Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park sees more than 170 thousand visitors each year

Guadalupe Mountains National Park contains Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, as well as the scenic McKittrick Canyon filled with bigtooth maples, a corner of the arid Chihuahuan Desert, and a fossilized coral reef from the Permian era.


Once an ocean floor, Guadalupe Peak became the highest peak in Texas

The Permian period of geologic time occurred from 251 to 299 million years ago. The earth had already seen life diversify from simple, primitive forms such as algae and fungi to amphibians, fishes, and insects. The earth’s surface had also been evolving and shifting. Thin plates of crust moved constantly over the softer material below, steadily changing the position of the continents. Through much of the early and middle Permian all of the continents were joined together, forming the supercontinent of Pangea. Much of modern-day New Mexico and Texas occupied the western edge of this enormous landmass near the equator. A vast ocean surrounded Pangea, but a narrow inlet, the Hovey Channel, connected the ocean with the Permian Basin, an inland sea which covered parts of what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The Permian Basin had three arms: the Marfa, Delaware, and Midland Basins. The middle arm (the Delaware Basin) contained the Delaware Sea which covered and area 150 miles long and 75 miles wide over what is now Western Texas and Southeastern New Mexico.

During the middle part of the Permian Period a reef developed along the margin of the Delaware Sea. This was the Capitan Reef, now recognized as one of the most well-preserved fossil reefs in the world. For several million years the Capitan Reef expanded and thrived along the rim of the Delaware Basin until events altered the environment critical to its growth approximately 260 million years ago. The outlet connecting the Permian Basin to the ocean became restricted and the Delaware Sea began to evaporate faster than it could be replenished. Minerals began to precipitate out of the vanishing waters and drift to the sea floor, forming thin, alternating bands of mineral salts and mud. Gradually, over hundreds of thousands of years these thin bands completely filled the basin and covered the reef.

About 80 million years ago tectonic compression along the western margin of North America caused the region encompassing west Texas and southern New Mexico to be slowly uplifted. A transition in tectonic events 20-30 million years ago initiated the formation of steep faults along the western side of the Delaware Basin. Movement on these faults over the last 20 million years caused a long-buried portion of the Capitan Reef to rise several thousand feet above its original position. This uplifted block was then exposed to wind and rain causing the softer overlying sediments to erode, uncovering the more resistant fossil reef and forming the modern Guadalupe Mountains. Today the reef towers above the desert floor as it once loomed over the floor of the Delaware Sea 260 to 265 million years ago.

The reef, a submerged resistant mound or ridge formed by accumulation of plant and animal skeletons, is composed of the Capitan limestone. The Capitan is a massive, fine-grained fossiliferous limestone that formed by growth and accumulation of invertebrate skeletons of algae, sponges, and tiny colonial animals called bryozoans. These skeletons were stabilized by encrusting organisms that grew over and cemented the solid reef rock, unlike modern reefs built by mainly a rigid framework of corals. The Capitan limestone forms the thousand-foot high cliff of El Capitan, the most striking feature of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Diagram showing Capitan Reef, including fore reef, back reef, and basin.Back-reef
There was relatively low wave or current activity in the back-reef, an area between the reef and ancient shoreline. Only fine sediment was carried back into this area and the water was often stagnant, muddy, and had a high salinity. Sediment deposited in stagnant back-reef or lagoon waters often contained high amounts of magnesium, which combined with limestone to form the rock dolomite. Despite the high salinity, life forms were able to live in the back-reef. Brachiopods, crinoids and fusulinids are common fossils found in the back-reef sediments.
Ocean currents and wave action battered the Capitan Reef, causing large fragments of the reef to break off and slide down the slope forming the fore-reef. The fore-reef is a debris fan that extended downward into the basin. In addition to debris, the fore-reef was also composed of lime mud and fossils, such as trilobites, brachiopods, sea urchins, algae, and bryozoans. However, the fore-reef did not become as highly cemented as the reef.

