Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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"Over 330 species of tundra plants can be found in Colorado . . . As the snow melts and the sun
warms the ground, wildflowers quickly emerge and blossom. During the summer, visitors to the
region are greeted by a profusion of wildflowers, which quickly mature and disperse seeds.
The seeds remain on the ground to germinate and grow in the following year.
- from the pamphlet Alpine Wildflowers, published by the USDA,
US Dept. of the Interior/BLM, and the San Juan Mountain Association


Last year I just never got around to a photo essay or two about Rocky Mountain wildflowers. I included some pictures of the many wildflowers I saw in the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming, along the Colorado Trail, in the San Juan Mountains near Silverton, and around Leadville, but my photo collection overflows with many, many more! And that's one reason I haven't shown them until now -- so many flower photos to organize and edit.

Another stumbling block for me has been identifying some of the flowers correctly. My main source of identification is the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to Wildflowers (2001), which has  photos and descriptions of over nine hundred wildflowers in the western region of the United States. But it either doesn't include some of the flowers I've photographed or I just don't recognize them in the book. The little pamphlet quoted above has actually been more helpful to me, although it includes only twenty-two different flowers.

Bottom line: I'll identify the flowers below as best as I can. If there is no ID or the name is incorrect, please let me know. I want to share the photos even if I don't know what all the names are.

The final factor making an essay on wildflowers difficult for me is figuring out how to organize them -- by zone, by family, by color, or what? I've decided to go more by elevation than anything, starting from the top down. I will focus primarily on the wildflowers I've seen in Colorado's sub-alpine and alpine meadows and tundra areas in 2006 and 2007. There will be three parts so there aren't too many photos in each. I probably won't include flowers from zones lower than about 9,500 feet.

One person's wildflower is another person's weed, but I think most people can agree that the flowers shown here are desirable and beautiful. Even the common Dandelion is pretty en masse in Segment 25 of the Colorado Trail near Molas Pass:

I'll begin with plants of the alpine tundra zone, which lies above timberline at approximately 11,000 feet and higher. The terrain tends to be fairly rocky and has more shallow soil than an alpine meadow. However, many types of wildflowers have variations that grow in both alpine and sub-alpine areas.

You'd think the weather and terrain would be too harsh to harbor very many plants at altitudes of 11,000 to 14,000 feet, but they are there -- numerous miniaturized plants that can survive the intense cold, deep snows, and severe winds of winter and the direct sunlight and hot days/cold nights of summer.

According to the brochure mentioned above, "Many of the plant species found at these elevation have developed elaborate methods of survival such as waxy or hairy leaves or short stature. Many of these plants are rare and some are even endangered. They are all fragile and do not rebound easily from human impacts to the environment."

That is why it is so critical to stay on established trails in the tundra. Most of the photos I've taken in the tundra have been from the trail. If I step off to get a shot, I take great care to step on rocks and not plants. You can usually spot numerous flowers right along the trail, especially in the San Juan Range.

Let's begin with the Colorado state flower, the Colorado Columbine. It is so delicate it's hard to believe it can grow in the tundra! I've seen Columbines growing right in the middle of the trail, surrounded by rocks -- but the roots somehow found some dirt. Jim took this beautiful photo in the Redcloud Peak area near Silverton when he was out doing trail work early this month:

Columbines are shorter and more compact in rocky alpine areas, taller and more spindly in moist, sub-alpine meadows like the one below in the Lower Ice Lake Basin northwest of Silverton. The sepals range in color from ice blue to dark blue. They are very pretty in clumps:

There are many varieties of Columbines around the country and they tolerate a wide range of environments. We have some yellow-red ones in our garden in Virginia. I've seen many colors of Columbines in yards in Silverton and Leadville, even some beautiful bronze ones. The only other type I've seen along the trail are these tiny red ones in the woods along the Ice Lake Trail:

Indian Paintbrush is another common plant in both alpine tundra and alpine/sub-alpine meadow areas, and they come in a myriad of colors. I've seen mostly bright pink ones in moist areas of the tundra, such as these in the hanging gardens below Rolling Mountain:

White, orange, and red Indian Paintbrush seem more prevalent in open, well-drained high meadows:


Mountain or Alpine Avens are abundant in both alpine tundra and meadow areas. They are easily identified by their pretty fern-like leaves. The ones below are growing next to a little stream near Grant-Swamp Pass in the San Juans:

They like drier locations, too. Here they are mixed with white Daisies and yellow Alpine Wallflowers near Clear Lake (also the Silverton area) at 12,600 feet high:

The yellow variety of Avens is called "The Yellow Rose of the Tundra." The leaves contain a pigment that converts sunlight into heat. In the fall, the leaves turn dark red, giving the landscape a crimson glow. I'll have to come back sometime in September to see that!

