Trails: Abundant with Columbine

ColumbinearapahoThe Buttercup and Helleborus Families Include Columbine, Pasque Flower and Clematis

It’s easy to understand why the columbine is Colorado’s state flower. With its sky-blue color, elegant bobbing stems and finely scalloped leaves, the wild columbine is stunning to anyone who has hiked a mountain trail and chanced upon a cluster. And while columbines can be found in China and Europe, the Colorado columbine is as spectacular as any.

Most grow alongside a stream, under the shelter of a ponderosa pine or in a damp mountain meadow. Moisture, humus-rich soil and shelter from the wind provide the best conditions. But columbines shouldn’t be assumed to be frail or delicate, other than in appearance. An alpine version survives under harsh conditions, as does a subalpine dwarf. And an astonishing group of large columbines sprout from a tumble of rocks at Boreas Pass. They’ve adapted readily to changes in altitude and pollinators, but rarely to changes in moisture.


Columbines are famous for cross-pollination and rampant self-sowing. William Shakespeare, who introduced over a hundred plants into his plays as metaphors, attached the name Columbine to flirty women, so widely noted was its tendency to seed rampantly. This abundance comes with a price. The columbines that self-seed often blend into colors and even shapes that have abandoned the original parent. In some cases the mix is spectacular. In others it’s muddied and plain. And the fact that columbines are short-lived perennials adds to the woes of gardeners who see their original plant disappear after a few years.

Even so, columbines adapt easily to rock gardens, shady groves and hillsides. In the Colorado mountain gardens, many bloom longer and more vigorously than in the foothills. For mountain gardeners, columbines may be the single summer bloom they coax and enjoy more than any other.

A red columbine, Aquilegia elegantula, grows on the Western Slope; no doubt the red coloring is a bid to attract hummingbirds. The nectaries housed in the long spurs perfectly fit a hummingbird’s long tongue. With such tapered nectaries it takes a pollinator’s long proboscis or tongue to reach the sweet fluid. Some botanists have observed frustrated bees unable to squeeze their fat bee bodies into the long tubes. Instead, they nip at the end of the tips to reach the nectar. A yellow columbine, Aquilegia chrysantha, grows in the southern mountains and foothills. It’s a notoriously long bloomer, less apt to cross-pollinate than other columbines and leaped successfully to the horticultural trade. The traditional Colorado blue columbine is available from many garden centers and worthwhile if you can find a place for it to thrive.

Because columbines self-seed reliably, they’re an easy native plant to grow from seed. Sow them in a semi-shady, dampish area in the spring, or grow them in seedling soil under lights. Either way, you’re bound to have a choice selection of hardy plants. Columbines won’t divide into clusters like irises, so growing from seed is the only way to plant abundantly if you’re a frugal gardener. They’ll form tiny clusters of seedlings the first year and bloom the following.

If you grow only one kind, you’ll be far more likely to keep a pure line. But if you enjoy experimenting, let the plants self-sow and see what you get. And, if you want a variety, lots of horticultural hybrids in fanciful colors and shapes are available from seed packets or garden centers.

A few botanists have split columbines from the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup family, into a separate Helleborus family. True, the relationship between the Helleborus, or Christmas rose, and the columbine is close. If attached to the Ranunculaceae family, the columbine is kin to peonies, anemones, delphiniums, clematis and marsh marigolds. Many have shiny petals that may aid in pollination. Water collects in the petals. The pollen floats to the surface and pollinates the flower ovary as the water evaporates.

Helleboraceae or Ranunculaceae — where to find

Aquilegia caerulea blue Colorado columbine, meadows, aspen forests,
and streamsides
Aquilegia chrysantha yellow columbine, southern canyons—will take
slightly drier conditions if partially shaded. Easily grown and found in
garden centers
Aquilegia saximontana dwarf columbine, subalpine and alpine, rare
Aquilegia elegantula red and yellow, spruce-fir forests, stream sides

In mid-summer, the flush of late day rains saturates our mountains and wildflowers bloom with vigor and intensity. Start with a stunning mountain trail called Hessie, in the town of Eldora, west of Nederland. If you’d like to try a subalpine trail, head to the Columbine Lake trail north of Winter Park. Hessie is a well-used, easy-to-get-to trail. So if you have only a short time to spare and hope to see a variety of blooms, this is the trail to take.

