Tag Archive | prairie



I decided to take a quick roadtrip through the Midwest this summer – the middle of the Midwest, the part where no one goes for vacation!  I drove across northern Iowa, then down its Western border, and continued following the Missouri River through its namesake state all the way down to its mouth in St. Louis.  I popped in to South Dakota and Nebraska, but Kansas offered too much traffic for me to brave.  You don’t think of traffic when you think of Kansas, do you?  


In case you thought Iowa was nothing but corn, you can rest assured that there are soybeans here, too.


This giant statue of Pocahontas, along with a lot of historic signs about the real “Indian princess,” filled the town of Pocahontas, Iowa. Yes, you are remembering history correctly: Pocahontas was a figure in early Virginia history, at a time when no one even knew Ohio existed, let alone Iowa.


Somewhere around Oelwein, IA, the Driftless Area ends and the land flattens out. I was in foreign territory once I’d crossed the Wapsapinnicon… which became obvious as KwikStars gave way to Kum & Gos.


Onawa, Iowa (that’s 2/3 vowels for those counting) has the widest main street in the world. According to the sign.

This wasn’t just a whim; I had destinations in mind.  When conceiving of the trip, those sites seemed disjunct, just a mix of places and things that I might be interested in.  As I traveled, though, the pattern became obvious.  I drove through cornfields to find prairies, through a modern metropolis to find an ancient civilization.  I was exploring the beginnings of the American West, the conquering of wilderness, the root of our national psyche.  There in the cornbelt, surrounded by the simple life, I found myself feeling that I was on the cusp of great excitement.  In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of everything.  Maybe Iowa should adopt that as its new motto.


It really is corn as far as the eye can see, even in the rolling hills of Western Iowa, where the eye can see much farther…


Somewhere in the western part of Iowa, the towns get farther apart and the road ditches fill with prairie.


In addition to beans and corn, there is wind in


Iowa. These windmill farms use different technology than some of the others I have seen.

Lupinus Perennis

To everyone who thought this week’s mystery was a Lupine, you are correct!  Here are some photos from my observations of it on private land in Sauk County, WI, and on the Emmons Creek Barrens SNA in Portage County (along the Ice Age Trail, adjacent to Hartman Creek State Park).  There is some of it right outside my window here in north-eastern Wisconsin, too, but it has been planted and there is no record of it occurring naturally in this county.  Guess it was too beautiful to resist!

Even the leaves are amazing!

This field of Lupine (along with some other pretty cool plants) may be a home to Karner Blue Butterflies

Cool seed pods, too!

Late Spring Mystery Photo

Last night I saw the first snapping turtles laying eggs by the side of the road. Tonight the first fireflies lit up my evening walk.  It must really be June! 

I saw signs of late spring when I was down in southern
Wisconsin last week, too, mostly in the phenology of prairie plants.  Do you know what this one is, about to bloom?  Have you seen it before? What does it
make you think of?

When the answers are in, you’ll be rewarded at the end of the week with some pictures of what this beauty looks like in bloom!


Late Spring Mystery Photo

Last night I saw the first snapping turtles laying eggs by the side of the road. Tonight the first fireflies lit up my evening walk.  It must really be June! 

I saw signs of late spring when I was down in southern
Wisconsin last week, too, mostly in the phenology of prairie plants.  Do you know what this one is, about to bloom?  Have you seen it before? What does it
make you think of?

When the answers are in, you’ll be rewarded at the end of the week with some pictures of what this beauty looks like in bloom!


It’s All Downhill from Here

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

West Texas

Mile 6999

October 18-19, 2010

The author's boots resting atop the Guadalupe Mountainss, overlooking West Texas.

Since returning from my trip last fall, I’ve been asked several times about my favorite places along the way.  This is one of them.  It was beautiful, there were great views, and it stuck out (both literally and figuratively) as unique in both Texas and the Southwest.  The real reason, though, that I was blown away by the Guadalupe Mountains was a pretty nerdy one: botany.

