What’s Blooming This Weekend?

So here’s my species list for this past weekend in Rocky Mountain National Park:

  • Loco Weed
  • Golden Banner
  • Beardless Sidebells Penstemon
  • Clustered Penatemon
  • Marsh Marigold
  • (Narrowleaf) Red Paintbrush
  • Yellow Paintbrush
  • Elderberry
  • Gooseberry
  • Serviceberry
  • Wax Current (already setting fruit)
  • Blanketflower
  • Sulfurflower
  • Blue Iris
  • Shrubby Cinquefoil
  • Beauty Cinquefoil
  • American Bistort
  • Chickweed
  • Yellow Sweetclover
  • Wallflower
  • Calypso Orchid
  • Bedstraw
  • Strawberry
  • Short Style Onion
  • Shooting Star
  • Blue-eyed grass
  • Yellow Stonecrop
  • Bladderpod or Draba
  • Sheepsorrel
  • Richardson Geranium
  • Pink Geranium
  • Primrose
  • Parry’s Harrbell
  • Leafy Cinquefoil
  • Heartleaf Arnica
  • Raspberry
  • Chokecherry
  • Yarrow
  • Pearly Everlasting
  • Alpine Forget-me-not
  • Alpine Avens
  • Alpine Primrose
  • Alpine Phlox
  • Lanceleaf Chiming Bells
  • Moss Campion
  • Dwarf Clover
  • Fendler Meadowrue (male plant recorded)

There are a few others. I am confident I am forgetting a few.

Next week we should see the Alpine Sunflowers (Old Man of the Mountain) start to bloom. I saw lots of buds today!


A Wildflower Nerd’s Dream


Ok, so here is a dream project…. Republishing the taxonomic key to the flora of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Yes, I know how nerdy that sounds.

Don’t be a hater.

The late Betty Willard has become a hero to me. She knew, I mean she was an expert on, the flora of Rocky’s mountains and valleys. Her book, written with Linda and Richard Beidleman and published in 2000 (now out of print) by the Rocky Mountain Nature Association is, itself, an updated version of a much older taxonomic key, this time with several hundred photos and line drawings.


Many of us know a birder…. That dedicated seeker with binoculars that travels hundreds of miles just to add another species to their life list. (Admittedly, I know several.) I will never admit to that level of craziness, but I certainly have a life list of North American wildflowers. 

And helping me build that list is Betty Willard. I wish I could have known her and picked her brain while on a few hikes. Even today, after all these years, I found a couple of plants that were difficult to ID, even using her key. Perhaps they aren’t native. At least one is a lily of some sort, I am pretty sure, and she includes dandelions in her key, which are not native, so I am curious about what I found.

What really makes me curious is the fact that I think I know the lily… from other parks, maybe, or similar species… but why would it not be included here? The closest species I could find in her key is one that apparently likes shade. My plant was smack in full sun in the middle of Moraine Park. It was hidden in the grass, so perhaps it had a bit of shade. But not really. Generally a fairly hot meadow, except early in the spring right after mud season (or during mud season) – which is what we are nearly ending right now. 

I know it sounds totally nerdy, but to find something that Betty Willard might not have included makes my flower-loving heart skip a beat. A few years ago, a fellow interpretive ranger at Rocky Mountain told me that she considered Willard’s work the best for the park in our field. 

Pun intended, sort if.

So it has become a bucket list item for me, ever since I was told that republishing Willard’s work was cost-prohibitive for the folks who proposed it during the park’s centennial in 2015.

I have, perhaps, 200 species photographed in the park. And the ecological and ethnobotanical ramifications of said species. But in this age of low attention spans, the “I want it now!!!” mentality, and “Why does that matter?” attitude, I can see how the project can easily be cost-prohibitive. 

And it breaks my heart, for the following reasons:

  1. Fewer people are getting to know these majestic mountains as I (and the Betty Willards of the world) know them,
  2. Fewer people are connecting to their parks as I have,
  3. And science – and attention to detail – are going by the proverbial wayside. 

So it will still be on my bucket list, to expose this amazing land to future generations through the plants that produce the very oxygen, water and soil we rely upon. And publish a taxonomic key while I am at it.

Screw the smart phones. Let’s go find a Pedicularis.

This is one happy nerd on a mission. 

It’s Summer In The Mountains


Long’s Peak soars on the horizon looking over travelers on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.