The basin in front of the reef sloped downward to depths of nearly half a mile. The sediments that washed into the basin during the building of the Capitan Reef later became thin black limestones separated by thicker beds of fine-grained sandstone and occasional siltstone. The black limestone contains the organic-rich remains of the dead plants and animals that settled to the dark depths of the basin. Partial decomposition of the organic material in the stagnant depths used up all available oxygen, so most of the organic matter was slowly buried and preserved. Over millions of years, heat and pressure changed the organic matter to oil and gas.

Ancient Life in the Delaware Sea
The Delaware Sea was host to a rich diversity of Permian life. The reef supported an abundance of organisms, primarily algae and sponges. Inhabitants of the rocky sea bottom included sea urchins, bivalve clams, and flower-like crinoids on long, slender stems. Horn corals and trilobites, a now extinct class of arthropods with segmented, three-lobed shells were present but rare. Ammonoids and nautiloids, ancient cephalopods related to squid and octopi, propelled their chambered bodies through open waters in search of prey. Deeper on the reef, large clam-like brachiopods clustered together, each clinging to the sea floor by a pedicle, a single fleshy muscle. Tiny bryozoans clustered in colonies that resembled delicate, lacy fans. Most life forms could not survive in the highly saline waters of the back-reef, but fossils from those exposures tell us that some adapted well. These included blue-green algae, masses of small cigar-shaped fusulinids, and clam-like ostracods.

The end of the Permian brought the greatest mass extinction of all time. Horn corals and trilobites became extinct, along with certain groups of brachiopods, crinoids, bryozoans, ammonoids, and nautiloids. Sponges came near extinction, and many groups of algae died out, including most of the middle Permian reef builders. As a result, the diverse communities that inhabited the Capitan Reef remain unique in our planet’s history.

The Western Escarpment has played an important role in revealing the story of the Permian period in North America. These exposures present one of the finest cross sections in the world of the transition from shallow-water to deep-water deposits. Abrupt changes in rock types are caused by the change in depth from the shallow submerged areas to the deep waters of the Permian Sea.

Faulting in this area began about 30 million years ago. The western edge of the Guadalupe fault block has been lifted more than two miles from its original position below sea level along a series of branching faults that run adjacent to the base of the Western Escarpment. Fault zones that form the eastern border of the Salt Basin and the western edge of the Guadalupe Block are complex. They are comprised by a series of branching faults that bend to the north-northwest from the southern end of the Delaware Mountains to the northern end of the Guadalupe Mountains. Most of the faults are nearly vertical and uplift ranges from 2,000 feet to a mile or more on individual faults.

The Western Escarpment extends from Bartlett Peak to El Capitan, with Shumard Peak and Guadalupe Peak, the highest peak in Texas at 8751 feet, in between. The massive rock face is composed of the Capitan limestone, or the reef complex. The slopes below the cliffs of Bartlett Peak and Shumard Peak consist of the “bank-ramp complex.” The bank-ramp complex is made up of the Victorio Peak Limestone, the Cuttoff Formation, and the Bone Spring Limestone, which formed from unbound carbonate sediments deposited as broad banks. These banks stretched ten to twenty miles creating a gentle ramp dipping only one or two degrees toward the basin. These shallow carbonate ramps lack the binding organisms that are prominent components of the reef complex.

Below the cliffs of Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan are the fine-grained sandstone and siltstone beds of the Cherry Canyon and Brushy Canyon Formations. These sediments were deposited as sand and silt filled sub-marine channels in the basin.

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Native American History

Home of the Nde tribe

For the Mescalero Apaches, the Guadalupe Mountains were the last stronghold. War with the Comanches forced bands of Apaches to retreat from the plains into these inhospitable mountains. They survived here by learning to utilize the native plants and animals. The Mescaleros, or Nde (In-deh) as they called themselves, hunted mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep, and harvested plants including, agave, sotol, and bear grass.

The agave, or mescal formed the major staple in both their diet and culture. In addition to supplying fiber for ropes, blankets, and sandals, agave hearts were roasted in large cooking pits and eaten or made into cakes for later consumption.

