Guadalupe Mountains National Park

History: How the Guadalupe Mountains Were Formed

©2006 National Park Services The Guadalupe Mountains are one of the world's biggest coral reefs, dating from a time when a large part of Texas was a vast saltwater basin.

The Guadalupe Mountains are stunning to view, which begs the question: How were they formed? At more than a mile and a half above sea level, El Capitan (8,085 feet) and adjacent Guadalupe Peak (8,749 feet) are the two tallest mountains in Texas. The peaks are the most obvious sections of the Capitan Reef, most of which still lies buried thousands of feet below the desert's surface.

More than 250 million years ago, the immense reef enclosed about 10,000 square miles of a shallow inland sea. The reef was formed as the remains of lime-secreting algae and other primitive creatures that lived in the sea washed ashore. Gradually the climate of the region changed, and the sea dried up, leaving much of the reef exposed.

More millennia passed, and the seabed and the reef were buried beneath a vast plain, where they remained for millions of years. Then, about 12 million years ago, geologic processes deep beneath the earth raised and tilted the ancient seabed and reef, leaving the 40-mile section now known as the Guadalupe Mountains high and dry. In the process, the reef was fractured in several places. 

Over more millions of years, wind and water worked to turn these deep cracks into lovely canyons that slice into the mountains we see today. These chasms, including McKittrick Canyon, Dog Canyon, and many others, are the heart of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

History of the Guadalupe Mountains:

Inhabitants and Exploration

Archaeological remnants, such as spear tips, knife blades, bits of basket work, and pottery shards, attest to a human presence in the Guadalupe Mountains that goes back about 12,000 years. When people first came to the area, during the decline of the last Pleistocene ice age, the climate was wet and humid. The first people who lived here probably foraged for food and hunted such animals as camels and mammoths.

By the time Spanish explorers appeared (around 1550), wandering Mescalero Apaches often made their camps at springs near the base of the range.

Apache and Spanish legends about great treasures of gold and silver hidden in the mountains eventually drew American prospectors to this desert. In the years after the Civil War, they were followed by farmers, ranchers, and the U.S. Cavalry. 

In the Guadalupe Mountains, the Mescalero Apaches made their last stand, but by 1890 virtually every Apache had been killed or forced onto a reservation. Initially the territory was taken over by private ranching and mining interests. Over time, enough land was donated to create a park, which is still being expanded as more land becomes available to the Park Service.

The natural beauty that inspired Ansel Adams still greets visitors to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, with its scenic vistas, challenging hiking trails, and diverse ecosystems that are millions of years in the making.

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