High Points: A Guide to the Front Range Alpine and Subalpine Treasures

HighpointstrailridgeIn the eyes of global rock gardeners, Colorado’s alpine and subalpine wilderness areas define our most extravagant and spectacular gardens. It’s no surprise that rock gardeners in Colorado have inspired gardeners elsewhere. And many enthusiasts of rock gardens travel to our state simply to see our alpine gardens. Most make an effort to visit at least four sites: Trailridge in Rocky Mountain National Park and Summit Lake on Mount Evans are a prime destination for alpine plants. Guanella Pass and Boreas Pass must be included for subalpine natural rock gardens, too.

At Trailridge, alpine forget-me-nots and dwarf clover make up a few of the most exquisite late spring, early summer blooms. You’ll have to get down on hands and knees to fully appreciate such diminutive plants. Summit Lake is the best place to see the stonecrop family of king and queen’s crown. The hike at Guanella Pass follows an old road flanked on both sides by willow shrubs, sulphur paintbrushes, chiming bells, old-man-of-the-mountain sunflowers, bistort and elephant’s heads. At Boreas Pass you’ll find more sedges, grasses and an astonishing array of blue and white columbine springing from rocks—a classic natural rock garden.

It’s impossible not to be enchanted by our alpine gardens, some so lush a square yard may be filled with dozens of tiny specimens. Along the Front Range, inspired gardeners construct berms to create quick drainage, covering the surface with pebbles. Some graduate to troughs with just the right mix of grit and dirt to duplicate what nature offers at high altitude. Of course, for gardeners who live in the mountains, a rock garden is easiest of all to nurture.

goliathrockgarden4930The Denver Botanic Garden has staked much of its reputation on its high-altitude gardens, which feature plants from other lofty places like the Himalayas. The plants are not interchangeable because our Rocky Mountains may have alkaline soils while other mountains may be more acidic. What the gardens do have in common is a tendency to shelter tiny plants that have tenacious roots to withstand cold and fierce winds. And while the flowering plants may produce seeds, many alpines rely on roots extending through the soil and setting up a new plant. Seeds, it appears, are so iffy in a severe climate.

But this is the very reason why plants may exist only in small pockets or spread slowly in the space of a hundred years. Tundra plants that are damaged take forever to repair themselves. Visit Summit Lake and you’ll bemoan the social trails. There’s no laws prohibiting hikers from setting off anywhere on the tundra. The consequence is denuded areas and trails going off in a myriad of directions. The damage is alarming.

Trailridge offers better protection and has paved hiking paths for visitors. Even so, hundreds of unthinking people trample tiny cushion plants underfoot by striding off trail. Signs prohibiting off-trail hiking rarely deter them.

goliathforest5248Mount Goliath, like its namesake, is biblical in age and giant in proportion. But here the comparison ends. This giant is closer to science fiction, an unworldly realm with Lilliputian alpine plants and ancient bone yards of gnarled bristlecone pine trunks. From a distance, the head of the old giant may look bald, but a close investigation reveals a carpet of plants uniquely suited to cold, windy, dry tundra.

Strolling the back of Mount Goliath along the M. Walter Pesman Trail unveils a unique world–bizarre and exotic–in our own backyard. Here, the ancient mingles with the ephemeral. Bristlecone pines estimated to be 1500 to 2000 years old twist and writhe to the hardships of wind and drought. Over 100 species of wildflowers blanket the hillsides in a flush of bloom defying the abbreviated summer. Butterflies and flies assist frantically to pollinate. With only 40 days for alpines to bloom and reproduce, the mission in July becomes urgent. It’s no wonder that alpines have learned to grow by spreading roots underground. The chances of a seed surviving and finding hospitable ground are slim.

