Sunday, October 18, 2015

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Texas' Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the world's premier example of a fossil reef from the Permian Era (299 to 251 million years ago) which was the last period of the Paleozoic Era. The Permian (along with the Paleozoic) ended with the largest mass extinction in Earth's history in which nearly 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species died out. It would take well into the Triassic for life to recover from this catastrophe. In fact, recovery of the ecosystems took 30 million years.

The Guadalupe Mountains, located east of El Paso, reach their highest point at Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas with an elevation of 8,749 feet. The park also contains El Capitan, long used as a landmark by people traveling along the old route later followed by the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach line. Visitors can see the ruins of an old stagecoach station near the Pine Springs Visitor Center.

Although the establishment of the park was proposed as early as 1923, the idea did not become reality until Wallace Pratt, a geologist for the tiny Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon) became involved. He was one of the early explorers of oil and in 1921 was captivated by the geology and beauty of McKittrick Canyon and began buying land in the canyon. He built two separate homes in the canyon that were used as summer homes by Pratt and his family up until 1960.

Pratt's generous contribution of nearly 6,000 acres of McKittrick Canyon became the nucleus for Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Another 80,000 acres was later purchased by the government to complete the parcel. Congress passed the necessary legislation in 1966 and by 1970 the land transfer was complete. In 1972, Guadalupe Mountains National Park was dedicated and formally opened to the public. The national park covers 86,000 acres and is almost completely inaccessible by road. The entire place is wilderness area, and there are no roads, facilities, or services in the interior of the park. It is a backpacker's paradise, renowned for its extensive hiking and backpacking in pristine wilderness with over 80 miles of hiking trails. The trails range from short, paved trails of moderate difficulty, to strenuous, all-day or overnight backcountry hikes.

The hike to Guadalupe Peak is 8.4 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of 3000 feet. It generally takes six to eight hours and winds through pinyon pine and Douglas-fir forests, offering spectacular views of El Capitan and the vast Chihuahuan Desert. This photo shows the upper reaches of the trail.

Below is the back and top of El Capitan as seen from the trail up to Guadalupe Peak.

The McKittrick Canyon Trail is 4.8 miles round-trip to Pratt Cabin or 6.8 miles round-trip to the Grotto and it is especially popular during fall colors change season.  It takes three to five hours to hike the canyon.

The Devil’s Hall hike takes three or four hours and is 4.2 miles round-trip, and the Smith Spring Trail, which starts at Frijole Ranch, is a 2.3 mile loop trail and takes less than two hours.

About 265 million years ago, a vast tropical sea covered much of the region. Within this sea, calcareous sponges, algae, and other lime-secreting marine organisms along with lime precipitated from the seawater, built up and formed a reef that paralleled the shoreline for 400 miles. After this sea evaporated, the reef was buried in thick blankets of sediment and mineral salts and was entombed for millions of years until uplift exposed massive portions of it. Today, geologists and scientists come from around the world to study this phenomenal example of a fossilized reef.

From the NPS website: Millions of years of geological transformation formed the Guadalupes, while timeless persistence of powerful winds and the equally powerful forces of water carved its intricate character. This is a rugged mountain range, with deep, sheer-sided canyons, steep slopes, high ridges, and limited but dependable seeps and springs. The complexity of the geography allows unique life zones to shelter a staggering number of plants and animals. One needs only to walk a short distance into the park to recognize that the diversity is outstanding. Thousands of species, well equipped to tolerate the extremes of climate and topography, not only survive but thrive in near perfect harmonious balance.

Over 1000 species of plants have been found in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and their variety reflects influences from the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, and the Chihuahuan Desert. The variation in elevation (3600  to 8751 feet) and the plant life make the area difficult to classify. Many scientists recognize four or five generalized habitats ranging from succulent and shrub desert in the lowlands and south facing slopes, to semiarid grasslands above 5,000 feet, to mixed coniferous-deciduous woodlands and coniferous forests at the highest elevations.

The mountains are also home to thousands of fossils from marine animal and plant life living. This photo is from the national park service...

There are many species of non-poisonous snakes in the park and five species of rattlesnakes, though most are seldom seen by visitors. All wildlife is protected in the park and should not be disturbed or harmed. Mountain lion and bear are seldom observed by either visitors or staff.  More than 300 bird species are known to frequent the park, and there are more than 40 species alone that nest in McKittrick Canyon, making the park a birder's paradise. It is also home to three species of horned lizards, the Mountain Short-horned Lizard, the Roundtail Horned Lizard, and the Texas Horned Lizard.

For over 10,000 years, the Guadalupes Mountains have witnessed a constant stream of human history. 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.

Those horses quickly became an invaluable asset to the nomadic lifestyle of the bands of Apaches who roamed freely over much of southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Mexico. The Mescalero Apaches followed game much as the earlier peoples had done, and they also harvested the agave (or mescal) for food and fiber. Agave roasting pits and other remains of Mescalero campsites are common in the park.

They were followed by settlers, military,  entrepreneurs, ranchers, geologists, and conservationists. The history also includes bloody conflicts between Mescalero Apaches and Buffalo Soldiers, the passing of the Butterfield Overland Mail, and finally the making of a national park. Today, the settlers' history is preserved at the Frijole and Williams Ranches and at the ruins of the Pinery Station. In many instances, there is little evidence of their stay and we must carefully piece together the circumstances of their lives. But for many, the historic structures, ruins, remnants, and written record vividly recount their existence in this majestic landscape.

New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park is also in the Guadalupe Mountains and is located 42 miles from the Headquarters Visitor Center at Pine Springs.

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