Or, for a sea of a single dominant wildflower, try the Columbine Lake trail. The trailhead is fairly remote and the trail itself sparsely traveled. It’s a perfect weekend outing. Both are exceptional.

Hessie Trail

For tepid walkers, try the Hessie trail. Even if you plan only a 15-minute hike up a portion of the trail, you’ll see carpets of wildflowers, hillsides of blooms and pockets of woodland plants. Rosy paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia), white and pink gilia (Gilia aggregata), blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata), subalpine purple daisies (Erigeron peregrinus), white daisies (Erigeron coulteri and Erigeron melanocephalus), Mariposa lilies (Calochortus gunnisonii), blue-mist penstemons (Penstemon virens), yellow sulphur-flowers (Eriogonum umbellatum) and yellow stonecrop (Amerosedum lanceolatum), true to its name sprouts from rocks. Mountain plants, which love the sun, blossom in sweeps of color to give way to woodland flowers like the Colorado blue columbine (Aquilegia caerulea)–some the size of teacups. Purple and white monkshoods (Aconitum columbarim) bloom in deep shade. Often they accompany a cluster of white cow parsnip (Heracleum sphondylium). All this is within a 15 to 30-minute walk.

Hessie begins at the end of Eldora, but traverses private land until you reach Roosevelt National Forest. During that jaunt, you’ll walk on wooden planks that skirt small lakes, wind around a dense canopy of Douglas-firs and pad atop a springy floor of pine needles. By the time you reach the forest, the trail changes abruptly. What once was a narrow road now is rocky and eroded. It’s not unusual to see seasoned hikers with ski poles or walking sticks because the rocks roll and shift under foot. Serious hikers continue the route, heading toward a series of trails–Devil’s Thumb, King Lake, Woodland Lake or in another direction to Lost Lake. Lost Lake is the closest destination requiring only a modest hike – two miles one way and 750 feet in elevation. You’ll pass abandoned cabins and see the slopes of the Eldora Ski Resort.

Nearly every twist and bend on the Hessie Trail brings a remarkable sight. Narrow bridges cross a raging river. Water tumbles, rock over rock, into Boulder Creek. A stunning waterfall, white foam splashing over shiny black rocks, is the perfect spot to find columbines and heartleaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia). Pines along the river have draped their roots over giant boulders, as if an anchor. By midway, you’re in deep woods, where flowers are fewer and mosses, lichens and ferns take over. Stop every now and then to spy the dainty shooting star (Dodecatheon puchellum), with its pink petals drooping over delicate stems. The elephant’s head flower (Pedicularis groenlandica) grows high on a tall, fragile stem, and the tiny flowers are unmistakable with miniature trunks lifted high. Wild roses (Rosa woodsii) give way to yellow alpine avens (Geum rossii) as you climb in altitude. Blue harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) are plentiful, their tiny bells sharply scalloped. And mushrooms litter the forest floor.

If you continue to Lost Lake, you’ll be near tree line and at 9,800 feet in altitude. The lake is typical of glacial lakes, freezing and forbidding to people, but home to an industrious beaver colony. Their architecture of logs is piled high half way across the lake. A giant amanita mushroom (Amanita muscaria), bright red with grey and silver spots rises near the lake’s shore. This is the mushroom that causes hallucinations and, mushroom experts tell us, extreme intestinal pain. You won’t find many mushrooms as exotic and splashy but this is one to avoid.

The trip down is easy, but also perilous, with rocks creating an unsteady footing. Here is where you will hear the click-click of poles that hikers have brought as they steady themselves down the path. You’ll pass back packers heading up to the Devil’s Thumb Trail, or Indian Peaks Wilderness. For them, Hessie is the first leg of a long climb. But for wildflower enthusiasts, Hessie’s array of sun-drenched flowers and shade loving woodland flowers is a feast within the space of a few hours.

