The arid plains of west Texas may be the last place that would evoke images of a marine environment, yet two hours east of El Paso you can find just that. Guadalupe Mountains National Park preserves one of the best examples of an ancient fossil reef in the world. This 86,000 acre area protects not only a spectacular wonder of geology but many plants, animals, and human artifacts as well.
The geology of the Guadalupe Mountains can be traced back to the Permian Period, a time when giant conifers and giant synapsid vertebrates like dimetrodons ruled the land. Around 265 million years ago tectonic activity had the landmasses of the earth compressed into the supercontinent of Pangaea. Surrounding the land was the massive Panthalassic Ocean, and an inlet called the Permian Basin covered what is now west Texas.
For millions of years marine life filled this warm, shallow sea. Sponges, algae, bryozoans, brachiopods, crinoids, and many other organisms thrived in the idyllic conditions offshore. As each generation died out, the calcite and aragonite components of their skeletons accumulated on the sea floor, gradually building the limestone of the Capitan Reef.
Over time changing conditions slowly buried this sea with younger sediments like sand and mud. Filled in and dried up for tens of millions of years, it wasn’t until about 20 million years ago that it again began to see the light of day. Tectonic collisions off of the west coast compressed and uplifted this region, and over millennia faulting thrust the fossilized Capitan Reef thousands of feet upward. Erosion gradually worked away at the softer layers above, slowing to a crawl once it reached the resistant limestone of the reef.
Today the remains of ancient Permian Basin life have helped create a home for a variety of modern organisms. They’ve also helped create a massive oil and natural gas reserve, and thousands of wells and oil workers surround the Guadalupe Mountains. This activity highlights the importance of national parks to preserve the unique features of our land from economically necessary but ecologically damaging enterprises.
I began my visit to this national park at the Pine Springs visitor center at dawn. From here I began to hike up the Devil’s Hall Trail, a relatively easy route that follows Pine Spring Canyon. Alone in the early morning hours, this warning sign had me a bit wary but undeterred:
As I started up the canyon I came across a variety of local plants, including prickly pear (Opuntia sp., Cactaceae) and yucca (Yucca sp., Asparagaceae)…
…cholla (Cylindropuntia sp., Cactaceae)…
…sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri, Asparagaceae)…
…and Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis, Ericaceae):
Continuing deeper into the canyon, I quickly became aware of the silence of the wilderness and how alone I was. The sudden sound of rocks slipping down the canyon wall raised the hairs on the back of my neck. All too aware of the mountain lion warnings I stood alert, only to discover a small herd of mule deer (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Odocoileus hemionus) on the opposite side of the canyon:
Relieved I pressed onward. After about a mile (1.6 km) I turned south to start up the Guadalupe Peak Trail. Before long the elevation gain gave me a better view of Pine Spring Canyon below:
On the way up the massive limestone peaks provided a dizzying gallery of rock on all sides:
Continuing upward there were spectacular views of Hunter Peak and the mouth of Pine Spring Canyon:
After I had gained about 1000 feet (300 m) of elevation up Guadalupe Peak I paused to take in the amazing view to the south:
Although I would have loved to continue up Guadalupe Peak, time constraints forced me to turn back toward the visitor center. From here the trail back down was steep, but there were abundant cholla and prickly pear cacti to see on the way:
I then headed over to the ruins of the Pinery Station, a stagecoach stop along the Butterfield Overland Mail route that ran between St. Louis and San Francisco in the late 1850s:
North of here I visited the Frijole Ranch, a homestead established by two brothers in the 1870s. Several fresh water springs emerge in the area, providing water that was essential to livestock and crops throughout the early twentieth century.
My final stop was at Manzanita Spring, a pool of clear water that looked refreshing against the parched El Capitan and Guadalupe Peak:
Although my time in the Guadalupe Mountains was short, this national park quickly earned my respect and desire to return. The isolation, varied landscapes, plants, wildlife, cultural features, and extensive, challenging trails made this park one to remember. A return visit to backpack to the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, is now high on my to-do list.