Cryptobiotic Soil: Don’t Tread on Me

One of our favorite things to do after we setup camp at a new roadside camping spot is to look around, find something neat in the distance, and hike to it.  We’ve enjoyed some wonderful hikes this way, such as climbing to the top of the Providence Mountains in the Mojave National Preserve. 

Theresa getting ready to hike off-trail in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Park

In the photo above, Theresa is surveying Escalante Canyon for possible fun destinations.

Since we are roadside camping typically in the middle of nowhere, this means there is no set trail on which to hike.  But we love hiking off-trail, going wherever our feet and hearts take us.  Me especially, as I seem to be a natural-born trailblazer.  Using my GPS, area map, and my generally decent sense of direction, I like to plot our course on-the-fly over and around the many obstacles that a desert canyon throws in our way.

Given that we’ve been hiking together off-trail in the desert for two decades, we both know that one of the most important obstacles to avoid in the desert is something that is very tiny and quite easy to miss: cryptobiotic soil.


Cryptobiotic soil in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah

Cryptobiotic soil is a biological soil crust composed of living bacteria, algae, fungi, lichens, and/or mosses.  Cryptobiotic soil is very important to a desert ecosystem.  It helps other plants by stabilizing the sand and dirt, retaining moisture, and fixing atmospheric nitrogen (required by all forms of life).


Cryptobiotic soil in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

When you touch cryptobiotic soil with your finger, it feels very solid.  Yet its thin, fibrous nature makes cryptobiotic soil very fragile.  With the slightest pressure, it will crumble under your finger.  Even worse, a single footprint can destroy all the cryptobiotic soil under your boot.  It can take a few years or as long as a century for the slow-growing species to return to its original health.


Theresa walking on the slickrock to avoid the cryptobiotic soil

That’s why when we are hiking in the desert, we always keep a watchful eye for the dark crust of cryptobiotic soil and do our best to avoid it.  We try to hike on rock, in sandy washes, or along existing animal trails where cryptobiotic soil doesn’t grow.

Life in the desert is harsh enough with the extreme summer heat, lack of water, and high winds.  We don’t want to add our bootprints to the list of problems that desert life must face.

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