Stony Man Mountain | Shenandoah National Park

Original Publication Date: 11/26/2010

Botanists and ecologists familiar with the Klamath Mountains are inevitably familiar with the similarities the area has with the southern Appalachian Mountains. It is understood that both regions harbor exceptional plant diversity due to the complex interaction of several factors. They are each ancient mountain ranges that have sustained a similar flora since at least the Cenozoic. These mountainous regions have served as monadnocks–ultimately refuges for plants as populations of species have been eliminated by glaciation and climatic dessication1. Arriving in Virginia in a warm, dry November spell the Blue Ridge Mountains were beckoning me to visit as I peered toward them from the Shenandoah Valley.

I decided to research a mountain top hike that would provide both views and of course–if possible–relict conifers. After finding a publication from 1966 about the conifers of Shenandoah National Park2 mom, dad, and I settled on Stony Man Mountain–the second highest peak in the park at 4010 feet. The Appalachians have an ancient history, being one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. Stony Man’s summit is composed of greenstones–which were formed 800 million years ago (Ma) by lava flow. With time the rocks changed and were ultimately uplifted 200 Ma and have eroded back to their current height over millenia. The botanical interests–while dependant on the mountain for safe harbor–are a more recent circumstance.

Looking northward along the Blue Ridge Mountains–Skyline Drive brought us to within a mile of the summit of Stony Man Mountain..

In addition to the wide array of flowering trees, shrubs and annuals that can be found in the Appalachians, several relict conifers survive on this particular mountain top and sporadically elsewhere across the rolling landscape. The conifers are harbingers for the microsites fostered by complex climate and geology which ultimately mimic conditions of a colder time. Canada yew (Taxus canadensis), red spruce (Picea rubens), and balsam fir (Abies balsamea) are found at their southern range extensions in and around the southern Appalachians of Virginia. These trees thrived in the colder climate of the Pleistocene but are now restricted to the highest mountain tops and coolest glades.

Canada Yew | Taxus canadensis

The Canada yew is an understory tree of late successional forests. This is exactly the habitat in which we found it in Shenandoah National Park. This yew of the northeast is ecologically identical to the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) of the Pacific northwest. The small isolated population we found on the summit of Stony Man reminded me of select mountain tops of the Klamath–like Preston Peak. The population here was matted to the earth and often growing beneath and around shrubs on rocky outcrops punished by the elements.

Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) hangs from a rocky, north-facing cliff on Stony Man Mountain.
Taken from Digital Representations of Tree Species Range Maps from “Atlas of United States Trees” by Elbert L. Little, Jr.
Shrubs to 2 m, usually monoecious, low, diffusely branched, straggling, spreading to prostrate. Bark reddish, very thin. Branches spreading and ascending. Leaves 1-2.5 cm, pale green abaxially, dark green to yellow-green adaxially. Seed somewhat flattened, 4-5 mm. Seeds maturing late summer – early fall when present (3).


In the foreground Canada yew contrasts its yellow-green foliage to that of Tsuga canadensis in the background.
Canada yew is apparently shade tolerant and appears to reproduce vegetatively by spreading slow and low through the duff.

Needless to say, this was an exciting plant to find and learn were those that follow but are discussed in less detail.

A few other conifer highlights included…

Balsam fir | Abies balsamea

Pictured here are needles from a Balsam fir on Stony Man Mountain. Farjon (1990) suggests that where ranges overlap between Frasier and balsam in Virginia that the hybrids are distinguished by small seed cones with exserted bracts much smaller than those of A. fraseri (5). We found no cones on this late November day.

red spruce |  Picea rubens


pitch pine | Pinus rigida

  • pitch

Other Resources:


