Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Arches National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park are both famous, and with good reason, but on our way home we stopped at one more that you may not be so familiar with: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, in southwestern Colorado.

To get there, you drive along a winding road through fairly nondescript hills covered with juniper, pinyon pine, and Gambel oak. Shortly after you pass through the entrance station, though, you arrive at the first overlook and are confronted with this.

A jagged canyon plunges before you. Even though the Gunnison River is so far down that in some places you can barely see it, the roar of the rapids below is always in your ears; the river drops an incredible forty-three feet per mile.

Two facts jumped out at me as we read the brochure and looked at the displays in the visitor center. First, although American Indians and fur traders had certainly known of its existence long before, no written description of this massive canyon was published until the latter half of the nineteenth century. (It’s so rugged that, unlike at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, there’s no evidence that American Indians ever lived within the gorge – the Utes stayed to the rims.) Second, it’s believed to have formed in a fraction of the time it took to form the Grand Canyon, even though the Black Canyon is carved into much harder rock. Apparently some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, over two billion years old, is found here.

This post brings me to the end of my photos from Road Trip 2011. While you’ve been reading about my adventures in Utah and Colorado, I’ve actually been on my way up to northern Wisconsin to begin my master’s degree, stopping to visit some friends along the way. This post is being written and scheduled ahead of time, but by the time you read it I will have been in Land O’ Lakes for a week. Now that I’ve had a chance to settle in, watch this space for my first posts about the North Woods!


We did see some animals on the tundra as well as plants – birds included American Pipits and Mountain Bluebirds (no ptarmigans or grouse, sadly) and the two mammal species we saw were marmots and pikas. Marmots are basically mountain-dwelling woodchucks, but pikas are something else entirely.

Without the long ears it’s hard to tell, but this critter is not a rodent – it’s a lagomorph, a close cousin of rabbits and hares. There are many species of pika, most of which are found in Eurasia; the one native to the Rocky Mountains is the American Pika, Ochotona princeps. Because of its dependence on cool tundra habitat, and because of the fact that in the western U.S. such habitat is only found in isolated high-elevation islands, it may be far more vulnerable than most mammals to global warming and is in fact already declining. In 2010 it was considered but rejected for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Pikas live in rock piles surrounded by vegetation. They don’t hibernate during the winter, so they need some means of storing food, but what’s amazing to me is that they not only store food, they actually have a means of preserving it: they make their own hay! They collect plants and pile them on the rocks in the sun until they dry, then store the hay in their burrows for use as winter food and bedding. The more I learn about animals’ different adaptations for cultivating, collecting, and storing food, the more I wonder if human agriculture, the basis of civilization, is really all that unique!

Wildflowers of the Rockies, Part 2

See the wildflowers in this photo of the tundra? They’re there, and they’re spectacular, but like most tundra plants they’re miniature. You have to get down on your hands and knees and practically put your cheek to the ground to get proper photos.

Alpine Forget-me-not, Myosotis alpestris
Phlox sp.??? Maybe not, see comments
Fairy Primrose, Primula angustifolia
Dwarf Clover, Trifolium nanum

As you can see from the captions, I had better luck identifying some than others. These photos don’t really do justice to how tiny they were. The biggest stood about an inch tall!

Likin’ Lichen

Once there was a fungus and an algae. The fungus had a really big, nice house with way more space than he needed, but he was a really terrible cook. The algae was a great cook, a gourmet chef, and he was looking for somewhere to live. So, they moved in together… and they took a LICHEN to each other!

I told this joke in almost every forest ecology class I taught at Jekyll Island. It’s a terrible, horrible, awful joke, but at least it helped the kids understand that lichen is actually fungus and algae living together symbiotically, with the algae providing the fungus with food (photosynthate) in return for living within its structure.

