There are 1,737 known species of vascular plants, 167 species of fungi, 64 species of moss and 195 species of lichen found in Grand Canyon National Park. This variety is largely due to the 8,000-foot elevation change from the river to the highest point on the North Rim. Grand Canyon boasts a dozen endemic plants (known to exist only within the park’s boundaries), while only 10 percent of the park’s flora is exotic. Sixty-three plants found in the park have been given special status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Grand Canyon National Park contains 129 vegetation communities. The composition and distribution of plant species is influenced by climate, geomorphology (surface features) and geology.
Along the Colorado River and its perennial tributaries, a riparian community exists. Coyote willow, arrowweed, seep willow, western honey mesquite, catclaw acacia and exotic tamarisk (saltcedar) are the predominant species. Hanging gardens, seeps and springs often contain rare plants such as the white-flowering redbud tree, stream orchid and McDougall’s flaveria.
Above the river corridor a desert scrub community composed of desert flora thrives. Typical desert species such as creosote bush, white bursage, brittle brush, catclaw acacia, ocotillo, mariola, western honey mesquite, four-wing saltbush, big sagebrush, blackbrush and rubber rabbitbrush grow in this zone.
Above the desert scrub and up to 6,200 feet is a pinyon pine, Utah juniper and one-seed juniper woodland. Within this woodland you can find big sagebrush, snakeweed, Mormon tea, Utah agave, banana and narrowleaf yucca, snakeweed, winterfat, Indian ricegrass, dropseed and needlegrass.
Ponderosa pine forests grow at elevations between 6,500 feet and 8,200 feet on both the North and South Rims. Additional species such as Gambel oak, New Mexico locust, mountain mahogany, elderberry, creeping mahonia and fescue have been identified in these forests. Above 8,200 feet, there are spruce-fir forests characterized by Engelmann spruce, blue spruce, Douglas fir, white fir, aspen and mountain ash. Several species of perennial grasses, groundsels, yarrow, cinquefoil, lupines, sedges and asters also brave this subalpine climate.
Montane meadows and subalpine grassland communities are rare and located only on the North Rim. Both are typified by many grass species, including blue and black grama, big galleta, Indian ricegrass and three-awns. The wettest areas support sedges and forbs.
Want to learn more? Check out Stephen R. Whitney’s Field Guide to Grand Canyon, available in the GCA online bookstore.
Life in the Canyon
The large size, relatively unfragmented habitat, and range of elevations and associated climates of Grand Canyon National Park have made it a valuable wildlife preserve. The Grand Canyon contains diverse habitats, including nearly every habitat of the southwestern United States except alpine tundra. Montane forests cover the canyon rims, and the Mohave Desert habitat can be found in the western reaches of the Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon and its collection of side canyons cut through over a mile of rock, from the heights of 9,200 feet above sea level on the North Rim down to 1,200 feet above sea level by the time the Colorado River reaches Lake Mead. With such a range in elevation and slope aspect, there are a multitude of habitats where wildlife species can thrive. The Mohave Desert influences the western sections of the canyon, Sonoran Desert vegetation covers the eastern sections, and ponderosa and pinyon pine forests grow on both rims. Natural seeps and springs percolating out of the canyon walls are home to 11 percent of all the plant species found in the Grand Canyon. The canyon itself can act as a connection between the east and the west by providing corridors of appropriate habitat along its length.
The wildlife at Grand Canyon is as diverse and dynamic as the multiple life zones encompassed by the park. Five of North America’s seven life zones and three of the continent’s four desert types are represented in the park. The park provides habitat for 355 bird species, 89 mammalian species, and 56 reptile and amphibian species.
Want to learn more? Try Stephen R Whitney’s Field Guide to Grand Canyon, available in GCA's online bookstore.