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Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.
Dave Rusk | 04.11.2019

Spring in the Rockies is often a mix of the sweet promises of summer with occasional snows of winter. I never mind when we get a foot of spring snow, even in late May. It seldom lingers for long and the sweeter promises of summer are sure to follow. The more spring snow we get, the more blessed we are with an abundance of wildflowers.

The varied elevation of the terrain in Rocky Mountain National Park brings with it a wide of variety of wildflowers. While wildflowers occur in all parts of the park and throughout the summer, there are certain trails that travel to unique hotspots.

Tread Carefully

Wildflowers are beautiful to look at and study, but remember that signs of your impact will remain long after you leave. Follow Leave No Trace principles. Stick to the trail and never, under any circumstance, pick wildflowers.

Blanketflower, a gaillardia, seen on the Cow Creek Trail. Dave Rusk.


Cow Creek to Bridal Veil Falls

The Cow Creek Trail to Bridal Veil Falls is lower in elevation at about 8,000 feet, and it is one of the first snow-free trails in the park. The wildflowers along this trail are unique to that elevation, such as penstemon, nodding onion, shooting star, snowball saxifrage, mariposa lily, gaillardia, salsify, and Nelson's larkspur, with many others throughout the summer. In late May and early June, in the more wooded aspen and spruce mix that grows in a moist pocket canyon of Cow Creek near the Bridal Veil Falls, look carefully for the fairy slipper orchid. These unusually shaped wildflowers grow in specific microclimates found in only a few places within the park; they are not common.

Alpine phlox, which grows along the Ute Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. Dave Rusk.

June and July

Ute Trail

At the other end of the elevation spectrum in Rocky Mountain National Park, the upper Ute Trail is a high alpine trail at 11,500 feet with a good mix of alpine wildflowers from June through August. These tiny gems of wildflowers, growing at the highest possible elevation to support life, are sometimes referred to as belly flowers because one has to get down so close to the ground to fully appreciate their spectacular beauty. Small patches of alpine forget-me-not, alpine phlox, moss campion, and skypilots grow among the granite rocks like an intricately designed rock garden. One of the taller and larger wildflowers, the old-man-of-the-mountain, or alpine sunflower, stands just 3 inches tall.

Cub Lake Loop

The mountain wood lily is a rare find of rare beauty. These uncommon wildflowers sport orangish-red petals that drop 3 to 4 inches, with dark speckles near the base, to shape a goblet-like bloom. Begin to look for this montane meadow flower at the end of June along the lower part of the Cub Lake Trail about a mile in. They are sometimes hard to notice in the tall green grass, but they can be seen from the trail, and their habitat should not be disturbed by trying to get a closer look.

Other wildflowers blooming along the trail include Richardson's geranium, Parry's harebell (aka bluebells), and black-eyed Susan.

Bluebird Lake

The trail to Bluebird Lake covers a variety of terrain through the subalpine. There is a terrific patch of yellow snow-lily that can often be found in early July below the trail after hiking past Ouzel Lake. Popping up just as a snow patch melts away, the single bright yellow flowerhead hangs down with up-curved petals that can look as if they are fluttering in the wind. When you add the one to hundreds of others on a hillside, it's like coming upon a festival celebrating spring in the high country, and you feel like dancing on the trail.

The trail is worth a second hike later in August as the late summer flowers come on strong with pearl-everlasting, paintbrush, aster, and subalpine arnica growing in thick patches, to name but a few. Plan extra time for the plentiful photography stops.

Chasm Lake

The hike to Chasm Lake is the epitome of Rocky Mountain National Park, and the awesomeness of the east face of Longs Peak can be so overwhelming, you might not even notice the spectacular patch of beautiful Colorado columbine growing with Columbine Falls in the background. These classic pale blue and white flowers, with their spurs on the back side, peak in late July and scream "Colorado summer." But don't stop there—keep looking for many more alpine flowers, including the tiny snowlover, American bistort, and alpine avens.

Elephant's head, this stunning multi-petaled specimen, can be found on the Timber Lake Trail. Dave Rusk.

August and September

Timber Lake Trail

The national park is split by the Continental Divide, and the west side of the park has a wetter and snowier climate than the more arid east side. A good trail on the west side with early August wildflowers is the Timber Lake Trail. Traveling up through timbered terrain, enjoy heart-leaved arnica. About 3 miles in, watch for an open clearing on the right side with a considerable stand of elephant's head flowers. This unique flower, with red or pink elephant trunks stacked on a spiky stalk, likes to keep its feet wet, so the ground where they grow is often marshy, and mosquitoes drive away visitors. Tall, white brook cress grow thick among the small waterfalls just below Timber Lake. Timber Lake itself is right at the transition from subalpine to alpine with mountain laurel and globeflower growing around the lake's edge.

Glacier Gorge

Traveling up into the upper Glacier Gorge area above Black Lake later in the summer will help to avoid some of the heavy hiking traffic near the trailhead. A hike to Green Lake in August in this subalpine/alpine area might find you resting among king's crown along the lake's edge. And if you see the Arctic gentian blooming, it's a sure sign of autumn arriving in the high country with early snow not far to follow. If you hike into this region in September, you might find large patches of Arctic willow leaves changing and bringing fall color to this spectacular area surrounded by high peaks and dotted with various alpine lakes.

Arctic willow, the harbinger of winter, can be seen on the trail to Green Lake. Dave Rusk.

Want to See More?

Rocky Mountain National Park is a terrific hiking park for wildflowers. Check out Rocky Mountain Day Hikes for more on the wildflowers of this beautiful park. We have a large collection of identified wildflower photos specific to Rocky Mountain National Park, and while you're there, subscribe to Marlene Borneman's blog, in which she provides monthly wildflower updates.


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