Columbine Lake Trail

The Columbine Lake Trail will offer quite the opposite experience. If Hessie is nature’s cottage garden, Columbine Lake is nature’s vast and overwhelming spectacle where one flowering plant covers acres upon acres. Depending upon the season, you’ll see miles of white marsh marigold. The hike to Columbine Lake is a moderate 2.6 miles one way and 1000 feet in elevation. Still, half the difficulty is getting there by car. The 11.4-mile dirt road is pocked with potholes alternating with high bumps that many cars won’t traverse. And it feels like it goes on forever. But once there, vast spaces provide a solitary hike in spectacular scenery.

This subalpine scene consists of meadows at tree line. When the snows melt, they leave a saturated soil. White marsh marigolds grow in water as well as soil, their tenacious roots determined to survive in frigid conditions. Wide, succulent leaves soak up moisture and appear to float like alpine water lilies. You’ll find exquisite natural gardens of seeping water, mosses, ferns and wildflowers. They have only a month or two to flourish and grow. The rivulets of water, gentle and consistent, provide a climate to satisfy their needs.

While Hessie is intimate and winding, with flowers close-up and inviting, the Columbine Lake Trail opens into wide vistas, where you can see miles and miles of mountains. A vast sky collects clouds. Weather patterns a state away are clearly visible. If you’re intrepid, hike all the way to the lake, but bear in mind that snow may blanket the trail. A few hikers on the trail groaned when they bedded down in several feet of snow, not guessing that snow would persist into the height of summer. At this altitude a day of drenching rain elsewhere quickly turns to snow here.

Eldorado Canyon: Clematis

An early morning mist veils Eldorado Canyon. Twisted pines and spectacular rock formations make the landscape appear unworldly, a magical spot wreathed in fog. “Like a Chinese landscape painting,” says a hiker. But unlike a mystical Chinese watercolor, no human exaggerated this setting for a heightened effect. Nature provided the drama.

Eldorado Canyon State Park draws rock climbers from around the world. On any given day, these human ants, mere specks wearing white t-shirts, crawl up the sheer red cliffs. Small groups cluster at the base of the mountains, each climber heavily laden with hooks and clasps jangling from the looped ends of ropes. But it’s not necessary to see the human figure dwarfed by majestic geography to be impressed.

The canyon’s river slices the valley and cascades in torrents, exposing erosion in its violent seasonal upheaval, hurling boulders through the air and claiming wedges of granite sand along the banks. With its steep rock walls, river and natural springs, the canyon fosters a unique setting–a humid corridor in a semi-arid Colorado climate. “This narrow valley with its humidity includes a large collection of ferns,” says a naturalist steering his awestruck hikers in tow, “I’ve seen more ferns here than any other place in Colorado.”

He wears a wide-brim soft felt Indiana Jones hat. Besides binoculars and magnifying lens, he brings out a small condiment jar. This is the perfect device for capturing insects alive, studying them and then releasing them unharmed. Any stinging or biting creature can be gathered without alarm.

We’ll hike away from the rock climbers into the glens where water seeps from crevices or is diverted into narrow rivulets. We’ll discover hazelnut trees, mosses, caterpillars and wildflowers. We’ll listen for birdcalls and hear the canyon wren. A small golden mantle ground squirrel will scramble to get out of our way. And, we’ll hunt for ferns, from the very small that sprout from cracks in rocks, to the thigh high arching from riverbanks. Deeper into the mountain underbrush a canopy of pines and aspens shelter a forest floor carpeted by blue-mist penstemon, wild strawberries, violets, the blue-eyed Mary flower–a delicate and rare delight. Waxflowers with velvety leaves and aromatic shiny white beaded blooms perfume the air.

A tangled vine spills down a rock ravine, wraps around a small tree and sprawls along the ground. This is a clematis, a member of the Ranunculaceae family, or buttercups, as they are better known. This clematis is C. ligusticifolia, or virgin’s bower. Compared to our horticultural large-flowered clematis, this vigorous native bears modest white flowers and is most spectacular in autumn with circular wisps of feathery seeds. Other clematis siblings in the foothills are more spectacular, like sugarbowls, C. hirsutissima, a drooping purple cup with curled edges or the delicate rock clematis, C. columbiana, so understated on a thin tendril that most hikers pass by.

