Add Some Color to Your Life: Autumn at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds.
Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

If you were to tell someone that you were going to visit the Chihuahuan Desert for its spectacular fall foliage, you would likely be greeted with puzzled looks and maybe skepticism. Surrounded by a region characterized by its aridity and sparse vegetation, Guadalupe Mountains National Park’s diverse habitats and their seasonal changes are a huge draw for those who know that stereotypes and assumptions about unexplored places are often wrong. Spending some time on the trails away from roadways and modern distractions opens a world of color waiting to be discovered.

A hiker wearing a blue backpack walks on a trail that winds through trees with yellow, orange, and green leaves. Sunlight streams through the branches and shadows of tree trunks and branches stretch across the ground.
The meandering path in McKittrick Canyon has minimal elevation change and each curve beckons further exploration (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

The lowest elevations of the park receive less than ten inches of precipitation annually, but the middle and upper elevations receive 15-20+ inches and that makes all the difference on what grows at these altitudes. It is possible to hike in one day from an area with vegetation typical of Mexico to one that is more typical of the Rockies several hundred miles to the north. A land of cacti, creosote bushes, agaves, and yuccas gives way to broad-leaved trees like madrones, ash, oaks, and maples. Even a few aspen grow mixed with Douglas-fir and ponderosa pines in isolated areas of the high country.

Pine trees stretch to blue sky above with white clouds. A white and dark gray peak is between the branches and a large boulder among trees with yellow and orange leaves is below.
The scenery found in McKittrick Canyon varies from Chihuahuan Desert to riparian woodland. Fall weather is typically mild (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

That transition from desert to woodland is starkest in McKittrick Canyon, which shelters a shallow stream of crystal-clear water that flows year-round and even during the worst of droughts. To see the best color, plan on hiking seven miles roundtrip to the Grotto and back in late October to mid-November. If that distance is too much, a five-mile hike to Pratt Cabin and back will still allow you to see the stream and some color. Maples will turn yellow, orange or red. Mild sunny days, with cool but not freezing temperatures, bring in the reddest leaves. Little walnut will turn yellow, sumacs red. Chinkapin oaks usually turn brown, but may be gold-tinged in some years. All these varied hues and leaf shapes highlight the biodiversity of the area and are a source of continual surprise for travelers who have spent hours, or days in some cases, traversing arid terrain.

Red, green, and yellow trees seen from a distance cover slopes below rocky cliffs.
The views from the high country allow hikers to look down canyons filled with fall foliage (courtesy of NPS/D. Bieri).

Maples occur in other canyons as well. For those who are looking for a more adventurous and strenuous hike, the Devil’s Hall Trail & Route in Pine Springs Canyon offers the opportunity to scramble around boulders scattered in a wash that ranges from five to fifty yards wide. The twists and turns below the slopes of the canyon create new scenes throughout the 4.2-mile roundtrip hike. An erosional feature at the end of the hike, the Devil’s Hall, has walls that are sheer and about fifteen feet apart.

White and dark branches spread upward. Green leaves of low-growing plants are below. Red and orange leaves of different trees are in the back.
The peeling bark of madrone trees contrasts beautifully with colorful leaves of deciduous trees like maples, ash, and walnuts (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

Those who do not mind making a longer drive to Dog Canyon gain options to hike shorter distances to see fall colors. The Tejas Trail is fairly level for the first mile and winds along and across a drainage that has many maples. The trail continues into the higher elevations and becomes strenuous, with incredible views into Dog Canyon and McKittrick Canyon. To gain these views expect strenuous hiking and a roundtrip distance of at least nine miles. The colors in Dog Canyon and along the Devil’s Hall Trail tend to turn before McKittrick Canyon.

White rocks in shadow and sunlight stretch through trees with orange leaves on the left and red and green on the right. A small sun with spreading rays is in the upper left.
After one mile of trail, the Devil’s Hall route turns into a rocky wash with areas of large boulders and erosional features like the Hiker’s Staircase and a narrow section called the Devil’s Hall (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

If you arrive later in the season or are looking for a shorter hike, the Smith Spring Trail (2.5 miles roundtrip) tends to change after the colors have peaked in McKittrick Canyon. The number of maples around the spring is more modest than what can be found in other canyons, but the meandering cascade through the boulders and travertine creates a delightful scene and makes it a place worth visiting.

Autumn’s flourish of color is something to be savored before the harsh, cold winds of winter make hikes more challenging and the landscape seem dormant. The scale of the color change is not as grand as that occurring in the East, but the mix of fall foliage under the cliffs of a fossil reef, and the sight of colorful leaves tumbling beside cacti and agaves, are defining characteristics of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and some of the things that make people wish they had allowed more time to explore. If you do allow more time, you will not be disappointed and you will join the many who have discovered that the desert is not always what you expect. Plan your visit today!

By: Michael Haynie, Park Ranger, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds.
Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

If you were to tell someone that you were going to visit the Chihuahuan Desert for its spectacular fall foliage, you would likely be greeted with puzzled looks and maybe skepticism. Surrounded by a region characterized by its aridity and sparse vegetation, Guadalupe Mountains National Park’s diverse habitats and their seasonal changes are a huge draw for those who know that stereotypes and assumptions about unexplored places are often wrong. Spending some time on the trails away from roadways and modern distractions opens a world of color waiting to be discovered.

A hiker wearing a blue backpack walks on a trail that winds through trees with yellow, orange, and green leaves. Sunlight streams through the branches and shadows of tree trunks and branches stretch across the ground.
The meandering path in McKittrick Canyon has minimal elevation change and each curve beckons further exploration (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

The lowest elevations of the park receive less than ten inches of precipitation annually, but the middle and upper elevations receive 15-20+ inches and that makes all the difference on what grows at these altitudes. It is possible to hike in one day from an area with vegetation typical of Mexico to one that is more typical of the Rockies several hundred miles to the north. A land of cacti, creosote bushes, agaves, and yuccas gives way to broad-leaved trees like madrones, ash, oaks, and maples. Even a few aspen grow mixed with Douglas-fir and ponderosa pines in isolated areas of the high country.

