In Bloom: All-American trail
If there is a wilderness equivalent to the in-town regulars like Smuggler and the Ute Trail, it would have to be American Lake.A pleasant 20-minute drive from Aspen, this trail provides just the right length and difficulty, diversity of habitat, shade and final payoff (the lake) to make it one of the most popular hikes in the vast Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Wildflowerwise, it is also the ideal place to see some of our most popular flowers.The story of American Lake is one of understories. The first is the florally rich and diverse understory of the aspen groves that make up the first half of the hike. Here, the rich soil and filtered sunlight support an extraordinary array of flowers you wouldn’t expect to see in one place at one time. Right now, flowers here range from “early” bloomers (usually April/May) like starry Solomonplume and mountain snowberry to “late” bloomers (August/September) like showy goldeneye and wild tarragon. Also growing side by side are three of our showiest and best-loved flowers: Colorado columbines, sego lilies and Rocky Mountain penstemon. All three of these flowers’ elegant colors and unique shapes are the result of a complex process of mutual evolution with pollinating insects and birds. The way they line the trail up the switchbacks, one can be forgiven for believing they were concocted solely for our viewing pleasure.The bounty ends, however, when the aspen give way to the conifer forests that dominate the second half of the hike. Here, two of the only flowers you’ll see, and sporadically at that, are the yellow, sunflowerlike arnicas and Jacob’s ladder, the more delicate cousin of the deep-blue, alpine showoff sky pilot. Apparently few other flowers at this time of year can tolerate the lack of sun and dry, acidic soil produced by the conifers’ decaying needles.The floral abundance returns when the forest opens up to the subalpine meadows surrounding American Lake. One to look for is Anticlea elegans, or death camas. This deceivingly delicate, lilylike beauty is laden with alkaloids that alter the heartbeat, slow respiration and cause convulsions that can lead to death. Paradoxically, death camas is distinguished by the heart-shaped, green gland at the base of each of its six milky-white petals. A friend of mine thought this was a perfect metaphor for life on earth: Love and beauty amid – and inextricable from – pain and death. I prefer to think of it, on my long, solo hikes, as reflecting the heart’s deep need to be left alone. Getting there: From the roundabout in Aspen, drive 9.7 miles up Castle Creek Road to the right-hand turn for American Lake.
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