Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Rattlesnake Springs
A sotol plant in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
A sotol plant in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (Purestock/Getty)

Water is the lifeblood of the Southwest, especially in the arid desert lands surrounding Carlsbad Caverns. Rattlesnake Springs, a detached unit of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, was acquired by the National Park Service in 1934 for the primary purpose of ensuring a reliable domestic water supply for cavern area development. A water supply pipeline from the spring to the cavern area, which is still in use, was completed in 1935. The water supply for the cavern is from a well that taps the same aquifer as the springs. The springs also provide water for irrigating NPS lands and for water uses on private lands such as the adjacent Washington Ranch.

Over the years the 1,000-meter stream and wetland system at Rattlesnake Springs have been sustained by the remaining undiverted spring flow. Originally a marsh, this area has been altered by human development. Today this green oasis provides habitat for a wide variety of species. The oasis is bounded by the gently rolling Chihuahuan Desert plains, dotted with creosote bush, yucca, mesquite, and snakewood. These plains are framed by the magnificent backdrop of the Guadalupe escarpment. When considered against the backdrop of declining riparian habitat in the desert Southwest, this stream/wetland complex constitutes an extraordinary natural resource of state and regional significance.

The area, however, is much more than just a water source for the park or a natural area of note. The spring was used by prehistoric peoples and historic Indian groups, soldiers, travelers, and settlers. When Henry Harrison homesteaded the area around the spring in the 1880s, he developed the spring, built an irrigation system for his fields, constructed an adobe home, and planted trees and orchards. Following acquisition by the National Park Service, the area was further developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during 1938 to 1942. They were responsible for many area improvements including the rock wall of the spring pond, the ranger residence, and the planting of cottonwood trees. Rattlesnake Springs was also used by the military during World War II. During more recent times, the Park Service has further developed the spring area. For its significant role in our nation's history, this area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

Because of this special combination of significant natural and cultural features, the Rattlesnake Springs unit has recently been reexamined and inventoried as a potential cultural landscape. A cultural landscape may be described as an expression of human adaptation to and use of the natural resources of an area. All historic landscapes evolved from and depend on natural resources—interconnected systems of land, air and water, and native vegetation and wildlife. Human land use alters many of these systems, either deliberately or accidentally.

While few artifacts remain from the early settlement period, the area provides critical habitat for an extraordinary number and variety of birds, reptiles, mammals, and butterflies. The rural character is still visible today as a mosaic containing open irrigated fields, cottonwoods along the irrigation ditches and the watercourse, ordered fruit trees that line the access road, and the picnic area. The spatial arrangement and organization of the spring area, the continuing land use, and the riparian system are some of the prominent features of this landscape that are reminders of our cultural and natural heritage.

Rattlesnake Springs has a picnic area for visitors with tables and cooking grills in a grassy area under large cottonwood trees. Drinking water and wheelchair accessible toilets are also available. Rattlesnake Springs is well known to birders, being one of the better spots in New Mexico for attracting birds that are not common to the general area. Camping is not permitted at Rattlesnake Springs.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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