Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Natural World

Natural Features & Ecosystems

Of the four elements, fire in the form of the sun and earth in the form of rock are the ones immediately obvious in the Guadalupe Mountains. These natural features are associated with eternity in many cultures and they foster a sense of timelessness when traveling through the Southwest. But it is the actions of another element, now mostly vanished or hidden, that best explain the characteristics of the land. Water, the most changeable of elements, has brought the greatest change.

Today's arid landscape is a dramatic reversal of a prehistoric marine environment. In Permian times, the entire area was underwater. Fossils in the Guadalupe Mountains' sun-drenched rock indicate that a reef formed by sponges, algae, and the skeletal material of numerous organisms, thrived here for approximately five million years.

Water was once in abundance, but now is a scarce resource in high demand. Numerous springs dot the base of the eastern escarpment and function as oases. Deep within McKittrick Canyon a spring-fed stream flows year round and even through the most severe droughts. The sheltering walls of McKittrick Canyon and the presence of water allow the remnants of Ice Age woodland to survive in a region noted for its heat and aridity. The higher elevations receive twice the amount of rainfall than the surrounding desert, and also preserve a remnant of species widespread during the Last Ice Age.

Exploring Guadalupe Mountains National Park reveals extremes in habitats ranging from gypsum dunes to coniferous forests dominated by Douglas fir, southwestern white pine, and ponderosa pine. Between these extremes is an unexpected variety as well. Over 1000 species of plants have recognized 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 (3,600 -8749 feet) and the plant life make the area difficult to classify. Many scientists recognize four to 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. These classification schemes give us something to grasp when trying to understand a land filled with magic and majesty. In the field the distinctions blur as communities blend into one another and we are reminded that Nature mocks man's categories.


One of the rewards of camping in wilderness is the view of a pristine night sky. A canopy of stars is visible from horizon to horizon on every clear night at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Over 11,000 stars and the Milky Way are easily seen here. To gaze at such a dazzling array can both humble us, as we recognize our insignificance, and inspire us as we identify with something larger than ourselves. The regular, apparent movement of the stars and planets gave the ancients the impression of an eternal order constantly turning on itself. Today, that eternal order may be changing.

Light pollution (upward directed light) from urban and suburban areas can impact the pristine night skies to be found over national parks in the West. Upward directed light is wasted energy and costly. Several lights are now available to provide full cutoff features and direct their light to the ground where it is needed. On older types of light fixtures light escapes to the sides and up where it cannot be used, and actually worsens night vision by creating glare. The National Park Service has retrofitted its lighting to help protect the night sky and has scientists monitoring light pollution levels at several parks across the country. Communities such as Tucson, AZ, have grown significantly, without the expected impact on the night sky, due to their use of lights that direct light downward only. Reach for the stars has been a phrase used to inspire us to greater heights. Perhaps, now that they are vulnerable to our technology, for once our reach should be shorter than our grasp.

Springs and Seeps

The desert is an intriguing world of intertwining species and life communities. Terrain and elevation differences account for much of the variation, from tree-lined ridge tops, to dry, rocky arroyos. In each, an appropriate habitat emerges, and a diverse assortment of life-forms flourishes. Variation in the landscape though, is most radically displayed in the vicinity of the desert's rare, but precious riparian zones. Streams, springs, and seeps bring a sense of relief to a bone-dry land of scorching heat. They provide the life-blood for a select group of species, many of which would quickly wane or perish without these microhabitats of perpetual moisture and soothing shade. The lush greenery that ribbons the edges of a rippling stream, encircles the nucleus of a gurgling spring, or desperately clings to the dampened soils of an ephemeral seep, stands in dramatic contrast to the nearby desert flora.

A dependable desert water source also serves as a beacon which attracts animals of all kinds. Though there are several exceptional desert critters that don't find it necessary to frequent a watering hole, most must consistently replenish their bodies with a regular drink. Within the natural rhythm of harmonic balance, both predator and prey come and go. They take turns from daybreak into the long hours of the night, every wary of each others presence at their preferred pools.

