Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Gypsum Sand Dunes

The western escarpment of the Guadalupe Mountains: Bush Mountain (left), Bartlett Peak, Shumard Peak, Guadalupe Peak, and El Capitan

On the afternoon of Thursday, November 15, we concluded our adventures at Guadalupe Mountains National Park with a private visit to the gypsum sand dunes beneath the magnificent western escarpment of the Guadalupes. Beginning around twenty-six million years ago, the area west of the range began dropping and the mountains began rising along a steep vertical fault. Slowly the fossilized Permian coral reef emerged as softer rock layers eroded away. Meanwhile, the dunes out in Chihuahuan Desert lowlands west of the range and were formed by an ancient lake. Much like in Death Valley and huge portions of the Great Basin Desert, all of the streams on the western side of the southern portion of the Guadalupes did not reach the sea but instead flowed to a lake in the depression beneath the escarpment. When the climate became warmer and drier, the lake evaporated, leaving a huge salt flat basin. The gypsum dunes were formed by the wind collecting the sand from the vanished lake.

Black Mountains

From our picnic spot at Frijole Ranch in the eastern foothills of the Guadalupes, the fifty mile drive around to the parking area for the dunes on the western side took us about an hour. Once we dropped down from Guadalupe Pass and skirted the salt flats, much of the drive passed through scrubby desert ranch land, including a llama enclosure. At one point, both a Coyote and a Greater Roadrunner crossed the highway in front of us. The final seven miles were on a rutted dirt road past some homesteads that Adam described as apocalyptic.

Finally we passed back into National Park Service property and arrived at the lonely parking area. We were the only people there.

While we were making sure we had enough water in our bags and otherwise preparing, Sylvan’s interest in cacti finally got the better of him and he touched one along the sidewalk in the parking area. Happily, we were prepared, and I pulled out a tweezers from the first aid kit in my daypack. Sylvan was a trooper while Dada and Papa got the spines out of his fingers.

Guadalupe Mountains

Then we were ready to start the mile-long walk out to the northern end of the dune field. Our route was along on old dirt road headed due east toward the Guadalupes.

Image: Adam Geffen

The temperature was mild, warmer than we’d experienced so far, but cool for the desert. We noticed many little burrows along the road, evidence of nocturnal dramas.

To the north, the the northwestern part of the V of the Guadalupes stretched north-northwest into southern New Mexico.

Walking Stick Cholla

The road ended abruptly at the top of a low ridge. A series of vertical posts marking the end of the road would prove useful later when we returned.

We could see the dunes of our destination off across the desert.

From here, our route dropped from the low ridge and followed a foot trail northeast. The trail joined a wider trail that appeared to be an old, unused road.

Walking Stick Cholla


We spotted two Pyrrhuloxias, which look like Northern Cardinals blanketed in light gray ash. They live year-round in the deserts and scrub land of central and northern Mexico, southern Baja California, the the most arid portions of Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. Along with the Phainopepla we’d seen that morning, we’d now seen both birds I’d never seen before that I most wanted to see on the trip. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to capture an even marginally decent photo of the Pyrrhuloxias before they vanished.

Cutoff Mountain and Cutoff Ridge

We continued on. In the image above, Cutoff Mountain is to the left. The state line and northern boundary of the Park are just to the left of Cutoff Mountain (out of the frame).

Shumard Peak (left), Guadalupe Peak, and El Capitan

Nine of the highest peaks in Texas, including the top four, are in the Guadalupe Mountains. All four of the highest, and seven of the top nine, are visible in the photo above. (Fifth highest in the state is Baldy Peak in the Davis Mountains. Hunter Peak, sixth highest, and Mount Pratt, eighth highest, are not visible because they are both part of Frijole Ridge on the eastern side of the Guadalupes.) Although distance warps the sense of which peak is higher (much like it does for skyscrapers in Chicago), the highest peak is Guadalupe Peak second from the right. Second is Bush Mountain fifth from the right. Then come Shumard Peak to Guadalupe’s left and Bartlett Peak between Bush and Shumard. Blue Ridge to the left of Bush Mountain in the photo ranks seventh. The little peak on the north (left) side of the ridge comes in ninth. And El Capitan to the right, marking the southern end of the Guadalupes, is the tenth highest peak in Texas.

The trail we followed had reached the dune field already. It was to our south, but it wasn’t visible because we were beneath a rise crusted with cryptobiotic soil. A few trails led up to the dunes, so I finally I chose one, and we hiked up.

Immediately, we saw the evidence in tracks of many little dramas of life and death among insects, lizards, and small rodents.

Sylvan immediately began adding his own drama of tracks to the biggest sandbox he’d ever seen.

The entire time, the glorious western escarpment of the Guadalupes looked down on us.

Unlike the dune fields in Death Valley, these dunes are relatively stable and host an ecosystem of scrub.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Only a pan and scan video could capture the entire length of the western portion of the range from low rising slopes in New Mexico to the dramatic conclusion of the Permian Reef ending abruptly at El Capitan.

Bartlett Peak (left), Shumard Peak, Guadalupe Peak, and El Capitan

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Coyote tracks

Cornudas Mountains

The whispy traces on the right side of the above photo are caused by a single blade of grass (the shadow of which is on the left), being bent over and brushed back and forth against the sand by the wind.

Bartlett Peak (left), Shumard Peak, Guadalupe Peak, and El Capitan

Cornudas Mountains

Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan

As the sun began to lower, the escarpment became even more gorgeous in the late afternoon light. I stood and captured a portrait of each of the major peaks.

El Capitan (8,085 feet)

Guadalupe Peak (8,749 feet)

Shumard Peak (8,615 feet)

Bartlett Peak (8,508 feet)

Bush Mountain (8,631 feet)

Patterson Hills

The shadows were lengthening, and it was time to return to the cars and continue on with our adventures.

Patterson Hills

Image: Sean M. Santos

We dropped back down from the dune field to the trail.

Horse Lubber Grasshopper

Walking Stick Cholla

Eventually we spotted the stakes on the low ridge marking the edge of the dirt road. They were handy for making sure we were literally on the right track.

From there it was a straight shot west along the old dirt road to the parking area.

As we put our things back into the cars, Adam pulled out his drone. He wanted to get some shots of this amazing vista from a couple hundred feet in the air.

Drone use is illegal in National Parks (because of the stupidity of visitors harassing wildlife with them or crashing them into Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring). So Adam waited until they were just outside the Park boundary before he pulled over on the side of the road and sent his drone two hundred feet up.

Image: Adam Geffen

Image: Adam Geffen

Meanwhile, Sean and I started the two hour, hundred-mile drive to our AirB&B in Carlsbad. It was 4:30pm, so John and Catherine would probably either get there just ahead of us or around the same time. I’d hoped to get there earlier to settle in and then greet them, but no one could blame us for one last adventure in this Park. It happened that John and I were both missing the Openlands annual meeting of the board and staff reception happening that afternoon/evening back in Chicago.

As our route took us back around and south of the Guadalupes, the range ignited in the orange glow of sunset.

El Capitan

And then as we climbed Guadalupe Pass beneath El Capitan, that sentinel with so much personality bid us farewell as the light faded to dusk.

El Capitan

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