The Mescaleros were constantly on the move, ranging over vast areas and following the changing seasons. Though the Mescaleros learned to adapt to this rather harsh environment, they were unable to contend with the rapid and unwelcome advance of settlers into the area. Suddenly, their bounty of resources and precious water sources were being taken away. While they tried desperately to defend their lands by raiding and attacking stages and settlements, the Mescalero Apaches were defeated by soldiers and cavalrymen in a series of brutal skirmishes. By the late 1800’s, the Mescaleros had, for the most part, been driven from the Guadalupes.

Today, the Guadalupes still represent an important cultural and spiritual sanctuary for the Mescalero Apaches. Each year members of the tribe come to the area to harvest agaves for ceremonial purposes.

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Park History

How Guadalupe Mountains became a National Park

No one knows exactly when the first people came to the Guadalupes, but archaeological evidence dates back over 10,000 years ago. The earliest inhabitants were hunter-gathers who followed available game and ripening vegetation, and lived in and among the many caves and alcoves common throughout the range. Scattered evidence of their existence, including projectile points, baskets, pottery, and rock art has been found throughout the park.

Since then, many different groups have moved in and out of the area, including the Spanish who arrived by the mid 1500’s. There is little evidence of any attempts on their part to penetrate the Guadalupes, and no large-scale settlements have been located. Their influence was significant though, because they introduced horses into the area. For the bands of Apaches who roamed freely over much of southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Mexico, horses quickly became an invaluable asset to their nomadic lifestyle. The Mescalero Apaches followed game, much as the earlier peoples had done, and they also harvested the agave (or mescal) for food and fiber. Mescalero is name given to them by the Spanish, and it means mescal-maker. Agave roasting pits and other remains of Mescalero campsites are common in the park.

Prior to the mid 1800’s, the Guadalupes remained an unchallenged sanctuary for the Mescalero Apaches. But newly established transportation routes, and the end of the Civil War, encouraged droves of pioneers, homesteaders, miners, and numerous others to head west. In the 1840’s and 1850’s, explorers were commissioned to look for possible emigrant routes to the west, and the proposed transcontinental railroad expected to follow one of these. Although these surveying expeditions would never lead to a railroad through Guadalupe Pass, they did provide the first extensive studies of the Guadalupe region. In 1858, the Pinery (a horse-changing station), was constructed near Pine Springs for the Butterfield Overland Mail. To protect their investments, the stage line and settlers in the area demanded protection from the military. Several cavalry troops, including the Buffalo Soldiers, were intermittently ordered in and out of the area to halt Indian raids and secure settlements along the stage route. In the winter of 1869, troops lead by Lt. H.B. Cushing penetrated the Guadalupes and destroyed two primary Apache camps. These aggressive actions were devastating to the Mescaleros who were already facing food shortages within their increasingly limited land base. They were eventually driven out of the Guadalupes, and by the late 1800’s, nearly all of the surviving Mescalero Apaches in the U.S. were living on reservations.

Permanent settlements in the Guadalupes were not common though, even after the final displacement of the Mescaleros. The Butterfield stage route through the Guadalupes was abandoned in less than a year for a more favorable course along a string of army forts to the south. Most settlers found the range (and its limited water sources) too rugged and inhospitable. Historical evidence shows that one of the first settlers who stayed was Felix McKittrick who worked cattle in the area in the 1870’s. McKittrick Canyon is thought to be named after him. The first permanent ranch house was constructed in 1876 by the Rader brothers. Now called Frijole Ranch, it served as residence for several families through the years. And, as the only major building complex in the region (for several decades), it served as a community center and regional post office from 1916-1942. Today, the Frijole Ranch House has been restored and operates as a cultural museum. In 1908 another ranch site was built in the Guadalupes below the western escarpment. Later, it became known as Williams Ranch after one of its inhabitants, James Adolphus Williams. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Judge J.C. Hunter from Van Horn, Texas consolidated most of the smaller ranches in the area into a large-scale operation called the Guadalupe Mountain Ranch. In order to sustain livestock, primarily sheep and goats, Hunter established a complex pumping system to send water into the highcountry. Concerned for the preservation of fragile habitats, such as the riparian canyons, he concentrated grazing in the northern part of his ranch. He also introduced elk into these mountains.