    1. Whittaker, R. H. 1960. Vegetation of the Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon and California. Ecological Monographs. V30:3:279-338.
    2. Mazzeo, Peter M. 1966. Notes on the Conifers of the Shenandoah National Park. Castanea 31:3: 240-247.
    3. Hils, Matthew H. 1993. Taxaceae. Flora of North America Editorial Committee (eds.): Flora of North America North of Mexico, Vol. 2. Oxford University Press.
    4. Potter, K.M. et al. 2010. Evolutionary history of two endemic Appalachian conifers revealed using microsattilite markers. Conversation genetics. 11:1499-1513.
    5. Farjon, Aljos. 1990. Pinaceae: drawings and descriptions of the genera Abies, Cedrus, Pseudolarix, Keteleeria, Nothotsuga, Tsuga, Cathaya, Pseudotsuga, Larix and Picea. Königstein: Koeltz Scientific Books

AUTHOR: David Fix
DATE: 11/24/2010 2:17:02 PM
Thank you, Michael, for the quick look-see. Jude and I were in the park, as well as over in the Alleghenies in May and also enjoyed Red Spruce. It was fun to see you apply your landscape-parsing and plant skills to a different place. Question. What is that abundant and delicate knee-high fern with the pinnae that barely clasp your fingers as you feel it? But I simply enjoyed it in many spots and don’t need the name…
AUTHOR: Allison
DATE: 11/24/2010 2:43:10 PM
Great trip, beautiful! This also taught me that monadnock is not just a mountain in southern New Hampshire, but rather my favorite mountain is the name sake for the topographical phenomenon.

Siskiyou cypress and yellow-cedar in the Klamath Mountains

Original Publication DATE: 10/24/2010

With the threat of our second significant storm of the season looming, I packed the truck and headed into a mysterious and isolated region of the Siskiyou Mountains to find two rare groves of trees and enjoy the transition toward winter. The roads are long and lonely leading south from Oregon’s Applegate Valley into the high peaks of extreme southern Oregon and northern California. This region drains the headwaters of the Applegate River where nebulous state borders are crisscrossed by wild mountains, rivers, and the occasional road. This is surely the quintessential ancient meeting ground where rare plants have hidden out for millenia–optimal environmental conditions are fostered with a unique balance of sun, soil, and water. In addition to the rare conifers under discussion one might also encounter Pacific silver-fir, subalpine fir , Brewer spruce, and Port Orford-cedar close by–not to mention the other more common species.

This map shows the only region in the world where the northern-most native cypress (C. bakeri) overlaps with Alaska yellow-cedar (C. nootkatensis) in its southern range extension.

One quick side note with respect to the genera I present here (without getting overly detailed)–several classification schemes currently exist for these species. Alaska-cedars have been placed in one of five genera by various sources: Cupressus, Chamaecyparis, Xanthocyparis, Hesperocyparis, and Callitropsis. Needless to say, things are a bit up in the air. While these names have yet to be worked out what has transpired, for now, is one of three scenerios:

Continue reading “Siskiyou cypress and yellow-cedar in the Klamath Mountains”

South Fork Eel River Wilderness | Red Mountain Unit

Original Publication DATE: 11/7/2010

“We need wilderness because we are wild animals. Every man needs a place where he can go to go crazy in peace.  Every Boy Scout troop deserves a forest to get lost, miserable, and starving in.  Even the maddest murderer of the sweetest wife should get a chance for a run to the sanctuary of the hills.  If only for the sport of it.  For the  terror, freedom, and delirium…” – Edward Abbey,from The Journey Home

With the passing of the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Act in 2006 over 150,000 acres of new wilderness areas were added to the wilderness preservation system. Those new areas are: Yuki, Sanhedrin, Mount Lassic, King Range, Cedar Roughs, Cache Creek , and South Fork of the Eel River. Most of these areas are administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and there is not much information out there about these places–including how to access our public lands. In many ways this is exciting–the journey to go “crazy in peace” is an ominous and difficult one–in many ways what wilderness should be. With new wilderness on my mind I drove the 70 miles south of Eureka, just into Mendocino County, in an attempt to see this new wilderness and the rare plant communities fostered in the edaphic sky island found there. Though interested in all plants, I must admit the driving force behind this trip was to see the northern range extension of Sargent cypress. Continue reading “South Fork Eel River Wilderness | Red Mountain Unit”

Hell’s Half Acre | South Fork Trinity River

Original Publication DATE: 3/21/2010

Surely one of the most beautiful rivers in the state of California, this wild and untraveled stretch of the South Fork Trinity River is a special place to visit. South Fork Road ends 11 miles from where it begins at the junction of the South Fork and Main Fork, and for over 10 miles, runs wild and free from human disturbance–upstream to the isolated hamlet of Hyampom. The entire South Fork of the Trinity River is designated as wild and scenic, but the Hell’s Half Acre section is the epitome of this wild and scenic designation.