Sometimes I would hand each kid a card with a photo and description of a plant we were going to see and let them do the teaching, telling the rest of the group what their plant was called and some interesting facts about it. Invariably the one who got lichen – not technically a plant, of course, but close enough – would look a bit disappointed at first (and so would you, if you were eleven and your classmates’ cards talked about palm trees and Spanish moss!) but then warm to the subject when they read the card, spending the rest of the hike watching eagerly for bright pink splashes of “bubblegum” lichen, which were prettier but less common than the gray-green ones. The facts on the lichen card explained that, though it’s sensitive to pollution and can be an indicator of ecosystem health, it’s also one of the first organisms to colonize bare rock and can survive in harsh environments like deserts… and tundra.

See, this is going somewhere relevant to the Rocky Mountains after all! The rocks scattered among the alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park were covered in lichens in a variety of colors and textures, and one reason the signs once again warned us sharply to stay on the path was so as not to trample them. There are many types of lichens, and though I may not know how to identify them I can still appreciate their diversity.

So, have you taken a likin’ to lichens to? Sorry, sorry, couldn’t resist!

On the Tundra

Leave the montane zone behind and climb high enough, and you reach the alpine tundra – “alpine” to distinguish it from arctic tundra, although the two ecosystems are much the same.

After looking up at the treeless tops of the mountains for so long, it was incredible to actually be up in them.

You reach these high places via Trail Ridge Road, which winds up and then down again, from one end of Rocky Mountain National Park to the other. We were relieved that the main walking trail was clear of snow, because the road had only opened for the season a couple weeks before, and in places we drove between towering walls of snow. In late June!

In other places the snow was in the process of melting, creating ephemeral pools and streams of clear, cold, pure water.

I gave a presentation in a college botany class years ago on the adaptations of plants to arctic and alpine environments, so seeing this all in person was fascinating for me. The lichens and wildflowers are each going to get their own post!

Wildflowers of the Rockies, Part 1

Traveling to new places doesn’t really change the things I’m obsessed with – birds, butterflies, herps, wildflowers. While in Rocky Mountain National Park I took every opportunity I could to photograph the wildflowers we came across, and even bought a booklet in a gift store to help identify them. (Because I know people are going to find this by Googling variations of “Rocky Mountain wildflowers,” let me very clear that this is not a comprehensive guide, just a small sample of what we found blooming in late June!)

Wild Iris (Blue Flag), Iris missouriensis
Western Wallflower, Erysimum capitatum
Skullcap, Scutellaria brittonii
Penstemon sp.
Narrowleaf Paintbrush, Castilleja linariifolia
Lanceleaf Chiming Bells, Mertensia lanceolata
Golden Banner, Thermopsis divaricarpa

These photos were all taken in the montane area of the park, that is, the lowest elevation zone. As you ascend into the mountains, you leave the montane zone behind, pass through the subalpine zone, and eventually enter the alpine zone where the tundra is. As the title of this post suggests, expect a second, higher-elevation collection of wildflower photos to come!

Elk, Elk Everywhere!

One thing we saw in Rocky Mountain National Park was elk.

Lots of elk.

Lots and lots of elk (click to view full size).

In fact, while at one point there were almost no elk left in this area – in 1913 and 1914 about fifty were transplanted from Yellowstone to repopulate them – today there seems to be a herd grazing in every meadow you pass. Because their natural predators, such as wolves and grizzly bears, have been extirpated from the park and its surroundings, their numbers have exploded dramatically. In order to protect sensitive riparian areas from overgrazing, the park has erected fences to create elk “exclosures” around some of the streams. They’ve also culled individuals periodically.

The park’s elk population is closely studied and monitored, and we spotted a couple with radio collars while we were there. One thing they keep close tabs on is the prevalence of Chronic Wasting Disease, a relative of “mad cow” disease that affects species in the deer family.

These weren’t the only large mammals we saw on our trip – we also spotted several moose, and from a distance a herd of mountain big-horned sheep. No black bears, but I should have plenty of chances to see those once I arrive in Wisconsin!