Lincoln National Forest
This recreation area in the Lincoln National Forest has spectacular cliffs and features a year-round spring-fed stream, waterfalls (the largest of which has a 150-foot drop), and many refreshing clear-water wading pools. There are picnic areas and several hiking trails, including T–68 and T–68A that lead to the spring source of the waterfalls. The Apache name for the area was “gostahanagunti,” which means hidden gulch, and the presence of flakes of worked chert, grinding holes (bedrock mortars), and nearby pictographs testify to long-standing Native American use of this wildlife-rich oasis in the desert.
(WGS 84 or NAD 83)
Take US 285 north from Carlsbad for about 12 miles and turn west onto NM 137. Continue on NM 137 for about 20 miles until you reach CR 409. Turn right (west) on CR 409 and continue to the Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Site at the end of the road. This route follows the Guadalupe Back Country Byway.
Alternatively, the park can be accessed by going south about 9 miles from Carlsbad on US 62/180 and turning west on the Dark Canyon road (CR 408). Follow CR 408 (not always well maintained due to flash floods and not well sign-posted) for about 24 miles to its T-junction with NM 137; turn left (south) and go 3 miles on that road and then right (west) on CR 409 to its termination at Sitting Bull Falls. On both routes, drivers should watch out for cattle (open range) and high-speed traffic associated with oil-field and quarry operations.
Sitting Bull Falls is located in the Guadalupe Mountains just to the west of a major fold (the Huapache monocline) in the regionally nearly flat-lying Permian shelf to shelf-margin strata. The falls are about 12 miles northwest of the younger, late Middle Permian shelf margin reef exposed in the Guadalupe Mountains (see Carlsbad Caverns National Park chapter). The change in location of the shelf-edge Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area with parking lot and picnic shelters at lower left. Dark rocks in right-center foreground are tufa deposits produced by carbonate-rich water flowing over waterfalls that shifted position through time. Higher cliffs in background consist of bedded San Andres and Grayburg carbonate rocks in the upper third of the cliffs, above yellow-brown Cherry Canyon sandstones in the lower slopes. Dashed line shows shelf edge “rollover” bedding (flat on the shelf at right and getting progressively steeper on the slope). between Sitting Bull Falls and Carlsbad Caverns reflects basinward expansion of the shelf over roughly 10 million years.
Basin and Range faulting during the Late Cenozoic uplifted and tilted the Guadalupe Mountains eastward. Uplift allowed erosion and cave formation to sculpt this narrow canyon, which was then partially refilled by tufa (porous travertine) precipitated from spring waters.
The Rock Record
Access via the northern route from Carlsbad is mainly through shelf strata of the Artesia Group, primarily the Seven Rivers Formation (see Guadalupe Back Country Byway chapter). The broad, largely featureless area one crosses midway through this trip is the Seven Rivers Embayment, where dissolution of lagoonal and shoreline evaporites of the Seven Rivers Formation has occurred. The last, very curvaceous stretch of access road on CR 409 takes you past the sheer cliffs of Last Chance and Sitting Bull canyons, which are cut into San Andres, Grayburg, and Cherry Canyon formations.
In addition to Permian rocks, Sitting Bull Falls also has interesting recent deposits. The waterfalls are located in a narrow canyon fed by the upstream escape of groundwater from caves and springs in thick Permian limestones and dolomites. The emerging water has precipitated enormous volumes of calcium carbonate tufa, a process that continues to this day.
In Middle Permian time, this area was part of a broad shelf and basin complex that extended across much of southeastern New Mexico. Highlands created by the Ancestral Rockies deformation during Pennsylvanian to Early Permian time were deeply eroded by Middle Permian time, yet they were still shedding substantial amounts of sand and silt. The thick, yellowish-brown sands of the Cherry Canyon Formation exposed in the lower half of the canyon walls record this sediment influx. The steep bedding reflects the transport of those sands downslope from the Northwest shelf toward the Delaware Basin to the east. The overlying limestones of the Upper San Andres and Grayburg formations record times of higher sea level when sands were trapped along distant shorelines to the west and north, and carbonate-producing organisms flourished on the shelves. The irregular thickness of these limestone and dolomite beds may be due to small patch reefs and/or tidal channels on the shelf margin. A walk up Last Chance Canyon allows one to see the toe of the Cherry Canyon slope as well as slightly older carbonate rocks deposited by debris flows. These outcrops are near the road, just downhill from the Sitting Bull Falls area, or via trail T–226 farther up the canyon.
This area was eventually overlain by hundreds of feet of additional Permian shelf strata and thin Triassic and Cretaceous deposits. About 60 million years ago, a large fold (the Huapache monocline) formed just west of Sitting Bull Falls during Laramide crustal shortening. Beginning in the Miocene, Permian rocks were again exposed by Late Cenozoic uplift and erosion. During that stage, canyons were cut, ground-water flow produced caves, and spring-related tufa deposits began to form.
Perhaps the most impressive feature at Sitting Bull Falls is the Quaternary tufa. The entire hillside immediately behind the parking lot, shelters and picnic sites is composed of modern tufa that precipitated on the long-lived waterfalls in this area. Water that emerges from upstream caves and springs is saturated with calcium carbonate. As the water evaporates, warms, and degasses during flow, calcite (calcium carbonate) precipitates to form drapery-like sheets of rock. Plants and algae also become encrusted with calcite, and when the organic matter decomposes, it leaves behind the hollow molds that are visible in the tufa. You can still see these processes at work in the modern falls where it is possible to walk up behind some of the tufa sheets. A hike to the top of the falls and then upstream to the cave source of the waters allows observation of stream tufa formation.