A Guide to Colorado Wildflowers
by Emily Krempholtz
Summer is finally here, and that means Colorado is exploding into color. Trees and lawns are green, vegetable and flower gardens are blooming with life, and all around the state, wildflowers are beginning to peek their heads up from the ground. It’s a transformation that takes place at different times of the summer depending on factors like elevation and location, but if gorgeous blooms are what you’re looking for, we’re here to help you find them.
Colorado Wildflowers: A Brief Field Guide
First thing’s first: when you’re checking out wildflowers in Colorado, you’ll need to know what to look for. There are literally hundreds of wildflowers that grow in Colorado, but here’s a list of some of the most common:
Colorado Blue Columbine
The Rocky Mountain Columbine is a gorgeous blue and white star-shaped flower you’ll find all over the state, which is appropriate since it’s our official state flower.
This tall flower with its cup-like bracts comes in a variety of colors, but you’ll most likely spot the red and orange varieties in Colorado.
Delicate bluebells look exactly like what the name implies.
Fireweed gets its name from its ability to grow so quickly and prevalently in areas ravaged by wildfires, and since it can survive to a subalpine level of elevation, it blankets the ground on a lot of Colorado hikes.
Rocky Mountain Bee Plant
This furry pink plant grows on a tall stem, and as the name implies, it attracts a lot of pollinators. Some of its other common names are less complimentary, like “skunk weed” or “stinking clover.”
These grow best at 8,200 to 13,400 feet, and a fully mature plant can have dozens of gorgeous deep purple blooms on a single stalk.
Also known as “prairie rocket,” the sand-dune wallflower ranges in color from a light yellow to a deep orange, and prefers to grow in the dryer, hotter parts of the state.
This gorgeous bloom comes in shades of red, orange, and yellow, like a fiery tie-dyed sunflower.
Scarlet Gilia was first discovered by famous explorers Lewis and Clark in the mountains of Idaho during their expedition across the US. Each of its red, pink, or white flowers looks like a long tube with five petals at the end.
These beautiful little flowers are also called “wild blue flax,” with five rounded pale blue petals, sometimes veined in a darker blue.
They are hardy up to 11,000 feet elevation, so you can find them in plenty of areas in Colorado.
Elephant Head Lousewort
This is going to sound weird, but these little pink flowers, when viewed from the right angle, look just like the head of an elephant, trunk and ears and all!
Pink Mountain Heather
Pink Mountain Heather carries small pink blooms on a low, shrubby, bush-like plant. It grows at higher elevations in subalpine forests and meadows.
Remember, this is just a sample of the many wildflowers you can find in Colorado, so use this list to get you started, but keep an eye out for more, because you’re sure to find them.
When to Find Wildflowers
You can find wildflowers pretty much anywhere in Colorado, from the flat prairielands near Kansas to the subalpine meadows up in the mountains. The higher your elevation, the longer it might take to see wildflowers, but generally the best time of year for spotting them on the plains is during late spring or early summer, and the best time to see them in the mountains is during the months of July or August.
Where to Find Wildflowers in Colorado
Whether you’re hiking, biking, horseback riding, off-roading, or taking a scenic drive, you’re sure to spot some colorful flowers this summer, but if you’re specifically on the lookout for wildflowers, check out these areas for some truly spectacular natural gardens.
Crested Butte - Crested Butte is known as the Wildflower Capital of Colorado, so if you visit the area in late July, when wildflowers are typically at their peak, you’ll find some incredible displays of up to 114 different types of wildflowers. For a great hike, try Rustler Gulch, an 8 mile out and back trail where you’ll find entire hillsides blanketed with color, or the West Maroon Pass Trail to Aspen, which is so prolifically packed with wildflowers it’s become part of Crested Butte’s annual Wildflower Festival. If hiking’s not your game, take a chairlift up to the top of Mount Crested Butte for a great panoramic view.
Indian Peaks Wilderness Area - Try the 5.5 mile hike from the Hessie Trailhead near Nederland to Devil’s Thumb Lake, which will show off some of the meadows and forestlands of the area, and of course, the wildflowers that grow in abundance there.
Ice Lakes - The hike to Ice Lake and Island lake, near Silverton, is routinely regarded as one of the most gorgeous hikes in a state full of gorgeous hikes. The unbelievably blue water of the lakes will look even prettier in July and August, when it’s surrounded by columbines, lupines, and other colorful blooms.
Alpine Loop - This 63 mile drive near Ouray is one of Colorado’s scenic byways, and a big part of that scenery during the summer are the displays of wildflowers. Find colorful fields near Engineer Pass, or take a detour at Lake City and hike to American Basin for a picture perfect view of a waterfall and stream that runs through a field of wildflowers, with a dramatic backdrop of the San Juan Mountains behind it.
Pawnee Buttes - The two huge rock formations known as the Pawnee Buttes are located in the Eastern Plains of Colorado, east of Fort Collins. Here, you’ll find more desert and prairie wildflowers, which are very different and bloom much earlier than their mountainous cousins, so if you can’t wait until July, check out the Pawnee Buttes in May or June for a glimpse of some colorful prickly pears, lavender-leaf sundrops, and mountain cat’s eye.
It can be incredibly tempting, when you see a colorful field blanketed with wildflowers, to pluck a few to press in your journal, or to create a quick flower crown or bouquet as you hike. It’s only a few flowers in a field of thousands, right? Wrong, unfortunately. Remember that hundreds of people use Colorado’s trail system every day, and if everyone took even a single flower during their hike, the flowers’ growth wouldn’t be able to keep up.
It’s the same when it comes to things like lying in a bed of wildflowers or stepping off the trail and into a colorful blooming field for that perfect Instagram pic. Once one person does it, everyone starts doing it, and don’t let the sunshine and warmth fool you—those fields of wildflowers are just like a fresh blanket of snow. Your footprints will be visible via a path of broken stems, and where you found an untouched field of gorgeous flowers, you’ll leave behind a messy trail.
Colorado’s wildflowers are part of its natural beauty, which is meant to be enjoyed by all. So this summer as you explore, take selfies, and ooh and ahh over them, treat the wildflowers like you would any other Colorado wildlife: keep your distance, and leave no trace.