From desert to tundra, this high country botanical journey is a study in extremes. –
Want to beat the heat this summer? Like to take a whiff of the cool, crisp sub-arctic air? Care to see the amazing flowers of the tundra? No need to take the long trek to Alaska. All it takes is a short drive from your backyard to the high country of northern New Mexico: the Pecos, the Truchas and especially the Williams Lake Canyon above Taos Ski Valley in Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area.
Roughly speaking, for every 1,000 feet of vertical rise in altitude the climatic vegetation difference is equivalent to that of going north about 500-600 miles.
As you ascend higher it becomes cooler and wetter. So if you go up 5,000 feet, it’s like you’ve gone 2,000 to 3,000 miles north.
A pleasantly scenic, 45-minute drive from Taos carries you through four distinct zones of climate and vegetation. Taos Ski Valley is 20 miles northeast of Taos at the end of New Mexico Hwy 150. For the first 12 miles, at an altitude of about 7,000 feet above sea level, you are going through the Upper Sonoran Zone with its typical expanses of sagebrush, a semi-arid climate. Right at the mouth of the Hondo Canyon you see the abrupt change from the Upper Sonoran to the Transition Zone. Suddenly it’s cooler here, moister and the sagebrush, piñon and junipers yield to firs.
This is a semi-humid region. From here you ascend through zones in quantum leaps. You reach the upper Transition Zone with the appearance of Ponderosa pines in about three miles. Shortly after aspens, Douglas firs and mixed spruces welcome your arrival to the Canadian Zone. You enter the Village of Taos Ski Valley at the end of the highway at 9,500 feet.From here you see the highest mountains of New Mexico. At the foot of these the mixed forest marks the Upper Canadian Zone. Further up the dark green, pure stand of Engelmann spruce reveals the Hudsonian Zone, up to the tree line or timberline.
The tree line undulates between 11,500 and 12,000 feet and depends on the warmth dictated by exposure and aspect. The cooler the exposure, the lower is the tree line.
Above this line, trees, seedlings and saplings do emerge in the summer. But alas they are doomed. For the early frost deals a premature end to their short lives before they get a chance to become hardy.
Above this tree line, behold the high alpine-subarctic tundra, a very shallow dense, velvety mat of bright green plants. From afar it resembles moss or very short, fine grass. But it consists of highly miniaturized, broadleaf flowering plants which have thus adapted themselves to the cold and drying winds by hugging the ground in dense mats to protect themselves with the ground’s warmth and moisture. Their growing season is but about two months-in early to mid-September they turn a beautiful golden auburn color. They will be dormant for the next 10 months.
From the village a number of hiking trails whisks you through these alpine zones. The easiest and most interesting, however, is the Williams Lake Trail. Drive to the uppermost corner of the ski area parking lot. Go up Twining Road and follow signs to The Bavarian. This is a well maintained dirt road suitable for any vehicle in the summer. Drive two miles to the Hiker Parking. The trail starts here. Before you embark take a few moments to view the majestic canyon you will be hiking. Walk back out onto the dirt road turn left and go to the sharp hairpin bend you have just driven through. From here at an elevation of 10,200 feet you see the entire dead-end canyon. At the end of the canyon and to your left stands the fat belly of Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest point at 13,161 feet.
Notice the perfectly bowl shaped floor of the canyon as outlined by the tree tops. This is a textbook example of an ancient glacial canyon, or cirque, carved by the slow movement of massive ice pack up to 2,000 feet thick over thousands of years. At the height of the last Ice Age, about 18,000 years ago, the canyon was filled with solid ice all the way up to the ridge. The ice pack moving at about one-two inches per year scoured away the earth’s crust, exposing the bedrock which you see on the right wall of the canyon. You will encounter these rocks time and again on your way up.
Shortly after venturing on the trail you will notice areas of hi-alpine wetlands. All around you there are streams rivulets and surface water when the glaciers melted about 10,000 years ago the gushing water shaped the steep-walled V shaped canyons through which you have driven. The melt also flooded the mesa below forcing the early natives up to high ground. Much of the melt, however, still resides here in huge underground lakes.
These are continuously replenished by great refills of rainfall and snowmelt. The excess is constantly gushing or oozing out. The flow is greatest in the summer and gradually diminishes towards fall.
Here in these wetlands and along stream banks, you feast your eyes on an abundance of spectacular wildflowers unusual and intense in color. These are unique to the high altitude and moisture of this haven. Every week brings a different population. You see large stands of dark indigo flowers of poison larkspur (Delphinium delphinium). These, unlike their domesticated, garden variety cousins do not need to be supported. They stand tall and firm against winds and torrential downpours. The name comes from the single, backward projecting spur from one of the sepals, or leaves, that make up the calyx. Tiny four-petalled white flowers line the springs and give the appearance of thousands of snow flakes.
These are bittercress, related to snapdragons. Of course, the Rocky Moutain columbine is ever present, but here the colors are brighter and darker. In early July, you might come across the rare orange red columbine. It has the five backward projecting spurs like all other columbines but has no sepals. Don’t mistake these tofr the similar but pink shooting stars you will also encounter. There are five species of groundsels (Senesio) with bright yellow flowers. You can identify these by their small daisy-like flowers always lacking one or more petals.
In the wet areas you’ll also find little elephant heads, spikes of tiny pink flowers each resembling an elephant’s head, complete with floppy ears, eyes and a trunk. Further up are corn lilies (Veratrurn californicum), medicinal plants that look like com stalks with large, oblong pleated leaves. In late summer they bear large clusters of small white lilies. Along the two miles of the Williams Lake Trail there are hundreds of wildflower species, many are ecotypes unique to this environment.
As you ascend gently toward Williams Lake, you will come across fields of large boulders piled up on top of each other. These are glacial moraines, large chunks of bedrock chiseled away by the action of ice and slowly pushed downhill by the advancing glacier. The piles were left where the glacier stopped and started to recede. These are granite quartz and other metamorphic bedrock fragments more than I .8 billion years old, some of the oldest rocks on the planet. In contrast the rocks below Gavilan Canyon, only 4 miles down the road, are but a few million years old. The warmth stored in these rocks gives a cozy shelter to many plants mosses liverworts, columbines and roseroot (Sedum) a short succulent plant with a large dense cluster of dark crimson flowers. On these rocks you will also see tiny moss looking flowering plants with miniature succulent leaves and miniature flowers such as moss pink and spotted saxifrage. These are components of the tundra mat above you the ultimate reward awaits you at William’s Lake.
As you start your descent into this major glacial cirque you see the perfect bowl you are about to enter. To the right of the lake vast fields of moraines afford an awesome view. The Englemann Spruce, once tall and robust, look like bonsais frozen at their tips signaling the approach of the tree line. Patches of tundra mat attest to the subarctic climes. And in early July the rarest of sites lies ahead on the banks of the waterfall feeding the lake. Meander along the right hand shore of the lake through the moraines. Listen for the waterfall. Here along the rocky walls and banks of the cascade you’ll see the rare and magnificent Parry’s primrose (Primula parryi). Much darker in color and a more profuse bloomer than its counterparts elsewhere, this unique ecotype belongs here at just over 11,OOO feet. It lines the stream where it is constantly sprayed with cold fresh spring water. Light green strap-shaped leaves support a raceme of fucshia magenta flowers with an indigo hue. This is no ordinary pink primrose. This is the unique Beautiful Suzie.
Shar Sharghi, BS MS is a botanical and horticultural scientist. He has done research and taught at Louisiana State University and has been a longtime nature guide in Taos Ski Valley. Questions or comments? Call him 619 276-2868