It’s no secret that I love the high windswept meadows of Rocky Mountain National Park. By about February or March every year, I’m MORE than ready for wildflower season to commence.

But this year we Coloradans had a wrench thrown into our spring. on May 19-20 we had a huge storm come through. The National Park Service had nearly cleared and readied Trail Ridge for its annual opening on Memorial Day weekend, But when the storm hit, the front range mountains received several feet that kept blowing around for days.

And I had to postpone my first drive of the season. I make it a practice to make sure my Friday off (I don’t work a normal 9-5 work schedule) aligns with the opening of Trail Ridge so I can be a tourist for one day and just drive the road, stopping at every single overlook and enjoying the views. It’s just something I have to do after months of being stuck at 5,280 feet of elevation. 😉


Approaching Poudre Lake and the Continental Divide.

On June 3, I finally got to make my annual drive. There was relatively little traffic that morning – I was the only person stopped at Rock Cut, believe it or not – and the weather was perfect. Warm and sunny, with a bit of a breeze. The perfect day to drive Trail Ridge Road.

I made it over to Kawuneeche from Estes Park in less than 2 hours – even with a few brief photo stops – and walked through the meadows at Coyote Valley and Holzworth, and then walked up the Colorado River Trail a bit. Marsh Marigolds and Candytuft showed white in the meadows wet with the spring melt.


Chickweed. I could really use a macro lens for my camera.


The Colorado River flows through the Kawuneeche Valley.

It was a really nice day in the park. Next visit, I’ll be looking at the tiny flowers above treeline. I can’t wait!

Just Another Day In The Neighborhood

I got a late start today, by hiking standards. In the summer, I generally start my longer hikes around 7 a.m. Today, I hit the trailhead about Noon. I didn’t have the longest trek planned, so a late start was fine. I relaxed this morning, ate a good breakfast and worked on a project until I was well-caffeinated and ready to go.

Bear Lake was fairly busy, but I took the first left turn and headed up to Nymph and Dream Lakes. How many times have I taken this trail? I’ve covered that 1.1 miles in the fresh green of spring, the heat of summer, golden Aspen leaves of autumn, and the blowing snow of winter. Like so many times before, I found myself seeing a few other hikers over and over as we made our way up the hill. Many were on their first visit to Rocky, college students from several states and retirees from Alabama.

You see, this is part of the beauty of the National Parks – they are a great melting pot. People from all over the world, challenging themselves physically and mentally. Learning about history and famous people, teaching themselves to conquer fears and reconnect with the resources that sustain their lives. So often, the National Parks force people to the same level – novices against Mother Nature.

Perhaps I should have challenged myself a bit more. I’ve done the snowshoe to Dream Lake maybe 15-20 times, and I sort of have every curve of the trail memorized. But I needed fresh air and I got a late start. So any miles were better than no miles. Dream Lake never disappoints. (By the way, the trail I did was about 1.1 miles and 450 feet of elevation gain, according to trail guides, although I did a bit of off-trail up at the lake just to get a different view.)

There is one section of the trail, about halfway between Nymph and Dream Lakes, where the winter trail is very narrow on the best of days and on warm sunny days like today, the snow is slippery and the trail deteriorates a little bit with every new set of footsteps. Add to this that the trail often is as wide as only one snowshoe. Going uphill might seem hard to some, but in my experience, downhill is much more nerve-wrecking. Gravity on a downhill slide is far more of an enemy.


Looking up the scary, narrow section. It’s steeper than the picture portrays.

After my lovely snack up at the lake, I decided it was time to head down the hill. I made it back down to the scary section, and there were people slipping and falling trying to get up the hill. Since I had snowshoes with crampons, I just waited at the top for a clear trail. A few other hikers lined up behind me, waiting as well. I chatted with them as we waited for the uphill folks to finish. One guy, maybe in his late 20s, looked longingly at my snowshoes. He said he’d not been too afraid going up, but watching folks now, he was a bit freaked. I told him I felt the same, even with my crampons. I pointed to the narrowest section and suggested that it would be fine if someone would just kick in an extra step. I showed him where to put his feet, all the while, telling myself that I could do the same. I could get past the scary bit. With my crazy big snowshoes, it might be really tight, but I’d done it before and I will live to do it again.