Pine trees stretch to blue sky above with white clouds. A white and dark gray peak is between the branches and a large boulder among trees with yellow and orange leaves is below.
The scenery found in McKittrick Canyon varies from Chihuahuan Desert to riparian woodland. Fall weather is typically mild (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

That transition from desert to woodland is starkest in McKittrick Canyon, which shelters a shallow stream of crystal-clear water that flows year-round and even during the worst of droughts. To see the best color, plan on hiking seven miles roundtrip to the Grotto and back in late October to mid-November. If that distance is too much, a five-mile hike to Pratt Cabin and back will still allow you to see the stream and some color. Maples will turn yellow, orange or red. Mild sunny days, with cool but not freezing temperatures, bring in the reddest leaves. Little walnut will turn yellow, sumacs red. Chinkapin oaks usually turn brown, but may be gold-tinged in some years. All these varied hues and leaf shapes highlight the biodiversity of the area and are a source of continual surprise for travelers who have spent hours, or days in some cases, traversing arid terrain.

This year, park staff are creating a series of videos that will explore the diverse heritage of Mexico’s 32 states through the traditional clothing of dolls created by El Paso artists Petra and Jorge Rosales. Look for these videos later this year on our English-language website (nps.gov/chamizal) or our Spanish-language website (nps.gov/es-es/cham). There you can also explore our virtual permanent exhibit and a recently-added virtual exhibit about Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juárez. Follow us on Facebook to experience more of the deep history and heritage of the borderlands.

By: Ranger Rodney Sauter, Park Ranger, Chamizal National Memorial

Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds.
Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

If you were to tell someone that you were going to visit the Chihuahuan Desert for its spectacular fall foliage, you would likely be greeted with puzzled looks and maybe skepticism. Surrounded by a region characterized by its aridity and sparse vegetation, Guadalupe Mountains National Park’s diverse habitats and their seasonal changes are a huge draw for those who know that stereotypes and assumptions about unexplored places are often wrong. Spending some time on the trails away from roadways and modern distractions opens a world of color waiting to be discovered.

A hiker wearing a blue backpack walks on a trail that winds through trees with yellow, orange, and green leaves. Sunlight streams through the branches and shadows of tree trunks and branches stretch across the ground.
The meandering path in McKittrick Canyon has minimal elevation change and each curve beckons further exploration (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

The lowest elevations of the park receive less than ten inches of precipitation annually, but the middle and upper elevations receive 15-20+ inches and that makes all the difference on what grows at these altitudes. It is possible to hike in one day from an area with vegetation typical of Mexico to one that is more typical of the Rockies several hundred miles to the north. A land of cacti, creosote bushes, agaves, and yuccas gives way to broad-leaved trees like madrones, ash, oaks, and maples. Even a few aspen grow mixed with Douglas-fir and ponderosa pines in isolated areas of the high country.

Pine trees stretch to blue sky above with white clouds. A white and dark gray peak is between the branches and a large boulder among trees with yellow and orange leaves is below.
The scenery found in McKittrick Canyon varies from Chihuahuan Desert to riparian woodland. Fall weather is typically mild (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

That transition from desert to woodland is starkest in McKittrick Canyon, which shelters a shallow stream of crystal-clear water that flows year-round and even during the worst of droughts. To see the best color, plan on hiking seven miles roundtrip to the Grotto and back in late October to mid-November. If that distance is too much, a five-mile hike to Pratt Cabin and back will still allow you to see the stream and some color. Maples will turn yellow, orange or red. Mild sunny days, with cool but not freezing temperatures, bring in the reddest leaves. Little walnut will turn yellow, sumacs red. Chinkapin oaks usually turn brown, but may be gold-tinged in some years. All these varied hues and leaf shapes highlight the biodiversity of the area and are a source of continual surprise for travelers who have spent hours, or days in some cases, traversing arid terrain.

The Strentzel-Muir Gravesite in Martinez, CA. Photo Credit: National Park Service
The Strentzel-Muir Gravesite in Martinez, CA (courtesy of NPS).

Grieving their losses, the Strentzels yet again persevered and moved to a 20-acre plot in the beautiful Alhambra Valley near the town of Martinez, California. Dr. Strentzel used his Hungarian vineyard knowledge to begin experimenting with a wide variety of grapes, fruit and nut trees, as well as ornamental plantings. His small experiments soon grew into a lucrative fruit ranch of 26,000 acres, with labor provided by Chinese workers. Sadly, the son Johnnie died at 9 years old from diphtheria, and Dr. Strentzel reported, “For years, we were inconsolable.”

 

The Strentzel-Muir Home at the John Muir National Historic Site. Photo Credit: NPS Photos, Luther Bailey.
The Strentzel-Muir Home at the John Muir National Historic Site (courtesy of NPS Photos, Luther Bailey).

So, when a smart charming John Muir came to visit the Strentzels in Martinez, they were overjoyed to host him. Muir and Louie married in 1880 and had two daughters, Wanda and Helen. The family let Muir share the management and wealth of the ranch business, and with this influential position, he was able to catch the eye of politicians and business owners in his future advocacy for protecting wild spaces. If not for John Muir marrying into a pioneering, resilient, and wealthy family, he might have been just a poor rambling leaf-lover still wandering around Yosemite.

John Muir sits at his desk and writes. The desk is displayed in the
John Muir sits at his desk and writes. The desk is displayed in the “Scribble Den”, which is on the second floor of the Strentzel/Muir home in Martinez, CA (courtesy of NPS).

