Today we are taking a short nature walk that highlights Utah’s beautiful sandstone formations and life in the high semi-desert ecosystem. We are visiting Kodachrome Basin State Park about 20 miles southeast of Bryce Canyon National Park. I’m already in awe of the fantastic, similar yet different, landscape of Kodachrome. Let’s take our time and really enjoy!
In 1949 a National Geographic Society expedition exploring the area named it after the new Kodak color film they were using, Kodachrome. The park encompasses 2,240 acres and includes 67 monolithic sandstone spires that range in size from 6 to 170 feet in height. Aside from the amazing stone structures and landscape colors, we have plants and critters that are able to adapt to the semi-desert conditions of drought and extreme temperatures.
The Pinyon pine ((Pinus edulis), along with the Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma), form the pinyon-juniper forest, common in the southwestern U.S. at elevations of 5,000-7,000 feet. The pinyon pine is a medium-sized evergreen that is of enormous ecological importance. Because it is the dominate tree, it creates the structure for habitat diversity. It lessens soil erosion and microclimate extremes as well as enhancing soil moisture. Pinyons, together with the junipers, support lots of plant diversity. Both cryptogamic (mosses, algae, lichens, fungi) and vascular (flowering plants) vegetation thrive. They also are an important food source (pine nuts and juniper “berries”) for many birds, mammals, and insects. An early legend proclaims that the “tree of life” is a pinyon pine.
The large columns are sedimentary rock “pipes”. Geologists have theories about how these pipes formed, but no one knows for sure. What we do know is that these amazing formations are here for us to savor.
The roundleaf buffaloberry (Shepherdia rotundifolia) is a dense shrub that lives almost exclusively on the Colorado Plateau. The name came from early western settlers who used the flowers and berries to make a sauce for their meal of buffalo meat. Wildlife eat the berries, but they can also be used to make jams, jellies, and a condiment similar to cranberry sauce.
We’ve seen these white markings on red rocks before. Although it looks like white paint, it is actually a mineral called gypsum. Gypsum is in the sandstone and limestone formations throughout Utah.
Now I would have just walked by this crust on the dirt. Just dried water cracking the sand, right? Of course not, we should know better. The explanation is much more complicated and interesting!
This is cryptobiotic soil crust, a biological soil crust that is, in essence, a living soil. Cryptobiotic soil crusts consist of soil cyanobacteria, lichens, and mosses. The crust helps stabilize these easily eroded soils and increases water infiltration in areas with little precipitation. It also increases fertility of the soil that is often limited in essential nutrients such as nitrogen and carbon. Humans, wheeled vehicles like bikes, and livestock can damage these crusts, so we will do as the signs say, “Don’t bust the crust!”
Things are never as simple as they seem.
Grasses are an important part of semi-desert ecosystems. They are not only food for a variety of animals but also help prevent erosion by holding the soil in place. This is needle-and-thread grass (Stipa comata), a type of bunchgrass that grows in sandy soils. The name refers to the seed, which has a needle sharp head with a twisted thread extending from it. When moisture soaks the thread, it untwists and drives the seed into the ground in a corkscrew fashion. I am always smiling in awe. Even the simplest thing, blotchy grasses on cracked dirt, is just so amazingly complex and beautiful once you know just a little more.
This massive monolith dominates the view along this walk. The Entrada formation developed from sediments deposited by an ancient sea during the middle Jurassic period over 100 million years ago. These formations are commonly called “red rock” and are rich in iron oxide which makes the red color. Relatively soft and easily eroded, the Entrada formations are some of the most spectacular in the canyon areas. Entrada forms the famous “slick-rock”, a mountain bikers favorite around Moab, the arches in Arches National Park, the hoodoos in Bryce, and similar structures throughout the canyon lands including here in Kodachrome.
Looking back this is one massive monolith.
Here’s an interesting bush I have never seen before. Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis) is a gymnosperm, a group of non-flowering plants that includes pines and junipers. Mormon tea has adapted to the dry desert environment by reducing the size of it leaves to inconspicuous scale-like parts which helps prevent moisture loss. American Indians and early pioneers used the stems as a medicinal drink. Mormon tea contains pseudoephedrine, commonly used today in nasal decongestants and closely related to ephedrine. They made a brew used as a substitute for coffee and tea and for treating stomach and bowel disorders, colds, fevers, and headaches.
Mormon tea is certainly a beautiful foreground to red rock.
In every direction there’s new and fascinating formations.
Whoa! Wildlife! I have not seen much wildlife anyplace in southwestern Utah so let’s celebrate! First time I’ve ever seeing a plateau fence lizard (Sceloporus tristichus). Maybe he is waiting for breakfast–those unsuspecting insects, bugs, spiders, and other creepy crawlies that make up his diet.
Yuccas grow wild throughout southwest Utah, but we may know them best as a houseplant. This yucca has a stalk emerging in the middle that can grow up to five feet tall. It will bloom into a long cluster of white flowers in a few weeks. Best to stay away because those leaves hurt as you brush by. This plant has many possible uses. American Indians used the leaves to make baskets and sandals, the roots for soap, and the base of the plant was roasted and eaten. Also, yucca fibers were the single most important source of cordage in the Southwest, used to make belts, sandals, ladders, nets, matting, and baskets.
Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) is the most common plant throughout the western states. It is slow-growing evergreen that can live to 100 years old. However, it is a member of the sunflower family. Yes, it does have a sweet sage smell, but a bitter taste. Brush your hand over the leaves and you will smell mild sage for the rest of the walk. The leaves contain camphor, a medicine for coughs, colds, headaches, stomach-ache, fever and pain relief.
Sagebrush creates habitat for may species of grasses and herbs as well as providing shade and shelter from wind. The sagebrush provides food and habitat for a number of animal species, but many animals will not eat any part of sagebrush. Pronghorn antelope are the only large herbivore to graze on sagebrush extensively. The sage grouse, whose existence is in question, live primarily on sage. There are conservation partnerships forming and local efforts growing to preserve the sagebrush steppe habitat they need to survive. It is up to us to stand up for our natural national treasures, so please stay diligent. Oh look, there’s some of the living crust too.
We need to do another hike in Kodachrome. It is just spectacular!
Until next time . . .