelerated during the day. Reds seem more lucent; golds more karatted; oranges more Sunkist.
Although encircled by radiant hues, the hikers ahead stop for a drab-brown object beside the trail. They stare down. A harry-legged tarantula stares back.
This isn't Vermont. It's West Texas.