Muir’s passion for nature brought him to every continent except Antarctica. He experienced fantastic adventures – climbing a 100-foot tree in a thunderstorm, inching across a narrow ice bridge in Alaska, and spending a night in a blizzard on Mt. Shasta. Muir transformed his adventures into articles and books that sparked peoples’ interest in nature. Muir’s descriptions of glaciers and sequoias brought the beauty of nature to readers nationwide.

As increased settlement ended the western frontier in 1890, people began to worry about using resources wisely. Unchecked grazing, logging and tourism were damaging Yosemite. In response, friends and family encouraged Muir to write. He struggled with writing, calling it “like the life of a glacier; one eternal grind.” Yet he recognized the power of prose and worked tirelessly in his “Scribble Den,” his upstairs office in his Martinez home.

Muir’s Scribble Den in his Martinez home. The photograph held is of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite on their camping trip in 1903. Photo credit: Celeste Rios, NPS
Muir’s Scribble Den in his Martinez home. The photograph held is of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite on their camping trip in 1903 (courtesy of Celeste Rios, NPS).

Wild spaces should be set aside for all to enjoy, Muir argued. He urged people to write politicians and “make their lives wretched until they do what is right by the woods.” His articles “The Treasures of Yosemite” and “Features of a Proposed Yosemite National Park” appeared in Century Magazine, which boasted more than one million readers. A month later, Congress designated Yosemite a national park.

Muir’s popular writings caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who invited him to go camping in Yosemite in 1903. Roosevelt left behind reporters and his Secret Service agents for the company of two park rangers, an army packer, John Muir and the wild. They spent three days exploring meadows and waterfalls and three nights discussing conservation around campfires. One night, five inches of snow fell, and the president arose to white flakes on his blankets. Inspired by his trip with Muir, Roosevelt set aside more than 230 million acres of public land – an area bigger than the size of Texas – that included five national parks and 18 national monuments.

We all have legacies that will extend beyond our lifetime. Muir died on December 24, 1914 at age 76, just two years before the establishment of the National Park Service. The Service was created when the Organic Act was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916. Even after Muir’s death, his journals and other writings provided material for many more influential books.

Thanks to Muir’s vision, you can now visit 423 National Park Service sites. Called “America’s Best Idea,” the United States’ unique system of protecting natural and cultural heritage spurred other countries to do the same. Muir’s writings and the places he fought to protect continue to inspire people worldwide to discover and connect with nature.

However, Muir’s conservation legacy is not without controversy.  Two years ago, the Sierra Club made headlines with their July 2020 article “Pulling Down Our Monuments”, in which they expressed a desire to confront the racist perspectives held by some of their early leaders, as well as their “substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy”.  Some excerpts from the article include: “[Muir] made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life”. “As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color.”

John Muir NHS welcomes the opportunity to discuss and bring to light these more troubling components of Muir’s work and legacy. We are dedicated to researching, interpreting, and sharing all aspects of Muir’s life and career – his family life in Martinez, California which afforded him wealth and privilege, the breadth and magnitude of his conservation work all over the world, as well as his negative views on people of color, and how those views – as well as the involvement of other conservation leaders with the eugenics movement – may have influenced the American conservation movement. 

We have begun collaborating with Yosemite National Park and the John Muir Center at the University of the Pacific in conducting research on the more troubling aspects of Muir’s history, and are planning for a new exhibit at our site which will include online multimedia content exploring these topics, shedding light on the racism in some of Muir’s writings and the impacts they had on often underrepresented communities.

John Muir’s complex legacy – both the inspiring and the problematic – lives on at the John Muir National Historic Site and in our daily actions. There will always be a need for people to stand up and change their communities for the better, as well as an obligation to make sure that those changes are able to benefit even the most vulnerable in our society.

By: Ranger Ives Humphreys, Park Ranger, John Muir National Historic Site and Kelli English, Interpretation, Education and Outreach Division Manager, Rosie the Riveter / WWII Home Front National Historical Park, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site, John Muir National Historic Site

By Dave DeFusco

Botanist Dan Beckman, beside a Cochise adder’s mouth orchid, is co-leading the study. photo courtesy of Tony Palmer, NPS

A team of National Park Service researchers will study the biological diversity of Saguaro National Park’s “sky island” assisted by a $10,000 grant from the Western National Parks Association.

The grant was supported by a $5,000 gift from Wild Tribute, which donates to organizations that support national parks and public lands, and the agencies that oversee their legacy. Ben Kieffner, co-founder of Wild Tribute, said the Saguaro NP research aligns with the company’s goal of donating 4 percent of its proceeds to protect historic and wild places.

“It’s enormously important that researchers have the resources and capacity to protect this nation’s biodiversity, which is threatened by climate change,” said Kieffner. “We feel it’s our responsibility at Wild Tribute to be part of the solution since we all share the same Earth.”

The Saguaro NP research will provide baseline data on the park’s nearly 1,200 species of native plants in the Rincon Mountain District, located in Pima County, Arizona. The park contains 67,000 acres of wilderness spanning desert to forest. 

In this area, species from the Rocky Mountains and the subtropics intermingle, and many of the high-elevation, moisture-loving species are utilizing rare microhabitats in an otherwise dry environment where climate change, drought-induced wildfires, and decreasing snowpack could eventually eradicate them if measures aren’t taken to preserve them.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra). photo courtesy of Mary Owen, NPS

The moisture-loving plants considered most vulnerable to climate change include Thurber’s bog orchid (Platanthera limosa), known to be in only one spring-fed, high-elevation drainage; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), known to exist in only one localized area of shallow groundwater; and giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata), known to inhabit only a single mid-elevation spring. Other species, like white panicle aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum var. hesperium), have not been sighted in targeted searches and may have already died out.

“It’s worth underscoring how special the biodiversity of the Rincon Mountains is, as well as how threatened it is by climate change and the associated wildfire risk,” said Dan Beckman, a botanist who is co-leading the yearlong study with park biologist Don Swann. “As a Madrean ‘sky island’ range, the Rincons contain many species that are extremely rare in the US, and also represent a fascinating confluence of disparate floristic influences.”

