Native Plants of the Southwest (51) - South Bass Trail, Grand Canyon, South Rim
Descending the South Bass Trail is straight forward, more so than the drive to the trailhead from Tusayan. It is 29.3 miles from Tusayan and involves Forest Service, Tribal, and National Park Service lands. The road was suitable for my 2WD PU, as it was dry. If it's wet, it would be another story even though the terrain is flat. Lacking any steep, eroded sections suggests the driving challenges should be minimal. Yet, bear in mind that this is one of the most remote trailheads on the South Rim. Be prepared.
One mile north of Tusayan turn left/west on Forest Road 328. After 20.6 miles, you'll come to the Havasupai Reservation. Another 0.3 miles is a gate and a sign declaring a $25 fee to continue. If no one is there, continue with the money in your pocket. Close the gate behind you or bypass it easily via a dirt road to the left/south of the gate. Be careful not to run over the abundant trash/debris in the vicinity of this tribal outpost. At 22.4 miles turn right. Leave the Reservation at 24.3 miles and enter the Grand Canyon National Park at 24.8 miles. Pass the Ranger Station at 25.8 miles, turning right again. Continue to the trailhead. Topo Map Quads: Explorers Monument & Havasupai Point
Begin your hike with a traverse to the east as you descend below the Rim. There are a couple of signs to admonish you as to the do's and don'ts along the way. Views to the north include Bass Canyon, nearly to the Colorado River. You may notice some ancient stone walls above the trail near the Rim. The trailhead remains in view as you descend, before you drop below the Red Wall and as you cut through this formation.
Lower Bass Canyon comes into clearer view as you hike through the Red Wall. After about 5 miles from the trailhead, you'll cross the Tonto Trail and after 7.5 miles, you'll reach the Colorado River with its infamous steel boat, the Ross Wheeler, chained to the Inner Gorge. River levels vary. This means that there may or may not be a beach to camp at. The Trail exits Bass Canyon to the left at about 1/4 mile from the River. You'll encounter a stone fireplace, where the trail switches back to the right and cuts through the rock on its approach to the shoreline. This is to avoid a 30' drop off where Bass Canyon meets the Colorado River. The River is almost 2 miles and 1,000 feet past/below the Tonto Trail.
Shade is hard to come by in the Canyon. Early or late in the day, especially in winter, is the best way to find shade with the sun below the rim of the Canyon as you hike near vertical walls. Some portions of the Canyon never see sun in the winter, the preferred season to hike below the Rim. Trail confusion is likely on the South Bass Trail as there are no signs at junctions, only cairns of various sizes. Not all these cairns mark the trail. There must be a secret cairn-builder out there that thinks extra piles of rock are nice to look at or helpful to navigation. They are neither. At 1.7 miles, you'll encounter the junction with the Esplanade Trail. Stay right. Otherwise, staying on the route requires average route finding skills, mostly just paying attention to what you are doing in this remote corner of the Grand Canyon.
Some forget that not far below the Rim of the Canyon, you enter a desert environment where sun and aridity take their toll any time of year. In spite of the visitation patterns, summer is not the best time to hike the Canyon. Therefore, late fall to early spring dates are recommended and with at least 4,000 feet of elevation change going down and coming back up, you must be prepared for the extremes - snow on the rim & mild below or getting cooked below when it's mild on the Rim. Fall and spring offer the best of both worlds but that's also when it is most difficult to get a permit and any time you stay overnight below the Rim a permit is needed from the Back Country Office. Day hiking below the Rim requires no permit, but that's unlikely in the case of the South Bass Trail since it is so remote. If you are going all that way to the trailhead, plan on staying a while.
The four plants I have selected to represent the South Bass Trail include two cacti, one yucca, and one spiny-leaved shrub. Thanks to Kristin Huisinga, Lori Makarick, Kate Watters and contributors of "River and Desert Plants of the Grand Canyon" for providing the basis for selecting these plants. Obviously, there are so many to choose from (200 species in the book out of 1,300 species in the National Park), it is a tough call. Yet, these stand out in season or out of season, so you are sure to notice them as well as run across them elsewhere in the Canyon since they occur beyond the confines of this particular hike.
Many-headed Barrel Cactus, Echinocactus polycephalus (Cactus Family)
Some plants are routinely thought of as cacti, though they belong to other plant families. Seems that to some people any plant that is extremely spiny qualifies as a cactus. As with most organisms, however, it's more important to look at how it reproduces rather than how it protects itself that forms a more reliable basis for classification. So, in flowering plants, the flowers and fruits matter more than surface features such as spines, thorns, or prickles. While ocotillo and agaves are pretty formidable looking, like cacti, their fruits and flowers tell a very different story as to their relationships with other plants. The flowers and fruits of Many-headed Barrel are hairy berries. Consequently, it is also called Cotton-top Cactus. Once you have zeroed in on the correct family and know that you have a cactus, the spines become secondary features to determine the specific species of cactus. Cactus spines are arranged in clusters, often with prominent central spines and smaller radial spines. Spine clusters on Many-headed Barrel have 1-4 central spines. Each is flattened in cross-section and slightly curved. The radial spines number 6-14. Other species of barrel cacti rarely branch. The number of stems that may be found in an individual specimen of this species number up to 30. The overall girth of an individual plant may reach 2 meters across. The stems are ribbed and can grow to half a meter in height over a period of 100 years. Wow! It's quite a sight with its red and white spines on bare rock outcrops throughout the Grand Canyon, north to the Vermillion Cliffs and west to the Mojave Desert. Many-headed Barrel looks like a chubby bouquet of colorful spines, beautiful because it's different, because of where it grows, and just because.
