Land, Water and People: July is peak wildflower month in the high country

I was met with a rainbow of colors as soon as I stepped onto the trail leading to Hunters Lake. Yellow heartleaf arnica, purple veined white geraniums and blue bells lined the well-worn path. Just a few steps further and baseball-sized clusters of small white flowers poked out of the spearhead shaped leaves of elderberry bushes.

Every year, I look forward to May when the first wildflowers start poking out of the moist spring ground in our foothills. The daisies, cactuses, pasque flowers and multitude of blooming shrubs paint our lower elevations in brilliance. Then, as we progress into June, the first red paintbrush and columbines, purple violets, pink roses, yellow golden banner, white locoweed and yucca spring forth accelerating us into the most amazing wildflower month of them all – July.

July is when the alpine flowers bloom in all their glory. First come the white marsh marigolds and yellow buttercups chasing the melting snowfields up the moist mountain bowls, while the tiny, ground hugging, blue forget-me-nots, white phlox and pink moss campions fill in the gaps between the rocks in the harsh alpine tundra. These trailblazing flowers are soon followed by blue and white columbines, yellow alpine sunflowers, purple fringe and a variety of colorful paintbrushes.

By the time you read this, we will be almost halfway through July. Some early bloomers will have already faded or gone to seed, but mid-July seems to be the time for the greatest diversity of blooming wildflowers in the subalpine and alpine zones.

There are many places to visit to view the high country wildflowers. One of the most accessible places to see alpine flowers is by Grayback Mountain, which is most easily reached by way of the Pinos Creek Road, Country Road 14, near Del Norte. The wildflower viewing continues to be fantastic if one continues on Forest Service Road 330 by Summitville. The wet meadows along the road fill up with the pink elephant head flowers.

Then, if you want to get a little exercise, continue on to FSR 380 (Park Creek Road) towards Elwood Pass and hike up Forest Service Trail 707. It doesn’t take long to break out of the trees and into the alpine zone. The columbines are thick, as are purple fringe, and red and orange king’s and queen’s crowns. The wildflowers in this area are so beautiful, it is my first choice for where I take visiting friends and family. 

For those with ATVs and side-by-sides, it’s hard to beat Stony Pass (FSR 520) for alpine wildflower viewing. Make sure to get off your machines and walk south on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail to see the dense stands of multi-colored paintbrush. Some of the paintbrush are two-toned, like they can’t figure out what color to be.

The northern part of the Forest doesn’t get as much moisture as the rest of the Forest, but there are still great areas to visit to see wildflowers. Saguache Park is loaded with grassland wildflowers including red scarlet gilia, blue lupine, white and yellow mariposa lilies, and multi-colored penstemons. This area can be reached from a variety of directions, but probably the best approach is to come in from the Gunnison side of the Continental Divide.

As usual, it didn’t take long to reach Hunter’s Lake, but I wasn’t stopping there and still had another two to three miles to go. Eventually, the trail climbed up to a ridge and traversed the narrow Stairsteps. The trail was a sliver of a bench cutting across and up a steep chute – not a good place to take a horse. I bent over, picked a dark green leaf of mountain sorrel and chewed it filling my mouth with sour lemony flavor.

Just a little further and the trail broke out onto an expansive alpine setting where one could walk for many miles without dipping below treeline. And the wildflowers… well… they seemed to go on forever.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.