I had just spent nearly a week crossing the desert, from San Francisco to west Texas.  New (to me) flowers, grasses, shrubs, and of course cacti sprouted from the sparse sands of the rolling hills and expansive plains as I traversed that territory.  As I was nearing Texas, I asked a fellow traveler what I should see while passing through.  Without hesitating, he named the Guadalupe Mountains, and added, “You might be in time for the peak colors.”  I spent the intervening days pondering what he might have meant by that statement.  I knew that my timing had been off for the spectacular fall bloom of the Arizona desert, but thought that maybe I would be able to hit it 500 miles to the east.

I arrived at the National Park campground at dusk on a Monday in mid-October, and was surprised to find it nearly full.  I scrambled to secure the last available tent site and get my tent set up before darkness fell.  There was a thunderstorm off in the distance, and the winds shooting across the plains were upwards of 30 mph.  The ground was too hard for stakes, and my site was totally unsheltered, so I wound up putting logs around the inside of my tent to try to hold it down – it was too windy for a fire that night, anyway!  In the morning, commiserating with fellow campers about the night before, I commented on the unusually crowded park.  “Well,” he said, “it turns out we’re a little early for the fall colors, but I’d already taken this week off of work.”  “Yeah,” I said, “What are these ‘colors’ everyone keeps talking about?”  “Oh, well the maples are really pretty when they change color – everything’s all bright red and orange.”

Maples?  In the Chihuahuan Desert?  Sure enough!  Somehow, just before dark, I had crossed the invisible line to a place where maples and oaks, prairie grasses and blazing stars grew – alongside of the yucca, prickly pear, madrones, and ocotillo.  As I headed out on the trail, I saw some mustache grass

Gray Oak

(Bouteloua hirsuta) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium/Andropogon scoparius) next to my boots, and when I reached the higher reaches I was able to immediately identify gray oak (Quercus grisea)and pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), which I’d never seen before, based

on my frequent browsing through The Golden Guide to Trees.  Through this environment, so similar to our own prairies or oak-pine barrens, there was strewn a huge variety of desert succulents and western shrubs.  The juxtaposition made my hike as exciting intellectually as it was visually!

Prickly Pear cactus, in fruit

Blazing Star


I walked on through the heat of the day, under cover of the high desert trees, startled a few white-tailed deer, and took a break on the peak overlooking, well, the rest of Texas.  As I explained briefly in a previous post, the Guadalupe Mountains are the remnants of the reef of an ancient sea that spread away to the south and east.  While their sheer elevation might make them mountains otherwise, the vertical rise of around 3,000 ft. makes Guadalupe Peak an impressive edifice!  Perched atop the escarpment that runs around the edge of the plains below, I could almost envision the long-dry waves lapping in the haze below.

Below Guadalupe Peak, small splashes of color indicate where maple have found water and shade from the desert sun.

Finally, I began my descent along steep switchbacks, through a canyon on the back side of the hills.  As I picked my way downhill, the cooler, moister conditions brought about a change in the vegetation – at last, the long-sought maples!  While not yet at their peak, the Bigtooth Maples (Acer grandidentatum) were dotted with scarlet, and after the desolation of the desert I could understand why this splash of cool color would be worth driving hundreds of miles to view.

Bigtooth maples have little leaves!

Maple leaves dropped onto a yucca

My biggest (and nerdiest) find of the day was yet to come, though.  Edging along a rocky trail, I spotted an oak tree out of the corner

Chinquapin Oak

of my eye, with different bark from any others I’d seen in the park.  Pretty familiar bark, actually – browner than gray, with flaking furrows.  I looked around for a shed leaf, and picked it up.  Could that be a chinquapin?  Quercus muehlenbergii is at the tip of its northern range in the southwestern-most corner of Wisconsin, existing primarily on the dry, rocky bluffs above the Mississippi River, but I didn’t know it extended that far south and west.  Upon examining my Golden Guide, it turned out that its primary range extends to eastern Texas…  but there was a small outlier dot placed over the border between Texas and New Mexico… right at the Guadalupes.  In fact, many of the plants there, including the maples, were outliers, with their nearest counterparts a hundred or more miles away.  In all, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park has over 1000 species of plants, making it even an amateur botanist’s paradise!

