Summer is fleeting in the High Country. No sooner does the snow melt than it seems as if we’re expecting the first snow of the season. However, between the cooler seasons, spring and summer provide enough life and color to help mitigate their fleeting nature. One of the best ways to soak up the summer is to go searching for wildflowers, their reds, yellows, purples and blues accenting the trails. Botanists estimate that there are more than 3,000 species of flowering plants in our state, ranging from majestic sunflowers to diminutive beauties.
The Vail Valley is home to a vast number of trails — hiking them all in one summer season is a massive undertaking. However, it’s not necessary to tackle them all to enjoy our alpine flora. From mellow strolls to high- elevation gaspers, there are plenty of options for a walk among the wildflowers; here are some of our favorites.￼
For two incredible wildflower hikes, head to Vail Pass. Both Shrine Pass and Shrine Ridge above and Wilder Gulch just below Vail Pass offer great swaths of sun-drenched meadows punctuated with colorful flowers like larkspur, Indian paintbrush and queens crown; you can also see mariposa lilies in abundance.
“I hesitate to suggest (Shrine Ridge) since it’s so popular, but there is a reason flower lovers flock here,” says Chris Kassar, author of Best Wildflower Hikes Colorado: A Guide to the Area’s Greatest Wildflower Hiking Adventures. “Just please stay on the trail if you do go.”
This popular trail is fairly short — it’s a little more than four miles total for the out- and-back — but you’ll wander through wildflower meadows before climbing amongst the pines to reach Shrine Mountain and its 360-degree views. From here, at nearly 12,000 feet, you’ll gaze upon the Gore Range, Copper Mountain Ski Resort, the Sawatch Range and Mount of the Holy Cross as well as the Flat Top Range in the distance.
“Flowers bloom all season, so it’s a good idea to hike it twice — in late June to early July for higher/tundra flowers and mid-July to mid-August for lower flowers,” Kassar says. “Shrine Mountain has Indian paintbrush, Parry’s primrose and penstemons, which make for colorful vistas.”
Among the various species, you might find blue columbine, alpine forget-me- nots, little pink elephants, snow buttercup and old man of the mountain. Wilder Gulch, also accessible from Vail Pass, follows a creek and offers spectacular views of the Ten Mile Range along with an abundance of wildflowers. The trail allows
hikers to choose the length of their hike: it’s about 4.5 miles round-trip if you turn around in the basin or continue upwards to Ptarmigan Hill (12,143 feet) and Ptarmigan Pass (11,765). In the pine forest, keep an eye out for wild mushrooms — this area is a favorite for local foragers, but we don’t recommend picking anything unless you’re an expert.
There are more than 100 species of wildflowers growing here, Kassar says, and you might see subalpine species including monkshood, subalpine larkspur, gentians (Rocky Mountain and fringed), sego lilies, pink paintbrush, yellow monkeyflower, shooting stars and mountain death camas. Plus, the views of the Sawatch Range and Gore Range — Eagles Nest Wilderness are pretty fantastic from the top.
It’s more of a mission to reach the “Bighorn Hilton,” an early homesteader’s cabin, but it’s worth the effort for the abundance of wildflowers found here. There are a few options: Hikers can continue past the first two miles for an additional 1.5-mile climb (of about 900 feet) to reach Bighorn Cabin or turn around for a four-mile roundtrip. The first half-mile of this trail, which starts in East Vail, is a steep climb but it soon levels out into a scenic valley with Bighorn Creek providing a soothing soundtrack for most of the way. Blossoms line the forest path and verdant meadows teem with colorful blooms. You can see more than 80 types of flowers in just 2 miles of easy-to-moderate hiking, explains Kassar. This trail also offers views of the Gore Range and is a golden wonderland when the aspens turn in the fall. As it’s a montane hike, Kassar says that you’ll see species typically found in forests: scarlet gilia, various red and yellow paintbrush, harebells, various colorful penstemon species, heartleaf arnica, fireweed and monkshood.
For a full-day hike, Gore Lake is an ideal destination. One of several multi- mile (and multi-hour) hikes in East Vail, the journey to Gore Lake starts on the Gore Creek Trail which leads hikers alongside small waterfalls and through wildflower-dotted meadows. The path parallels Gore Creek and winds through stands of conifers before you reach the junction for Gore Lake Trail. This last section — a 1,160-foot climb over 1.5 miles — will get your heart pumping but it’s worth it for the masses of wildflowers creating red, blue and yellow patterns in the meadows before you reach the lake; you can also spot Parry’s primrose, which grows on Gore Creek’s tributaries. Once you reach the lake, soak your feet in the icy waters and enjoy the sunshine before heading back down. If you’re there early enough in the season (before all the snow melts), you might spot the yellow flowers of the glacier lily.
There are many wonderful hikes near Homestake Reservoir; it’s worth the extra drive to access them. One beautiful option is Seven Sisters Lake and Fall Creek Pass. This is a more difficult trail, gaining 2,300 feet in elevation over five miles — start early to ensure you don’t get caught by the weather. The trail begins on a section of 4WD road that intersects with the Holy Cross City road. From here, you’ll climb alongside French Creek to a large meadow; when the road forks, head right to Hunky Dory Lake and Seven Sisters Lake. The trail follows French Creek past tarns and waterfalls before climbing to the meadows that are home to the Seven Sisters Lakes. The lakes seem to be arranged by size, growing larger as you approach Fall Creek Pass; if you choose to eschew the last climb to the pass and simply stay among the Seven Sisters, enjoying the rosy queens crown, elephants head, clover, marsh marigold and other wildflowers, no one would blame you.
There are a multitude of hikes on both Vail and Beaver Creek Mountains, but a favorite is hiking up to Beaver Lake and continuing on to Turquoise Lakes if you have the time (and your legs aren’t complaining). Take the Five Senses Trail from the base of Beaver Creek Resort (this easy trail was created for families and includes informational signs along the way) and you’ll come to the Beaver Lake trailhead. The hike is moderate, a little more than three miles to the lake from the trailhead, and you’ll be rewarded not only by the peaceful, sandy-shored lake at the end, but also by the wildflowers including cow parsnip, chimingbell and columbine you’ll see along the trail. If you choose to continue on from Beaver Lake, you’ll climb through a conifer forest before reaching the two big meadows filled with Indian paintbrush, larkspur, fleabane and more between which lower Turquoise Lake resides; the upper lake is another 20 minutes away at 11,300 feet.