As summer arrives in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, the wildflowers bloom in high alpine tundra, lush meadows and along the dusty trails. Get your wildflower identification book and head out to these wildflower viewing areas suggested by our guest blogger, the Rocky Mountain Conservancy:
As summer unfolds, so blooms a variety of colorful and bewitching wildflowers in the meadows and high mountain valleys of Rocky Mountain National Park. A vast array of species can be observed along the Park's many trails using tools such as hand lenses and identification guides. With the help of Kevin Cook, one of the premier naturalists for the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Nature Association, we have compiled a list of favorite places to look for extraordinary wildflowers in Rocky Mountain National Park.
1. Ute Trail - A stroll from the Alpine Visitor Center affords the easiest access to the most reliably findable population of Snowlover. Related to penstemons, it is a short plant with cream-colored flowers sporting grape-purple streaks inside. By looking for the Snowlover on purpose, you will find a lot of other tundra wildflowers along the way.
2. Wild Basin - An unnamed trail departs from the terminal parking lot and parallels the south side of the road. This is an exceptional place to find scores of Rattlesnake Plantain, an unfortunate name because the species is a native orchid and not a plantain. The flowers form clusters that resemble a rattlesnake's rattles hence the first part of the name. The plant may send up its flower stalk in July but not fully open its flowers for weeks. It might bloom in August or September.
3. Cub Lake Trailhead - Cross the river, stay on trail, and go around the house-sized rock outcrop where the trail enters into the old glacier chute. In late June the wetlands on the right will sport wood lilies, a dozen or so in an off year, a hundred or more in a good year.
4. Hidden Valley - In July when mountain streams have ebbed, follow the trail to the far end of the loop and look across the creek to the informal trail and cross over. The entire walk is loaded with many different wildflowers, but shaded springs will sport scores of Heart-leaved Twayblade, Rocky's smallest orchid. Keep checking around the springs and you will find both Yellow Monkeyflower and Parry's Primrose, the former bright yellow, the latter a dazzling pink.
5. Horseshoe Park - Start from the parking lot where the road comes off the south moraine and follow the trail into the trees. Here, three poplars - Quaking Aspen, Narrow-leaved Cottonwood, and Balsam Poplar - grow together. Rub your fingers on the sticky buds of the balsam poplar then smell both buds and fingers: the balsam fragrance is rich and delightful. Either hand sanitizer or cooking oil such as PAM will remove any residual stickiness. Prowl the area a bit to find Blue Columbine, Monkshood, Shooting-Star, and a host of other wildflowers, both favorites and little-known species.
Since 1974, Kevin has explored Colorado to experience its wild life firsthand. He writes natural history columns for newspapers and magazines, edits technical articles for scientific publications, leads wild life observation tours, teaches various wild life classes, and presents monthly wild life lectures at several Colorado venues. This summer, he is offering several informative plant and wildflower classes through the Rocky Mountain Conservancy- Field Institute including Unexpected Beauty: The Orchids of Rocky Mountain National Park on June 13th and 14th, and a Plant & Wildflower ID series beginning June 11th and running every Wednesday through the end of July.