Saturday, June 14, 2008

Exploring the Rio Grande Headwaters: San Luis Valley

The Rio Grande drains the Southern Rocky Mountains and meanders more than 2,000 miles through the desert Southwest before reaching the Caribbean. Spanish explorers followed this river to its headwaters more than 400 years ago.
However, the Spanish were notoriously poor scientists, more interested in searching for the Seven Lost Cities of Gold than understanding native ecosystems. Even after the U.S. purchased this area in 1848, and despite more than a hundred years of U.S. exploration and documentation, much of this vast area remains unknown and (relatively) undisturbed by Homo industrialis.

I've set out this summer with Colorado's Natural Heritage Program to explore the Headwaters of the Rio Grande with a top-notch, interdisciplinary team of scientists from across the country.

The Rio Grand's headwaters drain from the San Juan Mountains and the Sangre de Christo Mountains into the vast alluvium of the San Luis Valley. This valley, the center of our research, can be thought of as either the southernmost Rocky Mountain park or the northernmost New Mexican valley.
At 7,500 feet this floodplain is a mix of alpine, wetlands, desert, and farmland. Coming from sea level it is continually astonishing to pause and gasp for breath in the center of an agricultural valley where the nearest mountains are 30 miles away. These high plains support a diverse and unique assemblage of plants and animals, with pronghorn antelope feeding in the alfalfa fields, buffalo competing with cows in the sagebrush rangeland, and elk and bear foraging along the periphery.
Our HQ is marked on these maps, a swanky cabin safely nestled in an out of the way canyon on the western rim of the valley. To get to this alpine oasis you first drive past the endless center-pivot irrigation systems of San Luis Valley, than upwards past La Garita through Sheep pass, where the rounded granite boulders shelter pinon and juniper. You are now entering Carnero Canyon, whose narrowings and widenings sequentially reveal a lush cottonwood bosque, then Ponderosa woodland and finally Aspen groves and mountain meadows.

The "Back 40" (square miles):

*Since the cabin is off the grid this post was beamed up via satellite.

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