There is also a less-common White Mountain Avens. They almost look like Pasque Flowers. These Avens are on CT Segment 25 a few miles northwest of Molas Pass:

Here is a more detailed photo of a yellow Alpine Wallflower, mentioned above.

The Western Wallflower looks very similar, but grows at sub-alpine altitudes and is taller.

Low cushion-like clumps of tiny blue Alpine Forget-Me-Not have certainly adapted well to high elevations. Their bright yellow centers attract pollinating insects the long soft hairs on the leaves help the plant retain heat:

Another common low-growing cushiony plant common in the tundra is Alpine Phlox. Its five-petaled white to light-colored blue flowers crowd together on top of short, sticky foliage. It thrives in open rocky ground and exposed ridges.

A similar dense, low, matted flower that grows in both tundra and alpine meadows is the bright pink or purplish Moss Campion. I've usually seen it on very rocky ground above 12,000 feet.

One of the perkiest flowers of the tundra is the Alpine Sunflower, AKA "Old Man of the Mountain." I've seen them on several CT segments, including these from last year on the south side of Rolling Mountain Pass in Segment 25 . . .

. . . and a close-up from this year on the north side of the same mountain:

Nodding Sunflowers are similar. They grow taller in sub-alpine regions where the weather isn't as harsh.

Dwarf American Bistort, below, can often be found among yellow Avens in the tundra. It thrives in both wet and dry alpine and sub-alpine areas. Its white or pale pink flowers are arranged in tight clusters on slender stalks. The roots are often eaten by rodents and bears, according to the brochure mentioned above, and they are also edible by humans. Deer and elk like to eat the leaves and flowers. Since they are so tasty it's a wonder there are any left, but I've seen them on many trail runs the last two years.

Two of my favorite alpine flowers often grow together in marshy areas like the hanging gardens northwest of Rolling Mountain in CT Segment 25, around Clear Lake, and through the drainage area on the southern approach to Grant-Swamp Pass (all locations are near Silverton). They are white Marsh Marigolds and magenta Parry's Primrose, a stunning combination en masse along tundra streams and lakes:


Marsh Marigolds pop up in the spring/early summer as soon as the snow melts. I've gone by many recently melted snowfields where brown ground extends for ten to twenty feet out except for the bright green and white marigolds that have popped up. They can even grow in icy water, like still-frozen Clear Lake, below. The higher the elevation, the shorter the flowers.


Parry's Primrose is a standout with its bright purple flowers, yellow centers, and deep green leaves. It rarely grows below 10,000 feet in Colorado:

A type of pale lavender Aster (perhaps Leafy Aster?) grows in abundance on the north side of Mount Hope just above tree line near the location of the limited aid station during the LT100. It covers the hillsides and looks like a Monet painting. I've seen it on other trails, too, but never in such profusion:


A most unusual wildflower called Little Red Elephant also thrives at and above timberline. The pink to purplish-colored flowers really do resemble the head and trunk of an elephant! They make me smile because they are just plain cute. The higher the altitude, the shorter the stems.

Also called Elephant Heads, the plant can be found in dry alpine conditions such as the rocky terrain near Hope Pass, as well as in wet meadows and along the edges of ponds in sub-alpine zones. I've seen them all over the San Juan Range along the Colorado Trail, Hardrock course, and other trails I've hiked and run near Silverton. They're fairly short and subtle, so you might have to stay alert to see them.

I can't find the identity of this pretty blue flower but it's definitely hardy -- I found it near Hope Pass (about the 12,300-foot level) in a rock pile next to the trail:

Or what about these pretty blue bell-shaped flowers growing out of the rocks on Grant-Swamp Pass at nearly 13,000 feet??

Another intrepid survivor I photographed in the rocky terrain near Clear Lake at 12,600 feet is this fluffy blue wildflower that isn't in my book either . . .

Nearby were these fuzzy bluish-purple spikes that might be Purple Fringe:

King's Crown Sedum, AKA "Roseroot," is an attractive dark red wildflower with fleshy stems. It grows in dense clumps in rocky alpine areas, such as the one below that I photographed near Clear Lake, and in sub-alpine meadows along the Colorado Trail:

I've seen several types of flowers at alpine and sub-alpine elevations that appear to be in the Clover family but I haven't been able to identify them specifically. These pretty pinkish-purple ones grow in CT Segment 25 near the hanging gardens at about 11,500 feet:

Nearby are these short blue flowers that appear to be in the Penstemon family:

Can you believe all those beautiful flowers live at such high elevations? Their lifespan isn't real long, so you have to time a mountain visit wisely to be able to see a wide variety of them in one trip. June can be too early if there are late snows. Last year we lucked out in mid-June because spring arrived early. The flowers bloomed later this year because the snow levels and spring temperatures were more normal. July and August seem to be the peak, regardless of snowfall.

Tomorrow is Jim's birthday -- everybody send him a big HAPPY BIRTHDAY greeting!!

Coming soon: wildflowers of the alpine and sub-alpine meadow

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil