Guadalupe Mountains National Park, in Hudspeth and Culberson counties on the New Mexico border, preserves some of the exposed remnants of the Capitan Reef, one of the world's finest examples of ancient barrier reefs. The Guadalupe Range slopes upward from New Mexico to its highest peak within the national park. The park comprises 76,293 acres and includes the four highest peaks in Texas. Beginning some 250 million years ago, seawater and decaying marine organisms deposited lime along the shallow shelf of the Delaware Basin of the Permian Sea, forming a reef many hundreds of feet thick. Sediments buried the reef as the ocean drained away. Compression within the earth pushed up the area within the past ten to twelve million years. Erosion began to wear away the softer sedimentary rock, exposing parts of the hard limestone of the Capitan Reef. In a process that continues today, runoff from the old reef began to deposit salt on the flats now west of the park boundaries.
Plants and animals combine in the park in a mixture of species native to Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, and the eastern United States. The park includes a small segment of the Chihuahuan Desert and protects such desert species as prickly pear cacti, walking-stick chollas, kangaroo rats, and coyotes. The cliffs of McKittrick Canyon harbor an oasis of spring-fed streams, porcupines, mule deer, and lush stands of grey oak, velvet ash, bigtooth maple, and alligator juniper. Wild turkeys, elk, mountain lions, and black bears roam forests of conifers and aspens at higher elevations. Many species of birds, ranging from hummingbirds to golden eagles, may be found in the park. Aoudad sheep that were introduced into the Guadalupes from North Africa by hunting-lease operators have taken over the ecological niche once occupied by desert bighorn sheep, which had been killed off in the Guadalupes by 1910 (see EXOTICS). Federal law now protects all animals, plants, fossils, and natural or historical objects in the park.
Hunter-gatherer groups left pictographs and cooking pits in the Guadalupes as early as 12,000 years ago; some Indian rock art sites are now accessible by park trails. Mescalero Apaches claimed the Guadalupes as one of their last strongholds after Comanche horsemen and subsequently the United States Army pushed them from the plains below. As early as 1680 the Apaches raided the small community of El Paso del Norte (Ciudad Juárez), 100 miles to the west, and for nearly two centuries harassed Comanches and Whites alike from the Guadalupe highlands. A troop of United States Cavalry, led by Lt. Howard B. Cushing, devastated a Mescalero encampment at Manzanillo Springs on December 30, 1869. A company of Texas Rangers ambushed the remaining, fugitive Guadalupe Apaches on January 29, 1881, at Hueco Tanks (see HUECO TANKS STATE HISTORIC SITE). The first Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoaches to leave either end of the St. Louis-San Francisco mail route met just west of Guadalupe Pass in 1858. The Pinery stagecoach station near Pine Springs was once a regular stop, and its stone foundations remain near the park entrance.
Most of the land within the park was once the Guadalupe Mountain Ranch, sold to the federal government by J. C. Hunter, Jr., whose father had purchased the ranch in 1924 and produced mohair from Angora goats there. The 500-odd elk or wapiti (Cervus canadensis) now inhabiting the park and the prairies below are descendants of forty-seven animals that the Wind Cave Refuge of South Dakota shipped to Hunter in 1928 to replace the native Merriam's elk that had been hunted out of the Guadalupes by the 1880s. Hunter offered in 1933 to donate 300 acres of land in McKittrick Canyon to the state, to be made into a state park in exchange for a highway to the canyon entrance. Despite the canyon's scenery and recreational potential, however, the state park board concluded in a 1938 study of the area that developers would likely mar the surrounding private lands unless the state could acquire the adjacent property.
Wallace E. Pratt, a petroleum geologist, donated 4,988 acres of his ranch in North McKittrick Canyon to the National Park Service on October 14, 1959. Pratt later donated another 684 acres after discussing with J. C. Hunter, Jr., and Hunter's representative, Edward Glenn Biggs, their plans to sell the 71,790 acres of the Guadalupe Mountain Ranch to the federal government and to have the area set aside as a national park. Biggs organized a lobbying effort at the Department of the Interior in Washington and a publicity campaign in the area to promote the park. He invited members of local chambers of commerce, writers in local and national publications, senators, governors, and congressmen to spend weekends at the ranch. The National Park Service conducted an initial survey of the area in 1962 and reported that it appeared to meet the criteria for national parks. Texas senators and congressmen introduced bills in Congress in 1963 and 1965 to establish Guadalupe Mountains National Park, but opposition surfaced to the purchase of more Texas land while approval was pending for Padre Island National Seashore and Big Thicket National Preserve. There was also opposition, which continues, from area ranchers who had leased approximately 12,000 acres adjoining the park, now used as a buffer zone to protect the fragile flora and fauna of the Guadalupe ecosystem.
On October 15, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act establishing the park. The legislation stipulated that all mineral, oil, and gas rights be donated to the federal government before funds would be allocated to purchase the ranch. The Texas legislature rescinded the state's mineral rights to the land, and in 1967 Texaco and Standard Oil did likewise after drilling a further, unsuccessful research hole at the mouth of McKittrick Canyon. The park was established on September 30, 1972.
An eighty-mile network of trails offers the best means to see the park, either on foot or horseback. High-country trails, some the remnants of trails that ranchhands once followed to reach their herds, ascend as much as 3,000 feet over steep terrain. Trails in the canyons and lowlands are shorter and less difficult. The maple and hardwood trees of McKittrick Canyon turn to brilliant colors in late October and early November, making fall one of the most popular times to visit the park. High winds usually blow in the spring, and severe storms may produce flash floods in the summer months. The National Park Service maintains the Frijole Visitor Center at the park entrance on U.S. highways 62 and 180, a visitor center at the entrance to McKittrick Canyon, and a ranger station in Dog Canyon accessible by New Mexico Highway 137.