McKittrick Canyon Nature Loop
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McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center is at the end of a 4-mile paved road off of Highway 62/180 about 7 miles NE of the Pine Springs Visitor Center. The hiking trails are limestone and some elevation is gained in this cache. $5 NPS or park pass.
Lying between the desert below and the highlands above, McKittrick Canyon which has been described as the “most beautiful spot in Texas.” Has a mix of life that is part desert, part canyon woodland, and part highland forest. Moderate temperatures and protection from the sun and wind provided by the high cliffs nurture this canyon community. Oak, velvet ash and the big tooth maple border its unique spring-fed stream. The mule deer and elk drink from its pools, which also sport an occasional fish. In late October and early November the foliage turns brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges. Prickly pear cacti, agaves, willows, ferns, Texas Madrones, alligator junipers and ponderosa pines all grow in this canyon. The wildlife ranges from jackrabbits, coyotes, porcupines, grey fox, mule deer, mountain lions and elk. McKittrick Canyon exudes a lushness that is rare in this part of Texas.
McKittrick Canyon is also the location for the most striking evidence of the park’s ancient marine fossil reef. It displays a grand cross-section of several million years of reef growth history. The fossil reef now overlooks the dry sea floor, a silent testimony to the changing face of West Texas. The massive cliff at the top of the northeast wall of McKittrick Canyon is part of a fossil reef that formed approximately 260-270 million years ago. Called the Capitan Reef, it grew from the remains of billions of marine animals and plants cemented together by lime. A vast tropical ocean covered portions of Texas and New Mexico at this time. The reef builders thrived in the shallow, sunlit, tropical waters around the edge of the Delaware Sea, a deep, nearly land-locked arm of the vast Permian Ocean. Algae and sponges built this reef during a time prior to the modern colonial reef-building corals. They built up the 400-mile long horseshoe-shaped Capitan Reef.
The reef stopped growing when the Delaware Sea was eventually cut off from the ocean. As seawater evaporated, thick salt deposits filled the subsiding basin. Erosion of the surrounding highlands slowly buried the reef over a period of millions of years. As the Guadalupe Mountains began to be uplifted 20-30 million years ago, the softer overlying rock has quickly eroded away to expose the reef and the basin once again. Other parts of the reef are exposed in the Apache Mountains, near Van Horn, and the Glass Mountains in the Alpine area.
Now visible are the many creatures that were encrusted and imprinted upon this reef’s present rocky face.
THE CAST OF THE REEF STORY:
Sponges: Sponges were the primary reef builders. Sponges are the most simple of the multi-cellular animals. Sponges fed on nutrients and plankton in the water. Their tubular shape can be found when looking closely at the rocks as you walk the Nature Trail.
Bryozoans: Bryozoans were major contributors to the structure of the reef. These tiny creatures only 1 mm. across, are sometimes called “moss animals”. Feathery fern-like bodies, a colony of bryozoans 2 feet in diameter could house tens of millions of individuals.
Crinoids: The disc-like segments of the crinoids stems are easily recognized. Crinoids are called “sea lilies” because they resembled lily flowers blanketing the ocean floor.
Ammonoid: Ammonoids were squid like creatures that lived inside an external shell, sometimes shaped like a snail shell. Ammonoids were important predators in the ancient oceans, eating fish, crabs, and other shellfish.
Brachiopod: Brachiopods are soft-bodied creatures that secrete a two-valve shell. The bilateral symmetry distinguishes them from clam-like pelecypods. Brachiopods were common on the reef. Trilobite: Trilobites became extinct at the end of the Permian (250 million years ago). They were probably scavengers and predators that lived on the seafloor. Trilobite fossils are rare in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. (they resemble the shape of horseshoe crabs in miniature.)
WHERE DOES THE WATER COME FROM NOW?
Notice those trees atop the mountains. They are Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir surrounding a “bowl” of grasses and shrubs. They take the rains that rise from the heated salt flats 3000 feet below and use what water allowing residue to permeate through the cracks in the great reef formation into springs far below, or down the mountain into McKittrick Canyon streams. Though you are standing firmly in the Chihuahuan Desert, the diversity of life about you is because of this fossilized island and its dispersion of water.
1. What is this cache called?
2. Look at the edge of the water here – What do the deposits look like? Are they a rock or precipitate formation?
3. Explain in your words (not too many) how this natural factor resulted?
4. What makes the site comfortable for you?
Please email all four answers to GUMO Ranger for credit. You may go ahead and log your find without an acknowledgement from us, but logs posted without correct answers will be deleted.
For more information on Guadalupe Mountains National Park go to: www.nps.gov/gumo.
McKittrick Canyon exudes a lushness that is rare in this part of Texas. Wallace Pratt noted that in the 1930’s. A petroleum geologist, he was charmed by the beauty and geology of the Guadalupes, slowly purchasing the entire canyon. Pratt lived within it for years in Pratt Cabin, a unique totally limestone building. (Visit it by following the McKittrick Canyon Trail deep into the park across streams. Continue passed Pratt’s Cabin, on to a Grotto of stalactites and stalagmites, the trail goes up and up to the Notch or McKittrick Ridge and more trails in the park. There are 85 miles of hiking trails, which offer a wide range of opportunities for exploring, and overnight in campgrounds on top. (To overnight a backcountry permit is required). )
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Coordinates are in the WGS84 datum