While Denver’s summer temperature broils at 89 degrees, temperature at the summit is 40. We’ve slathered on sun block, a necessary precaution when hiking at an elevation of 12,500 feet in direct sun. We have plenty of water. The hike down the trail is about 1.5 miles of steep and rocky terrain, but it’s not difficult. Start at the top, which is far easier than hiking up from the bottom. We’ll take our time, possibly crouching on hands and knees from time to time with a hand lens, observing the tiniest plants. Our guides are volunteers from the Denver Botanic Gardens. Today they will escort 21 hikers down the trail in a search of each and every species in bloom. We begin on the west side of the mountain, where conditions are harsh and only the hardiest survive. On the east side, the same alpines will be a bit taller and fuller as we enter the bristlecone forest. The narrow trail dates to 1948 and despite the passage of years, requires us to be single file. We’re advised to stay on it closely. Tundra is delicate and easily damaged. Once destroyed, revival is chancy.

goliathpath5238“We’ll see alpine avens everywhere,” our guide says. And sure enough, the perky yellow flowers cascade down the hillside. “Most of these plants you’ll notice are mat or cushion and may take 15 years to reach even a small size. They’ve adapted to the environment by developing leaves that conserve water, they’re also close to the ground because of the wind,” she says. Some are compact, thickly leaved or hairy plants, almost like fur on the back of an animal. The mountainside is pure tundra, with the look of a huge rock garden. Moss campion clusters of tiny pink blossoms cover a prickly mound. It’s from the carnation family and the common name, “pink” comes from the toothed edges of the flower petals, as if they have been cut by pinking shears.

In contrast, the alpine big root spring beauty develops into an elegant rosette, surrounded by tiny flowerets. It’s not obvious how it thrives with its tender, shiny dark green leaves, until our guide reveals the trick: a long taproot. This graceful alpine is so hardy that it can be found nearly to the top of Mount Evans, a good 2,000 feet in elevation from where we stand.

A departure from the mat and cushion plants is the American bistort, a white fluffy flower on a tall, slender stem. Like a miniature bottlebrush waving bravely in the wind, the bistort defies rules for alpine survival. Nearly six inches or more in height, it shows off a bit of stature. The bistort serves as an important nutrient source for alpine animals. Some call it elk fodder. In earlier centuries, Cheyenne and Blackfoot tribes used the root as an emergency food in times of scarcity.

The trail is a laboratory of discovery. Those among us who are gardeners begin to point out familiar blossoms. There’s the alpine Geyer’s onion from the Allium family, which also brings us ornamental onions, chives and garlic. We’ll see an aster, sunflower, goldenrod, clover, penstemon, daisy, stonecrop and yarrow–all related to the perennials gardeners tend at lower elevations. These are unmistakable in form, but miniaturized. Their blossoms far outweigh the tiny leaves. We pass by a dwarf clover beginning to reveal pink petals most easily seen with a magnifying lens.

goliatholdman5268The most common sunflower is called old-man-of-the-mountain or alpine sunflower. At only a few inches high, it’s a relative to the six-foot prairie sunflower. The yellow petals and plump pollen-laden center are recognized instantly. Lanceleaf chiming bells dot the hillside with their blue bell clusters. Colors are vivid in an alpine landscape, and while most of the flowers are white or yellow on this day, the blues and purples catch our attention. Tiny, cupped blue flowers called harebells look familiar. They’re cousins to Canterbury bells, and other members of the campanula family so widely grown in gardens everywhere. Here the petals are thin membranes, the bells dwarfed to the size of a kitten’s ear. Yellow stonecrop looks much like our Front Range succulents, with a fleshy stem and clusters of buds.

goliathpenstemon4994Other plants appear to be unique. Elephant’s head grows from a spike of magenta flowers, each resembling the shape of an elephant’s trunk and ears. Purple fringe, also on a spike, sends out a silky collection of fine hairs. A deep red cluster on a delicate stem tops the king’s crown, a favorite of all wildflower lovers. At slightly lower elevation, we’ll find a queen’s crown, which is cone-shaped in a rosy pink. A wooly thistle bristles with stickers. It’s also from the sunflower family but offers only a large round globe for a flower and stiff, hairy leaves tipped by a thorn. And wallflowers, usually bright orange-yellow clusters in mountain meadows, are purple at this altitude. The paintbrush is a red-tipped flower found at lower elevations. Here we see several kinds. The rosy paintbrush is pink-tipped and the western paintbrush is yellow, almost a creamy chartreuse. Penstemons differ, too. Whipple’s penstemon may be white or a deep purple, the long trumpets pendulous for such a fragile, arching stem. Heading down the trail we’ll find the low penstemon, with brilliant blue trumpets, nestled in the rock garden at the foot of the trail.