The reliable springs found here in the mountains, and the infringing desert, have also shaped much of its human history. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Mescalero Apaches (Nde) utilized their intimate knowledge of terrain, including the locale of every spring and seep, to establish a strong foothold in an otherwise arid environment. For hundreds of years they shared their precious water with only the native plants and animals. But by the 1800's, explorers, military expeditions, and settlers began to arrive. These newcomers also recognized the importance of the springs for their personal expansion and continued existence. All too quickly, skirmishes and fights with the Native Americans ensued. Settlers felt threatened for a variety of reasons, but much of hostility was over possession and control of the water. By the mid to late 1800's, the Apaches had been driven from the area. Without the coveted water, they could not survive.

Even today, amidst all of our technological advances, the riparian zones are often considered the "crown jewels" of the park. Each has been mapped and monitored; plant databases have been established, and wildlife observations recorded. Popular park trails lead visitors along the intermittent stream in McKittrick Canyon, past Manzanita and Smith springs near Frijole Ranch, and up to the small secretive seep hidden in the rocks on the McKittrick Canyon Nature Trail. Interpretive signs enlighten visitors about the human history and ask for support in protection and preservation of the treasured water that has always been of critical significance in the desert.

Guadalupe Wind

Is it always this windy?

The winds at Guadalupe Mountains National Park are legendary. Winter and spring tend to be the windiest seasons with sustained winds in the 30+ miles per hour range and gusts exceeding 70 miles per hour. As spring approaches, windy days become increasingly more frequent. Summer and early fall offer respite from the wind with speeds often being only 5-15 miles per hour.

Wind as a weather phenomenon is due to differences in air pressure. Areas of high pressure cause winds that blow toward areas of low pressure. Wind direction is altered by large scale factors such as the earth’s rotation and small scale factors such as local topography. The Headquarters Visitor Center at Pine Springs is situated at the top of Guadalupe Pass, which acts as a funnel with the prevailing west and southwest winds. Most storm systems (low pressure areas) tracking through the Southwest, do so in the northern portions of Arizona and New Mexico. As the systems move through the region, winds increase in the park. Strong winds in winter can be associated with cold fronts moving down the Great Plains and the eastern face of the Rockies.


Nature’s power and beauty is at its most awesome in the changes of the weather. Sunshine is plentiful in the Guadalupe Mountains, but the popular image of deserts as hot and dry is frequently shattered by monsoon rains in summer and occasionally snow in winter. With over 5,000 feet in elevation change in the park including, mountain slopes with differing aspects, and high canyon walls, local conditions can be extremely variable. For example, a summer hailstorm can drop daytime temperatures into the 50’s during the event, while just 12 miles away the desert bakes at over 100 degrees. Meanwhile, higher elevations in the park can be 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the lower elevations. Not only is there incredible variation in local conditions, but there is also a wide fluctuation in daytime highs and lows. At night, as the earth cools, heat is radiated into the atmosphere. On clear nights (which are frequent) much of the heat escapes causing temperature drops of over 30 degrees. The secret to hiking comfortably and safely is to dress in layers and be prepared for sudden weather changes.


Apache Plume
Fallugia paradoxa is a scraggly, clump-forming shrub found between 4000' and 8000' in rocky or sandy soils along roadsides, canyons, and arroyos. The small wedge-shaped leaves of this partially evergreen shrub are divided into 3 to 7 blunt-tipped lobes. Conspicuous white flowers are present all summer. Fruits are feathery balls often tinged with red or pink. The fruit reminds some people of an Indian feather bonnet, hence the common name, apache plume.

Agrito, Algerita, or Barberry
Berberis sp. is an evergreen shrub with stiff, spiny, holly-like leaflets on alternate, compound leaves. The yellow flowers grow in small clusters and yield a small reddish berry in the fall. A yellow dye can be extracted from the stems, and jelly is made from the berries. Three species are found in the park.

Mexican Orange
Choisya dumosa is an aromatic, evergreen shrub of the canyons and hillsides, that grows between 3000' and 7000'. The unique, palmately compound, opposite leaves have 5 to 10 narrow, coarsely toothed, gland-dotted leaflets. Flowers are solitary or in small clusters with 5 white petals. Young twigs are green and hairy, becoming gray and warty with age. This shrub is a member of the citrus family, but the fruits are not edible.

Desert Ceanothus or Desert Buckthorn
Ceanothus greggii is associated with rocky and often brushy slopes above 2000'. This heavily browsed, thorny shrub is seldom more than 4 feet in height. Leathery and opposite, the gray-green leaves are finely toothed and semi-evergreen. The tiny, white, fragrant flowers are produced in small axillary clusters. The berrylike fruit is green and three-lobed, turning reddish brown as it ripens.

