Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park



The unique ecosystems of Guadalupe Mountains National Park make it a magnet for birds residing in or migrating through the Chihuahuan Desert. Nearly 300 different species of birds have been seen here, making it a birders paradise.

Birds adapt to life in the desert easier than most animals since their normal body temperatures run from 104 to 108 degrees. Some common desert birds include the canyon towhee, rufous-crowned sparrow, black-chinned sparrow, black-throated sparrow, scaled quail, northern mockingbird, loggerhead shrike, ladder-backed woodpecker, and white-winged dove. Roadrunners are often seen running across the desert in search of snakes, lizards, and insects. Turkey vultures, golden eagles, and red-tailed hawks can usually be seen soaring overhead. In the summer, watch for broad-tailed and black-chinned hummingbirds, as well as Scott’s orioles and blue grossbeaks. The phainopepla is a black bird with a crested head that feeds on berries from the parasitic mistletoe, found on many of the oaks in the park. Phainopeplas as well as pyrrhuloxias (reddish cardinal-like birds) are common winter residents.

Birdlife can be especially abundant in the riparian areas. Western, summer, and hepatic tanagers, Wilson’s and Grace’s warblers, and plumbeous vireos arrive each spring. Most warblers pass through each spring and fall on their long migrations. The plumbeous vireos and tanagers spend the summer nesting in the Guadalupes, and then migrate to warmer climates for the winter. Black phoebes can occasionally be seen searching for insects over open water. White-throated swifts and violet-green swallows are often seen catching insects over Manzanita Springs. Broad-tailed hummingbirds feed on the nectar being produced by penstemons and other riparian flowers.

The beautiful call of the canyon wren can often be heard echoing through canyons of the Guadalupe Mountains. This small bird is often seen creeping into cracks in the rocks in search of insects, spiders, and scorpions.
Peregrine falcons nest in the high, inaccessible cliffs in McKittrick and Pine Springs canyons. Peregrines are capable of reaching speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour as they dive for prey, which usually consists of other birds.

Mountaintop forests provide a unique habitat that attracts a variety of birds including the mountain chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, dark-eyed junco, bushtit, acorn woodpecker, and the pine siskin. Chickadees and nuthatches are often seen in mixed species flocks flitting through the pines looking for seeds and insects. In the mid 1980’s, Montezuma quail were reintroduced in the Guadalupe Mountains after being eliminated in the mid 1900’s. They are occasionally seen today in the high elevation forests. At night one may hear the call of a western screech owl, great-horned owl, flammulated owl, or even the rare spotted owl.


The lowlands of Guadalupe Mountains National Park shimmer under the sun’s rays. Mirages appear at the horizon and distant mountain ranges look like ships sailing on a desert sea. In this vast and timeless landscape the imagination is given free reign, but nothing prepares the mind for the reality that lies underfoot. Buried in earthen tanks created by ranchers and natural depressions are life forms ill-suited for the desert’s extremes. Only after the drumming of summer’s heavy downpours can they be summoned. For a brief span of time thousands of frogs become locally abundant, their nightly chorus audible up to a mile away. Amphibians are one of the desert’s greatest surprises.

Nine species of amphibians can be found in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Some of these amphibians, such as Rio Grande leopard frogs, are abundant in McKittrick Canyon where there is permanent water, but most of the park’s amphibians spend most of their existence underground in a state of suspended animation.

Couch’s spadefoot toads exemplify the ability of an animal vulnerable to the desert’s heat to alter its lifestyle to meet the desert’s demands. Like all amphibians, it must breathe through its skin and keep its skin moist. The toad can survive the dry spells (most of the year) by living underground. While underground a protective sheath of unshed skin forms around them. The toad’s metabolism slows and it is able to tolerate a loss of 50% of its water.

For brief periods in summer water accumulates after monsoonal rains and provides the ideal breeding and feeding grounds for these water dependent creatures. These water sources often disappear quickly. For spadefoot toads timing is critical. Spadefoot toads will congregate at temporary pools to mate and lay their eggs. Once the eggs are laid the race is on. The eggs will hatch within 3 days and the tadpoles will reach maturity in as little as two weeks. After this frenzy of activity and growth, the frog chorus disappears with the rain. Once mature, the adult frogs will bury themselves alive and wait for next year’s storms.