Granite rocks jut from the hillside. Green, rust and yellow lichen blend with the speckled granite into a soft palette of pastels. It’s easy to overlook the most miniature and subdued plants, which blend into the gravelly soil. Like the surrounding soil, our path is crushed stone, the scree, or pulverized rock that indicates little nourishment for plants, but plenty of drainage. Such a spare landscape provides only a few amenities. Rocky ledges offer a haven for butterflies. Hawks circle above for unwary rodents, which have deep burrows between rocks. There are few sounds other than the wind and fewer sightings of animals by mid-day. We’re in a world that has been claimed by plants that spread like a sea, with rocks as islands.

goliathgnarled5247But nothing growing in this landscape is as miraculous as the bristlecone pines. Midway along the trail, bristlecones starkly outline an outlandish forest. We touch their chocolate-colored cones, sticky with resin. There’s a resin residue, which serves as a preservative, on the needles as well. These pines won’t live to such advanced ages below timberline because they thrive best in drought and sun. Other bristlecone forests exist in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California. But some botanists believe those trees to be a different species. Despite their tortured appearances, the bristlecones are healthy. Most survive with only the thinnest strip of cambium–the layer of arteries that send nourishment up a tree. A litter of dead trunks like sculpture in an odd garden are strewn not far from their living relatives.

As we descend into a lower elevation, a spruce forest takes over. Under the shelter of lower branches, we spy the Rocky Mountain alpine columbine and Jacob’s ladder. A few ferns have taken shelter in a rock crevice. This is an area of moisture and shade; it’s an abrupt change, as if an invisible line has been drawn.

goliathKluane4985We end at the rock garden by the foot of the trail. It’s still being worked on. The idea is to have one of every plant that grows along the trail. Here we can find the queen’s crown, and a neon yellow Kluane poppy. In 1998, landscape designers Zdenek Zvolnek from the Czech Republic and Joyce Carruthers from Wales created two small gardens. This is the place to search for dwarf columbine and other rare species.

As spectacular as these tiny alpines may be, it’s not easy to grow them outside their mountain conditions. Chiming bells, deathcamas, wallflower, yarrow and yellow stonecrop grow over the widest terrain, but all alpines are uniquely suited to a specific environment, sometimes only to a small area. That’s all the more reason to journey to Mount Goliath, where you’ll discover nature’s affirmation that small is beautiful–and often tenaciously hardy, too.

Mountain goats are the big draw at the top of Mount Evans. They hang around the visitors center and show up each afternoon in mid-summer. The mountain also is home to snowshoe hares, yellow-bellied marmots and pikas. If you’re very lucky you might spy a white-tailed ptarmigan, but I have better luck seeing those at Rocky Mountain National Park, Guanella Pass and Arapaho Pass. Bighorn sheep can be found here, too, but not easily. The mountain goats have pushed the sheep out of their traditional territory. Summit Lake is the location for brown-capped rosy finches, American pipits, ravens, white-crowned sparrows and prairie falcons.

Trail Information

Summit Lake, Mt Evans Wilderness

Directions: From Idaho Springs (I-70) take exit 240 and proceed south on Colorado 103 for 13 miles. At Echo Lake, turn south onto Colorado 5 (this is the start of the Mt Evans fee area). You’ll reach Summit Lake 10 miles up. The parking lot is at 39.5987N, 105.6406W.

Features: The glacial lake sits at 12,800 feet and is a laboratory for alpine plants. Check out the abundant king’s crown and queen’s crown. There is one main trail around the lake (1.5 miles) and many smaller social trails, all providing overlooks of the surrounding peaks. It’s quite likely that you’ll spot marmots and mountain goats.

More Info: US Forest Service, Clear Creek Ranger District, PO Box 3307, Idaho Springs, CO 80452, 303-567-3000, http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/arnf/recreation/scenic-drives/ccrd/mountevans.shtml

M. Walter Pesman Trail, Mt Evans Wilderness

Directions: From Idaho Springs (I-70) take exit 240 and proceed south on Colorado 103 for 13 miles. At Echo Lake, turn south onto Colorado 5 (this is the start of the Mt Evans fee area). You’ll reach the end of the M. Walter Pesman trail at the new nature center at mile 3; the start of the trail is at the pullout at mile 5. The upper trailhead is at 39.6424N, 105.5928W.

