Stop complaining about the rain. Really, it’s not that bad. Did you forget about the drought we were in and the risk of catastrophic wildfires? I think you need to take a walk in the mountains.
If you haven’t been above 9,000 feet for a few weeks, you are missing out. The bulk of the snow is gone, and all the snow and rain led the way for an explosion of wildflowers. Thankfully, we have millions of acres of public lands in the area. Everyone has access to these beautiful blooms on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.
But viewing may be even better if you know what you are looking at. Here is a quick guide with some facts that you might not find in a field guide. For some, there is also more than one common name listed.
Heart-leaved Arnica: A bright yellow daisy-like flower about 10 inches tall with, yes, heart-shaped leaves. The leaves of the arnica plant are used externally to relieve inflammation. Do not eat them or apply to broken skin.
Fairy Slipper or Calypso Orchid: This is a somewhat rare orchid mostly found early in the summer but can also be found in places where snow melts later in the summer.
Riparian (waterside) flowers
Parry’s Primrose: These bright-pink blooms are simple with five petals, but their colors make them stand out.
Pink Elephant Heads: Once you know the name of this flower, you won’t forget it. They really look like pink elephant heads.
California Corn Lily or False Hellibore: Before its flowers bloom, this is often falsely identified as the lower-lying skunk cabbage. However, this plant is poisonous. Its tall leaves surrounding a central stalk begin to come up as soon as the snow melts, but the flowers bloom a few weeks later.
Colorado Blue Columbine: This is the state flower of Colorado. Their blue color can range from dark to light and, sometimes, even white. On rare occasions, they cross-pollinate with red columbines to make a pink columbine. Please, don’t pick them – it’s illegal.
Harebells: These soft purple bell-shaped flowers bloom later in the summer. They are also delicious, but look for bugs first and don’t eat them all!
Old Man Mountain: This member of the sunflower family faces the shining sun throughout the day. They are some of the tallest alpine flowers, but they only stand about 6 to 8 inches.
Alpine (Rosy) and Sulfur Paintbrushes – Most people think of Indian Paintbrushes as bright-red desert flowers.
However, different species appear at different elevations. Up high, both rosy and sulfur paintbrushes are prolific and, sometimes, they hybridize. These are found near treeline and higher but not as high as Old Man Mountain.
Wondering what the best trails are for viewing wildflowers? Choose a trail that covers a wide range of elevation and travels in and out of forest and meadows. Some great trails include the Colorado Trail west of Little Molas Lake off U.S. Highway 550 and Navajo Lake Trail in the Lizard Head Wilderness off the West Dolores Road.
If you want to identify more than what is mentioned in this article, bring a good local field guide with you. I recommend the Wildflowers of Colorado by Stan Tekiela. Each flower gets a full-page photo, and there are loads of interesting facts. This field guide is available at local shops, including the San Juan Mountains Association bookstores.
Whether you spend hours identifying and photographing flowers or you simply marvel at them as you pass the miles on the trails, it is important to get outside and enjoy nature. Bring your friends and family or enjoy it in solitude. Either way, it is therapeutic. Remember, we are fortunate to have all these acres of protected lands outside our backdoors.
MK Gunn is an assistant for education, volunteer programs and visitor information services for San Juan Mountains Association, a nonprofit dedicated to public land stewardship and education.