August 27, 2014

Colorado Gentians and Much More!

For the past few summers we have visited Colorado, where our daughter is in grad school at the University of Colorado-Boulder.  In the past we have gone in June but this year late August worked best for us. We always try to fit in some hiking during our visit and although we figured that many of the wildflowers would be gone by then, we hoped that we might see some that were new to us during our long weekend trip.

So in addition to enjoying good meals and helping our daughter with her wedding plans, we headed for the mountains each day. Before we left I checked the Twitter feed for Rocky Mountain National Park and saw a photo of a flower we had never seen but was immediately on our "must see" list: arctic gentian.

Ohio has several gentian species and they are among our favorites. The majority bloom in late summer/early fall and range in color from white to the deepest blue. The arctic gentian, true to its name, grows only at high elevations.

After flying in to Denver we usually drive at least part way up the amazing road to Mt. Evans, a 14,000 foot peak that has extensive alpine habitat and which seemed like a good spot to look for the arctic gentian. The road up the mountain is an amazing engineering feat, and as it rises higher and higher the air gets thinner and the plants get smaller. Speaking of thin air, on the way up the mountains we heard a strange loud noise, and immediately thought that one of the rear tires on the rental car had deflated. Finally we figured out that a bag of pretzels had popped open in the back seat--what a mess!

Anyway, our first stop was the Walter Pesman Alpine Garden, which features an outstanding variety of alpine plants. One of the first that we noticed upon getting out of our car was the arctic gentian! What a beauty, with its purple-streaked buds, icy background color, and inside, purple lines of dots that serve as guides to lead pollinating insects into the base of the flowers. It was fairly common in certain areas along the higher elevation trails that we hiked.

Here are a few more of the late summer wildflowers we saw at this stop:

Northern gentian

Pinnate-leaved daisy 

Queen's crown
The area also features 1,700 year old bristlecone pines, which are able to withstand and even thrive in the cold and windy conditions:

We drove up the mountain as far as Summit Lake at 13,000 ft. The short trail led past great views and more flowers than we expected to see this late in the year. On the way back to our car we glimpsed this magnificent mountain goat:

The next day we headed for the Cow Creek Trailhead just north of Estes Park. Despite chilly temperatures, overcast skies and a few drops of rain we had a really good hike. It wasn't good butterfly weather but we did see a few that were new to us; here is the arctic blue:

and the common branded skipper, which is really pretty fancy for a skipper!

A small purple flower that we think is pleated gentian caught our eye. The day was cloudy; we never saw the flower open so it seems similar in form to our bottle gentian from Ohio but it is much smaller. Some gentian flowers only open during sunny conditions.

Saturday our daughter and her fiance were able to join us and we headed for the Long Lake trailhead which is a bit south of the national park. The last time we did this loop trail the wildflower display was fantastic, but that was in June and we figured that most everything would be gone by late August.  Fortunately we were wrong about that! The meadows were full of color

and we took way too many photos of the flowers!


One-flower wintergreen (wood nymph)

Elephant heads!

Rosy paintbrush
Our adventures were curtailed in the afternoon by steady rain, but the following day was gorgeous.  We all headed to the Lumpy Ridge trailhead and did a wonderful hike to Black Canyon. To the right of the trail were views of stunning rock formations

The large formation is known as Twin Owls
and to the left were incredible views of major Rocky Mountain peaks. Our daughter and her fiance have hiked to the top of most of them!

The highest mountain on the left is Twin Sisters, the adjacent cone is Estes Cone,
and the tallest mountain is Long's Peak, at over 14,000 feet!
Here are a couple of the wildflower highlights:

Punctate blazing star

We got a look at one dragonfly along the trail, this immature variegated meadowhawk:

After a picnic lunch we walked around Lily Lake, a popular short hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. Once again the flowers were stunning, including the spectacular mountain gentian (also known as Parry's gentian):

We also came across this unusual plant:

Its form resembles American beautyberry but it is called strawberry blite and apparently it occurs locally in Ohio. What an amazing color!

I think we managed to spark in the kids a bit of interest in dragonflies! At one point on the Lily Lake trail four or five huge mosaic darners put on quite a show, chasing back and forth and frequently hovering right in front of us, as if checking us out. They are almost impossible to photograph in flight with our cameras and they were never still--here is our best effort:

I think this was a variable darner, but a couple of other local species are quite similar. Our future son-in-law is an aeronautical engineer and he was impressed with the dragonflies' agility!

I absolutely loved this trip and all the hikes we did. I'm already looking forward to another Colorado visit!

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  1. Wow! Incredible photos and array of species, Deb! I'm blown away and wish you could have packed me in your suitcase :)

  2. I agree with A. L. Gibson. This is amazing -- photography and written descriptions. Wow! I can't wait to repost this.


  4. Really lovely blog. Well done!

    I believe your first gentian photo is that of a closed gentian. Citation above. Bob

  5. Butter and eggs, also known as yellow or common toadflax, is considered a noxious plant in Colorado.