07/01/2002 01:00 ● Published by Karen Vail
by Karen VailDriving in the Yampa Valley in the spring and summer is a feast for the eyes. Green, lush, spattered with color. Why do we have such a grand diversity of wildflowers? The Yampa Valley is found at the western edge of the southern Rocky Mountains. To the west are vast spaces of the GreatBasin and the Colorado Plateau. Storms build as they travel across the canyons and flats until the system hits the western edge of the mountains, pushing up against this large barricade. To move onward, the system needs to lose some of this weight so it can rise up and over the mountains. Lucky us, as we get the precipitation, then the dried out system moves over the Continental Divide to the Front Range. So, comparatively speaking, the Western Slope is wet, with up to 25 inches of precipitation each year, compared to Denver's 15 inches. As we move up in elevation, other things also change: wind speed, UV radiation and temperature. Plants have adapted to these differences over the eons and have created life zones, imaginary lines delineating changes in vegetation types with changing elevation. From 6,700 feet in the Yampa Valley to 12,000 feet in the mountains, these various life zones will be seen like blurred bands of differing vegetation. Let's take a closer look at the wildflowers we might find here in northwest Colorado as we take a little jaunt from Steamboat Springs up to the top of Mount Zirkel in theZirkel Wilderness Area. We'll start by heading north out of Steamboat Springs on Routt County Road129, Elk River Road. Notice the dry, scrubby hillsides of Gambel oak, chokecherry and serviceberry, intermixed with Douglas fir patches. This is the FOOTHILLS ZONE, a hot, dry band considered a transition zone between the grassland/semidesert areas and the mountain forests. It's also a botanist'sdelight because of the large variety of niches; hot vs. cool, dry vs. moist, rocky vs. rich. Spring brings along the greatest shows of color with arrowleaf balsamroot, longleaf phlox, larkspur, glacier lilies, sagebrush buttercup, and mountain bluebells. By mid- to late summer, the dry foothills are generally finishing up their blooming stage and coming into the yummy fruitingstage. Because of the abundance of berries, acorns and other food, this zone is popular in the fall with black bears. After we pass the blink-of-an-eye town of Clark we'll take the right fork on Seedhouse Road, heading toward the Slavonia Trailhead. You probably noticed that the forests are becoming lusher and taller as we merge into the aspen and lodge pole pine of the MONTANA ZONE from 7,500 to 8,500 feet. As we rise in elevation, we tend to get more moisture. This extra moisture and theorganic matter from the deciduous aspen forest provide for a highly diverse and lushn array of plants. The wildflowers of the aspen forest provide a rich bounty of color and include aspen sunflower, tall larkspur, Colorado blue columbine, coparsnip, love and giant hyssop. Lodge pole pine forests can be dark, silent cathedrals where only a hardy fesurvive: heart-leaved arnica, pine drops, wood nymph, pippsissewa, coral root orchids, fairy slipper orchids and a variety of pylorus. Don'tforget the beautiful meadows of the montane filled with pink plumes and mules ears, and wet areas plush with shooting stars, bog orchids and chiming bells. As we pass Seedhouse Campground and Seedhouse Guard Station, we continuestraight at the fork (the right fork heads up to the North Lake and Three Island Lake trailheads). Just a feminutes later the road ends at the parking area of Slavonia Trailhead. Get on the pack, we're ready to go for a hike. Take a right at the first fork and head towardb Gold Creek Lake. Did you notice that the forests have become darker? The SUBALPINE ZONE,beginning around 8,500 feet and extending to tree line at 10,500 feet, is a vast, dense forest of Subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce dotted with mountain meadows, aspen and lodge pole pine. Thewinters are long and harsh, and moisture, mostly in the form of snow, is generally abundant. In the dense shade of the conifers the flowers are subdued and sparse. Look carefully to find one-sided pyrola and pink pyrola, twin-leaf twayblade orchid, pine drops, Jacob's ladder, purple lady's slipper, orchid, twinflower and wood nymph. Then we pop out into a sunny meadoand the wildflowers are having a celebration. In the drier meadows, the bright arnicas abound, along with bistort, aspen daisy, bottlegentian, pussytoes and orange sneezeweed. The wetter meadows host marsh marigold, little red elephant and, in the fall, the dazzling blue of fringed gentian. We pass Gold Creek Lake, cross Gold Creek and soon emerge into a spectacularlong valley which leads to the jagged ridge of Mount Zirkel, just around the corner. The trail winds through impressive old-growth spruce fir forests, past the abandoned Slavonia Mine and into the grandiose amphitheater leading to Red Dirt Pass. At the upper limit of tree growth past the Slavonia Mine and on the many switchbacks up to Red Dirt Pass, the spruce and fir become stunted and gnarled. Intense drying winds prune these tree islands and form the FOREST-TUNDRAZONE, also known as the krummholz (German for crooked wood). The krummholz shelters many subalpine plants that can't take the extremes of the alpine environment: mountain bluebell, Jacob's ladder, Colorado currant and huckleberry.
We pass the last small stand of krummholz toward the top of Red DirtPass, leave the main trail by heading up a steep ridge to the left, and head up into the treeless ALPINE ZONE, above 10,500 feet. Here the wind is persistent, the sunlight harsh, the soil rocky and the �summers' last about 30 days. Right away, you notice the wind and stop to put on your windbreak and take a water break. Honice it feels sitting on the ground where the wind is reduced to a breeze and even better, laying on your belly with the wind only a murmur. Did you remember to bring your pocket magnifier to viethese beauties up close? (You can also turn your binoculars around and use them as a magnifier.) Since you enjoy being so close to the ground out of the wind, chances are the plants do, too. Look at all that life right under your nose! Most people see the tundra as a barren place. If they only looked down as they walked, they would see as many as 20 different plantspecies in one square foot of ground. That doesn't even include the numerous lichens and mosses that also call the tundra home. Some of the more common species include alpine avens, moss campion, old-man-of-themountain, sky pilot, big-rooted spring beauty, snobuttercup, snowlover and black-headed daisy. Even though these alpine plants are highly adapted to this extremely harsh climate, they cannot take the tread of a boot. A beautiful moss campion the size of a small dinner plate can be 75 years old. A misplaced step on the plant itself, or moving a small stone protecting it, can start a sloprocess of erosion. This should be ample reason to walk softly in the tundra. It's time to pack up and head back down, alas all too soon. What a pleasantday we've had on our tour up to Mount Zirkel through the variety of life zones. Hopefully, you will enjoy many more to come as you explore the beautiful high country of northwest Colorado with its spectacle of wildflowers. } Naturalist Karen Vail is a native Steamboater usually found in the depths of the backcountry exploring and enjoying her wonderful home.NO TIME TO GET INTO THE HIGH COUNTRY TO ENJOY THE SPECTACLE OF WILDFLOWERS?Head to the Yampa River Botanic Park for anenchanting dose of native plants. This five-acrepatch of paradise in Steamboat Springs highlightsa good variety of Yampa Valley natives in the HighCountry Garden, native Edible Plants Garden andthe Native Medicinal Plants Garden, as well asscattered through the rest of the park. Plants arelabeled and natives are designated. If you havequestions about a certain plant name or needsome growing advice, the staff can help.The gardensare open dawn to dusk all summer. Cometake a leisurely stroll, watch the birds at the feeders,have a nice, long lunch and enjoy a piece ofparadise in the Yampa Valley.