The team will employ survey methods developed over the past five years in remote areas of the park that will identify unique plant communities and biodiversity hotspots. The hope is that their findings will help the park’s fire management team in targeting specific areas for prescribed burning, which will protect highly valued and rare biodiversity. 

The researchers will log georeferenced occurrence data for locally rare or never-recorded plant species through collections and photo records. Each collection or photo record will include coordinates, habitat description, the presence of other species, and a description of the plant population.

“It’s increasingly clear that climate change represents an existential challenge to the resources that national parks were created to protect,” said Swann. “It’s also becoming clear that we need new tools and an expanded role for the community if we have any hope in protecting these resources for future generations.”

This painting depicts the burning of the Confederate wagon supply train near Apache Canyon. photo courtesy of Roy Andersen, NPS

By Robert Pahre

The Battle of Glorieta Pass, which took place from March 26 to 28, 1862, was the decisive battle of the Civil War in New Mexico. While the battlefield has had historical markers since 1939, the stories you learn on the field have changed since the National Park Service took over in 1993. The landscape of interpretation tells not only the story of a battlefield but the story of how we tell the story of a battlefield.

The battle marked the end of the Confederacy’s New Mexico campaign. Their plan for the campaign was pretty straightforward. Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley and his Texan volunteers would advance up the Rio Grande from El Paso to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. From there, they would move eastward along the Santa Fe Trail, crossing the mountains at Glorieta Pass, and then turn north. After seizing the supply base at Fort Union, Sibley would take the mines of Colorado while disrupting federal communications with California, Nevada, and Oregon.

The key to the campaign was logistics. The Confederates would have a long supply train stretching back to El Paso, and they needed Fort Union’s supplies to make the plan work. The Union commander, Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, lost every battle but won the campaign because he focused on the Confederate supply problem.

They fought various engagements up the Rio Grande before arriving at the Glorieta Pass region in March. On the third and decisive day, Canby split his forces. The larger part fought a delaying action near Pigeon’s Ranch. They gradually gave ground to Sibley’s Texans while remaining in good order astride the Santa Fe Trail.

Canby sent about two-fifths of his troops over Glorieta Mesa to the Confederate rear, where they found and destroyed the rebel supply train. Without supplies, the Confederates had to retreat to El Paso, using a difficult route through the mountains. Fewer than half found their way back.

Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley

When interpreting the battle, the National Park Service defines it as a tactical Confederate victory. After all, the rebels held the ground at the end of the day. The park also notes that “the Confederate victory was short-lived” because Sibley no longer had his supply train.

That perspective is understandable. It rests on the fight around Pigeon’s Ranch, Glorieta Pass, and the Santa Fe Trail. That fight features two opposing forces trying to take or defend ground. It feels like a battle should feel—and, of course, it was a genuine battle.

Not only do visitors expect a battlefield to involve military units moving around it, but many military historians would also tell the story exactly that way. We see that perspective in a lesson plan the park developed for students: “The Battle of Glorieta Pass represented the high-water mark for a bold Confederate offensive into Union Territory on the western frontier. Here, volunteers from Colorado clashed with tough Texans intent on conquering New Mexico.” Tough soldiers fought bravely on both sides.

The Texas Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised the first monument on the battlefield itself in 1939. The thousands of years of rich history have been preserved at Pecos National Historical Park, which has served as scenery for Pueblo and Plains Indians, Spanish conquerors, Santa Fe trail settlers, railroad workers, and even Route 66 travelers. Discover more about this historic location in the book Pecos National Historical Park Ancestral Sites Trail Guide or purchase an official park product from the Western National Parks Association.

A focus on brave soldiers also produced the first interpretation on the site. In 1866, New Mexico recognized its soldiers on one side of an obelisk in downtown Santa Fe, honoring “the heros of the Federal Army who fell at the battles of Cañon del Apache and Pigeon’s Rancho (La Glorieta), fought with the Rebels March 28, 1862.”

Remembering battlefield bravery motivated park advocates. The Glorieta Battlefield Preservation Society, a group of regional Civil War reenactors, worked to preserve the site, which had remained in private hands. The Council of America’s Military Past, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and other military heritage groups worked with them to convince Congress to establish the Glorieta Battlefield Unit of Pecos National Historical Park.

A marker honors the Texas mounted volunteers. photo courtesy of Robert Pahre

The NPS then began to update this landscape of memorialization it had inherited. In addition to leaving the stone memorials in place, the historical park installed a collection of modern interpretive signs on the Glorieta Battlefield Trail. The trail makes a lovely hike today.

Park advocates helped fund the new interpretive trail and most of the signs. Signs funded by Texan and Confederate groups highlight the bravery of Sibley’s troops, and the ones placed by the State of New Mexico highlight the role of Hispanos, New Mexican Volunteers, and U.S. Regulars. While they also discuss how the Union soldiers burned the Confederate wagons, those signs place greater weight on the fight around Pigeon’s Ranch at Glorieta Pass. Again, the action on a conventional battlefield seems more important.

Taken as a whole, those signs tell a richer version of the story than the stone markers, and a more accurate one. Still, one might go further and turn current interpretation on its head. By dividing his force in the face of the enemy, General Canby had clearly decided to make the wagon train central to his battle plan. The 750 troops near Pigeon’s Ranch needed only to protect Union lines of communication behind them while the other 500 men circled behind Confederate lines. In this alternative perspective, the ground of Glorieta Pass mattered much less than the supply train—making this a decisive Union victory.

A second feature of the campaign also contributed to the Union victory. Well before the battle itself, the Union had won the battle for the hearts and minds of New Mexico’s citizens. The Confederates supposed that the locals, having become involuntary subjects of the United States in 1846, might welcome “liberation.” The rebels hoped they could rely on those locals for some supplies along the way. As it turned out, New Mexicans liked Texans even less than they liked gringos, and were not inclined to help out.