Although the establishment of the park was proposed as early as 1923, the idea did not become reality until Wallace Pratt became involved. A geologist for the then tiny Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon); Pratt was one of the early explorers of oil in the Permian Basin. In 1921, he was captivated by the geology and beauty of McKittrick Canyon and shortly after began buying land in the canyon. He built two separate homes in the canyon, the Pratt Cabin, located at the confluence of north and south McKittrick canyons, and Ship-On-The-Desert located on higher ground near the mouth of the canyon. Both of these locales were used as summer homes by Pratt and his family up until 1960. Shortly after, his generous contribution of nearly 6,000 acres of McKittrick Canyon became the nucleus for Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Another 80,000 acres, owned by J.C. Hunter Jr., was purchased by the government to complete the parcel. Congress passed the necessary legislation in 1966, and by 1970 the land transfer was complete. In September, 1972, Guadalupe Mountains National Park was dedicated and formally opened to the public.

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The best things to do in Gudalupe Mountains National Park

As a hiker’s paradise, you will find more than 80 miles of trails that meander through woodland canyons and lush riparian springs, or zigzag up steep switchbacks directly into the park’s rugged wilderness. If hiking is not in your plans, check out other possible activities.

Camping: With 20 tent and RV sites each, you can make the Pine Springs Campground your base camp during your visit.

Day Hiking: Whether you are looking to climb up to 8,000 feet of elevation or just looking for a moderate stroll in a canyon, you can find the perfect trail for you and download maps for each one.

Backpacking: Check out the requirements and tips on how to plan your perfect backpacking trip.

Birding & Wildlife Viewing: Download monthly bird and wildlife lists for your reference during your visit.

If time is a limiting factor in your visit, consider the following suggestions:

One Hour: Stop by the Pine Springs Visitor Center, walk through the museum, watch the visitor slide show, and walk the Pinery Nature Trail.

Half Day: Take the day to take one of our hikes in the park. Consider hiking the Smith Spring Trail (2.3 mi. round-trip), the Devil’s Hall Trail (4.3 mi. round-trip), or the McKittrick Canyon Trail (5-7 mi. round-trip).

Full Day: Pick a day hike that can lead you into a riparian area or high up into the conifer forest. Common day hikes include the Guadalupe Peak Trail, The Bowl Trail, or the McKittrick Canyon Trail leading to The Grotto.

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The biological diversity within Guadalupe Mountains National Park is outstanding and includes more than 1000 species of plants

The biological diversity within Guadalupe Mountains National Park is outstanding and includes more than 1000 species of plants. While many of these are common desert species such as ocotillo and prickly pear cactus, others are found only in the park and nowhere else in the world.

In part, the amazing diversity can be attributed to significant geographical variations in an extremely rugged landscape. Steep-walled canyons, highcountry ridge tops, wide-open expanses of desert lowland, and lush riparian oases provide opportunity for unique and contrasting life zones that span across thousands of acres with over 5000’ of elevation difference.

Plants that grow here are tough. They survive not only the components that make up the landscape, but also the extremes of temperature, aridity, and relentlessly powerful winds, all common factors of the park’s desert climate. Plants have evolved elegant methods of tolerating or avoiding desert conditions. Some such as cactus have thick fleshy stems that store water, and spines that not only serve as fierce armor against predators, but also help reflect the sun’s radiant heat. Many species avoid desert extremes by clinging tightly to limited but dependable seeps and shaded springs. Annual wildflowers that grow here avoid the drought altogether with a compressed, complete life cycle – from sprout to seed – that occurs only in conjunction with summer’s monsoon rains.