Wildlife Viewing

Although the diversity of ecosystems in the Guadalupe Mountains allows for an incredible variety of wildlife, animals are not as commonly encountered, as many people would expect. This is due primarily to hot, dry, desert conditions present throughout much of the park. Most animals in desert ecosystems are nocturnal, and are most active after dark, or during early daylight hours when conditions are much cooler. It is often easier to observe animal signs than to see the animals themselves. Look for tracks, scat, rubbings or diggings, nests and dens.

Some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities in the park are around the few permanent water sources. Smith Springs, Manzanita Spring, and McKittrick Canyon are easily accessed, and are places where animals are frequently encountered.

Mule deer live throughout the park, and are often seen browsing near the campground or along park trails. Occasionally, especially in winter months, elk may be seen grazing near springs or along the highway corridor. Other mammals that may be seen include coyotes, the gray fox, desert cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbits, ringtails, and rock squirrels. Lucky visitors will occasionally encounter a mountain lion or a pack of javalinas. Though black bears also live in the high country, they are rarely observed.

During the warmer months, reptiles are commonly seen. Lizards, such as the Chihuahuan spotted whiptail, the prairie lizard, or the collared lizard are frequently encountered as they scurry across the desert floor. Watch for the mountain short-horned lizard in the higher elevations. Rattlesnakes, like the western diamondback and black-tailed rattlesnake are often seen along many of the park trails.


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.


Many people restrict the term wildlife for animals that have fur or feathers. By doing so, they overlook some of the animals best adapted to the desert and most likely to be seen. When the mind conjures images of the desert, lizards basking on rocks, or rattlesnakes coiled at the base of shrubs are often part of that picture. These archetypal images are only part of the story. As you explore the park and discover how different it is from desert expanses that surround it, you will find reptiles displaying fascinating behaviors and a beautiful array of patterns and forms worthy of the attention of any wildlife lover.


Many desert mammals 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 mammals include the kit fox, coyote, mountain lion, bobcat, badger, 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. During the hottest hours of the day, these animals will find a shady area to avoid the heat. Jackrabbits and mule deer use their large ears to radiate heat away from their bodies to keep cool. Javelinas are often seen eating the pads of a prickly pear cactus. They obtain all of the water that they need to survive through the plants that they eat. The Texas antelope squirrel is a common diurnal or daytime animal. It uses its white tail as an umbrella to help reflect sunlight away from its body to stay cool.

Mule deer are one of the most common animals seen in the park. They can often be seen browsing on trees and shrubs, always staying on the move, making themselves less vulnerable to predator attacks. The reclusive and seldom seen mountain lion is active primarily at night. Mountain lions can be found in any of the ecosystems in the park, although they prefer areas in which deer are abundant. An adult lion can kill and eat one or two deer per week.

Nocturnal mammals such as skunks and raccoons are often found in riparian areas. The hog-nosed skunk is a rooter that uses its long claws and pig-like snout to dig in the ground for beetles, grubs, and worms. Raccoons search for food after dark near running streams. Their diet consists of fish and frogs, as well as mesquite beans, cactus fruits, and berries.

The rocky canyons are home to the nocturnal ringtail. The ringtail, which looks like a cross between a fox and a weasel, is actually a relative of the raccoon. In the evening, the ringtail uses its large eyes and ears to hunt for insects, lizards, small rodents, and berries.

The rock squirrel is the largest squirrel found in the Guadalupe Mountains. It is commonly seen in rocky canyons and washes in the early morning and late afternoon. They are excellent climbers and may be seen foraging in the trees for fruits, nuts, and seeds.

Mountaintop forests of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine are home to mammals such as elk, black bear, gray foxes, striped and hog-nosed skunks, mule deer, and mountain lions. The elk that were native to the Guadalupe Mountains were hunted to extinction by the late 1800’s. In 1928, rancher J.C. Hunter imported 44 elk from the Black Hills of South Dakota and released them in McKittrick Canyon. Today the population is estimated to be between 30 and 40 animals.

Black bears are shy, reclusive, and rarely seen. They generally do not hibernate here since it is usually mild enough in the Guadalupe Mountains to find food all year round. Black bears feed on nuts, berries, roots, insects, and small mammals.

The gray fox is an animal of the forests and canyons. It is not a very fast animal and prefers to ambush its prey, which consists of rodents and other small mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. The gray fox has been known to climb trees to forage for berries and fruit, or to capture prey.