On the Trail: Hidden gems | AspenTimes.com

On the Trail: Hidden gems

Karin Teague

Just past the very-much-alive “ghost town” of Lenado is a trail that winds through some of the loveliest old-growth forest anywhere in the region.

The Woody Creek Trail follows the creek up to the headwaters of its south fork and into the Hunter Creek Valley. Because of pervasive shade and moisture, this is a premier hike for spotting some of the hidden gems of the wildflower world, including the elusive fairyslipper orchid.

The hike begins in the conifers at 8,700 feet, where careful eyes will spot the tiny, white star-flowered mitrewort. A member of the saxifrage family, Mitella stauropetala’s flowers are just a fraction of an inch in diameter, with thread-like petals shaped like the inside of a peace sign alternating with more petal-like sepals. Eight or so of these starlets line one side of the plant’s six-inch, leafless stalk.

Once you have spied this diminutive beauty, you will never hike through woods the same way again (your nose will be to the ground).

Also keep your eyes peeled for a flash of magenta, which could be the sharply pointed upper petals of the fairyslipper, Calypso bulbuso. Like Odysseus of Homer’s “Odyssey,” who waylaid Homer on his return trip home, this orchid is a beautiful recluse that never fails to draw a gasp. Although orchids are probably the largest family of flowers on earth, boasting more than 20,000 species, we have only a handful here, and none bearing the extraordinary shape and intricacy of the fairyslipper. I spotted nine on this hike ” get down on all fours to fully appreciate its beauty.

About 45 minutes into the hike you will reach the confluence of Woody Creek and Spruce Creek. Immediately after crossing the bridge over Spruce Creek, get down low for yet another surreal wildflower experience. The five-stamened mitrewort, Mitella pentandra, is similar in size to its star-petaled cousin, but its flowers look like space satellites designed by NASA, with antenna-like petals protruding from their centers. These saxifrages, which look like no other flowers on earth, require discarding all previous notions of what a “petal” looks like.

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Four miles (or an hour and a half) into the hike, the trail will turn wet and crowded with globeflowers and marsh marigolds. Marsh marigolds push their way up through melting snow and bloom in less than 48 hours. They are therefore a good indicator that snow lies just a bit up the trail.

From Woody Creek Tavern, drive downvalley 200 yards; take a right on Woody Creek Road; drive just under nine miles through Lenado and park to the left of the trailhead. If you cross Woody Creek you’ve gone too far.