Continue reading “Hell’s Half Acre | South Fork Trinity River”

Kalmiopsis leachiana

Survival in a land of extremes

Original Publication DATE: 6/3/2010

With the end of the school year in site, my calcifuge tendencies had me running to the hills. Ever since our winter trip to Hawaii I have been pondering the Ericaceae family, gaining a new found love for this diverse group of plants. I also knew that they, like me, had a propensity to ‘flee from chalk’ so to speak. Ericaceous plants generally prefer, if not acidic soil, a harsh medium on which to grow. Could this familial disposition–to thrive in the presence of harsh soil–be due to the extant members of this tribe having evolved from a common ancestor? I thought I must visit one of the oldest members of the family and get to know where they grew and what they knew or could share. Though I have been hearing the call of the Kalmiopsis for many years, I had failed to yet make the trek into this remote country. With snow lingering this spring, keeping me from my typical high Siskiyou destinations, the time was right for Oregon’s second largest wilderness. The lower elevation wilderness is so named after a relict plant Lilla and John Leach discovered here in 1930.

Continue reading “Kalmiopsis leachiana”

Walking the Lost Highway | The Siskiyou Wilderness’ GO Road

Original Publication DATE: 7/19/2010

I did not embark on  a typical backpacking trip in late June–but it wasn’t a typical spring. Snow lingered in the high country and the big miles and long trails I had come to expect in June did not present those hiking opportunities. The landscape was set short and deep for foot travel as snow pack nourished the aquifers of the Klamath Mountains. I knew I needed to start my summer in the Siskiyous because–besides that fact that they are becoming my sacred place–the range is both lower elevation and more temperate that other ranges in the Klamath Mountains to the east. This would surely allow the high country access I was yearning for.

Siskiyou wilderness

Continue reading “Walking the Lost Highway | The Siskiyou Wilderness’ GO Road”

Subalpine Fir in the Red Buttes Wilderness

Original Publication Date: 8/8/2010

In 1969 Dale Thornburgh and John Sawyer discovered the first subalpine fir in California and also in the Klamath Mountains. This discovery was made in the vicinity of Russian Peak in what is now the Russian Wilderness. Since that time the species has been found in a total of eight locations in California’s Klamath Mountains and twice in Oregon’s Klamath. One of those Oregon locations is near Mt. Ashland and the other was recently discovered by Frank Callahan to the east in the Red Buttes Wilderness. This second location, in an isolated cirque on the north side of Tannen Peak was my destination–with Frank Callahan as my guide. Continue reading “Subalpine Fir in the Red Buttes Wilderness”

Rarities and Ramblings • Horse Mountain Botanical Area: Six Rivers National Forest

Original Publication DATE: 2/14/2010 3:14:00 PM

Venturing east on Highway 299 from Humboldt Bay, a stark transition–rarely noticed by travelers–occurs at Berry Summit (2900 ft). Leaving the Coast Range and entering the Klamath Mountains the landscape becomes defined by varied, complex rock types. One of these unusual rock types is known as ultramafic rock or more commonly as Serpentine. In North America, serpentine rock appears at the Earth’s surface most frequently in northwest California. The Horse Mountain Botanical Area (HMBA) is a celebration of the rock and climate that interact to create unique high elevation plant communities. In coastal northwest California, spring has arrived. Allison and I did not want winter to pass us by–we were ready for some snow play. Packing our snowshoes and lunch, we drove to the snow of the HMBA in the Klamath Mountains in less than an hour.