The battle for hearts and minds also brought New Mexican volunteers to Canby’s side at Glorieta. Lt. Colonel Manuel Chavez, who led those volunteers, had the local knowledge to guide the Union forces over the mesa to the Texans’ wagons. The Confederates had no good local sources of supplies once the wagons were gone, dooming their assault.

Robert Pahre is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, where he teaches and researches the politics of national parks. This article is part of a current book project, titled Telling America’s Stories.

The mesquite tree represented in blue has maintained a steady presence through decades of drought, while Brittlebush represented by the gold areas took advantage of heavy summer rains in 2006 to expand its range. Mesquite and saguaros typically live for many decades. map courtesy of Emily Fule.

By Dave DeFusco

Desert vegetation surrounding the saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park has been remarkably stable despite the presence of extreme weather over the past 30 years, according to a progress report on an ongoing research project, Three Decades of Ecological Change: the 2020 Saguaro Census, Phases I and II, supported by Western National Parks Association (WNPA).

The research, conducted by University of Arizona master’s candidate Emily Fule and park biologists Don Swann and Adam Springer, is part of the fourth survey associated with the Saguaro Census. They found that, since 1990, the total number of perennial plants has increased in both the Tucson Mountain District (TMD) and Rincon Mountain District (RMD) of Saguaro National Park, which is located in Pima County, Arizona.

Both districts are separated geographically by the city of Tucson. The TMD, often referred to as Saguaro West, encompasses 24,818 acres of land, much of it designated as wilderness, while the RMD, or Saguaro East, contains 67,000 acres of wilderness.

The census, which takes place every 10 years, is a large-scale monitoring effort of the park’s signature plant, the majestic saguaro, whose towering bodies and upraised arms are as much a Southwestern cultural symbol as a staple of the desert landscape.

In 2020, the researchers found that the total number of individual plants, or stems, in the RMD nearly doubled to 5,056 from 2,659 in 1990, and in the TMD, the number of plants swelled to 4,394 from 2,822, or by 44 percent. Total plant cover also expanded significantly during the past three decades. In the RMD, cover extended to 15,500 square feet in 2020 from 11,300 square feet in 1990, and in the TMD, it jumped to 10,300 square feet from 9,000 square feet.

Although researchers observed a slight decline in the number of trees in the park, prickly pear and saguaros, as well as Brittlebush, a smaller perennial plant that favors warmer conditions, have greatly increased in number.

“There is some evidence that the long-term drought of the past 20 years is beginning to impact some species,” said Swann, “but the results also show how slowly desert plant communities change. Many plants that were present on the plots in 1990 are still there today.”

The saguaro surveys are taken on 45 plots, each approximately 10,000 square feet. Twenty plots are randomly located in the TMD, and 25 are located within saguaro habitat in the lower elevations of the RMD. Within these large plots are 1,100-square-foot subplots. During the surveys, the researchers record all plants on each subplot and map their cover area.

The 30 years of data suggest that long-term climate warming, suburban sprawl and random events, such as wildfire and above-normal precipitation, are significantly affecting growth patterns. All of the plants they mapped flourished after cattle grazing ended in the 1970s, and during wetter, cooler conditions throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, the park and desert Southwest have experienced extended long-term drought, punctuated by short wet periods.

Drier, warmer conditions have been favorable for prickly pear and cholla, but less so for shrubs. Researchers in 2010 discovered a surge in small subshrubs that resulted from heavy summer rains in 2006. Some individual plants were killed by a deep freeze in 2011, but the long-term effects, according to the researchers, appear to be relatively small.

“It’s a fascinating park if you’re a biologist,” said Swann. “It goes from low desert elevations, where it’s very hot and dry, to 9,000-foot elevations that are overspread with conifers. Being at the top of the Rincon Mountains is like being in Maine or Oregon.”

NPS biologist Don Swann, holding a wildlife camera, said the Saguaro Census is a “partnership of generations.” photo courtesy of Konner Speth

The research is taking place in the Sky Island region, isolated mountain ranges that are an extension of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The area contains a mix of dry desert and subtropical plants. A lot of these plants grow like saguaros, said Swann, and their reproduction and growth are tied to reliable summer rains.

While the general number of and cover for plants have ballooned in the park since the 1990s, there have been winners and losers among species. Among common trees, velvet mesquite and foothills palo verde have declined, while white-thorn acacia and wolfberry have prospered. Among shrubs, the density and cover for creosote, pelotazo or hoary abutilon, and jojoba have remained stable, while fairy duster and limber bush have bloomed.

Nearly all common subshrubs have expanded in range, except for triangle-leaf bursage, a common species in the TMD that has decreased slightly in cover and density. Brittlebush, which exploded in numbers in 2010 following heavy summer rains in 2006, decreased in number in both districts by 2020 but increased in cover.

“This project highlights the huge plant diversity that we can see in the low-elevation Sonoran Desert,” said Fule, the lead author of the report who did most of the field work, as well as the data management and mapmaking. “In only 1,100 square feet, it was common to find over 20 different species, and on several plots we found as many as 30 species.”

Among cacti and succulents, prickly pear stands out as a dominant plant, more than doubling in cover in the RMD since 1990. Pincushion cacti have doubled in the same period, while the barrel cactus has declined by more than half. From 1990 to 2020, the overall cover of three common cholla species increased mainly because of an eruption of jumping cholla.

Plant communities, however, aren’t shaped by just large-scale, long-term environmental change. Rare events, such as wildfires, freezes, windstorms, and droughts, can spur their growth or hasten their decline. Since 1990, the park’s plants have been met with three very wet winters, a summer of torrential rain in 2006, and a deep freeze in 2011 that defied the prolonged drought and historically high temperatures.

