Natural Features & Ecosystems

El Capitan
Salt Basin Trail

NPS Photo - Michael Haynie

Of the four elements, fire in the form of the sun and earth in the form of rock are the ones immediately obvious in the Guadalupe Mountains. These natural features are associated with eternity in many cultures and they foster a sense of timelessness when traveling through the Southwest. But it is the actions of another element, now mostly vanished or hidden, that best explain the characteristics of the land. Water, the most changeable of elements, has brought the greatest change.

Today's arid landscape is a dramatic reversal of a prehistoric marine environment. During Permian times, the entire area was underwater. Fossils in the Guadalupe Mountains' sun-drenched rock indicate that a reef formed by sponges, algae, and the skeletal material of numerous organisms, thrived here for approximately five million years.

Water was once in abundance, but now is a scarce resource in high demand. Numerous springs dot the base of the eastern escarpment and function as oases. Deep within McKittrick Canyon a spring-fed stream flows year round and even through the most severe droughts. The sheltering walls of McKittrick Canyon and the presence of water allow the remnants of Ice Age woodland to survive in a region noted for its heat and aridity. The higher elevations receive twice the amount of rainfall than the surrounding desert, and also preserve a remnant of species widespread during the Last Ice Age.

Exploring Guadalupe Mountains National Park reveals extremes in habitats ranging from gypsum dunes to coniferous forests dominated by Douglas fir, southwestern white pine, and ponderosa pine. Between these extremes is an unexpected variety as well. Over 1000 species of plants have recognized in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and their variety reflects influences from the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, and the Chihuahuan Desert. The variation in elevation (3,600 -8751 feet) and the plant life make the area difficult to classify. Many scientists recognize four to five generalized habitats ranging from succulent and shrub desert in the lowlands and south facing slopes, to semiarid grasslands above 5,000 feet to mixed coniferous-deciduous woodlands and coniferous forests at the highest elevations. These classification schemes give us something to grasp when trying to understand a land filled with magic and majesty. In the field the distinctions blur as communities blend into one another and we are reminded that Nature mocks man's categories.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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