|Shower of flowers
Colorados summer wildflower displays
dazzle trekkers who venture off the path
|Published: Mar/Apr 2002
Story and photos
by Jack Olson
Colorados wildflower display begins in the foothills as early as March and spreads upward as spring progresses. By May, theyre in full bloom in the foothills, from 5,000 to 8,000 feet elevation. In June, wildflowers are filling the montane zone, 8,000 feet to timberline. By July, exquisite alpine flowers are dotting the tundra above timberline, somewhere around 11,500 feet.
Crested Butte Wildflower Festival
One of the best places to enjoy wildflowers is in the south-central Rockies at Crested Butte, designated The Wildflower Capital of Colorado by the state legislature. The towns annual Wildflower Festival is held each July (this years dates, July 814). There are guided wildflower hikes, botanic garden tours, plus gardening, landscaping, photography, painting, and cooking workshops. Lectures and slide shows also are offered. For more information call (970) 349-2571, or click on www.visitcrested butte.com/wildflower.
My favorite is Rustler Gulch, accessed from Forest Road 317, about two miles north of Gothic. Forest Road 569 cuts to the right, and parking is available. Hikers have to ford several creeks, but the reward is one of Colorados finest wildflower explosions.
Some suggested hikes
A wonderful short hike that is easily accessible from Denver is up Straight Creek in the White River National Forest. Travel west on Interstate 70 past Georgetown and through the Eisenhower Tunnel under the Continental Divide. Immediately after exiting the tunnel, turn right and park. Find the road just to the right of the parking area, and follow it up into the valley. At the end of the valley, the road will switch back to the top of the Continental Divide. From the end of the valley, hike back along the creek to see different varieties of wildflowers. The wildflower display in early July is stunning, and includes Colorados state flowerthe blue columbinescarlet Parry primrose and Indian paintbrush in a variety of hues.
For a longer high-altitude hike, Shrine Pass is hard to beat. Drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70 and continue past Silverthorne, Frisco and Copper Mountain. Take Exit 190 and drive about two miles south on the gravel Shrine Pass Road to the parking area at the top of the pass. From the parking area walk up the dirt road about 100 yards to the south and find the trailhead. Theres a beautiful trail through trees and meadows, reaching a wide ridge in about two miles. From there, hikers can see in all directions, including a view west toward Mount of the Holy Cross. The trail splits on top of the ridge. Go right to reach a high point with views north to the Gore Range. Take the left fork and, if during the right time in July, find a meadow packed with lupine.
For a high-altitude hike through the tundra, drive west from Denver on Interstate 70. Take Exit 216 and drive up U.S. Highway 6 to the top of 11,992-foot Loveland Pass. Park at the top of the pass; trails go east and west from that point. The eastern trail is steeper, and climbs about 1,000 feet in a mile. The western trail is less steep and climbs a ridge on the Continental Divide. On either trail, hikers will find delicate and showy alpine wildflowers in June, July and August. My favorite is the yellow, beaming, alpine sunflower.
Another place to find wildflowers in the tundra is on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park (recorded information, 970-586-1333). Drive west up Trail Ridge from Estes Park (1-800-443-7837) and, as you approach timberline, look for a parking area on the left. The Ute Trail takes off from here. Enjoy the alpine flowers at your feet, while looking out toward the spectacular sight of Longs Peak and the Continental Divide. There are other short hikes from viewpoints above timberline along Trail Ridge.
Gear for the hike
For a hike in the high country, be aware afternoon thundershowers are not uncommon in Colorado, so bring rain gear. Dress in layers, so that you can adjust to changing temperatures. Wear good hiking boots. A wide-brimmed hat will shield the suns harmful rays, and put on sunscreen. Carry a small pack for extra clothing, as well as food and water.
To photograph wildflowers, a camera with close-up capability and interchangeable lenses, such as a 35mm, will be helpful. A tripod will allow you to compose more accurately and control the depth of field. Some photographers like to use polarizing or warming filters. There are a variety of films available. Many photographers prefer saturated films, which emphasize vivid colors.
If you have a camera that cant focus at close range, look for thick carpets of flowers, which will enhance a landscape photo. Ive found that when you are photographing blue flowers, such as lupine, find a thick batch, or the flowers will blend into the green grass in a photo. Watch out for distracting backgrounds behind the flowers.
Wildflowers will often appear more attractive in a photo when a cloud covers the sun on an otherwise sunny day.
What you will see
There are hundreds of wildflowers to be discovered on a hike in the Colorado Rockies. Just a few of the common and outstanding forest varieties would include lovely yellow heartleaf arnica, Jacobs ladder, blue columbine (but you might even find red or yellow), wild geranium, deep purple monkshood and larkspur, and light blue chiming bells. In meadows, theres a profusion of sunflowers, daisies, bistort and Indian paintbrush. Near and above timberline, the larger wildflowers are alpine sunflower, Parry primrose, and sky pilot. Smaller specimens include rosecrown and alpine avens. Perhaps the most dainty and lovely are the cushion flowers, alpine forget-me-not, moss campion, and phlox.
There are many good books on Colorado wildflowers, but there is an especially useful source for hiking through the flowers. My favorite book is Colorados Best Wildflower Hikes by Pamela and David Irwin. There are two volumes, the first for the Front Range, the second for hikes west of the Continental Divide. Each book chronicles 50 hikes, beginning in the foothills and moving up to the high country. Each hike is described in detail, with indications of which wildflowers are likely to be encountered in certain months.
On your Colorado vacation, you cant overlook the soaring peaks, but dont miss the annual wildflower display spread across them.
Jack Olson is a contributor from Denver, Colo.