Cancer Root is one of the rare plants that does not use photosynthesis for its existence, surviving instead as a parasite on tree roots.

Yucca, Century Plant, and Big Bluestem in a West Texas sunset

That night in my tent, I mused over my finds here at the end of the desert.  The next day would take me through the desert grassland and low hills of West Texas, en route to Austin.  Details to follow soon!

Wandering the Desert

Wandering the Desert

A "river" in the Sonoran Desert of western Arizona. This channel is flooded with water when it storms, and an ORV trail in dry weather.

Mile 5359 – 6999

October  14 – 20, 2010

Oakland, CA – Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

I spent a week getting from the San Francisco Bay to the Texas Hill Country, passing through three deserts and four states.  For a good representation of how arid this country is, even in the agricultural areas, check out the Trip-Tick page of my journey, and note the river crossings.  I crossed a total of ten (10) rivers in the two thousand (2,000) miles of this leg, and most of those were dry.  The Colorado River (at the AZ/CA border) and the Rio Grande (where I met it in central New Mexico) were the only ones with significant water in them, until arriving in eastern Texas.  I crossed more water-bearing aqueducts than natural flowages.

That’s not to say that there isn’t life in the desert, though.  In fact, when I arrived at Joshua Tree National Park a few hours after sunset, I had been expecting silence and stillness – instead I was assaulted by the chirping of crickets, flying and crawling insects, and the noises of little lizards crawling around in the bushes.   Well, not exactly bushes – mostly in the cactus and agave.

I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit, though.  Between Oakland and Joshua Tree are 500 miles of Central California.  It looks a lot like what you might expect: very flat, very brown, lots of irrigation systems watering the vegetable crops and orchards.  In the morning, I could see workers driving the dusty roads between fields, and watering the trees individually with a small ladder truck.

Near L.A., however, the terrain got a lot more interesting, even if the vegetation maintained its end-of-summer dormancy.  Skirting the city through the hills of Pasadena and the eastern suburbs might even have been beautiful, if the smog hadn’t reduced visibility as extremely as it did.  There was almost no view into the distance, and even on the nearby hills, any green that might have remained was fogged over by the gray-brown air.  The traffic was also about what I expected for down there: horrible.  In fact, the only thing about the Los Angeles area that did not live up to my expectations was the light drizzle I got in the early evening.  Imagine that: after a week of unheard-of solid sunshine in Oregon and northern California, to get rained on in “Sunny” Southern California!  Now, I will admit that I have assurances from locals that there are really nice things about L.A., and that both the traffic and smog were uncommonly bad that day, but I’m just writing what I see…

Most of the way from the hills of Los Angeles to the Colorado Desert of southeast California was driven in darkness, but the monotony of the flat, dry landscape was still apparent.  I could clearly see why Palm Springs is both literally and figuratively an oasis on that route.  It was a little bit surreal to all of a sudden emerge from the total darkness to tastefully lit resorts and subdivisions surrounded by enormous palms.  Large lighted signs for impending concerts by famous pop stars (and once-famous pop stars) lined the road, and casinos and golf courses beckoned.   I’m not on a luxury vacation, however, so I stopped only long enough for gas before plunging again into the dark night, heading east into the heart of the desert.  After crossing a set of small mountains, it wasn’t too much longer before I got to Joshua Tree NP.

