Don’t Tread on Living Soil While Hiking, Biking or Driving

Don't bust the crust. Learn how to spot cryptobiotic soil and why you shouldn't go over it.

Photo: Flickr/J Brew

While the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah may seem barren at first glance, these places are full of life right down to the dirt underneath your feet. Cryptobiotic or “living soil” covers many of the deserts in the Southwest. Cyanobacteria is dormant when dry but when wet, these tiny organisms move through the soil and leave sticky fibers behind that create a thick, erosion-resistant layer which works like a sponge and is great at absorbing and storing water in the dry desert. Lichen, moss and other organisms grow on this mat and form a living crust.

Cryptobiotic soil is the reason this arid part of the country isn’t just sand dunes. The crust keeps sediment from washing or blowing away and helps plants access water even in dry conditions. The black, bumpy crusts you might see when hiking in the desert can be thousands of years old. One footstep or tire track, however, can kill it immediately and be devastating for the desert ecosystem.

Learn to identify cryptobiotic soil and always stay on the trails or walk on rocky or sandy ground instead of the dirt. Take care not to drive off-road and risk damaging the landscape.