In Bloom: Paradise in bloom
July 20, 2006
Last Thursday, on the first rain-free day in two weeks, I hiked to Crested Butte for the 20th annual Wildflower Festival. This week-long event offers almost 30 workshops per day on everything from flower identification to photography to medicinal preparations. It is also provides a great opportunity to spend time in the still-charming town of Crested Butte, as well as the stunning wilderness surrounding it.
Like Marble on our side of the Elk Mountains, the Crested Butte area enjoys a larger snowpack and more summer rain than the Roaring Fork Valley, the result being bigger, showier stands of wildflowers. And now is the time to see them. Thanks to a hot, dry spring, the snow on all the passes is basically gone, and the wildflowers at the middle elevations on both sides of the Elk Mountains are peaking, with the high-meadow flowers coming on fast.
This year, I went via the old standard, West Maroon Trail, but after hitting the pass and seeing not a cloud in the sky, I decided to take advantage of this rare occurrence and linger in the high mountains. I started by dropping over West Maroon and taking the spur leading to Frigid Air Pass. This section of trail consistently has some of the region’s best flowers, a result of the multiple rivulets of snowmelt making their way down this steep, south-facing slope. Here the bluebells, larkspur, lovage and other water-loving flowers are on regal display.
The final push to Frigid Air Pass is steep, dry, and dusty, but an amazingly large number of flowers are right at home here, too. Sky pilot, draba, bell senecio and other high-alpine flowers line the trail. From here, I traversed over to Hasley Basin, the top of which represents classic windswept tundra sporting only the smallest of flowers, moss campion, alpine sandwort and other ground-huggers.
At the Wildflower Festival, the highlight was a field course on connections between wildflowers and their pollinators taught by Mel Harte, a botanist who spends every summer in Gothic, aka the buggiest place on earth. While explaining why bees like to pollinate penstemons and other raceme flowers from the bottom up (so they can keep an eye out for predators above) and how flowers have adapted to this (by having their female flowers at the bottom of the raceme so that pollen from a different flower is first deposited here, encouraging cross-fertilization), a bumblebee came along and, as if on cue, gave us a first-hand demonstration. This lady was good.
If you are staying overnight in Crested Butte, for $10 you can drive to the Maroon Bells overnight parking area at any time.