Red Barberry, Mahonia haematocarpa (Barberry Family)
Hiking up the South Bass Trail, I came across a Red Barberry shrub with its attractive, though well armed leaves just below the Red Wall. These leaves are odd pinnate, divided into 3-7 leaflets, the margin of each is lined with spines. Ouch! Odd pinnate means the number of leaflets/leaf are an odd number, so there is one terminal leaflet at the end of each leaf. The leaflets are also arranged along the rachis of the leaf like a feather rather than all coming from a single point. The leaves are alternately arranged on the stems and are bluish-green in color. Very nice! They are rather stiff too, but few get close enough to find out. The colorful yellow flowers appear in late winter or early spring and mature into small red berries. Sometimes confused with shrub live oak, the fruits are the most distinguishing characteristic between these two woody plants, acorns on oaks, berries on barberry. "You know them by their fruits," is a tried and true statement. Additionally, oaks have simple leaves while barberry has compound leaves. A related species, Fremont Barberry has dark berries and grows at higher elevations. Red Barberry may attain a height of 3 meters and is an evergreen. In Texas barberries are called Algerita and back in the old west, the fruits were used to make preserves. Native Americans extracted a yellow dye from the roots and stems to color cloth, buckskins, and baskets. Wildlife consumes the berries but in general, the leaves go untouched. Canyons, mesas, and rocky slopes in the high desert to chaparral habitat types are where you might expect to bump into Red Barberry and when you do, it is likely to be a memorable experience for many reasons.
Pancake Prickly Pear, Opuntia chlorotica (Cactus Family)
Trees are rare in the desert, depending on your definition. Speaking of trees, how do you define a tree? What is it? If you were to explain what a tree was to someone from Mars, what would you say? It is a word we use all the time, but don't necessarily explain it very well. According to the book, Rocky Mountain Trees, a tree is a woody plant with a single stem at ground level. There is typically, a well defined crown and some definitions add that the trunk/stem diameter at breast height (DBH) is at least 6 inches or some other minimum thickness. Therefore, according to this book, which state in the Rocky Mountains has the most trees, broad leaved or coniferous? Arizona? That's correct. It might help to know that some cacti, like Pancake Prickly Pear fits the definition of a tree: single trunk and recognizable crown. Another term to describe its form is arborescent, or tree like. Prickly Pear cacti have flattened pads/stems, usually covered with two types of spines: glochids and spines that are well anchored in each areole/cluster. Glochids are tiny spines with recourse barbs like a porcupine quill. Glochids break easily off the plant but don't come out of your skin or clothes with any ease at all. It is usually quite a chore to remove them once they work their way in. Since they are quite small, they are not always noticed immediately, allowing them more time to anchor themselves firmly in you. They have been used as itching powder by those with creative minds that apply their creativity toward making others miserable, or at least quite uncomfortable. Pancake Prickly Pear has pads that are pancake like, or roundish. Cacti are like endurance runners. They occupy sites where competition with other plants for limited resources (e.g. water) is low because few other plants can hang around long enough to see brighter days. Therefore, Pancake Prickly Pear grows on dry, rocky ledges, hillsides, and canyons with plenty of elbow room. Their large, yellow flowers and red, fleshy berries appear when things warm up. In the mean time, it's their stately form and spiny succulence that draw your attention, to a point, a very sharp point. Get the point?
Soaptree Yucca, Yucca elata (Century Plant Family)
Though armed with many spine-tipped leaves that have a saw-like margin, yuccas are not cacti. Their flowers place them near lilies in the Century Plant Family. They are monocots like grasses, palms, and orchids. Therefore, they are not at all close cousins of cacti. Since they are closely related to lilies, their flowers are lily-like. The sepals and petals number 3 each and they look alike. Some call them tepals for this reason. The fruit is a dry capsule that is superior or above the petals. Other members of the Century Plant Family, such as the genus Agave have an inferior capsule where the fruit is positioned below the petals. The most interesting aspect of floral biology among yuccas is that only specific species of moths pollinate yucca flowers. Bats, birds, and other bugs may visit yucca flowers and even benefit from the pollen they extract, but their efforts don't benefit the plants. Only specific moths transfer the pollen to the stigma, affecting fertilization, a ripened fruit and another generation of yucca plants. The moths benefit too, of course, since they do not reproduce apart from the developing larvae within the young fruits. It's a win-win situation, where total dependency rules the relationship. No more yuccas means no more moths and vice versa. Yuccas have also been found to be useful to humans, such as the common name implies. Among other uses as food and fiber, the roots were used to make a lather-like soap. This species stands tall with a well-defined trunk. Sometimes the trunks branch but more often than not, they stand straight and tall with no side branches. One species, Joshua Tree, is well known for its characteristic branching. Other species don't branch at all or only very rarely do so. Soaptree Yucca seems to occupy a middle position in this regard. Plant taxonomists struggle with Yucca classification since many individuals, especially in the Canyon, exhibit intermediary characteristics between distinct species, suggesting that hybridization is occurring. Plants, as living organisms, are not static entities. Their genetic makeup is often open to new possibilities under the right circumstances. This high level of adaptability may contribute to successful recombinations and the continuation of life. Life seems designed to continue, to live on, even in the face of obstacles. Some organisms fail to do so, however, for a variety of reasons. It looks like we'll have yuccas around for a while, partly due to the plasticity of their genetic makeup. Good for them and good for us.