Above is an map of the location of the Horse Mountain Botanical Area in the Six Rivers National Forest.
Above is an map of the location of the Horse Mountain Botanical Area in the Six Rivers National Forest.

Continue reading “Rarities and Ramblings • Horse Mountain Botanical Area: Six Rivers National Forest”

Foxtail Pines of Mount Linn

Original Publication DATE: 8/10/2009

Mount Linn–also called South Yolla Bolly Mountain–is the highest point in the Coast Range of northern California. It is located to the west of Corning but the area might as well be a world away from the population centers of the state; it is rarely noticed by travelers as they drive Interstate 5. Once off the interstate, scenic forest service roads still take nearly 2 hours to wind to the trailhead. Although this place has always been on my list of places to visit–the impetus for this visit was to collect some samples of the rare Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis) for Robert Adams of Baylor University so that, through DNA testing, he might find out if these trees truly are what we think they are (see previous blog). After a 25 mile sojourn deep into the wilderness to collect those specimens it was time to search for the southern most stand of foxtail pine in northwest California–on Mount Linn.

The distinct cones and “bottle-brush tassle” branches help to identify Pinus Balfouriana.

Continue reading “Foxtail Pines of Mount Linn”

Western Juniper of the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness

Original Publication DATE: 7/29/2009 

Two days into my 400 mile trek on the Bigfoot Trail I stopped to watch rain clouds clear above the headwaters of Cottonwood Creek–deep in the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness. As wind whipped the cool electric air past my ears a plant caught my eye–20 yards below the ridge on which I was balanced. This stately specimen had taken purchase many years ago in this rocky, windswept environment. This was a place in which only the heartiest of plants could hope to endure. Its reddish branches stood out in stark contrast to the lime green foliage. As I slowly crawled down the hillside my mind turned over and over with ideas of what species this might be. At first I believed it was cypress–possibly a MacNab or Sargent. But As I got closer I noticed the berry cones which are a diagnostic trait of junipers.

western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) on a windswept ridge.

Continue reading “Western Juniper of the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness”

Packers Peak – Trinity Alps Wilderness

Original Publication DATE: 9/22/2009

High above the headwaters of the Salmon River and Coffee Creek, the remarkable ascension of Packers Peak is surprising next to the seemingly superlative granite of the Alps. The peak is a pedestal on which to perch, understand, and enjoy the complex Trinity Alps Wilderness that surrounds you. It is a steep climb from Big Flat, at the end of Coffee Creek Road, to reach this vantage point; but if you are willing to climb the nearly 3,000 feet in just under 3 miles, you will be rewarded.

Atop Packers Peak
Atop Packers Peak, rock and plant fabulously frame the high Trinity Alps.

Continue reading “Packers Peak – Trinity Alps Wilderness”

Limestone Ridge ~ Trinity Alps Wilderness

Original Publication DATE: 10/12/2009 2:23:00 AM

Gaining an understanding of geology and fire ecology

I had often pondered a high and extensive ridgeline in the middle of the Trinity Alps Wilderness from other mountain top vantage points on which I stood–at one point or another–in my adventures in the Klamath Mountains. It took me several years to realize this jagged range had its own name and many years more to actually get to this isolated place. Finally, in October, I climbed my way into the high country known as Limestone Ridge. I had read this extensive ridgeline (over 3 miles long) was one of the best examples of Karst topography in western North America. This summer, the spectacular Marble Mountain was my first introduction to Karst limestone landscape in the Klamath so I assiduously pursued a chance to see more. With those distant images and arresting words burned on my brain I was finally climbing–up–up–up–from Hobo Gulch in the Trinity River Canyon.

Limestone Ridge
Climbing higher and higher, smoke lingers from this years fires while charred chaparral and montane forest remind the temporal visitor of previous year’s fires–leaving the gabbro pluton exposed, as if only just uplifted from the depths of the earth.