Mountain Mahogany
Cercocarpus montanus is a slender-stemmed shrub of dry rocky areas found at elevations above 3000'. Simple oval leaves are about 1 inch long with distinct veins and coarse-toothed margins. The tiny flowers lack petals, but the sepals form a greenish tube that holds the many stamens. In autumn, fuzzy, spiral tails 1 to 3 inches long are found on the small seeds.

Skunkbush, Squawbush, or Desert Sumac
Rhus trilobata is a heavily browsed shrub found above 3500'. Leaves are alternate and compound with three lance-shaped, toothed or lobed leaflets. Tiny flowers with yellow petals appear in dense clusters before the leaves develop. The reddish-orange, hairy berries are used to make a lemonade-like drink. Indians used the stems in basket making. The leaves turn red in fall and are aromatic when crushed.

Evergreen Sumac
Rhus virens, an evergreen shrub of rocky hillsides and cliffs, is found above 2000'. The alternate, compound leaves are leathery with 5 to 9 leaflets and entire margins. Tiny white flowers appear in clusters after rains. The reddish fruit is covered with short hairs and used to make a lemonade-type beverage.

Catclaw Acacia
Acacia greggii is found between 3500' and 5000' along streams and arroyos and in canyons. This shrub or small tree often grows in almost impenetrable thickets. Leaves are bipinnate with 2 to 6 pinnae each and 4 to 14 oblong, prominently nerved leaflets. Flowers are cylindrical, yellow, and grow up to 11/2 inches in length. Seed pods are flat, linear, and irregular constricted between seeds. Spines along the branches are curved back like the claws of a cat, hence the name.

Larrea tridentata is one of the most long-lived and abundant desert plants of North and South America. It is often found in pure stands. The small, leathery, evergreen leaves occur in pairs united at the base. When it rains, five-petaled flowers appear and the air is permeated with the fragrance of creosote bush. The fuzzy white seed balls are relished by rodents. When crushed, the resinous leaves smell like the petroleum by-product, creosote.



Bigtooth Maple
Acer grandidentatum occurs in canyons and moist soils of the mountains of Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas. The tree may grow to a height of 50 feet. Leaves are opposite and typically 21/2, inches in diameter, with three broad, blunt lobes. Fruits occur in winged pairs called samaras. The bark is gray to light brown and may be smooth or scaly. This tree is responsible for the brilliant reds and yellows during the fall color display.

Gray (Grey) Oak
Quercus grisea, a common shrubby oak of the Southwest, grows in dry rocky sites at elevations between 4500' and 7800'. The leaves are small and oval, usually smooth margined, but occasionally toothed. They are dusty blue-gray in color, hence the name. Star-shaped hairs appear on both sides of the leaves. The acorns are small and stalked. The leaves turn brown in autumn and are retained on the twigs until new ones emerge in the spring. Oaks tend to hybridize, leading to variations in leaf form and other botanical characteristics and making positive identification of individual trees difficult. Guadalupe Mountains has seven species of oak; chinquapin and gray oak are the most distinctive.

Honey Mesquite
Prosopis glandulosa is a common and widespread desert shrub or tree usually found below 5000' along streams and arroyos. Root systems penetrate the soil to a depth of 60 feet; thus, there is often more wood below than above ground. The branches have sturdy, straight thorns. Flowers are catkin-like clusters of green-yellow. They are rich in nectar and attract honeybees, which produce an excellent light honey. The shiny green leaves are bipinnate with 2 to 8 pinnae each, with 12 to 60 leaflets. The fruits, which ripen in the fall, hang like string beans from the branches. Cattle eat the beans contributing to the spread of mesquite. Mesquite wood is popular for barbecuing.

Littleleaf Walnut
Juglans microcarpa occurs in southern New Mexico and west Texas along streams coming off the foothills. Trees are small and shrubby, often with several stems, typically 20 to 30 feet in height. Leaves are pinnately compound with 13 to 23 leaflets. Leaflets are narrow and long with fine teeth at the margins. The tiny walnuts, seldom more than a half inch in diameter, are gathered by squirrels and other animals.