Perhaps now is a good time to share a lesson I’ve learned over the years: when on slippery, downhill trails, if I have snowshoes, I let everyone else in boots go ahead of me, even if I can move faster than them (which is usually the case since I have good traction). That way, when they slip and fall, they don’t slide into me and take me down with them. I won’t say how or when I learned this lesson. 😉

Anyway, the guy said he’d try to kick in an extra step. His group headed down ahead of me, and all four of their group slipped and fell a bit. But they managed to kick in an extra step with only one scream uttered between them. He looked back up at me and said something about wanting to go back uphill. Other folks came around the bend, making their way up the hill at that moment and there was a time of crowding, confusion and nerves. I stepped to the side (thank goodness for those snowshoes) and let the uphill folks plow on. I was very thankful that the guys kicked the trail wider; it calmed my nerves quite a bit.

By letting groups pass me, I had a peaceful snowshoe down the trail. Back at Bear Lake, I decided to walk up to that lake – maybe only 200 feet further than my trail junction. It was very slick due to the high volume of traffic all winter, and melting and refreezing of snow. Several older folks told me I was smart to wear snowshoes. I smiled and said I’d just finished a bigger hike where I needed the traction.

One such older woman was clearly very scared of slipping and falling. Complete with a thick southern accent, perfectly dyed hair and makeup to make her look younger than she was, thin black jogging shoes and lots of chunky jewelry, she looked rather out of place. She had two men with her – I’m guessing her husband and her son. She was moving very slowly away from Bear Lake, back through the woods towards the parking lot. I asked if she wanted to borrow one of my hiking poles so that she had two to use. She turned me down. Her husband just smiled.

So I moved on to Bear Lake, and enjoyed watching people having snowball fights and building snowmen out on the frozen lake. Eventually, I turned around and started heading back to my car.

The older woman hadn’t made it more than 4-5 feet since I’d passed her going up to the lake. This time, she had two more people around her – a couple maybe in their 30s. I waited in the line of traffic on the trail for a minute and then made a decision. I had traction, whereas no one else in the vicinity did. Everyone was moving very slowly and there was a bottleneck on the trail.


Looks pretty tame from this perspective, but the icy trail scared older folks who had no traction. Bear Lake is the clearing just beyond the trees.

I picked up my pace, side-stepped around the crowd and stopped just in front of them. “This is what we’re going to do,” I said. “Let me help you.” I stomped pretty hard on the packed snow and ice in front of the woman. I assured her that I wasn’t going to slide, and showed her the crampons built into the decks of my snowshoes. I also pointed out that I was more… stout than she. She looked up and tried to laugh, but behind her sunglasses, I’m pretty sure she was in tears.

I offered my hand, which she took with her free hand. Someone had managed to give her a hiking pole which I reminded her to keep in contact with the ground when she lifted a foot to take a step. (In her case, two points of contact with the ground were better than one.) Her husband held tightly to her upper arm, and I snowshoed backwards, breaking up the ice, as we brought her down the hill. She held tightly to my hand the whole time. I was thankful that she seemed to catch on quickly to the idea of stepping where I’d broken the trail; wet feet were better than sliding and falling.

People watched us, and I’m sure the effort was a sight. The woman was rather vocal, in her southern accent, about how she couldn’t have done the walk back without me. (Well, she could have, but it would have taken a lot longer.)

This is what rangers do. We help people from all over live to tell stories of their adventures in the parks. Just another day in the park.


Things to Leave Behind with 2016

I’m back at Rocky for a few brief moments this afternoon. This spot is where I have come to clear my mind, write and think. Many, many times over the last 11 months.

Today is December 26, and the merryment, laughter, friendship and food of the past 24 hours are fresh in my mind.

I scrapped one small part of my weekend plans because of the weather. The winds have been CRAZY. Last night Estes Park and the high country were supposed to have gusts as high as 75 miles per hour. During the daytime, the winds have only been maybe 30-40 mph.

So I didn’t go snowshoeing. (Incidentally, some folks who tried to snowshoe, turned around after a very short distance.)

But this change of plans made me reflect upon some changes that need to happen as I move into 2017.

1) Stop whimping out. The best things in life are often achieved after hard work. So, are my excuses legitimate? 75 mph might be a bit much, but what about other excuses? I need to just go for things. Period.

2) Do not let fear hold me back. A woman at my office says “I can’t do this,” so often out of fear. I won’t share her story much, but suffice it to say that she CAN do the things in front of her.  But she is middle-aged and still crippled with fear when something new is put in front of her. Fear of failure, or fear of trying something new alone (at work), or whatever, I just watch fear hold her back and bring tears to her eyes nearly every day. She is very sweet, and I feel sorry for her. I cannot let fear hold on to me like that. 

