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Diversity at a Different Elevation

August 16, 2013 Posted by: EH - Park Ranger (Yosemite Valley)
When you hear the word “Yosemite,” you may immediately think of Half Dome, El Capitan, wildflowers in Tuolumne Meadows, and blue alpine lakes.  But did you know that the National Park Service also manages land that extends much lower in elevation, down to 1,800 feet (549 m)?  On the western side of the park, roughly 2,000 feet in elevation below the towering El Capitan of Yosemite Valley, lies El Portal, home to park administration buildings, and a plethora of plants well suited to a dry, and hot life.

While waiting one early morning at the bus stop, amongst the parched, brown landscape, my eyes caught sight of the large, white, trumpet-shaped flowers of the sacred datura (Datura wrightii). Also commonly called moonflower, the datura unfurls its flowers in the early evening, remaining open to nighttime pollinators until they close again the following morning. Visiting insects include the sphinx moth, which uses its long tongue to reach nectar found at the base of the long flowers. The white color of the flowers reflect moonlight, making it easier for moths to find the flowers from a distance, but primarily it is their fragment smell that lures in pollinators. A variety of wasps and beetles also pollinate these flowers of the night.

From El Portal at 1,800 feet to the top of Mount Lyell at 13,114 feet, there are a vast array of plant and animal communities in Yosemite area to explore. You can find the datura plant growing along the roadsides of Merced Canyon, heading west along Highway 140. A safe spot to stop and view this plant is across the street from the El Portal Market, next to the “Groceries/Deli” sign. Remember that while the sacred datura is beautiful, it is also poisonous and can be fatal if eaten. Please enjoy without touching!

Our website has more information on the diverse plant communities of Yosemite.


Photos of white datura flowers


EH, Roadside Naturalist, El Portal

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Did You Know?

View of Yosemite Valley from the Wawona Tunnel Vista.

Rockfall events have helped shape many of the outstanding features along Yosemite Valley's walls, including Royal Arches, North Dome, and Half Dome. Giant talus slopes that slant away from the Valley walls accumulate debris with each rockfall event.