Continue reading “Limestone Ridge ~ Trinity Alps Wilderness”

Hawai’i: Plant Evolution, Origin and the Genus Vaccinium (‘Ohelo)

Original Publication DATE: 12/25/2009

When John Sawyer and his wife Jane first invited Allison and I to join them on the Big Island for a few weeks, he issued a staunch warning when he said “Michael, there are no native conifers anywhere on the chain of Hawaiian Islands.”  After some discussion with Allison I conceded that, even with the absence of conifers, this was an opportunity we could not miss. I was allowed to bring Farjon’s Conifers: A Natural History for some light reading on the beaches—otherwise we packed efficiently for the sub-tropics. John and Jane promised to bring all the plant books we could possibly need.

For the first few days plants were of secondary concern as we toured the beaches and snorkeled in underwater worlds I had never seen before. But eventually, we made our way into the high country, away from the beaches which were planted with, or invaded by, many non-native species.  As we climbed the road to Mauna Kea, eventually into the alpine, we discussed plant distributions and origins on the islands as we peered far over the Pacific Ocean. Hawaii is one of the most isolated places on earth. The nearest land mass is another island chain called the Marquesas, which are 2,000 miles away, the west coast of North America is 2,400 miles, and Japan is 3,800 miles.

This volcanic chain of islands first started its fiery formation 80,000,000 years ago with the creation of Mejii, the western most island. Over time, at a rate of 3.5 inches per year, the plates shifted as lava continued to flow eventually establishing more than 80 islands spread over 3,800 miles. Mejii is now located—eroded and underwater—off the coast of Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The current western most island is Kure Atole which is 27 million years old and 1,600 miles from Honolulu (Walther). Kaua’i, the oldest of the eight main islands, is a mere 5 million years old. It is apparent, that on a grand scale, these islands form “fast” and die “fast.”

Having set the geological history straight, the big question for me became: How did the native plants get here? In the discussion that follows and in the research cited, native plants on Hawaii are described as pre-Polynesian plants—in other words, plants that have been here for tens of thousands of years that reached the islands without the aid of humans.

Hawaiian Cloud Forest
The cloud forests—above 5,000’—offered a rare Pacific refuge for certain plants carried here and already adapted to cooler climatic conditions. On Hawaii at elevation, and in similar habitat through the sub-tropics, Vaccinium spp. thrive.

In 1961, Fosberg found that 18% of Hawaiin native plants were from the Americas, 17% form Australia, 40% from the Indio-Pacific, 3% from the arctic and the rest are of unknown origin. In 1970, Carlquist’s examined seed origin and found that, in those 80 million years, 270 species of plants eventually gave rise to 1,060 native species on the islands—that equates to one successful speciation event every 296,000 years! (Walter). Carlquist went on to state that of these 270 pioneers 1.4% arrived by air, 23.8% by sea and 74.8% by bird. So with the right vessel for distribution and a comfortable landing in just the right habitat, plant life evolved.

In our adventures around the Big Island Allison and I struggled to get comfortable with the plant families here—many of which were new to us. Over 60% percent of the plants here originated in the southern hemisphere, this was new botanical territory. We were definitely entertained by the newness, but it left us feeling like invasive species. We needed something to latch on to, to remind us of home—some sort of habitatual-home so-to-speak. As we climbed into the high country of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, particularly in the pristine native forests of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we recognized not only a family but a genus that we loved from the mainland.

Vaccinium peleanum
Fruits and berries of Vaccinium peleanum.

Ericaceae is a common family for anyone who has enjoyed a blueberry pie, pondered a Manzanita in California, or slathered huckleberry jam on toast. As a general rule plants from the genus Vaccinium have tasty berries that people take advantage of, especially in the temperate regions of North America, every fall. Here on the Big Island of Hawaii, there are three native species of Vaccinium (Hall) and possibly up to six on the entire chain.  These species hail originally from the north temperate regions and were distributed—by (constipated?) aerial adventurers—between Pacific Island mountain tops from Hawaii to Fiji to Somoa (Kepler).  Merlin goes as far to say that these species closest relatives are located in the forests of the Pacific Northwest—giving more foundation to the comfort level we had when finding these plants. We felt at home in the high elevations forests and sub-alpine landscapes where the Vaccinium thrived.

