As the Park Marks 50 Years, Guadalupes Supt. Eric Leonard Seeks New Ways to Connect Visitors to this Singular Place
“Guadalupe Mountains National Park has a reputation as a hiker's paradise. It's deserved.”
That headline from a New York Times article distills the dominant image of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. When the park was born – 50 years ago this month – an appreciation for “wilderness values” was at its zenith, and the park was designed to embody those values. Older national parks were developed with cars in mind. But this would be a place for “primitive recreation.” At the park's dedication ceremony, September 30th, 1972, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, daughter of President Richard Nixon, gave the keynote address, for a crowd of 2,400. She sang the praises of wilderness solitude and backcountry adventure.
The “hiker's park” image is true – but it's not the whole truth. As the park celebrates its 50th anniversary, Supt. Eric Leonard is looking ahead. He wants to preserve what's loved about the park today. But he also wants to connect visitors to this special place in new ways.
“The opportunity in 2022 and 2023 is to start thinking about – what will the park look like in 2050, or 2072?,” Leonard said. “The infrastructure here was designed in the late 1970s for, quite frankly, an America that no longer exists. And when you come here in the fall and spring and the place is full to the gills, you're witnessing that disconnect.”
The Guadalupes routinely make the list of “least visited” national parks. Like the “hiker's park” trope, there's truth to it – this rugged corner of the Chihuahuan Desert is sparsely populated, and the park indeed preserves a high lonesome experience. But Leonard said the “remote” reputation is also misleading, and problematic.
The Guadalupes set a visitation record in 2021. And that visitation is concentrated in time and space. A traveler coming to hike Guadalupe Peak in spring or fall is apt to find the parking lot at this “seldom visited” park completely full. Never mind finding a campsite.
Climbing Guadalupe Peak – the highest point in Texas – has become the sole focus for many visitors. Leonard would like to point those visitors toward the park's other wonders. But he said the Pine Springs trailhead area – where the peak hike begins – needs to be renovated, to accommodate increased visitation.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, passed in 2021, provides money for national parks. And the bill could fund a “visitor use planning project,” Leonard said, that would be the first step in remaking the park's infrastructure.
“On the one hand, it's just planning,” he said. “But it's going to be planning with a public component. And it's an opportunity for us to, as an organization, say: These are the challenges we face. These are the concerns we have related to our infrastructure. How do we preserve the experience, and improve parts of it?”
There's targeted funding in the infrastructure bill that Leonard also hopes to use at the park – in a way that might seem unexpected.
As a wilderness, the Guadalupes are in many respects a sanctuary from the modern industrial world. Yet the mountains are intimately bound up with that world.
The Guadalupes are the remains of an ancient, Permian Period reef – in their exposures, geologists gain insights into the buried strata of the Permian Basin oilfields. The Guadalupes have been a key in developing those resources, among the world's largest known reserves of oil and gas.
In the years just before the park was established, Texaco drilled wells here, in a last-ditch attempt to make good on mineral rights. One well – known as the Pure Well – remains, beneath the mountains' western escarpment, near the park's Williams Ranch Road.
The infrastructure bill contains funding for capping “orphaned” oil wells on public land. If the Pure Well were capped and sealed, Leonard said, it could become a destination for adventurous visitors .
“Oil is part of our history,” he said. “A friend of mind, what he said was, 'Oh, I get it. What literally brought you here – you know, the gas in your car – is kind of what you're seeing when you look at in the mountains.' That's absolutely true. Once we've preserved that site, and mitigated the safety risk, why not say, 'If you make it to Williams Ranch, go to the Pure Well.'”
The oil industry is written into the Guadalupes in other ways. Pioneering petroleum geologist Wallace Pratt donated McKittrick Canyon to the American people, as the nucleus of the park. It had been his retirement property, and McKittrick Canyon visitors hike to Pratt Cabin, designed by a Houston architect, in a rustic style.
But there's another Pratt structure here – that very few have seen.
“The only thing we've been really successful at is keeping the building a secret to the general public,” Leonard said. “The road is on the park map. The building is not.”
Pratt Cabin is beautifully situated in the heart of McKittrick Canyon. But after monsoon flooding stranded the family there for days, Pratt decided to build a new home – outside the canyon, at the foot of the Guadalupes. Ship on the Desert is a striking piece of modernist architecture.
Pratt and his wife Iris Calderhead, a prominent figure in the women's suffrage movement, hired their friend Newton Bevin to design the structure in 1941. A successful New York architect, Bevin used local limestone for pillars and walls. The building evokes an oil tanker. There's a second story “captain's bridge,” which gives on to open decks, with dramatic views of the Guadalupes, the desert and the distant Davis Mountains. There are personal touches. The doors knockers replicate the rock hammers used by geologists. And the doors themselves are purple – the color of the National Women's Party, of which Iris was an organizer.
It's been listed as one of the nation's most endangered historic structures.
“Guadalupe Mountains National is 86,000 acres,” Leonard said. “It is a complex place that preserves 10,000 years of human history, the highest points in Texas, the geology that defines and creates that. We are not 'Wallace Pratt National Historic Site.' We are not 'Ship on the Desert National Park.' So, it's one thing in a bigger place. The question we face is: Part of our resource is facing a crisis. It needs work, expensive work, because Ship on the Desert is a one-of-a-kind historic structure. And then, there's another question – what is it for?”
The building has mostly served as housing for scientific researchers. But limiting access to an elite few, Leonard said, is in conflict with the fundamentally democratic mission of the park service.
The park has partnered with the El Paso Community Foundation, a philanthropic group, to raise funds for restoration. And Leonard is seeking input on how visitors could connect with this remarkable structure in the future. His goal is to host public tours at least four times a year.
For 50 years, outdoors enthusiasts have been drawn to the Guadalupes, to test themselves in the splendid desert isolation. But there could soon be new ways to experience this singular West Texas place.