3) Make the most of my resources. This is simple. Am I using what I have in the best way, for the greatest good? This is mostly about my finances and talents.

4) Take your ideas and make something out of them. Every now and then, my creative side comes up with something brilliant, even if I do say so myself. But how many ideas go slipping right away without ever materializing? My creative side needs to be heeded a little more often.


So, as I sit here in the park today, watching the wind whip through the dried grasses and trees, I am hoping to let these  winds blow through my lifestyle and rejuvenate me with better habits for the future.

Another Rebirth

My Dear Friend,

Will you understand? Or will you just see a mountain to conquer?

I have experienced every emotion imaginable within this mountain cathedral. Joy, pain, love, security, insecurity, loss, fear, contentment, wonder.


Today, as I took a last look for the season at the rooftop of this grand place, I worried how you would feel upon your first visit. Because if you are not open to loving it as I have, then I don’t want share it. I would rather keep it safe for myself.

I have been on both the giving and receiving ends of lessons here. I have seen beauty; I have seen death. And more than I can express, I have seen rebirth.

I have seen the rebirth of forests and landscapes that were taken for granted, mountains and trees who would always be there for us. Slopes green with conifers, rushing waterfalls, and flowers of every color and shape that we photograph endlessly because we have an inkling that they might be special for some reason.

But why are they special? Are they truly for us? Or are we each just part of this picture?

When I wore a ranger’s uniform, people would ask me why all of the trees were dead. Some people, who looked with very limited vision, saw only grey tree trunks and death. And a bug to blame. Not only did they miss the continuation of life, but they didn’t train their vision on the processes, the next generation, and the future. They thought only of the here and now.

Furthermore, did they really stopp to consider the role our species has played in this death and rebirth?

Ther was an audible sigh on the wind today. This cathedral has been trampled by the unseeing masses for months now, and needs its winter rest. It needs the refreshing snows, the cold and dark that trigger so many annual rituals. It also needs understanding, care and a view of the bigger picture on our part.

The trees and rivers need protection, respect, and people to reconnect with the natural processes upon which our lives depend. We can’t just see a mountain and climb it. We must fight for wildness. We must fight to just be allowed to clean up our water sources. We must fight for fresh air and the plants that help us clean up the polution our lifestyles create.

We must fight for these resources. Because with out them, our lives won’t exist. It is not enough to say we care. We must put action in the place of words.

Our National Parks and other public lands are the remaining vestiges of the continent as it was intended to operate. We would do well to heed the lessons they teach.

So when you get out here, don’t spend your time trying to summit a peak. Rather, slow down and sit by a stream and be mezmerized by the endless patterning of the ripples. Watch the squirrels chatter and scamper about in their search for food. Listen to the bees buzz from flower to flower as they play their role. Smell the forest floor after a rain.

Please do yourself a favor. Stop thinking of this as your mid-life crisis and realize this is a chance for rebirth in a sacred place. I hope I am priviledged enough to be a part of it.

The Mountain Valley Home

Looking out over the same mountain valley I have seen a thousand times before, the sunlight sparkles off the snowflakes in the air, seemingly held aloft by an unseen breeze. The valley stretches ahead of me, dotted with the occasional pine tree or boulder, criss-crossed by a small cold stream. The pines and spruces create a patchwork of deep green against the snow white backdrop on the slopes around me. This valley is protected on all sides by distant mountain spires. Those peaks seem to grow taller the nearer I move.

A grand orchestra resounds all around me. The present concert involves the trilling of birds in the trees and the rustle of the winds as it hurries through dried grasses, all set to the tempo of my footsteps as I walk through the snow on this blustery morning.

I am lucky to be here. And I try to be present in this moment. I don’t want to be anywhere else. I have spent time in many mountain wonderlands across North America, but I always come back here. This mountain valley is home.

Every time I come back, some things are different: the seasons, the color of the grasses and wildflowers, the activity of the wildlife, the wind, temperature and snow.

But some things stay the same: the feeling of peace and calm. The excitement of the challenge (for all trails, no matter how simple they may seem, present a challenge). Same too is the realness of the living world around me–something I certainly don’t get from my computer and office in the city.

I just need to be up in this mountain park where the trees dance to their own music.