Originally Published: November 2, 2012 3:53 p.m.
The best time of year to hike in the Hualapai Mountains is fall or spring. There is a fee of $5 for day use and it is higher for extended stays. There is water at the campgrounds but it was shut off on my visit in November, presumably for the winter. Expect lots of people on weekends and holidays. The trails do not go to the summits, as the mountain tops are craggy peaks requiring some scrambling to stand atop them. If you're not comfortable with a scramble, it would be best to stay off the tops of the peaks and on the trails.
The Hualapai Mountains are reminiscent of other 'sky islands' in the Southwest. Unlike similar ranges in southern Arizona, the Hualapai Mountains are distinct in their rugged character, proximity to civilization (power lines, cabins, radio towers, and Scout camps), smaller size, and lower elevation. The views are great and the trails are well maintained, including shelters and benches. I saw some deer and lots of fall colors. The trails were also dry. Expect no surface water this time of year. The trail system includes a variety of options to meet your ability and time constraints.
Reaching the Hualapai Mountain County Park is straight forward. Take exit 59 on I 40 east of Kingman. Head south on County Hwy 259 (DW Ranch Rd.) to County Hwy 147 (10 miles). Turn south to the Ranger Station and turn right, following the signs to the trailhead. Topo Map: Hualapai Peak quad. 7.5'
Diversity is the name of the game regarding the flora of the Hualapai Mountains. Therefore, I will present four herbs from quite a range of plant groups: Ferns, Mints, the Coffee Family, and the Spurges. The flowers would not win any awards in the exhibitionist category, however, each plant is interesting, unusual, and worth getting acquainted with.
Reeve's Bladderfern, Cystopteris reevesiana (Lady Fern Family)
Ferns sporulate, that is produce spores, since they do not produce seeds/fruits. Reeve's Bladderfern sporulates for an extensive period of time, through summer and fall. The spores are clustered on the underside of the leaves/fronds in a scattered fashion. These clusters are tan-colored, in striking contrast to the green underside of the leaves. This group of ferns is widespread across the West and Southwest, with some species hybridizing with each other. However, this is the only species in this genus in the Hualapai Mountains. Found in the crevices in rock outcrops, this species is quite at home at the higher elevations in this small mountain range. The leaves are dissected, with the widest span just below the middle. They taper to a distinctive, narrow point at the tip. The margins are somewhat wavy and the veins running through each leaf terminate at the tips of each tooth at the margin of the leaves. Delicate and light green, they are a lovely sight on the trails in the Hualapai Mountains.
American Dragonhead, Dracocephalum parviflorum (Mint Family)
First described in America in 1818 from a collection by Thomas Nuttall in, "Genera of North American Plants," Nuttall collected it in North Dakota. It's range extends throughout the Rocky Mountain states but it is not easy to spot. The stems are square, as with many mints. The leaves are large and coarsely toothed in an open pattern. The flowers are small, pinkish and crowded at the ends of the stems. It often grows in stands with numerous individuals. So, if you see one, you'll see many more nearby. Like many mints, this plant is aromatic. Additionally, it has been used medicinally to treat a variety of ailments from diarrhea to headaches, according to the organization, Plants for a Future. Mints are fascinating plants with a long and colorful history. The Swedish botanist, Linnaeus, named this genus Dracon, which is dragon in Greek. "Cephalos" means head and "parviflorum" is Latin for small flower. If you see a plant in the Hualapai Mountains with small flowers arranged in a configuration that reminds you of a dragon's head, you are probably on the right track.
Wright's Bedstraw, Galium wrightii (Coffee Family)
Bedstraw is a relatively large group with over 30 species occurring in the Southwest. These small herbs are rather coarse, with square stems, and whorled leaves. The leaves are small, about two cm long and five mm wide. The flowers are reddish to purplish with four petals. It has no sepals. The small flowers are clustered in the axils of the leaves. The fruits look like tiny, white fuzz balls. Since it flowers from May to September, you are most likely to see it in fruit in the fall. It favors shady canyons among rocks. There are plenty of such places across the Southwest, especially in the Hualapai Mountains of northwest Arizona. As you hike the trails in the Hualapai Mountains and approach a rock outcrop, stop and take a close look in the cracks and crevices. These are sites where water accumulates, so the microclimate supports a distinct flora. There are also fewer predators that might eat or trample plants in these sites. There's no telling what jewels you might discover and Bedstraw is sure to be among them. By the way, the Greek name for this group (Galium) means milk, since some species were used to curdle milk. The common name suggests these plants were used to stuff beds, with their wiry, straw-like stems. Botanists as well as pioneers have more imagination than we might expect, given our relatively civilized lives where we have probably never needed to curdled milk or stuff a mattress. But, not too long ago in the overall timeframe of human history, these were common practices and plants were frequently used to accomplish all sorts of routine but important tasks.
Branched Noseburn, Tragia ramosa (Spurge Family)
Armed with stinging, nettle-like hairs, this small group of species is in a most curious family of plants. From the Spurge Family come Poinsettia as well as African succulents that mimic cacti. There are herbs and woody plants too found in this global family. In addition to the diversity in overall structure, the flowers will be overlooked by hikers who do not pay close attention to details. In order to really appreciate this family of plants, you will need to look a little closer at the flowers. First of all, in this genus of plants within the family, the male and female parts (stamens and pistils) are in different flowers, though they are on the same plant. Hence, the plants are monoecious. There are no petals, but there are several sepals. Frequently there are three stamens in the male flowers and the ovary in the female flower is made up of three parts. But these numbers can vary widely. "Reduction" is the name of the game with the Spurges. Other modifications include succulence, as in the case of the African cactus look-alikes and stinging hairs as in the case of this group, Noseburn. I thank Justin Thomas for the information he has offered on the pain delivery system of Tragia. He says, "The complexity of Tragia's pain delivery system is fascinating and has been intimately studied and explained by E.L. Thurston in an article in the American Journal of Botany in 1976. As explained by Thurston, each stinging "hair" is made up of four cells. Three of these cells are parallel to each other in an elongate fashion. The base of the triad is anchored to the leaf surface. The tips of the three cells converge around a terminal cell, which is heavily vacuolated with stinging fluid. Protruding from the cell wall of the terminal "poison" cell is a fierce calcium oxalate crystal. But this is no ordinary crystal. The base of the crystal has several spikes that intrude into the interior of the terminal cell. The shaft of the crystal has a longitudinal groove all the way to the ice pick tip. The theory is that the slightest contact with the crystal causes the spikes at the base to rupture the vacuole. Then, the cytoplasm of the "poison" cell and the toxic brew is instantaneously funneled (or shot depending on the turgor pressure) into the skin of the offending beast. Tragia ramosa is covered with hundreds of thousands of such trigger happy hairs." No wonder they call it Noseburn. Look, but don't touch and for goodness sake, don't stick your nose into places where it does not belong: dry, rocky slopes among pinyon and juniper in the Hualapai Mountains. Noseburn is easy to spot when growing alone, some 30 cm tall but it may also be hidden in grasses. Forewarned is forearmed.