During that wet summer in 2006, subshrubs, such as Brittlebush, multiplied to such an extent that surveyors in 2010 had to modify their sampling methods to accurately map the plants that were by then 3- to 4-years-old. The freeze in 2011 was a sudden reversal of fortune for many of the cold-intolerant Brittlebush, which died off in significant numbers. Overall cover did expand, however, as they continued to mature.

Emily Fule, a master’s candidate at the University of Arizona, did most of the mapmaking and data management for the fourth survey of the Saguaro Census.

Indigenous peoples drew sustenance from saguaros long before the cacti became a celebrated symbol of the Southwest. The Tohono O’odham, or Desert People, have lived in the Sonoran Desert for thousands of years. Their harvesting of the Saguaro fruit is a centuries-old practice that reaffirms their relationship with their traditional environment. They use the flowers, fruit, seeds, thorns, burls or boots, and ribs of the saguaro for food, ceremonies, fiber, manufacture and trade, and they use the fruit and seeds to make a ceremonial wine that is used in the Navai’t, and the Vikita, or harvest ceremony.

Saguaros are a master of survival and they reproduce for more than 100 years, but the species doesn’t produce a fresh crop every year. They like cool, wet conditions, and are especially resilient once they mature, but climate-induced drought over the long-term may affect their numbers in the park.

“Adult plants tend to survive and be much more resilient to drought than young plants,” said Swann. “Saguaros are a good case study of this. Once they reach a certain age when they can store water, it’s incredibly resilient to change and drought, whereas the new ones are decreasing in number. We’re not alarmed by this development, but we’re keeping an eye on it.”

The park’s evolving vegetation has also affected two species of deer in the park—white tail deer and mule deer, which like to eat saguaro flesh that hoards water. White tail deer tend to inhabit higher elevations and like to hide in the forest, while mule deer roam the grasslands and desert. Over the past 30 years, the researchers have seen a shift in behavior.

“In the 1970s, the white tail deer inhabited elevations at 5,000 to 6,000 feet and their presence in the desert was unusual,” said Swann. “Now they’ve moved into the desert where plants provide cover for them. Since mule deer can’t see as far, they’re uncomfortable with the plant cover.”

Swann called the Saguaro Census a “partnership of generations.” He said the team of researchers, which includes 500 volunteers, is “grateful” for the support from WNPA and the Friends of Saguaro National Park that is allowing them to continue the 80-year-old program.

“Saguaro National Park is particularly biologically diverse and has a rich scientific legacy that we feel responsible for continuing,” he said. “A lot of people who started the studies that I’m working on have been dead for a long time. Like them, I hope that I become a conduit for young people to continue these studies long after I’m gone.”

During Women’s History Month, the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates a tradition of service and leadership that continues today in many NPS fields, including natural and cultural resource management, law enforcement, interpretation, administration, and much more. In honor of women’s history, several national park rangers from Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area shared their insights about their roles and responsibilities, and provided advice for future generations of scientists.
KATY DELANEY

KATY DELANEY, wildlife ecologist 

For many years, I have monitored reptile and amphibian population​s in the Santa Monica Mountains. This work has led our park to recognize the need for preserving and restoring stream habitat and biodiversity. I started a project to reintroduce the federally threatened California red-legged frog to these mountains to achieve those goals. The work is ongoing, and despite many challenges, we’ve experienced a measure of real success. My job is important because I’m trying to restore and preserve biodiversity in a highly fragmented city landscape.

A woman sitting in front of two computer
DENISE KAMRADT

DENISE KAMRADT, GIS specialist

A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer-based system used to store, manage, analyze, and display geographically referenced information—basically anything you can put on a map. In my job, I use GIS to examine spatial relationships and changes both between data layers and over time. For example, do bobcats favor one type of habitat over others or how has the distribution of coastal sage scrub changed? Another vital part of my position is keeping all of our scientific and park data organized and accessible, and ensuring it gets used. I’ve always loved maps. What could be better than an NPS job working with maps all day?

 

KATIE MCDANIEL

KATIE MCDANIEL, bobcat intern

I research bobcat movement throughout the park using cameras, collars, and radio telemetry. My position helps in answering important questions that we have about bobcat behavior in urban environments. The more information scientists have, the better they can make decisions that aid in the conservation of this species.

My advice to other women and girls in science is to stay authentic in pursuing what you find exciting and important. Don’t worry if your colleagues don’t always look or think the way you do. Science is more robust when all perspectives, experiences, and differences are considered. Also, science—especially natural resources—is fun!

JOANNE MORIARTY

JOANNE MORIARTY, ecologist

I work on one of the longest bobcat studies ever. My research works to identify and understand challenges that urban carnivores face as they navigate and persist in complex, developed, and fragmented habitats. For almost 20 years, I’ve used VHF radio and GPS telemetry to study and track hundreds of bobcats in our region. I capture and sedate the bobcats, affix radio collars, record measurements and take blood and tissue samples for analysis. I also set up remote cameras and do scat surveys to learn more about the local bobcat population. My advice to those pursuing the career of their dreams? Luck comes to those who are prepared. Always be the most prepared one in the room.

ANNIE STEVENS

ANNIE STEVENS, mountain lion technician

I do fieldwork related to our mountain lion research. I help collar, tag and collect blood, tissue and other biological samples from these fascinating animals. Recently, we captured P-95, the 95th mountain lion in our study! I feel lucky to help conduct research that is used to influence mountain lion conservation. My advice to other burgeoning scientists? What you lack in experience, make up with effort.

SARAH WENNER

SARAH WENNER, biological technician

I work on the California red-legged frog reintroduction project, which aims to establish self-sustaining populations in the Santa Monica Mountains where the frogs were once abundant. To accomplish this, I assist with translocations from a nearby source population and perform regular monitoring of the sites to estimate persistence throughout the year. I consider this work important because it promotes conservation of natural resources and biodiversity in our park. My advice to my fellow scientists is to take every step with intention and always seek out new perspectives.

