Rocky Mountain Wildflowers – The world above the treeline
One of the great things about Mt. Evans is that it is so accessible, even to those who have physical difficulty getting around – as long as you can tolerate long drives in the car. While there is a boulder-strewn trail up to the very tip-top, that hike is not a prerequisite for partaking in the breathtaking views of the mountains. And unless you visit on the weekend, when the upper parking lot can get full and visitors resort to parking along the upper road edges, this has never been a problem for me during the weekdays. The parking lot is fairly level, and the walkways around the parking lot area are paved. Visitors can admire the vistas to the east, south, and west, and when the weather is clear, you definitely know you are on top of the world. And often in the company of Mountain Goats!
Above The Treeline
From here on, this saga moves above the treeline, 11,500’+, where the cold climate limits the number and type of plants that can survive there, and where conditions are too harsh for trees to survive. But what does grow there, while strong enough to survive brutal winters, are actually quite delicate in nature, and have a hard time with trampling of the creature called man.
And so, a small reminder… Please remember to be sensitive when visiting alpine areas. The plants and lichens you see here can take hundreds of years to grow, reestablish, or recover from careless damage. For instance, lichens (actually a dual organism- a mix of an alga and a fungus, each variety growing on only certain types of rock mineral faces) can take the longest to recover. And believe it or not, there are animals and insects who eat lichens as part of their diet- Mountain Goats, Elk, and birds, to name a few! (A Word of Caution- While humans have used various types of lichens throughout history for many uses, including dyes for baskets and clothing, medicines, food, etc., some types are actually poisonous!)
There is an alpine sunflower in this area that takes 10 years just to bloom, and then dies afterwards. So remember when you visit Alpine areas to tread lightly. Stay on trails, or if going across the face of a mountain with a group, spread out so you don’t keep further damaging the same plants repeatedly. This is a harsh and fragile landscape, and the very lives of the animals who live here depend upon it.
That said, like the desert, the alpine is a place not only of sweeping views, but also of great beauty and diversity – full of unique plants and animals, if one takes the time to really look. A world quite apart from the everyday hustle and bustle of humans.
A World without Trees
On Mt. Evans, you leave the forests below around 11,500’. From there on, the world is a place strewn with rocks and lichen-covered boulders, some as big as a car or a house. Each nook between the rocks is home to low-growing alpine plants with a wide array of flowers. Most of these flowers tend to fall into the white or yellow categories, but there are some, like the fringed bluebells and purple fringe that add beautiful splashes of color across the mountain’s face.
Alpine wildflowers, close-up
Here are some examples of the plants and granite outcroppings that we found on our 3-day adventure. (Again, please let me know if I have misidentified any of these!)
According to the National Forest guide pamphlet, this next flower, Old Man of the Mountain, gets its name from its dense hairs that trap heat and reduce water loss. It states that “if you ever find yourself lost, this flower always faces east, away from the prevailing winds.” Next time I am up there, I will have to pay more attention!
Ahhh… it was a lovely day! Here are the last photos of mixed flower/plant groups, plus a couple of singles that I couldn’t identify! Anybody know these?
Well, that wraps up the amazing wealth of alpine flowers! In upcoming posts, I will take you on an intimate photographic journey while I go in search of critter reference material for upcoming wildlife sculptures and paintings! In the next post, we will explore the harsh and craggy world of the Mountain Goat.
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Have a great weekend!