In the Guadalupe Mountains are the four highest peaks in Texas: Guadalupe Peak, Bush Mountain, Shumard Peak, and Bartlett Peak. Most of the Guadalupes are actually in New Mexico; Guadalupe Mountains National Park includes only the part of the range, the highest and southernmost, that lies in northwestern Culberson County, Texas. Along with the Apache Mountains in southern Culberson County and the Glass Mountains near Marathon, the Guadalupes are the only exposed portions of the largest fossil reef in the world, a 400-mile-long horseshoe that formed at the edge of the Delaware Basin of the Permian Sea some 250 million years ago. The principal reef-builders were lime-secreting algae, sponges, bryozoans, and brachiopods, the skeletons of which eventually formed a carbonate wall 1,300 feet high. Over millions of years the old reef and basin were buried under sand and silt from streams. The Guadalupes began to uplift about seventy million years ago. As the reef rocks rose, erosion removed the sediment covering them, and the rocks fractured. Slightly acidic groundwater entered the fractures and dissolved cavities in the limestone; Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico is one such cavity.
At the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, some 11,000 years ago, such animals as the Shasta ground sloth, saber-toothed tiger, North American rhinoceros, and mammoth roamed the Guadalupes; more recently, extirpated species include the gray wolf, grizzly bear, white-tail deer, Merriam's elk, bison, and mountain sheep. The Guadalupes are also home to various other plant and animal species considered locally rare or endangered. Among these are the bigtooth maple, Texas madrone, Rocky Mountain juniper, chinquapin oak, Mexican buckeye, Arizona starleaf, peregrine falcon, Western pocket gopher, gray-footed chipmunk, Davis Mountains cottontail, and Texas antelope ground squirrel.
The earliest human artifact found in the mountains is a 12,000-year-old Folsom point, and artifacts and pictographs from later hunter-gatherer tribes have also been discovered. These nomadic tribes, now identified by the different types of baskets they wove, apparently lived in the mountains only in the summer. By about 6,000 years ago, during a protracted drought, these stone-age hunters had disappeared, and Indians were present. They were still nomadic hunter-gatherers with no knowledge of agriculture. The most famous inhabitants of the Guadalupes, the Apaches, arrived about 600 years ago. They sheltered in caves and lived on agave, yucca, and sotol when meat was unavailable; traces of their agave-roasting pits are still visible in the mountains. The first European to see the Mescalero Apaches, on the prairie just east of the Guadalupes, was probably Antonio de Espejo in August 1583. Using the Guadalupes as their home base, the Mescaleros were riding against the Navajos and Pueblos on the plains as early as 1630, and by 1680 were raiding El Paso del Norte. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, Comanches from the Llano Estacado had curtailed the activities of the Mescaleros.
The rugged terrain and isolated location of the Guadalupes kept them free from white exploration for centuries. In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, demand increased for a link between eastern and central Texas and the West, and exploration of the mountains began in earnest. In 1849 John S. (Rip) Ford and Maj. Robert Neighbors, Lt. Francis T. Bryan, and Capt. Randolph B. Marcy all led expeditions through the Guadalupes, as did Capt. John Pope in 1854. One of the most vivid early descriptions of the Guadalupes was written by John Russell Bartlett, appointed to negotiate the United States-Mexican boundary under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Bartlett crossed the mountains en route to El Paso in November 1850. He called the Guadalupes "a dark, gloomy-looking range, with bold and forbidding sides, consisting of huge piles of rock, their debris heaped far above the surrounding hills," and suggested that the proposed transcontinental railroad follow a route to the south of the mountains. Traffic in the Guadalupes increased even more after September 1858, when the first westbound Butterfield Overland Mail coach reached the Pinery station en route to San Francisco. The prominence of the mountains made them an unmistakable landmark; a New York newspaperman on that first coach wrote, "The Guadalupe peak loomed up before us all day in the most aggravating manner." Considerably more aggravating, and dangerous, were the Mescaleros, whose continued depredations prompted the Butterfield to shift its route south, where it had the protection of a string of army forts, in August 1859. The various army units sent out in pursuit of the Mescaleros had been loath to chase their quarry into the mountains, but in 1869 and 1870 troops from Fort Stanton, New Mexico, and Fort Quitman entered the Guadalupes and destroyed several Mescalero encampments. The brilliant chief Victorio managed to elude his pursuers for another decade, but the days of Mescalero dominance in the mountains were unmistakably coming to an end. In January 1881 a company of Texas Rangers under George W. Baylor ambushed the lone surviving band of Mescalero raiders in the Sierra Diablo, to the south of the Guadalupes, in the last major Indian fight in Texas.
Even before the elimination of the Apache threat, white ranchers were moving into the Guadalupes. Felix McKittrick acquired land at the mouth of the canyon that now bears his name in 1869, and in 1876 two brothers named Rader built a house, still used as a park ranger's residence, near Frijole Spring. But ranchers were not the only men pushing into the mountains; prospectors, inspired by persistent rumors of fabulously rich Spanish gold mines in the Guadalupes, also came to the Guadalupes. Such tales seem fanciful today, but characters as diverse as the Chiricahua chief Geronimo and Gen. Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur and the governor of New Mexico from 1878 to 1881, apparently believed them. Other white settlers arrived in the early twentieth century. Among them were J. T. and Nella Mae Smith at Frijole and Walter and Bertha Glover at Pine Springs. Around 1908 Robert Belcher built a two-mile-long aqueduct down Bone Canyon. It fed a tank that became the only permanent source of water within fifty miles. But the two men who were to have the most profound influence on the Guadalupe Mountains were J. C. Hunter, Jr., whose father was the leading rancher in the area by the 1920s, and petroleum geologist Wallace E. Pratt, who built a stone house at McKittrick Canyon in 1930. The Hunters were both ranchers and environmentalists. As early as 1925 the father petitioned the federal government to make the area a national park; four years later he introduced wapiti elk into the mountains, replacing the indigenous Merriam's elk, which had been hunted out in the nineteenth century, and in 1941 he and Pratt stocked McKittrick Canyon with trout. Four years after that Pratt retired and moved to McKittrick Canyon. In 1961 he deeded 5,600 acres to the National Park Service, and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park was opened to the public in September 1972.