Features: Arrange to have transport at the trail’s end and this becomes an easy 1.5-mile downhill hike. If not, it’s a 3-mile (round trip) out-and-back with a 600-foot elevation difference. This may not seem like much, but climbing is tougher at 12,000 feet. The higher portions of the trail, above tree line, feature natural alpine rock gardens. As the trail descends, you enter an ancient bristlecone pine forest, some of which are thousands of years old. Try to catch one of the summer-guided tours of the trail sponsored by the Denver Botanic Gardens. Call 720-865-3565.

More Info: US Forest Service, Clear Creek Ranger District, PO Box 3307, Idaho Springs, CO 80452, 303-567-3000, http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/arnf/recreation/scenic-drives/ccrd/mountgoliath.shtml.

Guanella Pass

Directions: From Georgetown (I-70, exit 228), make your way to the south end of town. Catch Guanella Pass Road at the top of 2nd Street. Guanella Pass Road is partially paved, partially dirt, but these days it’s well maintained. Guanella Pass is at mile 10. The parking area is at 39.5958N, 105.7116W.

Features: The pass has significant wetlands and willows, providing forage and protection for a number of hikes from the pass. My favorite hikes include:

  • Mt Bierstadt – One of Colorado’s most accessible 14ers. The hike is strenuous — 6 miles round trip, 2350-foot gain, all above tree line. The views at the top are pretty special.
  • Square Top Lakes – A moderate, 3.3 mile round trip hike with a modest 550-foot gain. The first half of the hike is through wet areas and willows – ideal habitat for wildflowers and birds.
  • Naylor Lake – Similar to Square Top, this moderate, 3.2 mile round trip hike follows willows and wetlands with a minor climb to the lake. Wonderful wildflowers.

More Info: US Forest Service, Clear Creek Ranger District, PO Box 3307, Idaho Springs, CO 80452, 303-567-3000, http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/psicc/recreation/sight_seeing/spl_scenic.shtml.

Boreas Pass

Directions: From Como (9.3 miles north of Fairplay on US-285) follow signs north to Boreas Pass Road (CR-33). The road is dirt, well maintained and gradual as it climbs the 11 miles to the pass. The pass has a small parking area at 39.4105N, 105.9689W.
From Breckenridge take CO-9 south, looking for Boreas Pass Road (CR-10) on the east. The Boreas Pass Road turnoff is well marked and is within ½ mile of the center of Breckenridge. The pass is 9.6 miles up.
Features: A lot of the Boreas experience is on the drive up. From the south, the views of the high prairie in South Park and the near-14er Mount Silverheels are well worth the drive. Along the way stands of wildflowers speckle the hillsides. You’ll even find columbines flourishing in unlikely places on the side of the road. At the pass a short hike west to Hoosier Ridge (1 mile out-and-back, 500-foot gain) leads you through a meadow of grasses and flowers.

More Info: US Forest Service South Park Ranger District, PO Box 219, Fairplay, CO 80440, 719-836-2031, http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/psicc/sopa/boreas.shtml.

Rocky Mountain National Park – Trail Ridge Tundra

Directions: Start a tour of the tundra at the Alpine Visitors Center on Trail Ridge Road at Fall River Pass. Trail Ridge is a seasonal road; call RMNP to make sure it’s open.

  • From Estes Park, take US 36 west to the Beaver Meadows Entrance. Take Trail Ridge Road for 20 miles to the Alpine Visitor Center at 40.4413N, 105.7539W.
  • From Grand Lake, take US 34 (Trail Ridge Road) north for 21.6 miles to the visitor center.

Features: Pick up tundra trail maps and brochures and start with a ranger-led walk at the trail right outside the Alpine Visitor Center. It’s only ½ mile (out-and-back) but you’re at 12,000 feet. From the Visitor Center, head down Trail Ridge east to the numerous pullouts and tundra overlooks where you’ll find not-to-be-missed trails through spectacular alpine gardens. These are fragile, tiny, ancient gardens and the trails are constructed to both protect them and get you up close. This memorable drive is not to be missed.

More Info: Rocky Mountain National Park, 1000 Highway 36, Estes Park, CO 80517, 970-586-1206, http://www.nps.gov/romo.