From Vegas to the Colorado Plateau

Over the past month, we started working on a new project out here in the Mojave Desert–one that actually took us out of the desert and Las Vegas, and up to the Colorado Plateau! We’re assessing the vegetation and soil recovery on old oil drilling sites, from a wide range of timespans and in a couple geographic areas. We spent about two weeks in Utah measuring these sites, and it was definitely a change in scenery, from the dry and muted landscape of the Mojave:


Or the sandy dunes of Eureka Valley in Death Valley National Park:


To a landscape of bright reds and greens and scattered with canyons:


We were looking at sites mostly dominated by blackbrush (and sagebrush sites will also factor into this project), but recorded any perennials we found on our transects, which of course meant looking up a whole new batch of species we hadn’t encountered in our normal work in Nevada. There were also some familiar genera, like Sphaeralcea, that had different varieties or species up there for us to key out.

While our primary focus was on plants and soils, we also did get to say hello to some wildlife while there:



The geology of the area was also super interesting–it took us about 6-8 hours to drive from the Las Vegas Field Station in Henderson up to the general Moab, UT area, depending on the sites in question. On the way I read the entire Utah Roadside Geology book at least twice, and inflicted most of it upon my fellow car-mates, whether they cared about the rocks or not. Seeing all the different formations and knowing the vastly different landscapes that produced them (huge fields of aeolean-driven dunes, shallow seas, tidal flats, and more) and just how long it takes to create even a few feet of sedimentary rock–it really puts the geologic timescale in perspective in a very tangible way.


Above is a mysterious blue member within the Entrada formation, at one of our Campsites, near Tombstone Butte/the Needles… my best guess is it was anhydrite/gypsum, but as to why it stops so suddenly, I can’t say. The grains were too large for it to have been an ancient lake sediment, so maybe a narrow tongue of a tidal flat is my best guess.

Anyway, as a photographer, the vast array of landscapes I’ve been able to experience while out west has been truly inspiring, so I will close by leaving you with some of my favorite photos I’ve taken while here. These were shot in places all around Nevada, California, Utah, and Arizona.










– Jessica Mikenas

US Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center

Henderson, NV

Hello! I’ve been in my internship for a full month now, working on a couple different plant monitoring projects for the US Geological Survey. Arriving in Henderson, NV was a bit of a whirlwind, as we jumped right into the field only two days after arriving.

There are three main projects I’ll be working on this summer, two of which I’ve already begun work with.

The first is a common garden project, where seedlings from 6 different climate zones within the Mojave desert are planted in 3 (for now) locations. After this summer’s data is collected, hopefully we’ll be able to tell if haplotypes from different regions are able to survive in other regions, or if they’re sensitive enough to slight shifts in temperature/rainfall that they can’t survive in other regions. This is super important information to know for any restoration efforts, to make sure seeds planted have a chance at survival.



Above is our Utah garden, in the coolest/wettest climate zone. After we did our measurements (canopy dimensions, stem diameters, and pre-dawn water potentials), we zipped down to the second garden near Joshua Tree National Park.



Things were a little further along at Joshua Tree, which is a comparatively warmer site. While creosote is one of the species we have planted in the gardens currently, none were quite flowering yet–the picture above is from a bush just outside our fence.

Our third site is actually located on the Fort Irwin Military Training site. However, on our way there our first trip…


…the car broke down. So we couldn’t make it to the base in time for the mandatory range safety course, and the trip had to be cut a little short.

However! It did mean I got back in time to volunteer on a short trip to near the north rim of the Grand Canyon, to help count and measure pediocacti.



The cacti we were looking at are super interesting–they suck down underground for the winter, and push back up through the dirt in the spring to flower. They mechanism and triggers for this have not been extensively studied as far as I’m aware, but you could really see the way they shoved rocks and things out of their way in order to flower.


They’re also super adorable!

That covers almost all of my first week and weekend in the Mojave and nearby areas. It is definitely a different landscape than what I’m used to, being from the midwest, and a very interesting one to explore.


Jessica Mikenas

Henderson, NV