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
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.
took this beautiful photo in the Redcloud Peak area near Silverton when he was out
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Coming soon: wildflowers of the alpine and sub-alpine meadow
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
© 2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil