Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The wind blows over the desert landscape, howling through the canyons and lashing the grass with fury. Dust and sand cover the ground. Spiky cacti grows in massive numbers. Snakes slither and lizards jump underneath twisted trees. And from afar, it seems like a great wave of stone looms above the dusty floor of the Chihuahuan desert. In fact, the Guadalupe Mountains, highest mountains in Texas, were formed from the sea, millions of years ago. This land, at first glance a dry wasteland, has more to it than meets the eye.
The Guadalupe Mountains have had a turbulent history. Long ago, before humans roamed the earth, this area was part of a great sea. The Guadalupe Mountains were then a reef, formed by sponges, algae, and exoskeletons of numerous small creatures. The reef blocked the main sea to the west and created a calmer stretch of water to the east. After the Permian era, the sea level dropped and left the reef high and dry. The remnants of the ancient reef can be seen today as the Guadalupe Mountains, the Apache Mountains, and the Glass Mountains, many miles south. The range is built up almost entirely of limestone which creates the yellowish look from far away.
No one knows exactly when people first arrived to the Guadalupes, but archaeological evidence dates back over 10,000 years. Not many indigenous peoples lived in the Guadalupes. The first hunter-gatherers who settled most of North America lived here thousands of years ago. Scattered remains of arrowheads and pottery has been found inside the park. The mountains were the stronghold of the Mescalero Apaches, who harvested the mescal(or agave) for food and fiber. They roasted the mescal in pits that can still be found commonly in the park.
They lived in peace for many years. Mescalero is a name that was given to them by the Spanish, and it means mescal-maker.
Prior to the mid 1800’s, the Guadalupes remained a sanctuary for the Mescalero Apaches. But newly established transportation routes, and the end of the Civil War, encouraged swarms of pioneers, homesteaders, miners, and numerous others to head out 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 routes. Although, the surveying expeditions 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, and was a stop for the Butterfield Overland Mail. To protect the investments of the settlers, the stage line and also the settlers demanded protection from the military. Several calvary troops, including the Buffalo Soldiers, were intermittently ordered in and out of the area to halt Native American raids and secure settlements along the stage route.
After the Civil War, explorers and settlers began to arrive in West Texas. Conflict ensued between the Apaches and newcomers, and in the winter of 1869, troops led by Lt. H.B. Cushing penetrated the security of the Guadalupes and destroyed to primary Mescalero Apache camps. These aggressive actions were devastating to the Mescalero Apaches, who were already facing challenges in the name of food shortages, because of their limited land. By the late 1800’s, almost all of the surviving Mescalero Apaches in the U.S. were living on reservations.
Permanent settlement was uncommon in the Guadalupes though. Settlers found the mountains too dry and inhospitable for their taste, and for a number of years, the mountains remained unknown to most, even after the final displacement of the native Mescaleros. The Butterfield stage route through the mountains was abandoned for a more favorable course through along a string of army forts to the south after less than a year. Most of the settlers found the Guadalupes and their limited water sources to rugged and inhospitable. Historical evidence shows that one of the first settlers who stayed was Felix McKittrick who worked cattle around 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 known as Frijole Ranch, it served as a residence for several families throughout the years. And, as the only major building complex in the area (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 it’s 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 to 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 the Guadalupes.
Although the establishment of the park was proposed as early as 1923, the idea did not become a realty until Wallace Pratt got involved. A geologist for the then-tiny Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon); Pratt was one of the early discoverers of oil in the Permian Basin. On the hunt for oil, he became captivated with the beauty of McKittrick Canyon in what is not the north of the park. He began buying up land in the area, and donated 6,000 acres to the government in 1960. 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.
The Guadalupe Mountains today are an oasis in the desert. Numerous springs dot the foothills, providing water for thirsty creatures. The park varies in elevation from 3,600 to 8,571 feet, and has four or five different habitats.
At the southern base of the mountains, gypsum salt dunes can be found. Succulent and shrub desert ecosystems dominate the low areas. Semi-arid grasslands can be found above 5,000 feet, and coniferous forests reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains hundreds of miles north cover the highest elevations. Douglas fir and ponderosa pine are the most common trees here.
Near streams, oak and maples eke out a living. Prickly pear cactus, agave plants, and other spiky desert flora are very common in the lowlands.
The creatures of Guadalupe Mountains are hard to see, but plentiful. 60 species of mammals, 289 species of birds, and 55 species of reptiles are found in this island of diversity. The Chihuahuan desert can seem barren, but with a closer look, you can see that teems with life. The heat of the day means that many animals are nocturnal. Predators such as the bobcat, mountain lion, kit fox and coyote are nocturnal hunters. The park is also home to 16 species of bats.
The riparian woodland habitat is found near water sources. This unexpected ecosystem is home to mule deer, raccoons, and skunks. Sunfish and trout live in McKittrick Canyon streams. The rare Rio Grande leopard frog is occasionally found in spring fed pools.
In the rocky canyons such as Devils Hall, ringtails, rock squirrels, and a variety of reptiles including rock and black-nosed rattlesnakes live.
Above 3,000 feet, pine forests dominate the landscape. Up to 10 degrees cooler then the surrounding desert, it is a haven during hot times. Animals such as elk, black bear, mountain lions, mule deer, porcupines, and mountain short-horned lizards make a home here.
The conditions can be extreme in the desert. In the summer, tempurtures can soar to 100+ degrees. Summer thunderstorms can cause flash floods in dry washes. Most of all, the winds are notoriously severe. On average, winds range from 10-25 mph and have been recorded to 126 mph!
The Guadalupe Mountains are little-known. Located in a dusty corner of Texas, the park is often overlooked. Nevertheless, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a gem in the desert, an oasis for plants and animals. Full of secrets, the park begs to be explored. The long-ago underwater reef is now a different type of natural place: a place where the weary may find rest in its valleys and peaks, where the adventurous may find adventures, and where the curious may find wonder.
As you visit the park today, the distinction between past and present blurs. Life in the mountains today is not so different from life long ago. Animals still thrive in this harsh landscape, and plants stand the test of time, flowing and moving with the landscape. Majestic reefs from a time long ago still stand as a reminder that we are just a small part of the great time span, and that we are just a speck in the great thing known as life.