Mountain Bloom Town

McCormick is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colo

For a wildflower enthusiast, few places match Colorado's high-mountain meadows. Colorado claims more than 3,000 species of wildflowers, including more than 300 above the 11,500-foot timberline. It's not just the variety of wildflowers that is unusual, it's the range and vividness of their colors, which are heightened by the intensity of light in the higher altitudes. Since I moved to Colorado five years ago, I've made it my mission to seek out those calendar-perfect places where wildflowers run riot in radiant hues.

Then last July I was ushered in to an entirely new level of wildflower appreciation when I attended the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival. Within a couple of days, I had learned more about wildflowers than I had in years of tromping around with wildflower guidebooks in hand.

Begun in 1985, the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival has evolved into a weeklong series of alpine hikes, flower walks, botanical identification tours and workshops in everything from photographing wildflowers to preparing them for medicinal uses. This year's festival runs July 6 through July 12. Last year, I was among more than 500 wildflower enthusiasts who had traveled from as far away as Argentina and Saudi Arabia. Summer resident Maureen Hall was drawn by the extraordinary wildflowers. "You just have to hike through the meadows to appreciate what a treasure this is," she said.

Although Crested Butte is ranked as one of Colorado's top 10 ski areas, mountain biking, hiking and wildflower viewing are attracting more visitors during the summer, those few golden weeks between snowfalls. Compared to many other resort towns, Crested Butte still is spoken of reverently by Coloradans because of its small scale, relative lack of glitz and free-spiritedness (the average age of the town's 1,500 year-round residents is 30).

Perhaps its biggest draw is that it feels remote. Located southwest of Denver, Crested Butte is a circuitous, five-hour, 230-mile drive across mountain passes. At nearly 9,000 feet in elevation, the town is surrounded by five wilderness areas and cradled by lofty mountain ranges. Aspen lies about 25 miles--as the meadowlarks fly--across the 14,000-foot peaks of the Snowmass and Maroon Bells Wilderness. The contrast between the two towns is stunning. Aspen's upscale boutiques, restaurants and multimillion-dollar vacation homes seem worlds away from Crested Butte's alternative spirit, nurtured since the 1970s when young people drawn to the former mining town began restoring its Victorian-era homes and shops.

The entire town has been a National Historic District since 1974. Before miners arrived in the 1870s, the area was a summer hunting grounds for the Ute Indians. With the gold and silver booms of the 1880s, Crested Butte became a supply center for mining camps. Crested Butte never struck it rich, but merchants and artisans who came here in the late 1800s from the Slavic regions left an architectural legacy unlike other Colorado towns.

Though vacation-home development has been creeping up the Gunnison Valley, Crested Butte has tried to protect the natural beauty of its setting. Since 1991 the Crested Butte Land Trust has preserved nearly 300 acres of wetlands. The town's isolation and its official designation as Colorado's wildflower capital by the state legislature in 1989 have helped maintain the pristine quality of the valley.

The abundance and vividness of the area's wildflowers are helped by the rich soil, copious snowfall--up to 400 inches a year--and sunny exposures on many slopes that face southeast. And given the many wilderness areas, the flowers tend to be protected and to propagate easily.

I attended the final weekend of the 1997 festival, camping with my family in a shady, wildflower-rich, U.S. Forest Service site near Gothic, a turn-of-the-century mining camp north of Crested Butte. Fortunately, many festival workshops were repeated during the week, so in just two days I could sample from a full range of sessions. (Workshops cost about $5 to $50 each, and there is a five-day photographic workshop for about $330.) On Saturday morning, my choices were a wetlands plant tour, a wildflower ID tour, a watercolor technique class, a medicinal herb walk, kids' sessions on art and butterflies and a workshop on "flower keying made simple." And--ah, yes--plant anatomy.

As it happened, the anatomy class was fascinating and fun. For the first hour, a dozen of us gathered in a room in the town's Center for the Arts building with instructors Bob Heapes, a photographer and historian, and Loraine Yeatts, a coauthor of "Alpine Flower Finder: The Key to Wildflowers Found Above Treeline in the Rocky Mountains." Slender and fit in jeans and a plaid shirt, with a silvery pageboy haircut, metal-frame eyeglasses, and an amethyst crystal around her neck, Yeatts admirably met every stereotypical notion I had of a Colorado wildflower expert. She's been studying wildflowers for 35 years.

Armed with our tools--a hand lens of at least 10 times magnification, a small caliper and a copy of Yeatts' pocket-sized book--we gingerly dissected wildflower specimens. To examine a flower, one must pick a blossom and gently tear it apart. According to Heapes and Yeatts, picking wildflower blossoms for scientific analysis is acceptable, as long as the plant is not rare or endangered. "Pick one in 10 [flowers] and leave the rest" for natural propagation, advises Dana Bradley Spencer, a festival organizer. They explained that the size of flower parts is consistent in plants, whether in the wild or cultivated in gardens, but color is not. To properly analyze a wildflower, pick one that's average in color for the population.