KATY DELANEY

KATY DELANEY, wildlife ecologist 

For many years, I have monitored reptile and amphibian population​s in the Santa Monica Mountains. This work has led our park to recognize the need for preserving and restoring stream habitat and biodiversity. I started a project to reintroduce the federally threatened California red-legged frog to these mountains to achieve those goals. The work is ongoing, and despite many challenges, we’ve experienced a measure of real success. My job is important because I’m trying to restore and preserve biodiversity in a highly fragmented city landscape.

A woman sitting in front of two computer
DENISE KAMRADT

DENISE KAMRADT, GIS specialist

A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer-based system used to store, manage, analyze, and display geographically referenced information—basically anything you can put on a map. In my job, I use GIS to examine spatial relationships and changes both between data layers and over time. For example, do bobcats favor one type of habitat over others or how has the distribution of coastal sage scrub changed? Another vital part of my position is keeping all of our scientific and park data organized and accessible, and ensuring it gets used. I’ve always loved maps. What could be better than an NPS job working with maps all day?

 

KATIE MCDANIEL

KATIE MCDANIEL, bobcat intern

I research bobcat movement throughout the park using cameras, collars, and radio telemetry. My position helps in answering important questions that we have about bobcat behavior in urban environments. The more information scientists have, the better they can make decisions that aid in the conservation of this species.

My advice to other women and girls in science is to stay authentic in pursuing what you find exciting and important. Don’t worry if your colleagues don’t always look or think the way you do. Science is more robust when all perspectives, experiences, and differences are considered. Also, science—especially natural resources—is fun!

JOANNE MORIARTY

JOANNE MORIARTY, ecologist

I work on one of the longest bobcat studies ever. My research works to identify and understand challenges that urban carnivores face as they navigate and persist in complex, developed, and fragmented habitats. For almost 20 years, I’ve used VHF radio and GPS telemetry to study and track hundreds of bobcats in our region. I capture and sedate the bobcats, affix radio collars, record measurements and take blood and tissue samples for analysis. I also set up remote cameras and do scat surveys to learn more about the local bobcat population. My advice to those pursuing the career of their dreams? Luck comes to those who are prepared. Always be the most prepared one in the room.

ANNIE STEVENS

ANNIE STEVENS, mountain lion technician

I do fieldwork related to our mountain lion research. I help collar, tag and collect blood, tissue and other biological samples from these fascinating animals. Recently, we captured P-95, the 95th mountain lion in our study! I feel lucky to help conduct research that is used to influence mountain lion conservation. My advice to other burgeoning scientists? What you lack in experience, make up with effort.

SARAH WENNER

SARAH WENNER, biological technician

I work on the California red-legged frog reintroduction project, which aims to establish self-sustaining populations in the Santa Monica Mountains where the frogs were once abundant. To accomplish this, I assist with translocations from a nearby source population and perform regular monitoring of the sites to estimate persistence throughout the year. I consider this work important because it promotes conservation of natural resources and biodiversity in our park. My advice to my fellow scientists is to take every step with intention and always seek out new perspectives.

Native Americans called Black soldiers stationed at Fort Union “Buffalo Soldiers,” a term of respect for their adversaries’ fighting spirit.

Wagons on the Santa Fe Trail were driven primarily by oxen. Unlike the Oregon and California trails, the Santa Fe Trail was primarily a two-way commercial trading route rather than a one-way emigrant trail.

Back on I-25, I soon reach Fort Union National Monument. Built of stout brick and adobe, it became the largest military post in the region, a travel hub and supply center for the Santa Fe Trail and other regional forts.

Several units of Black soldiers were stationed here, having joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Enduring constant racism, they were tasked with subduing hostile Indian forces who threatened the fort or the trail. Native Americans called them “Buffalo Soldiers,” a term of respect for their adversaries’ fighting spirit and physical resemblance to the powerful and much-revered bison. The only Fort Union troops ever awarded the Medal of Honor were six members of the 9th Cavalry—the Buffalo Soldiers—for their actions during intense fighting against Apache warriors. The irony of Black soldiers, fresh from the horrors of slavery, being honored for the subjugation of the Indigenous people who had honored them.

The main unit of the Pecos National Historical Park preserves the ruins of Pecos Pueblo, known historically as Cicuye (sometimes spelled Ciquique), the “village of 500 warriors.” Courtesy of NPS

A tinny recording of a bugle call plays over a pole-mounted speaker out by the flag. It’s hard for me to listen to, but this is part of the fraught history of New Mexico—and the nation. Truth is grist for the mill that feeds us all. Ours is a hard story to reconcile, a difficult climb but necessary, like the final stretch of trail into hills you cannot avoid as you travel toward Santa Fe.

Day 8 | End Of The Trail…And The Beginning

The Pecos River, at last. It flows down Pecos Canyon through the hills above Santa Fe, passing close to Pecos National Historical Park, the site of the ruins of Pecos Pueblo. During the years of the Santa Fe Trail, regular travelers would have witnessed the pueblo’s decline from a busy communal dwelling to a sparsely populated structure, falling into disuse and then ruin as the final few residents left to join distant relatives at the Jemez Pueblo to the southwest.

This pueblo’s time had come and gone, and the people found another way to live. Likewise, the Santa Fe Trail came and went. Created by linking older Native American trade and hunting routes, the Santa Fe Trail’s own end came from a similar new beginning: the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, with a spur that dropped south, first to Raton, and then to Santa Fe.

I follow the trail signs into the city, parking my car on Alameda Avenue under the cottonwood trees where the Santa Fe River trickles quietly beneath their leafy branches. Slowly, I stroll the narrow streets past the old adobe shops, low and thick-walled, and hung with colorful blankets and chile ristras, at last entering the central plaza built in 1610. It’s filled with music and flowers, and the bustling commerce of Santa Fe’s rich and deeply complicated history.