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Animal Life

Guadalupe Mountains rise sharply from the surrounding desert floor to form an island of wildlife diversity

Guadalupe Mountains rise sharply from the surrounding desert floor to form an island of outstanding diversity. Several different ecosystems, or life zones, are found within the park. These include the harsh Chihuahuan desert community, lush streamside woodlands of oaks and maples, rocky canyons, and mountaintop forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Together, these ecosystems provide habitat for 60 species of mammals, 289 species of birds, and 55 species of reptiles.

At first glance, the desert may seem barren and nearly devoid of life. A closer look however, will reveal that it actually supports an amazing diversity of wildlife. Desert animals are often difficult to view since many of them are nocturnal. Many desert animals adapt to the hot, dry environment by coming out after dark, when temperatures are much cooler and conditions are not quite so dry. Nocturnal desert animals include the kit fox, coyote, mountain lion, bobcat, badger, Texas banded gecko, and about 16 species of bats. Mule deer, javelinas, and black-tailed jackrabbits are seen early in the morning or late in the evening when temperatures are cooler.

Desert reptiles include the western diamondback rattlesnake, bullsnake, coachwhip snake, prairie lizard, collared lizard, crevice spiny lizard, and the Chihuahuan spotted whiptail. Almost all of the lizards found in the park can be seen during the day. Scorpions and desert centipedes are nocturnal hunters that search the night for insects, spiders, and small lizards. In the fall, tarantulas can often be seen looking for mates. The rest of the year, tarantulas rarely leave the shelter of their burrows.

One of the most unique and unexpected ecosystems in the Guadalupe Mountains is the riparian or streamside woodland. Riparian woodlands occur in places where there is water. Mule deer are one of the most common animals seen in the riparian areas. Nocturnal mammals such as skunks and raccoons can also be found here. Long-ear sunfish can be seen in some of the springs in the park, as well as in McKittrick Canyon. The stream through McKittrick Canyon is also home to a small population of rainbow trout. Although amphibians are rare in the desert, the Rio Grande leopard frog can occasionally be encountered near spring fed pools in McKittrick Canyon, or at Manzanita and Smith Springs.

Rocky canyons are home to ringtails, rock squirrels, and a variety of reptiles including rock and black-tailed rattlesnakes, mountain patchnose snakes, and tree lizards.

On the mountaintops, over 3,000 feet above the desert, one can find extensive pine forests. It is usually at least ten degrees cooler on the mountaintops than at the lower elevations. Mountaintop forests are home to animals such as elk, black bear, gray foxes, striped and hog-nosed skunks, porcupine, mule deer, mountain lions, and mountain short-horned lizards.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Over 80 miles of hiking trails offer easy nature walks through desert flora; more moderate hikes follow canyons and reach riparian oases, and strenuous all day hikes can take you into high country forest or to the “Top of Texas”. Each is unique – the magic of Guadalupe Mountains National Park awaits you. More…

Devil’s Hall Trail
The Devil’s Hall Trail departs from the Pine Springs Trailhead and is 3.8 miles round-trip. After the first mile the trail enters a rocky wash which leads hikers to an impressive natural rock staircase leading to a “hallway” formed by steep canyon walls. Download the trail guide.

Smith Spring Loop
The Smith Spring Trail is 2.3 miles (round-trip) and departs from the Frijole Ranch Trailhead. Watch the landscape change from desert scrub to riparian vegetation in this loop. Download the guide/map.

McKittrick Canyon Trail
Hike through riparian vegetation and stream crossings to the historic Pratt Cabin or the scenic Grotto. McKittrick Canyon is a moderate hike that follows the bottom of the canyon and begins to climb after 3 miles, eventually connecting you to McKittrick Ridge. Download the guide/map.

Guadalupe Peak Trail
Climb to the “Top of Texas” with this 8.5 mile round-trip hike that climbs 3,000 feet and travels through a conifer forest to reach the top of Guadalupe Peak. The long climb is rewarded with amazing views to the West and to the South. Make sure to allow 6-8 hours for the hike and be prepared with plenty of water, sun protection and food.

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