Among our countless iconic and stunning natural landscapes in the Sky Islands, the otherworldly San Rafael Grasslands occupy a special ecological and scenic niche. If you are seeking adventure, stunning vistas, or the opportunity to meet unique flora and fauna, then venture out into the flowing San Rafael. When you go, bring plenty of water, gas in the tank, and other such necessities, as things can get remote fast in this quasi-wilderness of desolation and dirt roads.
The wild expanses of the San Rafael are classified as Great Plains Grassland, distinguishing them from our lower and palpably more austere Desert Grasslands. Cacti are almost absent from the area. The higher elevations found here allow more precipitation to fall in the form of both summer and winter rains, as well as the rare snowstorm. Another factor that brings more moisture to this ‘parched’ grassland are the mountain ranges that partially ring it. The San Rafael is fairly hemmed in by the Patagonia, Huachuca, and Sierra San Antonio Mountains – the first two just within the U.S. and the last barely over the border in Mexico. Throw in the less lofty, yet no less important, Canelo Hills and you have a veritable rain sink that entices storms to stall over the grasslands.
The net result of this comparatively opulent moisture is a varying blanket of mostly grasses and forbs/herbs. Grasses can be classed as either native or non-native as well as cool or warm season species. Native grasses are increasingly at risk from non-native species, such as Lehmann lovegrass from southern Africa that has spread like an ecological wildfire. This insidious species inevitably forces out the natives, easily outcompeting them for precious resources.
On the native side of the ledger, keep your eyes peeled for species that run the gamut in size, land coverage, and flowering tops. Cane beardgrass, sprangletop, curly mesquite and many other natives create a quilt of brown or green grasses that invite grassland wildlife to feed, rest, migrate nest, and breed here. So do a wide palette of native wildflowers, particularly during the monsoon.
In October look for various flowering members of the aster family, such as fleabane, sunflowers, and goldenrods, all of which thrive in the autumnal climate. Within the 70,000-plus acres of the San Rafael you can easily pick out broader ecological patterns that collectively make the area more diverse. Grasslands themselves vary from taller swathes that are the equivalent of towering trees in a forest to quite low patches, barely six inches tall. This structural variability allows a broad range of native wildlife to exploit the San Rafael. Adding immeasurably to wildlife habitat are the trees of the San Rafael. Just as grasses infiltrate the mountains, so too do trees intervene in the grasslands. Mesquites, alligator junipers, and various oaks trickle in from the wooded edges of the area, while Fremont Cottonwood and Mexican Blue Oak grow right in the heart of the San Rafael.
The lifeblood of the area for wildlife is the various water sources, most importantly the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River. Perennial in stretches, this bi-national waterway draws in species as varied as native fish, frogs, mule deer, collared peccary, and great
blue heron, to name a few. A few years ago an American beaver even migrated into the grasslands via the river.
Characteristic birds here include: Cassin’s kingbird, grasshopper sparrow, Swainson’s hawk, and horned lark.
Go, then, and enjoy your own grassland safari – San Rafael style!
Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.org