These are the 5 best wildflower hikes in the Vail Valley right now
August is unofficial-official wildflower season in the Vail Valley. With columbines, larkspurs and more dotting alpine meadows, it’s that time of year. But as we get closer to September, peak bloom will slowly fade away until the flowers go back to seed and prepare for another winter.
“You have to time it just right,” said Lara Carlson.
Carlson is the Senior Programs Director at Walking Mountains Science Center. She said every year, people ask her and the staff at Walking Mountains for the best Vail Valley wildflower hikes.
“It’s getting towards the end of wildflower season so we’re picking places up higher,” she said.
She went on to explain that flowers at lower elevations bloom before those higher up. With the atmospheric and temperature changes that can occur at different elevations in the Colorado high country, the best blooms are going to travel higher up peaks as the season goes on.
If you’re interested in learning more about wildflower ecology, Walking Mountains leads guided hikes throughout the summer: this Monday, Aug. 17, head to Shrine Ridge at Vail Pass for the Backyard Backcountry series, which is free or $10 if you’d like transportation to the trailhead. Sign up at walkingmountains.org/programs/backyard-backcountry-series/.
One other tip, don’t pick the wildflowers. It is actually illegal to pick wildflowers in Colorado state parks because it can damage the ecosystem. So, as the popular saying goes, “take only pictures, leave only memories” when out on the trail.
Here are Walking Mountains’ current top five wildflower hikes.
Length: 9.2 miles out-and-back, 3 miles each way to Elk Park for wildflowers
Elevation gain: 1,844 feet
This hike is shaded and offers plenty of options for all levels of hikers. You can trek 4.5 miles into the Holy Cross Wilderness for a 9-mile hike, or just go 3 miles in to Elk Park, which is a great place to enjoy the wildflower meadow and a picnic lunch.
Length: 10.9 miles out-and-back
Elevation gain: 2,831 feet
Though the trek up Notch Mountain isn’t an easy one, the wildflowers themselves on this hike aren’t very deep into the trail at all. The full ascent gets you panoramic views of Gore Range, Sawatch Range and Mount of the Holy Cross.
Upper Piney River Trail
Length: 6.1 miles out-and-back
Elevation gain: 845 feet
Heading up to Piney River Ranch requires a 45-minute drive on bumpy dirt roads, but the drive is worth it for beautiful mountain views even from the parking lot, aspen groves and wildflower meadows dotting a trail with rolling hills and mellow switchbacks. There are options to keep going after making it to the popular turn around point at the cataracts, but the trail gets roughter and more difficult. If you’re not a fan of crowds on trails, avoid this spot on weekends.
Location: Vail Pass
Length: 5.6 miles out-and-back
Elevation gain: 749 feet
Park at the rest area on the southside of Vail Pass and look for a trailhead and a dirt singletrack just before the paved bike path. You’ll cross a few small streams, but you’ll get sweeping meadow views, and because this trail starts at 10,551 feet and peaks at 11,271 feet, you’ll be able to see some spectacular blooms you wouldn’t see at lower elevations this time of year.
Walking Mountains Vail Nature Center
At Walking Mountains Vail Nature Center, you can enjoy guided hikes and other outings including birding tours, beaver pond tours, stargazing and creekside nature tours. Wildflower tours are also, naturally, popular this time of year. The trails are easy to moderate and in just a 15-minute walk, you’re back in the heart of Vail Village. Or, take the free in-town bus to the Soccer Fields stop on Vail Valley Drive. The bus is free, and the Nature Center accepts donations for guided hikes.