Colorado Wildflower Safari
The word Safari comes from Swahili, "journey, expedition," and from Arabic, literally "referring to a journey," from safar "journey".
Colorado is a wildflower fantasy with more than 3,000 species of wildflowers springing up in its diverse landscape. Colorado’s endless scenic locations boast flowers that create picture-perfect carpets from the eastern plains to the southwest mountains. On lower elevations, like eastern plains (E.g. Pawnee National Grasslands), wildflowers start to bloom in April and May. On higher elevations, in the Rocky Mountains and southwestern Colorado (E.g. Great Sand Dunes National Park), wildflowers can be seen mainly through July and August.
There are a big number of hiking trails all across the state inviting you to go on a ‘safari’ to discover and photograph the beautiful and delicate wildflowers. We prepared this list with some of our favorite hiking trails (we have too many), what flowers you can find there and a brief description.
Is a 1.4 miles loop trail located in the Rio Grande National Forest near the town of Littleton, CO. The hike is relatively easy and perfect for families or beginners and is even stroller friendly. However, because the trail’s surface type is dirt, it can get muddy at certain times of the year, so be prepared and bring appropriate footwear and gear.
Late spring and early summer are the best seasons to visit for wildflower viewing, and hikers will be rewarded with a stunningly wide variety of flowers, including the Giant Scarlet Paintbrush.
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea)
Bloom Time: May, Jun, Jul
Named for the clusters of spiky petals that resemble paintbrushes, with vivid colors that look as though they have been dipped in paint. They grow in forest clearings and grasslands across the Western and Southwestern United States. While the Indian Paintbrush comes in a variety of colors and over 200 species, you’ll most likely see the red and orange varieties in Colorado.
Giant Scarlet Paintbrush (Castilleja miniata)
Is a species of Indian Paintbrush known for growing up to about 31 inches tall.
The flowers of Indian Paintbrush are edible and were consumed in moderation by various Native American tribes as a condiment. However, these plants can absorb and concentrate selenium in their tissues from the soils in which they grow and can be potentially very toxic if the roots or green parts of the plant are consumed. Indian Paintbrush has similar health benefits to consuming garlic, though only if the flowers are eaten in small amounts and in moderation.
A 1.5-mile trail for all ages leads hikers to the first Butte: a predominant geologic feature within the Pawnee National Grassland, the Buttes rise 300 feet above the prairie. The second Butte is on private land; if there is a gate, leave it the same way you found it. Many of the flowers can be found along the trail as you descend into the creek heading to the Western Butte. As the temperatures rise, different species take over which are more adapted to the drier, hotter weather, including Snow-on-the-Mountain and Lambert Locoweed.
On hot summer days, dehydration can sneak up on you faster than you might expect, so make sure to bring enough water for the hike.
Lambert Locoweed (Oxytropis Lambertii)
Bloom period: Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep
Also known as Purple Locoweed, this wildflower is quite common throughout the central United States in Semi-desert areas, Foothills and Montane. The plant grows from five to twenty inches tall, with numerous stems of flowers arising directly from the base of the plant.
Interesting fact: Locoweed is a common name given to some 300 species of the genera Oxytropis and Astragalus that produce a toxic alkaloid, swainsonine. The common name locoweed is derived from “loco” the Spanish word for crazy because locoweeds are toxic to livestock and can cause them to act “crazy.” Some horses become very depressed and sleepy. In humans, the plant was used to remedy constipation but better not to try this at home.
Colorado’s Wildflower Capital- Crested Butte
Hikers at Crested Butte (about 5 hours by car from Denver) don't simply come across mule's ear, lupine, and larkspur; they wade through them. The proliferation of shale soil, many pollinators, and decent moisture combine to produce flowers that can grow head-high.
In July, visitors can experience the 10 days Crested Butte Wildflower Festival (July 8-17, 2022), marking the peak season for wildflower viewing.
This enchanting area also offers dozens of scenic trails throughout the Elk Mountain range, and there is something for you whether you’re an avid mountaineer or you have small kids tagging along. There is a trail for everyone to enjoy the best season in Crested Butte for a wildflower safari.
