Wildflowers of the San Juan Skyway
When spring and summer arrive in the San Juan Mountains, wildflower hunting reveals wave after wave of floral beauty. In the high country, wildflowers peak between mid-July and mid-August. For example, a spectacular display of wildflowers is in full bloom in American Basin by mid-July. Bluebells growing in large clumps seem to like American Basin and also Animus Forks. But if you know where to hunt, you can find wildflowers surging up the San Juans from early June through Labor Day, depending on the weather conditions and your elevation. We will share some of our favorite wildflower treks, including some secrets about our favorite wildflower photo adventures.
Home to over 150 species of wildflowers, many are found in high San Juan mountain meadows. To name just a few species, wildflower hunters in the San Juans will discover native columbine, Indian paintbrush, forget-me-nots, old man of the mountain, sneezeweed, larkspur, lupine, harebell, bluebells, monkshood and much more. So many of our favorite hiking locations include stunning fields of wildflowers. To name just a few, Wetterhorn Basin, Cataract Gulch, Cooper Creek, Grizzly Gulch and Big Blue should be in the hiking plans of any wildflower enthusiast.
Hiking along the Dallas Divide between Ridgway and Telluride not only reveals iconic views of Mt. Sneffels but also fields of lupines and yellow daisies in June. Hiking on a trail along Red Mountain Pass or Molas Pass during July passes beautiful wildflower meadows. And at least one trip to the San Juans should include Lizard Head Pass in July or August for stunning views (and photos) of flowers with imposing peaks in the background.
Blue columbine, Colorado’s state flower, is abundant in mountain valleys. It often grows in rocky areas and flowers in July, earlier than many other flowers. It’s easy to recognize with its yellow stamens surrounded by white cupped petals and framed by graceful blue sepals terminating in long spurs. A low growing sunflower, Old Man of the Mountains is regarded as a “happy flower” since it always faces the sun from its home on windblown ridges. Nature has amazing ways to produce wildflower varieties at just the right moment. An abundance of larkspur arrives at full bloom in American Basin just as columbines start to decline. The unusual looks of several wildflowers can bring unexpected good cheer to onlookers. Bright magenta elephants are one of them. Their broad foreheads are flanked by long ears and it even has a trunk. Once again American Basin grows them.
Many wildflowers grow happily in unexpected places and in seemingly unfriendly surroundings. Sedum is a tough little plant with star-like yellow flowers that prefers to grow in rocky areas. Tall penstemon plants with long blue to purple flowers flourish in the midst of sagebrush. Paintbrush is another lovely flower found in sagebrush country that comes in yellow to orange or red colors. The evening primrose often grows along roadsides, blossoming in the evening and dropping its petals in the morning. In Cinnamon Pass look for Parry’s Primrose and its brilliant magenta color in marshy areas at high altitude like the top of Cinnamon Pass.
Nestled beneath some of the San Juan’s most breathtaking peaks (Potosi Peak, Teakettle Mountain, Cirque Mountain, Stony Mountain, Gilpin Mountain, and Mount Sneffels) Yankee Boy Basin offers an abundance of wildflowers in addition to spectacular alpine scenery. From mid-July through early August the incredible show of blooming wildflowers includes Monument Plant, Paintbrush (of varying colors), Columbine, Larkspur, Chiming Bluebells, Orange Sneezeweed, Cow Parsnip, Wild Iris, and Dwarf Sunflowers and many more. A once-booming mining area, the high-walled canyon and its old town sites are great 4-wheel drive out of Ouray that can be combined with a side trip to Box Canyon Falls and a drive over Imogene Pass. The off-road itinerary from Ouray to Yankee Boy Basin also can include Governor’s Basin that also is covered with wildflowers in July.
Hikes or bike rides around the San Juan Skyway in search of wildflowers can include different kinds of extraordinary, moderately challenging, experiences that include wonderful wildflower discoveries and mountain views. For example, take a hike to Blaine Basin that culminates in a scenic wildflower-filled basin with great views of Mt. Sneffels, Kismet Mountain and Cirque Mountain. Wanders through forests, pass a lovely waterfall and enjoy the solitude. South of Telluride, Hope Lake is another great hike that ends in one of the region’s most beautiful alpine lakes with unforgettable views of high country wildflowers. Six miles out and back, the Hope Lake trail offers a bit of everything including gorgeous wildflowers. Beginning in a forest, the trail crosses a creek lined with colorful paintbrush, larkspur, monkeyflower and more. The trail gradually wanders through conifer shade and sun. A serious ascent over a multitude of switchbacks takes you above tree line, rewarding you with a pristine high-alpine lake.