Colorado Desert in Joshua Tree National Park

I spent a night and a day there, exploring a little bit of the Colorado Desert and the Mojave to the north.   The Colorado Desert is part of the Sonoran Desert, which makes up most of southern Arizona and southeastern California, along with large portions of Sonora and Baja California in Mexico.   The Colorado (named after the river, not the state) portion of the Sonoran Desert is hotter and drier than the rest of it, however, which became apparent as I moved eastward.  In Joshua Tree, the Sonoran Desert consisted mostly of small cactus and low shrubs, but as I moved into Arizona I saw more and more large saguaro cacti, taller bushes, and plenty of lechugilla agave.  All of it looked like desert,

Just beyond Hope, AZ

however, with little grass growing between the brush or cactus, and dust blowing up at each breath of wind.

Here’s something silly that I hadn’t really realized about the desert sand, and those of you who have lived in the desert (or who have even given it a moment’s more thought than I have) will probably laugh at me: It’s really more “little rocks” than what those of us who come from wet regions see on our beaches.  Of course, that makes sense: the desert lacks not only the constant movement of water to break down its rocks, but also dense roots of vegetation, burrowing insects

Mesquite tree germinating in the desert sand

and animals, decaying organic material, and all of the other things that make sand or soil elsewhere.  And I imagine that the desert winds, which blow unchecked by trees across vast stretches of land, blows away the finer particles more quickly.

One of the interesting things about Joshua Tree NP is that it is on the border between the Colorado and Mohave Deserts, so I went north and west, which was also uphill, and found myself in a slightly cooler, slightly damper ecosystem.  I was told that it was less hot and dry, at least on the scale of yearly averages, but didn’t notice a difference myself on a sunny fall day.  The vegetation, however, was denser and taller, and the Joshua Tree (really an enormous species of agave that proliferates in those conditions) was everywhere.  Check out my next post for more pictures of the park!

Joshua Tree, Mojave Desert

After leaving Joshua Tree and driving east towards Arizona, I was struck by how much more barren the landscape became.  I didn’t have an opportunity to look into it, but I assume that human land use practices have affected the diversity of vegetation and viability of natural plant communities.  Certainly much of that area, as well as western Arizona, was fenced for grazing, though I didn’t really see much grass in there, let alone cattle.  There was more grass than I had seen in either desert in the park, however.  I’m not sure if the grass is planted or if there is just more moisture in certain locales.   In either case, though, if it’s grazed, I can imagine that the cacti would be removed to prevent harm to the animals.  Anyone with knowledge on this is welcome to inform me!

Eastern California

Sonoran Desert, western Arizona

I crossed the Colorado River at Parker, AZ, just below the dam that forms Lake Havasu.  Even in the dark, when I got out of my car, I could tell that there was moisture in the air.  It is amazing how different things smell when they are wet!  I had not particularly noticed the scent of the desert – primarily because it doesn’t smell like much at all, I think.  Of course, the vegetation by the river was also much greener, denser, and more varied, which would account for smelling more like green plants and the more humid air, but I had a similar experience in northwest Texas, as well.  There, I spent a couple days in the Guadalupe Mountains, which is on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.  Despite the higher rainfall and warmer average temperatures in that area, which bring about greater diversity and density of plant and animal species, there still wasn’t much scent in the air this time of year.  On my last morning there, however, a light drizzle fell, and it brought out that dry-damp smell that comes even up north after long periods without rain.  However, it was stronger than I ever remember it being.  I assume it is because the rain is dampening and washing away greater accumulated amounts of pollen, dust, decay, etc.  Either that, or the daily variety of scents in a temperate climate cause me not to notice them as much individually.  In the relative absence of odor, maybe anything that is giving off water smells more strongly.

Again, though, I’m jumping ahead.  I spent a day crossing Arizona, through more of the same desert ranch-land.  Here and there, I saw heavily irrigated hay-fields, which stood out as bright green against the beige desert.  Quite a bit of cotton was also grown there.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen a cotton field, and it took me a while to figure out what it was.  There were also fields of sweet sorghum, which is used not only as a feed crop but also, apparently, as a source of ethanol in the Southwest.  It was larger than the sorghum I’d seen growing in the upper Midwest, and I actually had to look it up before deciding if it was that or some odd variety of corn.