Vaccinium reticulatum
Vaccinium reticulatum, one of the Vaccinium ssp. to speciate from an ancient Pacific Northwest ancestor within the Hawaiian Islands, grows between 3,000 and 5,000 feet

As on the mainland, Vaccinium were held sacred by native Hawaiians. They believed that ‘ohelo, was venerated by the Volcano God, Pele. Before consuming the berries themselves, they would offer branches bearing fruits to Pele by throwing them into the fiery cauldron of Kilauea (Lamoureux). Allison and I offered our love to the island (because we were not allowed near Kilauea) and the experiences offered to us by its kind people before consuming (sparingly) the plentiful fruit on several of our hikes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. After a wonderful two week visit, our comfort for landscapes on the island grew as well. We reluctantly departed, back to the frigid winter of the mainland, excited to return another time to learn more about this sub-tropical wonderland.

The cauldron in Kilauea Crater to which the native people would offer ‘ohelo to Pele, before enjoying the tasty berries themselves.


1.     Carlquist, S. 1970, Hawaii: A Natural History, Natural History Press, New York, New York.

2.     Fosberg, F.R. 1961. Guide to Excursions III, Tenth Pacific Congress. University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

3.     Hall, John B. 2004. A Hiker’s Guide to Trailside Plants in Hawaii. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, Hawaii.

4.     Kelper, A.K., 1999, Hawaii’s Floral Splendor, Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, Hawaii.

5.     Lamoureux, C.H. 1976. Trailside Plants of Hawaii National Park. Hawaii Natural History Association, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

6.     Merlin, M.D. 1980. Hawaiian Forest Plants. Oriental Publishing Company, Honolulu, Hawaii.

7.     Walther, Michael, 2004. A Guide to Hawaii’s Coastal Plants, Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, Hawaii.

AUTHOR: Kandler Smith
DATE: 12/25/2009 10:35:01 PM
My botanogeek wife and I enjoyed reading about your travels! Sounds like a great trip. Merry Christmas!
AUTHOR: David Fix
DATE: 12/26/2009 7:02:05 AM
Michael, thanks for the impressions. Jude and I also enjoyed veg in Kona, on Mauna Kea, and the south side of the Big Island last year. We did a tour with a guide named Garry who’s with Hawaii Forest & Trails. Didn’t know what to expect but it was really good, and we recommend him. While in the Hakalau NWR (protected and regenerated forest on ne. slope of Mauna Kea) we had an ohia lehua pointed out to us which was perhaps forty inches in diameter. Garry said that the ohia grow only millimeters per year (radially) at most after their youthful flush, and that this tree could have been a thousand years old. I stood there gazing at stout limbs where, quite likely, long-extinct birds such as the Hawaiian ‘O-‘O, Mamo, or Akialoa may have foraged. Spending minutes with this giant was the equivalent of seeing “the big Doug” on a nw. CA hike. As a birder, I listened to the songs of half a dozen native species–trills, whistles, and other semi-tropical utterances–and had to wonder what that forest chorus would have sounded like pre-Captain Cook+ with the extinct birds also chiming in.

// Speaking of big dougs, did you know there is a ~100″ dbh Douglas-fir along Hwy 101 in Del Norte Redwoods S.P. that is easily seen from the highway? Park at the entrance to Mill Creek CG and walk back south about a few hundred feet; the big boy stands west of the road about 75′ off it and is obvious. Aside from diameter it is not an especially heroic tree, but it’s the largest non-redwood I have seen in the park. Rave on. JOIN THE SPOTTED OWL PARTY. U.S. OUT OF NORTH AMERICA! NO FOR PRESIDENT IN 2012 / Fix

  • David- Thanks for your impressions as well. I loved the birds up high as well and longed for more. Hakalau NWR sounds like a can’t miss next time we hit the island.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge ~ Amargosa Valley, NV

Original Publication DATE: 12/30/2008

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is located along the eastern border of Death Valley National Park. The area presents an incredible juxtaposition to the desert — lush springs feed streams lined with riparian species; many of which are relicts of a wetter time. In this arid region, when precipitation befalls the mountains of southwestern Nevada, water percolates into aquifers. Over nearly a millennia this primordial water flows underground; forming the headwaters of the aboriginal Amargosa River. At Ash Meadows, these waters are forced up from the underground and a brilliant system of springs can be witnessed; in the heart of some of the most arid land on earth.

