Chasing spring flowers in the Rocky Mountains

Wildflower season on the tundra is exceedingly short. The flowers have at most a few weeks to bloom.

Kent Dannen


Spring too often seems to take its time arriving in the Colorado Rockies. However, when spring does turn up, it hangs around until autumn. When it is summer on the Plains, folks living on the flatlands always can find glorious spring somewhere in the mountains by driving, hiking or riding horseback to different elevations.

Spring first arrives in the zone between 6,500 and 8,600 feet above sea level. By the first week of May, nearly all the snow had melted around my house in Allenspark, revealing surprisingly numerous piles of moose poop. Here ponderosa pines grow separate from each other, like mountain hermits – like me – unwilling to intrude or be intruded upon. In sunny parklike spaces between these majestic red-barked pines, the snow melts first, a water source to support spectacular spreads of wildflower color. Around church I notice the Easter daisies were just beginning to turn up, while the pasqueflowers still had not announced Easter. Were the flowers a bit late, or was Easter a bit early?

We can hope that before long some fields will be yellow with wallflower or little sunflowers, while other meadows are blue with wild iris. Most magnificent will be fields that mix yellow and blue with the green of leaves working hard to produce food for the flowers that celebrate the glory of spring.

Along with the blooms, young animals arrive to celebrate spring and life. Tassel-eared squirrels learn to eat the bark of new-growth twigs of ponderosa pine. Baby yellow-bellied marmots emerge to sun themselves on warm rocks. Camouflaged by their spots and without scent, mule deer fawns know by instinct to stay hidden in dappled sun shining through trees and bushes.

Walkers, backpackers, or fisherfolk may happen upon spring's new inhabitants; people in the know watch but do not touch. Wildlife parents are close, although often not seen.


Somewhat unexpectedly, spring hops in July from lower elevations to the mountain tops, to the alpine tundra between 11,500 and 14,000 feet above sea level. This is the windiest, most frigid region of the mountains. Its environment is so difficult that trees cannot live here. Winter wind scours away most snow, depositing it in the forest below. With next to no shade to protect what snow remains, melting is rapid. Melting snow unites with afternoon rain to water a bursting of tundra blossoms, whose bright colors are as necessary as they are spectacular.

The need for bold color comes from the fact that tundra spring is exceedingly short. The flowers have at most a few weeks to bloom, use bright hues to attract pollinating insects and set seeds. Weather can be freezing and snowing on any day of the year above the trees. The flowers have to hurry to complete their reproductive duties. Therefore, most of them bloom at the same time.

Tundra wildlife such as white-tailed ptarmigan, a small grouse, feed well on the briefly abundant blooms. People, though, subsist spiritually on tundra beauty and should be careful not to trample plants whose toughness already is challenged by a tough environment. 

Tundra spring is most impressive in "gopher gardens," masses of blooms that grow from soil churned up by common but very rarely seen pocket gophers. In these gardens appear some the tundra's largest flowers, particularly picturesque in a land where survival normally depends on staying small and sheltered from wind. Spring tundra flowers include sky pilot, alpine wallflower and sunflower.

Spring drops in its final stages back down the slopes to the subalpine zone, heavy forest between 8,600 and 11,500 feet above sea level. Snow accumulation is deepest here due to windborne deposits swept from the alpine tundra. These drifts are slow to melt because of deep shade from subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce. The trees conserve the snow, and the snow nourishes the trees: impressive cooperation.

Some wildflowers, such as calypso orchids or fun-to-say pipsissiwa, grow in the shade. By contrast, the few open areas in the subalpine zone exhibit the most impressive color displays in the entire blooming Rockies. Paintbrushes, sedums, blue and yellow composites, little red elephants, white marsh marigolds, chiming bells, yellow glacier lilies, and especially blue columbines, the state flower, distract the fisherman from fly rod and the hiker from camera. All these wildflowers feed wildlife, such as deer, elk and bighorn sheep. Indeed, sometimes the grazers consume flowers before humans can enjoy them. Nonetheless, the succession of flowers at different levels in the mountains usually provides nourishment of a deeper sort for people intent on chasing spring throughout the summer.  

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