Climbing peaks pays off for wildflower enthusiasts
Peak climbing is an exhilarating, beautiful and challenging experience. The expansive vistas and wide-open spaces stir the soul. And as you break above treeline, you get the feeling that you’ve just entered a strange and magical world. This special place is known as the alpine tundra. Trees don’t grow in the alpine tundra because the climate is too harsh and cold. Instead of mighty spruce and fir, the landscape yields highly specialized dwarfed plants that are found only on mountain tops or in arctic extremes.
These plants have adapted to cope with frequent freezes, high winds and scorching sun. Since the growing season is short at high elevations, many species bloom at once creating a carpet of flowers blanketing entire mountainsides in green, yellow, pink, white, purple and blue.Often when you first break out of the trees, the landscape is thick alpine turf, dominated by grass-like sedges that give the feeling of a luxuriant lawn. This is where you want to keep your eyes peeled for the alpine sunflower also known as “the old man of the mountain.” These big yellow bright-eyed flowers splash festive color across the mountainside. It takes several years for the alpine sunflower to gather enough stored fuel to bloom. It then disperses its seeds and dies.A bit further up the trail as the landscape becomes more exposed, watch for a mat of tiny blue flowers with yellow centers clinging low to the ground. These are the highly prized alpine forget-me-nots.
The leaves of this plant are covered with thick woolly hairs that help the plant diffuse intense sunlight and retain heat on cold nights and stormy days.As you climb further, you come across strange snake-like clumps of dirt around the side of the trail. These are the castings left by a pocket gopher as it chewed and burrowed its way through the root layer of the vegetation. Interestingly, the pocket gopher acts like nature’s roto-tiller and several brilliant species of wildflowers grow in its wake. Among them is the bright blue sky pilot, which emits the strong odor of a skunk. Gopher gardens also support red-wine colored king’s crowd and bright yellow alpine avens.
In the most exposed areas, plants grow low in dense, moss-like cushions. The plant’s strategy is to cling low to the earth so it stays warmer, loses little water and is less exposed to high winds. A great cushion plant to discover is the bright pink moss-campion. The cushion is so dense that blowing sands and debris are caught in its crevices, and over time, it accumulates soil and enables other alpine plants to grow from its fertile cushion.These are just a few alpine gems that grow locally. An alpine landscape at the height of bloom is a magical sight. The first three weeks of July are generally the best time to view alpine wildflowers, so try to plan a special hike into the high country.Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides. Daily private outings are available for peak climbing, wildflower hikes, bird watching, and mountain biking tours. Contact Trailwise at (970) 827-5363.
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It’s fitting that Eagle County is proceeding through its reopening phases of COVID-19 in an analogy to ski run difficulties — green to blue to black. Monday marks the transition from the green beginner phase to the blue intermediate phase.