On the Hunt: Columbine Flowers (Genus: Aquilegia)

July 1 2014, 8:30 AM

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See It: The Columbine Flower is tucked amongst the carpets of wildflowers that adorn the American Basin high in the rugged San Juan Mountains.

Peak Time: July and August

One of the most scenic spots in the San Juan Mountains, American Basin is especially spectacular in the middle of summer when wildflowers cover the steep slopes beneath its crown of craggy peaks. American Basin is best known for its incredible wildflower displays, a challenging 4WD route over Cinnamon Pass, and the start of the moderate 2,500-foot ascent of one of Colorado’s famous fourteeners, Handies Peak.

The approach to American Basin takes you high up the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. Most of the drive is through forest, but as you draw close to the trailhead, fields of flowers stretch as far as the eye can see. Fortunately, thanks to the columbines’ showy colors and distinctive backs, they are amongst the easiest wildflowers to identify. Their genus name, Aquilegia, comes from the Latin word for eagle, because the petals’ spur-shaped backs are said to resemble an eagle's claw.

A number of species of columbine have overlapping ranges, including two of the most common, the Rocky Mountain Columbine (A. saximontana), which has lavender and white blossoms, and the Colorado Blue Columbine (A. caerulea), which sports larger and straighter spurs, and can have either a blue or a purple color. Interestingly, the Rocky Mountain Columbine is found only in Colorado, whereas the range of the Colorado Blue—Colorado’s state flower—stretches into the mountains of both Wyoming and New Mexico.

Even if you don’t want to hike all the way to the summit, the start of the trail up Handies Peak is a great place to walk amongst the flowers. From the trailhead, located near the site of an old mine, it is 1.3 miles to beautiful Sloan Lake, home to the threatened Colorado cutthroat trout. One mile farther, the summit offers top-of-the-world views, including glimpses of 12 other fourteeners. Best of all, no matter how high you climb, you’ll get to walk back through the flowers on the way down.

Getting there: From Lake City, drive about 2.5 miles south on Colorado 149, then turn right onto the road to Lake San Cristobal and follow this for about 20 miles to a fork. The right-hand 4WD road leads to Cinnamon Pass; the left fork heads toward American Basin. The trailhead for Handies Peak is about a mile up this rough road, which includes a stream crossing. If you have a 2WD vehicle, there are a number of places you can park along the way. 

BonusTo learn more about Colorado's wildflowers, click here