Arbutus texana is found on rocky slopes or or canyon walls in the desert mountains of south eastern New Mexico and west Texas between 4500' and 6500'. This rain forest relict has alternate, oval, evergreen leaves up to 3 inches long. The urn-shaped flowers are white or pink and in clusters at the end of the branches. The tree, which grows to 30 feet tall, has a gnarled trunk. The reddish bark peels with age, revealing younger white or pink bark. The local name "manzanita" refers to the bright red fruit that looks like "little apples."

Mexican Buckeye
Ungnadia speciosa is a small, much-branched shrub or tree of west Texas and southern New Mexico. It grows among the rocks and in canyons. Fragrant rose-colored flowers appear before the new leaves. Leaves are compound with 5 to 7 leaflets that are up to 5 inches long with toothed margins. Two-inch brown seed pods or capsules are borne on short stalks. They are three-celled and contain one shiny black seed per cell. This tree is not a true buckeye, but is a member of the soapberry family.

Juniperus sp. have short scale-like needles and grow in dry rocky soils in the foothills or lower mountains. The seeds are borne in scaled cones, and the scales eventually grow together to produce a berrylike structure. Cones may be blue or red, depending on the species. In addition to being eaten by animals, the "berries" are used to flavor gin. The largest alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) in Texas is located in the park. Three other species of junipers also grow here.

Pinyon Pine (Piñon)
Pinus edulis grows between 5000' and 7000', often mixed with junipers and shrubby oaks. Normally this reddish-barked tree is small and many branched. The leaves or needles, clustered in bundles of 2 or 3 are 3/4 to 11/2 inches long and dark green. The cones are about 2 inches long and contain wingless edible seeds, 1/2 inch in length. Man and animals alike relish the rich tasty seeds. One pound of pinyon nuts contains more than 3000 calories. It is the state tree of New Mexico.

Ponderosa Pine
Pinus ponderosa is typically found about 6000' feet but a few strays can bee seen in the lower canyons. This large tree (to 180 feet) is the most valuable lumber tree in the United States. The bark is dark brown to black in young trees, turning yellowish-red with age. To some people, the bark smells like vanilla. Needles grow in clusters of 2 or 3 and are 5 inches long. The immature cones are green and tightly closed, changing to reddish-brown as they ripen. Winged seeds are released from the cones and eaten by rodents.



Precipitation patterns, in combination with duration and abundance of moisture in the southwest determine not only blooming periods for wildflowers, but also whether or not one can expect to see flowers in limited quantities and locations, or a sea of vibrant colors splashed across the landscape. The hottest deserts in the southwest - the Sonoran and the Mohave - are famous for their early spring wildflowers, because they often receive reliable rains in winter. About every ten years or so, perfect conditions allow wildflower seeds to germinate by the billions and create an outstanding wildflower show that blankets hundreds of thousands of acres of otherwise sparsely-coated desert.

The Chihuahuan desert on the other hand, rarely receives any significant precipitation in winter or spring. Because of the dry nature of these seasons, particularly spring, this cooler and higher-elevation desert favors not annuals but perennials, cacti and succulents, and shrubs. Spring wildflowers in the Chihuahuan desert generally bloom later than those of the Sonoran or Mohave deserts, and tend to be ground-hugging perennials that hide among the rocks, grasses and other plants. This important adaptation not only helps protect them from predators, but also secures them from detrimental weather elements such as damaging winds or a late season freeze. Though the desert is rich with diversity, many varieties that bloom right under foot go unnoticed because of their inconspicuous nature. Flowers that are most appreciated are often those of the cacti, such as claret cups (April), prickly pears and chollas (May), succulents such as ocotillo (April), and yuccas, agaves, and sotols (May). Visitors also enjoy the flowering trees including Texas madrone, Mexican buckeye, and honey mesquite - all of which are as fragrant as they are beautiful.

Immediately following summer "monsoon" rains, a whole new crop of plants begin to bloom, and some will last well into fall. Many of these plants, such as gayfeather and cardinal flower provide important nectar sources for butterflies, bees and other insects.

The temperate nature of the desert climate insures that something will be blooming nearly any time of the year. And if your timing is perfect, you may have the opportunity to catch a brief, but spectacular profusion of wildflowers, and one of nature's finest moments.