Velvet Ash
The velvet ash (Fraxinus velutina) for which the refuge is named

In wetter times of the Pleistocene the Amargosa River flowed here, connecting a system of lakes — all the way to the once-massive Lake Manly. This lake is now dry and known as Death Valley. As this system of rivers and lakes dried with time the fish became restricted to where water remained above ground. Today, Ash Meadows holds the bulk of these springs and hence — through speciation events due to geographical isolation — numerous species of pupfish. It is said that AMNWR has the greatest concentration of endemic life in the United States — at least 25 species have adapted to environments in and around the springs. Again, riparian relicts of and epoch gone by.

The Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis ssp. mionectes) thrive at Jackrabbit Springs.

The pupfish of the region behave as the cichlids of the African Great Lakes — being highly territorial and breeding in a around rocky shelves. Where as the African cichlids are an example of parapatric speciation, the pupfish of Ash Meadows exhibit allopatric speciation — because of their geographic isolation over time.

The region is still threatened. As water levels dropped to feed farms in the 1960’s, the level of water in the underground aquifer dropped and habitat for the Devil’s Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) began to disappear. A Supreme Court ruling in 1976 limited the pumping of water and, for now, has saved this species — as the water remains at a level necessary for breeding near a prefered limestone shelf. The Devil’s Hole pupfish, because it lives in only one place — a litteral rock-hole-spring in the middle of the desert — is possibly the most environmentally restricted species on Earth.  This area needs us to visit, to foster our understanding of the unique biota living on our planet.

Ash Meadows
The swirling emerald-blue water of Crystal Spring.

Carnivorous Plants of the Smith River Region ~ Stoney Creek Trail

Original Publication DATE: 4/18/2009 2:37:00 PM

In the hinterland of northwest California, the Smith River’s crystal blue waters drain abruptly from the Siskiyou Mountains toward the Pacific Ocean—along the way gouging out sparkling canyons through ancient serpentine rock. High levels of precipitation coupled with serpentine geology have fostered unique plant communities in this region. Because the serpentines soils of the Josephine Ophiolite are rich in heavy metals the ecosystem appears infertile. Seemingly sparse red-rock forests endure in stark contrast to the lush redwood forests of the North Coast Range only a few miles away. But upon closer inspection, the red-rock nurtures plant communities that are species rich and teeming with life. Continue reading “Carnivorous Plants of the Smith River Region ~ Stoney Creek Trail”

Eureka Dunes ~ Death Valley National Park

Original Publication DATE: 12/29/2008

One of the most visually spectacular destinations of all desert landscapes in North America has to be the Eureka Dunes of Death Valley National Park. At the end of the Pleistocene an ancient lake that filled the valley floor gradually dried up; as the winds blew newly exposed sand the dunes formed — into one of the highest in North America. The highest dune in the complex rises to 650 feet above the valley floor from which the surroundings are a terrific spectacle to witness. Another fascinating feature of the dunes is their propensity to sing or boom when the sand is pushed from a steep slip face. The sound reverberates from inside the dune as a deep bass note — which is sure to amaze.

Eureka Dunes
Looking south to the Eureka Dunes and Saline Range at sunrise.

The valley not only offers visual beauty but endemic biota as well — currently 3 endemic plants and 5 endemic beetles have been identified on the dunes themselves. The Eureka Valley dune grass (Oenothera californica ssp. eurekensis) was the most spectacular to find on our winter trip. I had never seen a grass that looks like this — quite primordial indeed. The other two endemic plants on the dunes are shining milk vetch (Astragulus lentiginosus var. micans) and Eureka Dune evening-primrose (Oenothera californica spp. eurekensis). Though we saw the astragulus, both are best viewed in early spring when in bloom.