All of these crops, all the grazing, all the watering of the many homes in Arizona (the area including Tucson and Phoenix is the 5th-fastest growing region in the country) does not come without a price.  While visiting Casa Grande National Monument in south central AZ, I read a statistic from 1988 that the water level in the aquifer had dropped over a hundred feet in fifty years.  Casa Grande, which I’ll cover in more detail in a later post, is the ruins of a Native American village, complete with four-story buildings, from almost a thousand years ago.  They were primarily an agricultural community, drawing water not only from a complicated system of canals and aqueducts, but also allowing the roots of hardy plants to draw their own water from the aquifer.  Today, the park noted, many of the mesquite trees were dying, as the water level had dropped from an average of twelve feet below the ground to over 120 feet deep, and the roots could no longer reach it.

View of Tucson

Of course, I also came to understand why people might want to live in the desert, when I spent the night with my Aunt Peggy in Tucson.  Her beautiful home in the foothills, with a lovely cactus garden and sun almost every day of the year is certainly inviting!  I did not spend long there, but hope to return again soon for some hiking and exploring, both of the town itself, and the surrounding areas.  Saguaro National Park, in particular, piqued my interest, but I only took a quick drive through the park’s scenic loop road.  This is an example of the Sonoran Desert at its finest: lots of saguaro cacti, plus plenty of prickly pear, barrel cactus, and various agaves and brush species.

Saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park, outside of Tucson, AZ

I left Tucson for New Mexico, and drove east on I-10 through many, many miles of unvarying terrain.  In Las Cruces, New Mexico, I crossed the Rio Grande River, carrying a little water on its way down to form the southern border of the United States.  It wasn’t quite as “Grande” yet as it would become later.  I continued east in the dark, so I can’t tell you a thing about White Sands except for this: Alamogordo is 70 miles from Las Cruces, and I could see its lights as clearly from one end of that desert as from the other.  It is completely flat and clearly dry.  East of Alamogordo, I began to climb into the mountains – the southern continuation of the Rockies, though much lower in height and the breadth of the range does not extend as far as it does to the north.  Despite the darkness, I could imagine how beautiful the view must be, and I sensed the changing climate around me.  I spent a night in the company of friends near Cloudcroft, in a pine forest – the very high desert, I might call it, and the chill of that mountain night was refreshing after all the warm weather I’d had; it felt good to put on a sweatshirt!

The following day led me to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in far southeastern NM, and thence to

Guadalupe Mountains

Guadalupe Mountains NP in northwest Texas.  These parks fall within the Chihuahuan Desert, in the Guadalupe Mountain range, which formed as a reef on the edge of a prehistoric inland sea.  The mountains are beautiful, and the variety of vegetation in the low desert, the relatively moist canyons, and the oak-and-pine-covered peaks was amazing.  I definitely liked this place the best of all my desert travels, so you can expect plenty of photos in future posts on the Guadalupes and the Caverns.

Lechugilla agave in the Guadalupe Mountains

Miles and miles of Texas

Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas, and with over five hundred miles to go to Austin, I’m tempted to say it was all downhill from there.  Not true!  I will go into more detail on the mountains of West Texas, the central plains, and the Hill Country, not to mention Austin itself, after the next few posts that will flesh out these desert adventures.  You’ll have to keep tuned for all that excitement!


Day 1          August 30

Mile 80 – 190

Bagley, WI to LaCrosse, WI (the long way)

A lot of folks will have you believe that rural areas and small towns never change – that Joe is always behind the counter of the filling station that bears his name; that Uncle George will always live on the corner of Main and 3rd; that the Smiths graze their cattle right up to the churchyard on the south side.  Today was the first real day of my adventure, and I spent it re-visiting some places that I used to be familiar with but hadn’t seen in a few years.  What I learned was: things change.  Some for the better, some maybe not so much, and some are just plain different.  What hasn’t changed is the beauty of the Mississippi River valley in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota – and as long as that stays constant, I guess the details aren’t all that big of  a deal.