The grasses comprise the most widely distributed family of flowering plants, and the largest in terms of numbers of individuals. They are found in almost all habitats and on all continents, including Antarctica. The family appears to have originated near the beginning of the Tertiary geologic era, perhaps in association with the rise of grazing animals. The generative response of grasses to fires ignited by plains tribes contributed to the vast extent of the prairie ecosystem with its unsurpassed soils and 60 million bison. Minute flowers of grasses are wind pollinated, highly specialized in structure, and thus possess a descriptive terminology all their own.

Of all plants on earth, grasses and their seeds are of the greatest use to the human race. Nine of the ten most economically important plants are grasses. Civilization as we know it would not exist without them. To the grasses belong the cereals, including wheat, corn (maize), rice, barley, rye, and oats. It has been justifiably stated that wheat, com, and rice are the crops that feed the world; rice is a staple food for more of the world's peoples than any other plant. Also of tremendous significance are sugarcane, sorghum, millet and bamboos (the largest of the grasses, regularly attaining a height of over 100 feet).

Because they furnish the bulk of the forage and feed of grazing animals, grasses are also the basis of the animal industry. Throughout centuries, grasses have not only nourished us, but have served as or provided us with construction supplies and art materials, fiber, clothing, paper, utensils, wax, oils, boats, floats, conduits, and even corncob pipes, fishing rods, and walking canes. They hold soils in place and provide wildlife with food and habitat.


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 6000’ 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.

Cacti / Desert Succulents

Cacti and succulents, such as agaves and yuccas are xerophytes – plants that are highly adapted to arid conditions. Forced to survive by conserving water, these plants have evolved into uniquely shaped plants, with many unusual characteristics. Though cacti and agaves (and yuccas) are often confused, agaves and yuccas have long fibrous leaves that may be barbed, while cacti have thick fleshy stems, pads, or branches. These form as ribs or knobs that swell and contract, accordion style, as water is stored or lost. A cacti’s “skin” is coated with a waxy layer that effectively protects the plant against moisture loss and provides protection from the sun’s radiant heat. Essentially, leaves have been replaced by spine clusters, which form within defined areas called areoles. Some species, such as prickly pears and chollas also possess numerous glochids, or barbed hairs that are located at the center of the spine clusters. Tiny glochids may go unnoticed or appear fuzzy and soft, but are dangerously sharp. Cacti also have broad, shallow root systems that allow them to rapidly absorb large quantities of water during brief rains where precipitation only superficially moistens the upper soil layers. Cacti use a photosynthesis process (unique to succulents) called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism or CAM. Pores in the skin surface, called stomata, open only at night. Carbon dioxide is taken in through these minute openings and chemically stored as an organic acid. Much less of the plant’s preciously stored moisture is lost in this process during the night, than would be in the heat of the day. During the day, carbon dioxide is internally released from the acid and made available to the plant. The trade-off with this unusual, and delayed method of photosynthesis is that cacti and succulent species generally grow very slowly.

Flowers of both the cacti and the agaves and yuccas are very beautiful and quite striking. Agaves and yuccas generally produce tall stalks. Stalks may grow several feet per night, allowing them to reach towering heights before hungry predators can nibble off the delicious flowering tips. Fragrant blossoms form as tight clusters along the upper portion of the stalk or may branch out in radiant beauty, such as those of the century plant. Many cacti species have huge, showy blossoms ranging in color from shimmering magenta, to flashy red-orange, to sunshine yellow. Agaves, yuccas, and many of the cacti species bloom from April through June. Pollinators including bees, and moths depend on these plants for nectar, as do early migrating hummingbirds and Scott’s orioles.

Succulents found here in Guadalupe Mountains National Park include several species of yuccas, beargrass, sotol, agaves, and ocotillo. There are close to 50 species of cacti including prickly pears, chollas, hedgehogs, and pincushions, and many like the Claret Cup are “show-stoppers” whose brilliant blossoms attract visitors from around the world.


Although usually associated with moist tropical regions, ferns are found in almost every imaginable habitat in the world's temperate zones, including deserts. Perennial ferns are often found growing in moisture-retaining crevices, a viable adaptation for survival in the desert. They remain dormant throughout most of the year, simply awaiting infrequent rains to grow and reproduce.