Eureka Dune Grass
The endemic Eureka Valley dune grass.

The legendary plant explorers of the Eureka Valley are Mary and Paul Dedecker. As self taught botanists they often explored the Mojave looking for plants. One a fateful day in the summer of 1975 the two ventured into the Eureka Valley and eventually into a canyon on the south side of the valley. It was a hot July day when Mary found a shrub in bloom — bright yellow when all other plants were browning in the summer heat. It turned out the this was a new species and a new genus that favors a rare limestone outcrop in the canyon. She aptly named the plant July gold (Dedeckera eurekensis). The canyon itself was later named Dedeckera Canyon and can be traveled (with 4-wheel drive and experience) all the way to Saline Valley.

4wd in Dedeckera Canyon
Dropping down the dry falls of Dedeckera Canyon from Saline Valley

AUTHOR: Thomas Lopez
DATE: 10/8/2009 12:34:22 AM
Very nice photos, hope to visit the area sometime for an Ansel Adams experience, that is photographing the dunes and surrounding area with a large format camera and b/w film.
AUTHOR: Lenavena
DATE: 11/1/2010 11:24:58 AM
Awesome photos. Will visit it sometime
AUTHOR: Dave Imper
DATE: 11/15/2010 5:56:35 PM
Fantastic pics Mike. I took the road between Eureka and Saline Valleys as well, back in about 1997…brutal. Glad I had a rented car. Did you see the Marble Bath, noted on the USGS quad? Not what you expect. We need to share our desert trip photos.

Dave- I have done that road twice and missed the Marble Bath each time–guess it was a bit stressful from Saline to the saddle and I was distracted when we passed that spot.  -Michael

Saline Valley Plant Explorations

Original Publication Date: 12/23/2008 

Saline Valley might just be the most isolated spot in the state of California. In many aspects it is a smaller version of Death Valley, just to the east. It has a wide basin with a smaller sand dune complex, is surrounded by mountain ranges — including the Inyo, Nelson, Last Chance, and Saline — and has terrific canyons to explore full of lush springs and hanging gardens. One major difference to its neighboring valley is that it exposes several hot springs to the surface that have been known and used for centuries. Most of Saline Valley is in Death Valley National Park — the base of the massive Inyo Mountains to the west is the boundary between park land and National Forest.

Creosote and desert holly
Creosote and desert holly typify the flora that is likely to be found on the valley floor. The Inyo Mountains are in the background.

Creosote (Larrea tridentata) is the most dominant shrub of the valley floor — and possibly the most successful shrub in the deserts of North America. The species covers 149 million square miles, ranges in elevation from -235 to 5,000 feet, can live at a density of over 350 plants per acre, and some argue that this species may live as long as 11,000 years (Pavlik 2008). One adaptation to survive in these harsh desert conditions is its small leaves, which grow at angles that minimize direct contact with the sun’s rays. Desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra) is a common associate of the creosote, and also a common shrub in Saline Valley. This species survives in harsh desert conditions by having angled, light colored leaves.

Creosote flower
Creosote was in flower on our December visit.

Saline Valley has a long history. The Timbisha Shoshone inhabited the area until the late 1800’s when the mineral rich region enticed prospectors into an isolated existence — mining silver, gold, borax and, even salt. Now, the main attractions are hot springs and isolation. There are a series of 3 springs spread out over several miles in the southeast corner of the valley. They are very popular with desert rats — colorful stories are the norm while soaking in the tub. The most infamous visitor to the springs was Charles Manson, who spent time in the valley in the 60’s before being caught further south in the park.

Desert Holly
Desert holly in bloom.

Saline Valley Springs and the Inyo Mountains
Sunrise on the Inyos towers over the lower springs — decorated by introduced California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera)

More Pictures of the Saline Valley

Pavlik, Bruce 2008. The California Desert. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA