The Diversity of the Desert

By Michelle Daneri. Michelle is our Southern California Regional Trail Stewardship Coordinator. She is an avid naturalist, who spends free time camping, surfing, and bird watching all over Southern California.

Having worked in the outdoor industry for eight years, I’ve been fortunate to befriend my fair share of thru-hikers. One thing that always struck me was the foreboding tone they used when reminiscing on the beginning of their hike in—The Desert.

In early April, I got out on the southernmost section of the PCT between Campo and Boulder Oaks, and it did not disappoint! I went to scout the trail for maintenance needs with PCTA Field Project Specialist Nathan Bousfield.

Working down there took me back to my season working in the Great Salt Lake Desert. The intensity of the sun, never feeling hydrated enough, instinctively stepping into any smidgeon of shade you come across. It is a harsh environment, there is no doubt about that.

The very thing that makes me wary of the desert is the same thing that draws me in. It is a challenging environment to exist in, yet it is teeming with life. Flora and fauna adapted to the land are everywhere.

I brought my camera along and captured the pops of color and action I encountered out there.

Closeup of a California peony flower

California peonies are unique flowers which bloom from December to May.

California Peony – This was a new plant for me. It is endemic to the Southwest, and thrives on dry hillsides at lower elevations.

A photo of a gopher snake

Gopher snakes are a hardy species that can be found in many different environments.

Gopher Snake – I absolutely love Gopher snakes. I’ve seen them in Central Texas, Yellowstone, and even near the California coast at Laguna Beach. This appears to be a variety called the San Diego Gopher Snake. While they are non-venomous, they make a hissing noise and flatten their heads to look more dangerous as a defense mechanism, mimicking a venomous pit viper. It worked on me! I mistook it for a rattler at first pass, but on closer inspection I saw its cute (in my opinion) face staring back at me.

A photo of a scrub jay perched on a dead branch

Scrub jays are in the corvid family, considered to be among the most intelligent of animals.

California Scrub Jay – Loud! Boldly colored! And curious. These exceptionally intelligent birds are adapted to eat acorns. In fact, they have been known to steal from Acorn woodpeckers. Moral qualms aside, they are an entertaining bird to observe.

A close-up photo of a gall, or growth, on a sage bush

Galls are a common example of inter-species relationships, where most gall-making insects have a specific species of plant they use as a host.

Sagebrush gall – Galls are basically plant warts – abnormal growths usually caused by an insect or pathogen. In the case of sagebrush galls, insects lay their eggs on the sagebrush, and when they hatch it causes irritation in the plant. Here you see the sagebrush has grown a scar-tissue like gall in response, providing a source of food and shelter for insect larvae. I find that galls are beautiful and unique to the plants they grow on. Oaks are also a common host for galls.

A photo of a small bird on the ground

Sparrows are largely a ground foraging species, scraping the dirt with their feet in search of vegetation and insects to eat.

White-crowned sparrow – I have a soft spot for sparrows from my time doing prairie restoration. In general, sparrows can be a bit secretive and challenging to identify, but the white-crowned sparrow’s distinct white and black stripes on its head make it one of the easier sparrows to identify. Sparrows are often found low to the ground and foraging; they tend not to be the strongest flyers. They utilize shrubs, like those found in sagescrub and chaparral habitat, to hide from predators.

A photo of bright blue flowers with pale green leaves

Phacelia is a large genus, or grouping, of flowering plants, several of which secrete oils that cause skin irritation.

Phacelia – These phacelia flowers grew all along the trail corridor near Highway 94. I was instantly drawn in by their bold beautiful blue hues. They can be found in previously burned areas. Do not get too close though, as they can cause dermatitis or skin irritation, especially when dormant. I have experienced this myself many times—and would not recommend!

A photo of a small, pale green plant among rocks

Dudleya can grow for 50 to 100 years in the right place!

Chalk Dudleya – Dudleyas are my favorite of all time! I am always hypnotized by their patterns. The stalks you see growing here are called peduncles. These unique succulent plants are most often found growing on coastal cliffs. You can find them all along the trail. I have seen these in Campo, and another variety, Lance-leaf Dudleya, on the trail near Vasquez Rocks. Admire their beauty, but do not disturb them—in Fall 2021, California passed SB 223 to protect these plants from poaching. If you want one in your home, you can visit your local Native California Nursery. I got the one at my house from Tree of Life in San Juan Capistrano!


Author: PCTA Staff

The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to protect, preserve and promote the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as a world-class experience for hikers and equestrians, and for all the values provided by wild and scenic lands.