Desert ferns possess excellent drought-resistant features, including hardened and thickened tissues, a waxy layer covering leaf surfaces, highly dissected leaves, leaves that curl into compact balls, and leaf and stem surface hairs. These features help to disperse heat, reduce evaporation, and retard the destructive effects of hot winds.

Typically, ferns are composed of an underground stem (rhizome) with roots and a number of compound green leaves (fronds) that extend well above ground. They lack flowers or seeds. In season, clusters of tiny capsules containing numerous ripening spores develop on the undersides of the leaflets. Eventually the capsules snap open, catapulting millions of minute spores into the breeze. These may remain viable for years. Ferns may also reproduce by means of creeping rootstocks.


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.

Geologic Formations

The Permian Period of geologic time occurred from 225 to 280 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 were constantly moving over the softer material below, steadily changing the pattern of the earth's surface. The supercontinent of Pangaea had not broken apart at this time and New Mexico and Texas occupied the western edge of this landmass nearer the equator. A vast Permian Ocean surrounded Pangaea. A narrow inlet, the Hovey Channel, connected the Permian Ocean with the Permian Basin. This inland sea covered parts of what is today northern Mexico and the southern United States. The Permian Basin had three shallow arms: the Marfa, Delaware, and Midland basins. The middle arm (the Delaware Basin) contained the Delaware Sea which was 150 miles long and 75 miles wide and was situated in what is now Western Texas and Southeastern New Mexico.

During the late Permian Period, a reef developed near the border of the Delaware Sea. This was the Capitan Reef, recognized as one of the premier fossil reefs of the world and best exposed in the Guadalupe Mountains. Growth of this massive reef ended near the close of the Permian Period. For several million years, the reef had expanded and thrived along the rim of the Delaware Basin, until events altered the environment critical to its growth. The outlet to the ocean was restricted and the Delaware Sea began to evaporate faster that it could be replenished. Minerals began to precipitate out of the vanishing waters and drift to the seafloor forming thin bands of sediments. Gradually, over thousands of years these thin bands entirely filled the basin and covered the reef.

About 26 million years ago, faulting occurred in this area uplifting this long-buried portion of the Capitan Reef nearly two miles from its original position. This uplifted block was then exposed to wind and rain causing the softer overlying sediments to be eroded until the resistant reef was uncovered. Today the reef towers above the desert floor as it once dominated the floor of the Delaware Sea 250 million years ago.

Rock exposures in Guadalupe Mountains National Park are composed of reef, back-reef, fore-reef, and basin sediments.

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

The end of the Permian brought one of the greatest mass extinctions of all time. This event greatly affected life of the Delaware Sea. 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 reef builders.

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 several transitions from shallow-water deposits 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. Some two miles of Permian strata are exposed in and adjacent to the Guadalupe Mountains due to faulting which uplifted this section of the ancient fossil reef.

Faulting in this area began about twenty-six million years ago. Along a series of branching faults that run close to the base of the Western Escarpment, the western edge of the Guadalupe fault block has been lifted more than two miles from its original position below sea level. Fault zones that form the eastern border of the Salt Basin and the western edge of the Guadalupe Block are complex. They were formed 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 8749 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 Cherry Canyon siltstones and sandstones and the Brushy Canyon sandstones. These sandstones and siltstones were deposited as sediment filled in sub-marine channels in the basin.


Guadalupe Mountains National Park could easily be described as one of America's best-kept secrets. As if “hidden in plain view”, travelers often overlook the park as they drive by. To many, the massive rock face of El Capitan isn’t impressive, but forbidding as it stands steadfast in a sea of harsh, barren desert. What else could possibly be here? Or live here?

It is easy to mistake the desert’s magic for emptiness, and towering rocks and jagged peaks as treacherous, not worthy of further exploration. But beyond one's first glimpse is an important geological story captured in the rocks and fossils.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park preserves one of the finest examples of an ancient, marine fossil reef on earth. During the Permian Age, about 250 million years ago, a vast tropical ocean covered much of the region. Within this sea, calcareous sponges, algae, and other lime-secreting marine organisms, along with lime precipitated from the seawater, build up and formed the reef that paralleled the shoreline for 400 miles. After the ocean evaporated, the reef was buried in thick blankets of sediments 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 natural resource.

Millions of years of geological transformation formed the skeleton of 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.