Not a bad view to wake up to!

I started the day in Wyalusing State Park, which used to be practically home for me – but I enjoyed getting a new perspective on things.  I stayed in the Wisconsin Ridge Campground, which offers great views, though there is little privacy from the other campers (I could see at least fifteen other families from my site).  Wyalusing (dnr.wi.gov/org/land/parks/specific/wyalusing/; www.wyalusing.org) is located at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, and the view from my site looked down on the Wisconsin, with the town of Prairie du Chien and its river bluffs rising from the opposite shore.  I took my favorite hike, along the Sentinel Ridge Trail from Lookout Point, through the Green Cloud picnic area, and down to the boat landing.  The top of the ridge is covered with a series of linear and conical mounds built by Woodland Indians up to 1,000 years ago.  A prescribed burn that took place this spring has resulted in a flush of wildflowers and grasses under the open oak canopy, and reduced the heavy brush on the slope down to the river.  The park is currently thinning some damaged oaks on the mounds, and opening the ridge up even more.  These were a few changes that I was really pleased to see – they are helping to restore the habitat at this historic site to something more like what those mound builders saw hundreds of years ago.

After leaving Wyalusing, I travelled through Prairie du Chien and up the Mississippi onHwy 35.  I stopped for a brief hike at Rush Creek State Natural Area, which was beautiful despite the heat and poison ivy (no, I don’t know why I thought 12:30 on an August afternoon was a good time to climb up a goat prairie).  I crossed the Mississippi at Lansing, IA, and continued up through New Albin on Hwy 26 to Minnesota.

Rush Creek State Natural Area

Fish Farm Mounds

I made it up to Brownsville, MN, a small town in far southeastern Minnesota where I have not been for several years.  I was

Brownsville Bluff

particularly excited to stop at their local Kwik Trip – it was a holdover from a previous decade, before the regional gas station chain underwent a modernizing transformation and expansion push.  When I passed all of the new waterfront homes and rounded the corner to the last of the old-school KT’s, though, I found it shuttered and dilapidated, with all identifying signage removed.  Very sad.  I was not so devastated that I couldn’t carry out my other plan, though, which was to hike up on the bluff rising adjacent to the town.

It is common among these bluff country towns, and especially those in Minnesota’s Root River valley, to make a sign of whitewashed rocks, spelling out the town’s name high up on a nearby bluff.

Prairie Blazing Star, Side-Oats Grama Grass, and other native plants.

I always particularly liked Brownsville’s, because it surely has the longest name of all, and the letters were pretty small when all was said and done.  It wasn’t easy to read from a distance, but I was disappointed on my drive in that I couldn’t see it at all.  The reason, it turns out, is that the summer prairie grasses were too tall and dense to allow the letters to show through!  All in all, the prairie looked awesome, with significant tree and brush clearing a few years ago, and a recent prescribed burn to remove

Sunflowers and grasses colonizing the area around stumped cedars.

additional woody material.  Grasses and forbs are colonizing the once bare areas where cedar trees stood, and the diversity of plants was really beautiful.  [I’m not above giving a big pat on the back to myself and everyone else who has worked on the site – way to go, guys!]  I guess I can handle the disappearance of a convenience store and construction of river-bank McMansions in exchange for a refreshed prairie!  If I were going to be around a month from now, this bluff jutting into a wide stretch of the Mississippi would make a great place for watching the migration.

As it is, I continued up the river, picking up Hwy 16 through LaCrescent (the Apple Capital of Minnesota – where I couldn’t resist buying a few pounds of early season fruit), and back across the river to LaCrosse, WI.  There I enjoyed a few of the local brews proliferating in western Wisconsin these days, and the hospitality of a friend for the night.  It was great to wake up to drizzle and later a thunderstorm… and know that I was on a nice, dry couch (thanks Nate)!