The mountains tower over the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas, silent sentinels that seem incredibly out of place here in what is largely flat and arid land. The desert extends for hundreds of miles, the remnants of what was once a shallow sea that covered this portion of the continent, with the stunning Guadalupe Mountains sitting on what was once the shoreline. And protecting this unique environment, Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Few visitors to the park will see the upper elevations. No roads wind through the peaks. To reach these heights, one must backpack 6-8 hours each way. However, the Guadalupe Mountains can be appreciated from below. US Highway 62 actually cuts through a corner of the park as it makes its way from Carlsbad, New Mexico down to El Paso. From here at the Pine Springs Visitors Center, one can gaze upon the mountain peaks more than 3,000 feet above the desert floor – Guadalupe Peak sits at roughly 8,750 feet, and we are at about 5,700 feet at the visitors center – while walking a flat, paved nature trail amongst the desert foliage.
Tens of millions of years ago, the entire region was below the surface of a large sea. The mountains today are what was once a reef surrounding an inlet that extended up through southern New Mexico. Other remnants of the sea can be found in salt flats nearby, and in the myriad of caves carved in the limestone mountains, highlighted by Carlsbad Caverns. Reefs form limestone, as the density of organic life dries out and turns to stone, and the high oxygen content of the former ocean mixes with petroleum to form acids that eat into the soft stone. In fact, most of the mountains dotting the region are other such reefs and shorelines, though they are all dwarfed by the Guadalupe Mountains.
Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in the state of Texas, and from its top, one can appreciate a view extending all across the desert below. The trail is long, and said to be tough, so I choose instead to look up from below. I am not a backpacker in any sense of the word, other than wearing one on occasion.
One of the highlights of the Pine Springs area is an old Butterfield Stage station. Only one wall still stands, but it honors what was once a truly nation-changing innovation. Butterfield Overland Mail was a stagecoach mail service from St. Louis to San Francisco from 1858-1861. Founded by John Butterfield, it promised mail service within 25 days, a mind-bogglingly short period of time for the 1850s. Stations like this were built roughly every day’s travel, on a route that crossed the desert in the south, rather than trying to ascend both the Rockies and Sierra Nevada mountains. The entire route is a proposed National Historic Trail, and is a fascinating portion of American history.
It is frustrating for me to only experience the park from the bottom, from this one corner. And yet, I am glad for the isolation of the upper elevations. Mountains like this are considered to be “sky islands,” tiny isolated micro-climates with animal and plant life that has nowhere to go if their habitats are overrun with tourists. And even without, climate change is a looming time bomb, all but assuring that the desert will overtake the cooler mountain climates in the not-too-distant future. So for now, I just look on the mountains, hoping they stick around for a few more generations.
I walk back to the visitors center along the nature trail, reveling in the myriad of blooms on the various desert plants, pausing to listen to the buzzing of bumble bees and other insects, or to gaze at a lizard scurrying from shady spot to shady spot. I look again at the mountains above me. Perhaps one day will see me gazing down from their heights.
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