All throughout, we’ll hear the songs of birds, even if most are camouflaged in trees. A few, like the white-throated swifts, dart and dive, perhaps forty circling above us. Looking higher, we can see the source of their concern. Falcons soar, searching for smaller birds as a favorite dinner.

Peregrine falcons prey on the white-throated swifts. They catch them in the air before the swifts can get back to their nests. The swifts nest in the rock crevices and build their nests from saliva that glues the nest to the rocks. A falcon cannot squeeze into the narrow crevices, so in the open, the swifts have only numbers to confuse a falcon. Like butterflies, the swifts dart to avoid their predators. Provided with wings that have small bones, but long feathers, they can beat their wings rapidly without using up energy in an attempt to outmaneuver their hunters.

We meet early in the morning, a collection of hikers: some birders, a few wildflowers enthusiasts and a couple of insect lovers. The weather is foggy with a good chance of clearing in midday. Late afternoon thunderstorms are predicted. We hope to be down from the mountain before lightning and thunder crack and boom in the valley. In this terrain, climbers and hikers scramble for shelter when threatening clouds collect.

In single file we head up Fowler Trail and take a turn at Rattlesnake Gulch. A sign warns us to avoid rattlesnakes and informs us that we are in the territory of the rare hops azure, a tiny blue butterfly found only along the Front Range. We’re also into bear territory, where chokecherries, pin cherries and carpenter ants provide food. It’s astonishing to imagine small berries and insects for such giant creatures. But bears will eat a remarkable variety of foods, lapping up insects with their fat tongues. Wasps can be found in their peculiar diet. Chokecherries are abundant this spring, a certain lure for bears when the fruits ripen later in the summer.

“Black-headed grosbeak,” a birder barks out, with binoculars perched on his nose. “Golden eagle,” he shouts again, then, “Gashawk,” at the silver wings of a jumbo jet streaking across the sky from DIA. The canyon is sandwiched between Boulder and Golden, hardly a wilderness location. Somehow it has accommodated falcons, eagles and other remarkable creatures despite human incursions. A train snakes across the next mountain, the track–a long, straight scar–etched into the rock. From the distance, it looks like a toy chugging across formidable terrain, as dwarfed as the climbers, which now look to be human flies inching upward on the opposite side of the canyon wall.

But we are riveted by a war waged at our feet. One group of carpenter ants is attacking another. Crouched on hands and knees, we witness the chaos of battle filled with clashes, assaults and death. No doubt they were out roaming around looking for wood. Although they nest in the soil, they tunnel in wood. Carpenter ants look for the grubs of beetles for food. It’s the grubs that have lodged in the wood. And that’s what they are after. To anyone fascinated by insects, ants rate highly on the index of excitement. There’s no end to the amazing facts that surround one of nature’s most collectively organized creatures.

They help suppress other insects, become food for birds, disperse seeds by carrying them into the soil, aerate the soil and provide hours of enjoyment for those who follow ant antics. There’s an insect intelligence that ant lovers will raise again and again. Ants, for example, will pollinate violets before they bloom. There’s a handle on the pod that ants use as leverage to squeeze in. The seeds are carried into the ant chambers where they germinate.

We are focused on the abundance of life in the canyon. The number of species, whether it’s butterflies, birds or insects is fodder for close inspection. In the crotch of a bush, a nasty looking tent houses caterpillars that crawl in and out of their sticky web. They’re feeding on the leaves of a bush and the tent provides cover from the birds that eat them. They will turn into a plain brown moth, but we call them the tent caterpillar because we name the larval stage that does all the damage. A gardener would find this horrifying but a naturalist will see it differently.

A naturalist is obsessed by relationships in nature and the many linkages between food and diner. It’s inevitable that lists are formed connecting a plant associated with an insect or bird. Species are checked off as each is discovered. But on a spring day, the most obvious activity all around us is pollination. That single endeavor becomes the link between plant life, insects and birds.

Wild parsley is in bloom, the host plant for the black swallowtail butterfly. Many butterflies have adapted to lay their eggs on a host plant. On that plant their larvae will feast. No other species of plant will do. And sure enough, we soon see the showy black and yellow-winged beauty.

