Backstory

Wild Things

Forget roses from the florist. Colorado’s summer wildflower season offers a breathtaking natural display—if you know where, and when, to look. 

June 2014

—Illustrations by Jack Molloy

Fairy Slipper Orchid

(Calypso bulbosa)
See It: Scattered along Beaver Trail in Golden Gate Canyon State Park
Peak Time: June (it only blooms for two weeks)

Sulphur Flower

(Eriogonum umbellatum)
See It: Throughout the rockier areas of Vogel Canyon Trail in Comanche National Grassland
Peak Time: June through August

Bractless Blazingstar

(Mentzelia nuda)
See It: Strolling through Laura Smith Porter Plains Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens 
Peak Time: Last week of July

Liverleaf Wintergreen

(Pyrola asarifolia)
See It: Near the water at the end of Cub Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
Peak Time: July

Colorado Blue Columbine

(Aquilegia caerulea)
See It: Along the slopes of Yankee Boy Basin in Uncompahgre National Forest
Peak Time: July

White Checker Mallow

(Sidalcea candida)
See It: On Rainbow Trail, close to Hayden Creek campground, in San Isabel National Forest
Peak Time: July

James’ False Saxifrage

(Telesonix jamesii)
See It: In the granite rocks surrounding Gem Lake in Estes Park
Peak Time: July

Cascade Azalea

(Rhododendron albiflorum)
See It: Throughout wooded areas on Grizzly-Helena Trail in Routt National Forest
Peak Time: July

Indian Paintbrush

(Castilleja applegatei)
See It: Near the end of Knife Edge Trail in Mesa Verde National Park (follow the hummingbirds); or along Mosca Pass Trail in Great Sand Dunes National Park 
Peak Time: June through August


5280.com Exclusive: Explore your inner botanist with these resources, plus tips for a camera-filling wildflower adventure.

Resources:

  • The Colorado Native Plants Society, which has chapters around the state, offers classes and field trips throughout the year. The environmental consultants, biologists, and botanists who lead these trips will help you appreciate plants you might have otherwise overlooked. Plus, it’s always good to have an expert around to explain the subtle differences between a marsh marigold and a wild strawberry blossom.
  • If you’re more of a lone wolf, you’ll benefit from Colorado Rocky Mountain Wildflowers and Other Plants ($9.99), an app that helps you quickly identify more than 500 plants based on characteristics such as color and leaf type.
  • Guide to Colorado Wildflowers by G.K. Guennel is a veritable encyclopedia for the abundant flora in the Centennial State. There are different volumes for the foothills and the mountains—and the striking watercolor sketches of more than 600 plants aren’t bad either.

Four tips for your wildflower adventure:

  1. Get an early start. Summer months in the high country mean, almost without exception, afternoon showers. While water droplets on petals can be pretty, the scene won’t be nearly as vibrant (or photogenic) under gloomy gray skies.
  2. Pay attention to the small things. Some of the prettiest flowers, such as white Fairy Candelabra and lavender Alpine Phlox, are tiny and grow close to the ground. Bring a simple hand lens (like a jeweler would use) to get a closer look.
  3. Look before you step. Flowers are delicate. Quickly stomping over to a plant that catches your eye could result in you destroying other natural beauties in the process.
  4. Take your time. The detective work sometimes required to locate those perfect clusters is half the fun.