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Texas Mountain Trail Region

Participant in the Texas Historical Commission's
Texas Heritage Trails Program

El Capitan to El Capitan Heritage Bike Route


Hwy 54 from Van Horn to Guadalupe Mountains National Park

A 55 mile ride along a scenic and historic route, from cycle-friendly historic Hotel El Capitan in Van Horn, to "El Capitan" in Guadalupe Mountains National Park!

Historic Hotel El Capitan

Hotel El Capitan
The Hotel El Capitan was for the most part a cattleman's hotel for its first 40 years. Ranchers from all over the area bought and sold cattle in business meetings held in the lobby. The railroad depot was across the street so many rail travelers stopped in for a night in their travels between California and San Antonio.  The Hotel El Capitan was built by Charles Bassett of El Paso and opened in 1930. It was one of five hotels of the Gateway Hotel chain that he built in west Texas and eastern New Mexico; the notable architect Henry Trost of Trost and Trost in El Paso was commissioned to produce the architectural design.  The Hotel El Capitan participates in the Texas Mountain Trail's cycle-friendly accommodations program,click here for more information on the participating hotels.

Van Horn and its history as a Crossroads
The availability of water at Van Horn Wells, 10 miles south of town made the area a popular stop-over spot for ancient peoples, the Apache, and early stagecoach travelers on the southern route of the Butterfield Overland Mail. Van Horn is situated at the junction of I-10, and scenic highways 90 and 54. The city was a stop on the Bankhead Highway and Old Spanish Trail from San Antonio to California in the 1880's.

1940 WPA Guide to Texas Description of the Highway
Hwy 54, then called US 90....
"US 90, rounding the northeast shoulder of the Baylor Range, heads north up the broad arid valley that lies between the frowning rampart of the Sierra Diablo (6,513 alt.) on the west and the Delaware Mountains (5,670 alt.) on the east, traversing one of the most desolate yet weirdly beautiful stretches of country to be found in Texas. The view sweeps almost level reaches, gray-green with sage and greasewood, dotted here and there with prickly pear, yucca and ocotillo. Beyond the middle distance a streak of blazing white gleams (R) like a hazy silver ribbon. It is the crystal-encrusted shoreline of a salt lake. On the horizon the ragged crest of the Delawares loom stark against the sky. Closer at hand, the sheer wall of the Sierra Diablo rises (L). Somewhere in the tangle of ridges and deep narrow canyon of this range are mines, lost and active. Gleaming white salt lakes appear. Far ahead lifts the blunt nose of the Guadalupe Range where it shoves its triangle of lofty peaks across the State Line from New Mexico. Higher and bolder loom the broad cliffs."

Ranch History
Ranch and farming families have worked the land near Hwy 54 since the late 19th century, and they used the route to deliver their goods to Van Horn. The John Thomas Smith family established themselves at "Spring Hill Ranch," now Frijole Ranch in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

 

Frijole Ranch at Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The Frijole Ranch House at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

The Smiths made a living by truck farming and had a 15-acre orchard and garden east and north of the house. Over the years, apples, peaches, apricots, plums, pears, figs, pecans, blackberries, strawberries, currants, and some corn were grown; the springs providing more than adequate water for at least two plots. Periodically, the Smiths would load up their wagons in the evening, covering the fresh produce with wet paper and linen. They would then travel for two days to Van Horn (65 miles south) where they would sell the fruits of their labor. They also raised cattle, horses, pigs, and chickens. 

R.P. Bean Ranch 1910 outside Van Horn
1910 photo of the R.P. Bean Ranch north of Van Horn, photo courtesy of Van Horn's Clark Hotel Museum. Portal to Texas History record of photo is here.

Buffalo Soldiers and the last Indian battle in Texas

"BUFFALO SOLDIERS"
Although the term "Buffalo Soldiers " was first used in the early 1870s in reference to black cavalry troopers, in recent years the term has become synonymous with all troops of African-American descent that served in the frontier Indian Wars Army.

THE TENTH CAVALRY
In May of 1875, the regimental headquarters of the Tenth U. S. Cavalry moved from Fort Sill, Oklahoma Territory to Fort Concho, Texas, with Company H ordered to Fort Davis. From 1875 to 1885, units of the Tenth were stationed at Fort Davis, which became headquarters for the regiment in 1882.

The mission of the Tenth Cavalry, like that of the other "Buffalo Soldier" regiments, was to protect the mail and travel routes, control Indian movements, and gain knowledge of the terrain. One highlight in the history of the Tenth occurred in the 1879-1880 campaign against the Apache leader, Victorio, and his followers. The Apaches had escaped from a reservation in New Mexico and were raiding in areas of western Texas. Learning that Victorio was in Mexico, Colonel Grierson attempted to prevent him from reentering Texas and especially from reaching New Mexico where he had supporters.

The campaign called for the biggest military concentration ever assembled in the Trans-Pecos area. Six troops of the Tenth Cavalry and Company H of the Twenty-fourth Infantry were assigned to patrol the area from the Van Horn Mountains, west to the Quitman Mountains, and north to the Sierra Diablos and Delaware Mountains. Major confrontations occurred at Tinaja del las Palmas (a waterhole south of Sierra Blanca) and at Rattlesnake Springs (north of Van Horn). These two engagements halted Victorio and forced him to retreat to Mexico where he was killed by Mexican troops in October 1880.
Text: courtesy Fort Davis National Historic Site website.
Salt Flat in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Salt Flats
Approximately 30 miles north of Van Horn, you start to see gray-white streaks in the land to the east...these are salt deposits, remants of an ancient shallow lake from the Pleistocene Epoch, approximately 1.8 million years ago. The salt here and to the west of Guadalupe Mountains National Park was a precious resource, and led to the El Paso Salt War in the latter half of the 19th century. Read more about the war and the importance of these salt deposits on the national park website, here.

 

Butterfield Overland Mail Stagecoach
Butterfield Overland Stage recreation at Guadalupe Mountains National ParkPrior to 1857, there was no organized, commercial system of transportation west of the Mississippi River. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 led to a flood of fortune seekers itching to head west. Pressure soon built for a reliable transportation system across the continent. In 1858, the first intercontinental mail delivery took place by stagecoach on the Butterfield Overland Mail. The route extended from St. Louis to San Francisco, and the first eastern- and western-bound stagecoaches met on the inaugural journey just north of what is now Hwy 54, in the shadow of El Capitan.

The Capitan Reef
El Capitan, the massive rock structure in Guadalupe Mountains National Park was formed during the middle part of the Permian period of geologic time, 251 to 299 million years ago. Now, it is recognized as one of the most well-preserved fossil reefs in the world.

About 80 million years ago tectonic compression along the western margin of North America caused the region encompassing west Texas and southern New Mexico to be slowly uplifted. A transition in tectonic events 20-30 million years ago initiated the formation of steep faults along the western side of the Delaware Basin. Movement on these faults over the last 20 million years caused a long-buried portion of the Capitan Reef to rise several thousand feet above its original position. This uplifted block was then exposed to wind and rain causing the softer overlying sediments to erode, uncovering the more resistant fossil reef and forming the modern Guadalupe Mountains. Today the reef towers above the desert floor as it once loomed over the floor of the Delaware Sea 260 to 265 million years ago.
Text from: Guadalupe Mountains National Park website. To read more, click here.

What to know before you head out on the road...

--You'll be cycling in the desert, take plenty of water and snacks and simple tire repair supplies with you
--There are no services along the 55 mile route, and no gas or food or hotel lodging at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Stock up with supplies when you're in Van Horn.
--Respect private property; do not cross gates or fencelines
--Relax and enjoy your ride!