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Colorado National Monument might lack water, but nature still manages to wring Monet-worthy plantscapes from a scant 11 inches of precipitation a year. The Alcove Nature Trail and the Ute Garden Interpretive Trail offer excellent introductions to the high desert’s scrappy plants that will only increase your admiration for this area—and enrich your explorations. Or, start with this primer.
Sagebrush’s aroma might help keep candle companies in business, but its scent is intended to deter animals from munching on it. The colorful plant—which isn’t part of the culinary sage family—does provide cover for critters seeking refuge from predators.
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Colorado Piñon Pine
What this evergreen lacks in height it makes up for in potency: The nuts in piñon cones are a robust source of fats, proteins, and vitamins. Look for piles of the picked-apart cones—signs that a bird has buried the seeds for safekeeping.
This shrub’s corrugated leaves are a favorite snack for the park’s bighorn sheep. Native Americans preferred the long, sturdy branches, though; they’re ideal for arrow shafts.
Unlike the low-growing cheat grass—brought here by Europeans in the late 19th century—that you’ll see in CNM, Indian ricegrass is endemic to Colorado. Native Americans used its protein-rich seeds to make flour.
The tea from this bamboolike plant, Ephedra nevadensis, gives sippers a “buzz” courtesy of a compound similar to the stimulant ephedrine. Early settlers learned from Native Americans to boil it and use it as a medicine to treat a variety of ailments, including colds.
The Methuselah of CNM, these slow-growing evergreens can live to be more than 1,000 years old. Their roots extend as far as 100 feet out and 25 feet down in search of water, a neat trick when you’re growing in desertlike terrain.
Consider this pointy plant nature’s Swiss Army knife. Native Americans ate its seeds and fruits (but typically not its roots, which can be toxic because they contain small amounts of cyanide) and used its leaves for everything from baskets to sandals and turned its sharp tips into sewing needles.
Don’t Tread On Me
Delicate soil requires a delicate touch.
Colorado National Monument rangers ask that visitors stick to obvious trails for a good reason: They’re trying to protect the monument’s fragile biological soil. Made up of living organisms (such as lichens, fungi, and cyanobacteria, a friendly photosynthetic bacteria), the clumpy crust helps stabilize otherwise easily eroded soil beneath and provides an important nitrogen source for plants eking out an existence in the arid environment. Like alpine tundra, the frangible ground cover can take a long time to develop—and to recover from a parade of hiking boots squashing it.