This hike is easy and close to Crested Butte. The total trail length is 4.29 miles, making it an excellent option for those coming from low elevations on a short stay. The trail climbs Starr Pass, which tops out at 12,300 feet before descending rapidly for several miles. The climb to the pass is worth the effort because of the specular alpine views and the magnificent high alpine wildflowers like the Aspen Sunflower and the Subalpine Larkspur.
Subalpine Larkspur (Delphinium barbeyi)
Bloom period: Jul , Aug
Its colorful flowers range from ink-like blue to deep purples, and with its towering stalks of up to seven feet, this wildflower is truly eye-catching.
They grow in mountain meadows on sites where deep snowdrifts persist well into the growing season, under aspens on north-facing slopes, along streams, or around seeps and springs. Tall larkspurs begin growing as soon as the snow melts, but this may not occur until July at the upper limits of their distribution.
Interesting fact: All parts of all larkspur species are poisonous to livestock if eaten, but new growth and the seeds contain the highest concentrations of toxic substances.
Delphinium is from the Latin "delphinus", "Dolphin", for the resemblance of the flower buds to a pod of Dolphins leaping.
This hike is probably one of the most adventurous ones from this list and recommended for hikers with a bit of experience. The hike from Aspen to Crested Butte (or vice versa) crosses the 12,490 feet iconic West Maroon Pass and provides jaw-dropping views of the Snowmass Wilderness. Expect to feast your eyes in large meadows of wildflowers upon every turn that will make you feel like you are in “The Sound of Music.” Singing allowed!
Expect to see yellow fields of the Aspen Sunflower and Elephant Head among dozens of others.
Crested Butte and Aspen are around 100 miles apart by car, but the two alpine communities are only 11 miles apart on foot.
Hiking time will vary depending on your fitness level and group size, but expect to spend at least 6 to 11 hours. Despite this being a well-organized trail, it does require a bit of planning; make sure to get all the details right before you put your hiking shoes on.
If you don’t feel like taking care of all of that, we suggest you book a tour with our friends from Blazing Adventures.
Aspen Sunflowers (Helianthella quinquenervis)
Large bright yellow flower with a spongy orange center. Stems are tall and straight with a single flower that faces East. You can find them all summer in the montane to subalpine areas. It blooms in mid-summer; it is extremely sensitive to changes in climate.
Elephant Head Lousewort (Pedicularis groenlandica)
Bloom Time: Jun, Jul, Aug
The individual flowers resemble an elephant’s face - the upper petals twisted and curled into a long "snout." Dense racemes of flowers that are perfect little pink elephant heads (ears, trunk, and all) bloom on leafy stems. It lives in cool, moist mountain meadows between 6000 and 11,000 ft.
Mule’s Ear Sunflowers (Wyetha Amplexcaulis)
Bloom period: Jul, Aug
Interesting Fact: North Native Americans used the roots as food, fermenting them on heated stones in the ground for 1 or 2 days. The flavor is sweet and agreeable. Roots were also used as a poultice for the relief of pains and bruises. A decoction of leaves was used as a bath, producing profuse sweating. It should never be taken internally, as it is considered poisonous.
In Southern Colorado, marvel at the beauty of the dunes against the splendor of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and, in case you are wondering, there are wildflowers in the desert too!
This is a family-friendly trail you can do in the park and for those not wanting to do long hikes under the sun: Montville Nature Trail. Located just near the main Visitor Center, the trail will take you to see the wildflowers between the dunefield and mountain environment. Great views in only 0.5 miles.
Dwarf Clover (Trifolium nanum)
There are 95 species of clover in the United States, and dwarf clover is the runt of the bunch. Dwarf clover is at home on mountain tops, and it is often found at elevations above 11,000 feet, living in the seemingly barren alpine tundra above the elevation where trees will grow.
Like many alpine tundra plants, dwarf clover needs to be seen close-up to appreciate its beauty.
Wild Iris (Iris missouriensis)
Bloom time: May, Jul
Wild Iris is most often found in moist meadows from the foothills to the mountains, growing solitary in open wet woods. However, it is common (and at first puzzling) to find Iris blooming in dry meadows in June; these meadows are moist from snow-melt in April and early May.
