If you want to see some of the most beautiful alpine plants along our stretch of the Rockies, you’ll have to do some work.
Many of the best places to see wildflowers, especially the striking alpine wildflowers, require you to hike. Hey, the mountains ain’t no backyard garden where you can tiptoe through the tulips!
Having said that, the Denver Botanic Gardens does offer a chance to see wildflowers at its urban York Street site, the offspring of the garden at Mount Goliath on the shoulders of Mount Evans. And that’s a good option for people who can’t get the high country.
“But it’s just not the same,” said Amy Schneider, who should know, since she has served as Goliath’s gardener since 2009. “It’s so much better to see them where they naturally grow.”
Goliath started as a satellite location to the Denver Botanic Gardens back in the 1950s, Schneider said, so people could see wildflowers where they grow. Now she collects seeds from the plants, takes them down to the York Street gardens and plants them. She takes some of the seedlings back to Goliath.
Schneider encourages people to get out to see the plants in their natural environment as much as they can.
“We recommend everywhere,” she said, when asked for wildflower hot spots.
OK. But she does have some favorite places, and so do we. Here are some areas where you should be able to see wildflowers, especially in mid- to late July, when blooms tend to peak.
Note: These places feature a lot of alpine hikes, and as such, you’ll experience a lot of extreme Colorado summer weather, including strong sun, wind and storms that can gather suddenly and hammer you. So keep an eye on the clouds. And as you’re running back to the forest as the thunder rumbles, you may be tempted to pity those poor flowers. But they’ve adapted to that environment for thousands of years. As long as you watch your step, so you don’t trample the poor things, they will live on.
“Don’t feel sorry for them,” Schneider said. “They’re tough.”
Mount Goliath on Mount Evans
But again, that takes some effort. If you’re unsure about traversing peaks, Goliath is a good place to start. The peak is just outside Idaho Springs off the Mount Evans Road (Colorado 5), making it the highest cultivated garden in the U.S.
It’s a relatively safe hike, with restrooms at the Dos Chappell Nature Center (but no other locations), and you can hike the M. Water Pesman Trail, which makes it hard to get lost. But it’s not an easy hike, it is steep and rocky and the elevation ranges from 11,500 to 12,100 feet as it winds through wildflowers for a 3-mile round-trip adventure.
“There are tons of wildflowers along that trail,” Schneider said. “We just try to show the public plants they may not see otherwise.”
South Arapaho Peak via the Fourth of July trailhead near Nederland
This is my personal favorite, and you don’t have to climb the 13,397-foot peak to enjoy the bunches of wildflowers growing along the trail. The road leading to the trailhead is rough, so a 4WD vehicle is best, although you can probably make it with a hardy passenger car. You should expect to hike at least a mile on the trail, but you won’t have to hike too far above treeline before you’re rewarded with colorful blooms.
Crested Butte has an annual Wildflower Festival in mid-July
The city calls itself the “wildflower capital of Colorado,” which is a pretty darn bold boast, but perhaps you can make them prove it. The festival has decided to cancel in-person events this year. Learn more at crestedbuttewildflowerfestival.com. But don’t worry, the area trails will lead hikers and bikers through fields of wildflowers.
Shrine Pass in Vail
The pass, one of Schneider’s favorite places, is along the border of Eagle and Summit counties west of Frisco and 2 miles northwest of Vail Pass. The ridge trail through colorful blooms is a 4-mile out-and-back. Vail is also home to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, always worth a visit.
Brainard Lake Recreation Area
Many hikes in this area offer great views of wildflowers, but my favorite is the hike to Blue Lake, a 6-mile gorgeous adventure. The hike to Lake Isabelle is also fun and about half as long as the hike to Blue Lake.
Yankee Boy Basin
This place is just outside Ouray and famous for the 14er it leads to, Mount Sneffels, a challenging peak. But, again, you don’t have to climb the peak to enjoy the flowers that grow along the basin. Basins are great spots for wildflowers, Schneider said. And lakes sitting in a cirque of mountains should offer wild displays. “If anything has ‘basin’ in its name,” she said, “you should just go.”
The Lady Moon Trail near Red Feather Lakes up Poudre Canyon
This is a good spot to visit in May or June, depending on snow conditions.
This Jeep road off Colorado 381 (Guanella Pass Road) takes you southwest of Georgetown. It features multiple dispersed campsites and lots of nice flowers.
Ice Lakes Basin
This area, near Silverton, is far from Denver, but it’s also one of the best places to see wildlflowers. The San Juan Mountains are a magical place for just about anything.
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