Another marvelous lake just a short drive from Telluride (and also Hope Lake), Trout Lake is another one of those pristine high altitude lakes in the San Juans that offers not only the beauty of wildflowers but also a range of summer and winter activities. A natural lake, it was dammed even higher to create reserves for a power plant near Ophir. Fortunately the lake was in no way impaired. Its glistening blue waters invite visitors to gaze at the wildflowers around the edge while enjoying views of Sheep Mountain, Vermillion Peak, Golden Horn, Pilot Knob and other peaks. In the summer, Trout Lake is a trout fisherman’s paradise stocked by the Hotchkiss National Fish Hatchery. The lake also is a favorite stand-up paddle board, kayaking and canoeing destination.
Lakes in the San Juans and the vicinity of Telluride make it easy to create a full day of mountain lake and wildflower exploration plus preferred activities in the vicinity that could include visits to several alpine lakes. A trip to Clear Lake for trout fishing, for example, can be combined with visits to Island Land, Ice Lake, Trout Lake and Hope Lake. And there’s always some other unique attraction to add to the itinerary. Trout Lake is a perfect example. This beautiful setting for wildflowers, an anglers-delight, surrounded by a cirque of spectacular 13,000-ft. peaks, also has one of the best preserved remaining trestles of the Rio Grande, the Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, on a corner of the lake. And it’s easy to get from Trout Lake to the Hope Lake trailhead.
For incredible views, wildflowers and wonderful outdoor activity choices, be sure to check out the Ridgway Area Trails (RAT) near Ridgway State Park. For more uncrowded hikes full of wildflower viewing and spectacular peaks, look into Spirit Basin to find a colorful carpet of wildflowers swaying in the breeze beneath craggy peaks and an azure sky. Further afield, American Basin high above Lake City offers radiant wildflowers in a tranquil setting. Many wildflower lovers miss out on this off-the-beaten track alpine basin often packed with fields of wildflowers including the blue-and-white blossoms of the Colorado Blue columbine and glowing fireweed.
Some of the more difficult drives through the San Juan Mountains offer the greatest rewards in wildflowers, that is if you know where to look for them. Imogene Pass is one of those drives over a 13,000-ft. pass with sweeping views. The ascent to Imogene Basin is rough and steep but boasts spectacular wildflower displays in the mid-summer months. Another drive, in Ironton Park south of Ouray, is especially beautiful for its wildflowers in summer and stands of aspen in the fall. Close to Durango, Engineer Mountain trail is a popular hike in the summertime. As the trail nears the top, it opens into an alpine meadow filled with wild Columbine, orchids, primrose, coneflowers and more. The views are spectacular! This trail winds through old growth forest and meadows to the alpine tundra where hikers are greeted by wild bighorn sheep, sweeping Rocky Mountain views and an impressive array of wildflowers. As with all alpine hikes, there is a short growing season from mid-June to the end of July.
Visitors to Durango have other marvelous choices of trails that lead to beautiful wildflowers. Columbine Lake trail is a strenuous hike that pays off with unbelievable views of wildflowers growing in the alpine meadows on the way to Columbine Lake. Surrounded by wildflowers, the lake itself is tucked in a glacial bowl surrounded by 13,000-ft. mountain peaks. Visitors to the San Juans soon realize that Some of the best wildflower viewing requires steep climbs for hikers rather than challenging 4-wheel drives. Sometimes both. Columbine Lake, off-the-beaten-path, simply requires a steep climb to get to its beautiful location and gorgeous alpine meadows and namesake wildflowers. Those with additional time and energy can make a side trip to Columbine Pass for views of Bridal Veil Basin, Mt. Sneffels and the Sneffels Range.
Just a short drive from Silverton, the hike to Highland Mary Lakes reveals scenic landscapes and alpine meadows for viewing colonies of paintbrush, columbine, king’s crown, alpine blue violet, alpine sunflower, and many more wildflowers. There are seven Highland Mary Lakes, all above 12,000 ft. Following the Highland Mary Lakes trail into this alpine wonderland opens a landscape of forests and meadows blooming robustly among picturesque waterfalls. Who could ask for more? But more in the Weminuche Wilderness is accessible to day hikers, including three of the Highland Mary Lakes as well as the Verde Lakes with their marvelous views of the Grenadier Range.
The Silverton area boasts of other great day hikes but perhaps none can compete with the sheer scenic beauty of Ice Lake. The trail climbs 1,600-ft. in 2-miles through forests and wildflower-filled meadows to the beautiful Lower Ice Lakes Basin. Upon reaching the basin great views open up to Fuller, Vermillion Peak, Golden Horn and Pilot Knob. Wandering about the lower basin, waterfalls appear from clefts in the rocky hillside, nourishing the breathtaking array of columbine, larkspur, aspen daisies, chiming bells and other wildflowers that blanket both sides of the trail. And then the steep climb to the upper basin leads to the turquoise blue waters of Ice Lake nestled in a magnificent cirque of sculpted ridges and peaks soaring well above 13,000-ft. Turquoise blue Ice Lake sits in its magnificent cirque amid subalpine tundra dotted with wildflowers. In wildflower season, what more could anyone ask for?