We wade into a deep blue larkspur clump. A bee buzzing on the raceme of a chokecherry blossom is heavily laden with pollen. The heart-leaved arnica blooms in a shady grove. Silvery Artemsias join the neon yellow sulphur-flower, which is beginning to open. That’s the dry side of the trail. Just opposite, spike moss covers rocks where water seeps from a spring. Mosses form peat beds that, in time, become coal deposits. We pass by a grass fern that only grows in granite, coral bells and a small clump of smooth sumac, which is related to poison ivy and cashew trees. But not all the plants at our feet are natives. Quack grass, salsify and dandelion, all originally from Asia, call this mountain home, too. We discuss conifers, which form a cone and not a fruit. We endure the misery of stinging nettles, avoid poison ivy and debate whether cottonwood, aspen and poplar trees are nearly identical. Finally, we reach the end of the trail.

It’s a cement circle that would puzzle any hiker. This was the site of a grand lodge in 1908. A cable car transported guests to the hotel until a fire burned the structure four years later. It’s still unknown, a sign reads, as to whether it was arson or accident. Either way, not much remains. Now it’s a primitive cement circle that is gradually eroding but providing rugged seating for hikers who reach the top. And in its elemental design, the circle looks symbolic: a shallow circle placed on a flat area as if this could be a spot for important rituals. This universal symbol invites a small gathering, just as we are, panting from the climb and grateful to get out water bottles.

In the distance, dark clouds are rolling in and the distant sound of thunder booms out a warning. We beat a hasty retreat, just in time to make it back before rain pelts lagging hikers. In a few hours, we have set out in mist, climbed in sun-streaked shade and finished up in ominous flashes of lightning. Eldorado Canyon favors all things dramatic, set on a stage of world-class landscape.

Trail Information

Lost Lake via Hessie Trail, Indian Peaks Wilderness

Directions: From the traffic circle in Nederland, take Colorado 119 (Peak to Peak) south for 0.7 miles. Turn west on Colorado 130 (Eldora Road) and travel 3.8 miles through the town of Eldora. Colorado 130 becomes a dirt road at the western edge of Eldora. Parking lot for the Hessie Trail is 0.8 miles up the dirt road at 39.9515N, 105.5952W.

Features: 4.0 miles round trip from the parking lot. Moderate difficulty. Trail climbs 750 feet, following upper Boulder Creek and passing several waterfalls. The lake itself is at 9800 feet and is perfect for family picnics. Numerous wildflowers, mushrooms and beaver lodges. Pets permitted, on leash.

More Info: US Forest Service Boulder Ranger District, 2140 Yarmouth Ave, Boulder, CO 80301, 303-541-2500,

Columbine Lake Trail, Indian Peaks Wilderness

Directions: Near Fraser and Tabernash on the western side of the Arapahoe National Recreation Area. From US 40, turn east onto County Road 83, then onto Meadow Creek Road. Follow the signs to Junco Lake; there are no signs for Columbine Lake. But the Junco Lake parking lot is where you’ll start for Columbine Lake. The dirt road to the trailhead parking lot is long – 11.4 miles – and the last half is filled with deep ruts. Trailhead is at 40.0419N, 105.7277W.

Features: 5.2 miles round trip. Rated difficult due to altitude. Trail starts at 10,000 feet and climbs 1000 feet to Columbine Lake at tree line. Drainage from Columbine Lake supports fields of columbines and trail has wonderful views of Caribou Pass, Arapaho Pass and Mount Neva. Pets permitted, on leash.

More Info: US Forest Service Sulphur Ranger District, PO Box 10, Grandby, CO 80446, 970-887-4100,

Rattlesnake Gulch Trail, Eldorado Canyon State Park

Directions: From Boulder (Broadway and Table Mesa Drive), take Broadway/Colorado 93 south for 2.5 miles. Turn west on Colorado 170 and continue for 3 miles through the town of Eldorado Springs. Entrance to the State Park is located at the western edge of town. Trailhead is located ½ mile into the park at 39.9294N, 105.2901W.