The goal of the Santa Fe Trail was to allow trade between cultures. In many places, our path is divided, split. Maybe, beyond mere goods and money, we can trade stories, gain personal understanding, with appreciation of the difficult journeys we have all undertaken. Maybe we can make a new beginning and learn to find our way, as we walk toward each other from both ends of the trail.

KATY DELANEY

KATY DELANEY, wildlife ecologist 

For many years, I have monitored reptile and amphibian population​s in the Santa Monica Mountains. This work has led our park to recognize the need for preserving and restoring stream habitat and biodiversity. I started a project to reintroduce the federally threatened California red-legged frog to these mountains to achieve those goals. The work is ongoing, and despite many challenges, we’ve experienced a measure of real success. My job is important because I’m trying to restore and preserve biodiversity in a highly fragmented city landscape.

A woman sitting in front of two computer
DENISE KAMRADT

DENISE KAMRADT, GIS specialist

A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer-based system used to store, manage, analyze, and display geographically referenced information—basically anything you can put on a map. In my job, I use GIS to examine spatial relationships and changes both between data layers and over time. For example, do bobcats favor one type of habitat over others or how has the distribution of coastal sage scrub changed? Another vital part of my position is keeping all of our scientific and park data organized and accessible, and ensuring it gets used. I’ve always loved maps. What could be better than an NPS job working with maps all day?

 

KATIE MCDANIEL

KATIE MCDANIEL, bobcat intern

I research bobcat movement throughout the park using cameras, collars, and radio telemetry. My position helps in answering important questions that we have about bobcat behavior in urban environments. The more information scientists have, the better they can make decisions that aid in the conservation of this species.

My advice to other women and girls in science is to stay authentic in pursuing what you find exciting and important. Don’t worry if your colleagues don’t always look or think the way you do. Science is more robust when all perspectives, experiences, and differences are considered. Also, science—especially natural resources—is fun!

JOANNE MORIARTY

JOANNE MORIARTY, ecologist

I work on one of the longest bobcat studies ever. My research works to identify and understand challenges that urban carnivores face as they navigate and persist in complex, developed, and fragmented habitats. For almost 20 years, I’ve used VHF radio and GPS telemetry to study and track hundreds of bobcats in our region. I capture and sedate the bobcats, affix radio collars, record measurements and take blood and tissue samples for analysis. I also set up remote cameras and do scat surveys to learn more about the local bobcat population. My advice to those pursuing the career of their dreams? Luck comes to those who are prepared. Always be the most prepared one in the room.

ANNIE STEVENS

ANNIE STEVENS, mountain lion technician

I do fieldwork related to our mountain lion research. I help collar, tag and collect blood, tissue and other biological samples from these fascinating animals. Recently, we captured P-95, the 95th mountain lion in our study! I feel lucky to help conduct research that is used to influence mountain lion conservation. My advice to other burgeoning scientists? What you lack in experience, make up with effort.

SARAH WENNER

SARAH WENNER, biological technician

I work on the California red-legged frog reintroduction project, which aims to establish self-sustaining populations in the Santa Monica Mountains where the frogs were once abundant. To accomplish this, I assist with translocations from a nearby source population and perform regular monitoring of the sites to estimate persistence throughout the year. I consider this work important because it promotes conservation of natural resources and biodiversity in our park. My advice to my fellow scientists is to take every step with intention and always seek out new perspectives.

KATY DELANEY

KATY DELANEY, wildlife ecologist 

For many years, I have monitored reptile and amphibian population​s in the Santa Monica Mountains. This work has led our park to recognize the need for preserving and restoring stream habitat and biodiversity. I started a project to reintroduce the federally threatened California red-legged frog to these mountains to achieve those goals. The work is ongoing, and despite many challenges, we’ve experienced a measure of real success. My job is important because I’m trying to restore and preserve biodiversity in a highly fragmented city landscape.

A woman sitting in front of two computer
DENISE KAMRADT

DENISE KAMRADT, GIS specialist

A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer-based system used to store, manage, analyze, and display geographically referenced information—basically anything you can put on a map. In my job, I use GIS to examine spatial relationships and changes both between data layers and over time. For example, do bobcats favor one type of habitat over others or how has the distribution of coastal sage scrub changed? Another vital part of my position is keeping all of our scientific and park data organized and accessible, and ensuring it gets used. I’ve always loved maps. What could be better than an NPS job working with maps all day?

 

KATIE MCDANIEL

KATIE MCDANIEL, bobcat intern

I research bobcat movement throughout the park using cameras, collars, and radio telemetry. My position helps in answering important questions that we have about bobcat behavior in urban environments. The more information scientists have, the better they can make decisions that aid in the conservation of this species.

My advice to other women and girls in science is to stay authentic in pursuing what you find exciting and important. Don’t worry if your colleagues don’t always look or think the way you do. Science is more robust when all perspectives, experiences, and differences are considered. Also, science—especially natural resources—is fun!

JOANNE MORIARTY

JOANNE MORIARTY, ecologist

I work on one of the longest bobcat studies ever. My research works to identify and understand challenges that urban carnivores face as they navigate and persist in complex, developed, and fragmented habitats. For almost 20 years, I’ve used VHF radio and GPS telemetry to study and track hundreds of bobcats in our region. I capture and sedate the bobcats, affix radio collars, record measurements and take blood and tissue samples for analysis. I also set up remote cameras and do scat surveys to learn more about the local bobcat population. My advice to those pursuing the career of their dreams? Luck comes to those who are prepared. Always be the most prepared one in the room.

ANNIE STEVENS

ANNIE STEVENS, mountain lion technician

I do fieldwork related to our mountain lion research. I help collar, tag and collect blood, tissue and other biological samples from these fascinating animals. Recently, we captured P-95, the 95th mountain lion in our study! I feel lucky to help conduct research that is used to influence mountain lion conservation. My advice to other burgeoning scientists? What you lack in experience, make up with effort.