The flowering duration is determined by the amount of late spring snow and early summer rain.
Interesting fact: this might not come as a surprise if you have been following this list, but this plant is also poisonous. To be more specific, the roots are. The People of the Great Plains are said to have extracted the toxin irisin from the plant to use as arrow poison. On the other hand, it is also said that the Zuni people from Pueblo apply a poultice of chewed root to increase the strength of newborns and infants
St. Mary's Glacier Hike
In the Arapaho National Forest, this trail is about an hour from Denver and a great way to beat the summer heat, as there’s snow above the lake year-round.
St Mary’s Lake, located just below the glacier, is ringed by bristlecone pine, thick willow, and a bright collection of summer wildflowers.
This is also a hike we love, and we are proud to offer it at ACT: Glacier Hike and Geothermal Caves. Despite being a winter favorite, we think this is an all year round tour where each season delivers something different to the visitor.
We will ascend through the stunning Colorado forest and end with a breathtaking panoramic lake view. Next, we visit Idaho Springs and soak in the natural geothermal cave pools. And on top of all, you will get to photograph a variety of the Arapaho National Forest wildflowers like the Fireweed, Old-Man-of-The-Mountains, and the Colorado state flower the Columbine.
Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)
Bloom Time: Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep
Fireweed is a tall wildflower that grows from sea level to the subalpine zone. A colorful sight in many parts of the country, fireweed thrives in open meadows, along streams, roadsides, and forest edges. This species is so abundant that it can carpet entire meadows with brilliant pink flowers in some places.
The name fireweed stems from its ability to rapidly colonize areas burned by fire.
Interesting Fact: Flowers yield copious nectar that yield a rich, spicy honey. Today, fireweed honey, jelly, and syrup are popular in Alaska where this species grows in abundance.
Alpine Sunflower (Tetraneuris grandiflora)
Bloom period: May, Jun, Jul
Also known as Old-Man-of-the-Mountains, this flower lives precisely where its name suggests. They prefer sedimentary rock, and specifically limestone.
Some species in the sunflower family have flowers that face the sun, slowly following as it traces an arc across the sky. But the old-man-of-the-mountain always faces east.
Colorado Columbine (Aquilegia caerulea)
The state flower of Colorado is the queen of the Rocky Mountains.
(...) Tis the land where the columbines grow,
Overlooking the plains far below,
While the cool summer breeze in the evergreen trees
Softly sings where the columbines grow.
In 1925 a law was enacted to protect this beautiful delicate flower. The Colorado General Assembly made it illegal for anybody to pluck this flower from public places and tear away this blooming flower's buds.
This flower received a rare honor when the song “Where the Columbines Grow” was adopted as the official national song of Colorado.
This several-foot-tall perennial herb can be found in aspen groves, open woods, meadows, and talus slopes across the Rocky Mountains, from the foothills to the alpine.
Check other interesting facts about Columbine here.
Wildflower Safari Ethics:
As with wild animals, delicate flowers require the same behavior from the visitors: Keep your distance, don’t take any home.
More of our favorite wildflowers:
Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella)
Other names: Indian Blanket, Firewheel, Girasol Rojo
Bloom Time: Jul , Aug , Sep
Native Habitat: Plains; prairies; meadows
Bluebell Flower (Campanula rotundifolia)
Bloom Time: Jun , Jul , Aug , Sep
Native Habitat: Moist, rocky, mt. slopes; dry meadows & prairies; open woods; limey cliffs; beaches
Also known as Bluebell Bellflower, Bluebell Of Scotland, Bluebell, Harebell, Witches' Thimble
Other perfect trails for a wildflower safari:
Point to Point: 13.8 miles
Nearby Town: Crested Butte
Point to Point: 2 miles
Nearby Town: Red Cliff
Level: Family Friendly
Point to Point: 5.8 miles
Nearby Town: Grand Junction
Point to Point: 8.6 miles
Nearby Town: Meeker
Great Sand Dunes Park
Point to Point: 7 miles
These are online resources for your wildflower safari in Colorado:
Author: Don Mammoser