We took on a flower in the mustard family, examining its long narrow leaves and measuring its flower parts (four sepals, four petals, six stamen and a superior ovary). Using this information and illustrations of mustard plants in the book, we concluded, correctly, that we held an Erysimum capitatum, or wallflower, one of my favorites, which varies in color from cornmeal to burnt orange.

Later that morning, in a breezy meadow on nearby Snodgrass Mountain, we paired off to identify some of the dozens of different blooming plants, crouching down on all fours to get a better look. Our group congratulated each other for identifying correctly blue penstemon, white yarrow and scarlet gilia, those delicate trumpet flowers so loved by hummingbirds.

A group of 14 met that afternoon, again on Snodgrass Mountain, to hike a two-mile wildflower loop with Alison Gannett, a botanist and year-round resident of Crested Butte. Gannett invited us to smell and taste the plants, but warned us away from the blue and purple flowers--such as the larkspur and the monkshood, so named for their little hooded faces--which often are poisonous. Pointing to the slope of silvery lupine before us, she explained that their horticultural name, Lupinus argenteus, derived from the Latin lupus, or wolf, and long ago they were stuffed into animal carcasses to kill wolves that preyed on livestock. We murmured appreciatively as she lead us through a great field of blue columbine, the state flower, which is illegal to pick. Hundreds of these spectacular flowers were nodding in the breeze, their faces upturned to the sun.

Tired, hungry, but exhilarated, I returned to my campsite, where my 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son were searching for fairies in a glade carpeted with small white flowers next to a spring. I looked at the flowers in alarm. Weren't those death camass, extremely poisonous wildflowers that grow in moist forest areas? I lured my children back to our picnic table and grabbed my wildflower guides. I checked the plants again and discovered they actually were the benign and much smaller wood nymph, a shy member of the heath family. My panic ebbed as we sipped wine and prepared pasta on our camp stove. After dinner, we went for a walk up Gothic Road. As twilight deepened, we looked for long minutes as the alpenglow transformed the Maroon Bells' peaks into glowing reds and purples, back lit by gold and pink clouds.

My Sunday morning hike began a couple hundred yards from my campsite. About 20 of us followed ponytailed biologist Kevin Taylor, from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, as he led us in a lively two-hour wildflower lecture. We trudged up the steep path, shedding layers of clothing in the hot sun.

After several switchbacks, we reached a shady spot under some Englemann spruce. There we found a dozen small yellow glacier lilies popping up through a patch of snow. Our hike, which took us up 1,000 vertical feet in 1 1/2 miles, had reversed us into spring. Plants not only bloom later but also tend to be smaller because of harsh conditions and a short growing season at higher altitudes, explained Taylor. We stopped at a cattle fence to admire the sunflowers, blue and yellow flax and tough mats of white-flowering sandwort before backtracking down the mountain among cow parsnips and meadowrue.

That afternoon, my husband took a mountain bike ride while I took the children for ice cream cones in downtown Crested Butte. We strolled through a dozen blocks of the town, using a flower garden tour map from the festival and a historic walking-tour map we obtained at the Chamber of Commerce visitor center. We discovered some delightful gardens, as well as many late-1800s structures, such as miners' cabins, bright, sorbet-colored, Victorian jewel-box houses, and the intricately carved trims and transomed windows of the Old Town Hall.

Before leaving Crested Butte the next day, I had to take one last wildflower hike--to the top of Scarp Ridge, a challenging ramble with 50-mile views of all the surrounding mountain ranges. Well supplied with snacks, our son in a backpack, we set off on the trail overlooking Lake Irwin, 12 miles west of Crested Butte.

As we approached the top of the 12,500-foot ridge, our steps slowed and our breathing became more labored. At this pace, we could appreciate the wealth of wildflowers on the cold wind-swept ridge: miniature sunflowers, rose crown and moss campion, small pincushion-like mounds with pink tubular flowers. Reaching the top, we gazed into the basins below. Turning in a circle to take in the 360-degree views of snowcapped peaks, my daughter captured the thrill of this wildflower hike: "We're on top of the world!"

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GUIDEBOOK: Crested Butte's Wild Side

Getting there: There are nonstop flights from LAX to Denver on United and Frontier airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $196. Or you can fly into Aspen on America West, United or Frontier airlines. Round-trip fares from LAX to Aspen begin at $198. Crested Butte is a 230-mile drive from Denver and 135 miles from Aspen.

Wildflower festival: This year the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival is from July 6-12; telephone (970) 349-2571. Free buses transport visitors to workshops downtown; each workshop costs about $5 to $50. For accommodations, tel. (800) 215-2226. It's pleasant to camp out nearby; most campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Contact U.S. Forest Service, tel. (970) 641-0471.

For more information: Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce, 605 Elk Ave., Crested Butte, CO. 81224, tel. (800) 545-4505.

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