Finding Colorado’s Bounty of Wildflowers

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Fireweed, Crested Butte Colorado
Fireweed, Crested Butte Colorado
By John Fielder

Colorful Colorado is not an inappropriate nickname! Yes, we have purple mountain majesty, the color of twilight on our Rocky Mountains, and aspen and cottonwood trees in autumn boast yellows like nowhere else. Yet it’s summer for which we must be named … our wildflowers represent every color of the spectrum.

     Colorado’s cornucopia of flowering plants follow both season and elevation. Blooming occurs progressively in time as one travels from low to high. Spring blooms begin in May along Colorado’s Front Range and into the foothills at 5,000 – 7,000 feet. Pink locoweed decorate the Pawnee National Grasslands in the plains of northeast Colorado, when spring rains arrive from California. Purple dwarf larkspur hide among the leafing gambel oak trees in the foothills of Roxborough State Park just 30 minutes southwest of Denver.

John Fielder in the aspen sunflowers
John Fielder in the aspen sunflowers

     June brings wildflowers into the high country, but only up to elevations of 10,000 feet. The first to arrive after the snow leaves is the pink and purple pasqueflower. Then sunflowers begin their entrance. Look for several species including arrowleaf balsamroot and mule’s ears blooming on sunny slopes mixed with common sage brush. Check out June flowers in the valley of the Lower Blue River in Summit and Grand counties. Take CO 9 from I-70 north to Kremmling following the Blue to its confluence with the Colorado River. Divert from the highway before Green Mountain Reservoir and head up the dirt road to Lower Cataract.

     July welcomes the state flower, the Colorado columbine. As the snow disappears, purple columbine bloom from 9,000 all the way up to 13,000 feet! There’s even a red variety that perceptive eyes will discover in wet locations in evergreen forests. Crested Butte is the Wildflower Capital of Colorado, where it is not difficult to find profusions of columbine. Check out the Washington Gulch, Gothic, and Brush Creek roads for all of the aforementioned flowers, as well as tall larkspur and shockingly-red scarlet gilia. Here one can drive the countless miles of backroads, or slip on a backpack and head into the Raggeds or Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness areas.

August is peak wildflower season in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. The world-famous network of 19th-century mining roads provide 4-wheel drive access to elevations up to 13,000 feet. Monsoon rains are common and keep flowers blooming into September. Lake City, Silverton and Ouray are starting points for discovering magenta elephant head in the boggy areas, and purple sky pilot and columbine that grow among the talus boulders.

Of course, don’t forget to bring your camera! Many of my best wildflower images are made with high-quality point-and-shoots, which I use for both close-ups and “scenics.” Point-and-shoots are compact and easy to carry. The close-up mode (the button on the back of the camera with the flower symbol) lets me get within an inch of the flower. I can get low to the ground and make compositions otherwise difficult to do with the SLR (single reflex lens) camera. For my best photographs, I do use SLRs on tripods with extreme wide angle lenses.

Wildflowers of Colorado smallPick up a copy of my latest book Wildflowers of Colorado. The 100 photographs in this book are among my favorites made over the past 35 years. Though I took some of the images in remote wilderness, many were found right off the road! The book includes descriptions of and directions to some of the most reliable places to find big meadows of wildflowers in northern, central, and southern Colorado mountain ranges and valleys. My travel guide John Fielder’s Best of Colorado is another good resource to help you find the roads that will cut you to the wildflower chase. Or come to one of my photography workshops and I will take you there myself!

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