One of the best things about spring hiking is the opportunity to see the lush vibrancy of wildflowers. Alas, in Rocky Mountain National Park, where elevations rise more to than 12,000 feet at the top of Trail Ridge Road and more than 14,000 feet at the summit of Longs Peak, snow may still be melting well into June and July. Still, a determined wildflower seeker can find these perky plants; he or she just needs to know where to look.
Of course you’ll need to start at lower elevations or open meadows. Definitely plan on getting out of your car and getting onto the trail. And if you’re planning a trip in the park that requires access to Trail Ridge Road, be sure to check the park’s website [www.nps.gov/romo/] to confirm that the road is open.
Here are a slew of wildflower-rich hikes to get you started this spring. Just remember that it’s illegal to pick the flowers.
Wildflower Hikes Inside Rocky Mountain National Park
1. Cub Lake/The Pool Loop
With a peak elevation of 8,620 feet, the hike to Cub Lake is likely to offer more wildflowers earlier in the season than the Tundra Communities Trail (below) since it’s much lower.
Begin the 4.6-mile out-and-back hike at the Cub Lake Trailhead in the Moraine Park area, heading through terrain badly scarred by the 2012 Fern Lake Fire and on to Cub Lake. If you’re up to lengthen your trek, take on the full 6.2-mile Pool Loop. Although you’re likely to encounter many wildflowers on your way to the lake, adding on this additional mileage is worth it to see more than 80 varieties of blooming beauties.
The view of the lake with it's ring of bright yellow pond lilies will be your reward. It's an odd tropical sight for an alpine lake. Something so unexpected.
Alternative: Nymph Lake for an Easy Hike - If you find the hike to Cub Lake too challenging, then do the half-mile hike from Bear Lake to Nymph lake where you'll also see bright yellow floating pond lilies. Pack a lunch, sit on a nearby rock or log and have a picnic. Because of the popularity of the Bear Lake trail head and the this trail in particular, it is best to arrive early in the morning. If you are starting out in midday, park at the park-n-ride to ride the shuttle down to Bear Lake. The trail has a slight upgrade to the lake but it is considered an easy trek, and the view is worth it.
2. Tundra Communities Trail (also called the Toll Memorial Trail and the Tundra Nature Trail)
Check (and double check) to make sure that Trail Ridge Road is fully open before embarking on this adventure.
Situated near the top of Trail Ridge Road near Rock Cut, the Tundra Communities Trail presents a show of hearty wildflowers that can survive in temperatures that typically reach a maximum of only 70 degrees in the peak of summer—and that’s rare. Look around for high altitude species like low-growing Indian paintbrush, forget-me-nots, Alpine avens, bistort and sky pilo. If you’re really lucky, you’ll stumble upon an alpine sunflower, a variety that grows only in Rocky Mountain National Park. The alpine sunflower spends seven to 10 summer days collecting solar energy, blooms once, and then the whole plant dies.
The 0.5-mile long paved Tundra Communities Trail is accessible to wheelchairs. Reaching an elevation of 12,319 feet expect to take a few stops along the way to catch your breath. But just blame your need to pause on the desire to get a closer look at the flora around you.
Wildflower Hikes Nearby Rocky Mountain National Park
3. Fossil Creek Trail in the Cathy Fromme Prairie Natural Area
Located near Fort Collins, about 45 minutes outside of Rocky National Park, the Cathy Fromme Prairie Natural Area encompasses a wide swatch of land preserved from development and industry.
The 2.4-mile long Fossil Creek Trail offers a paved pathway through the prairie. You’ll see a range of different flowers depending on what time you’re there, but in the spring season of late May, keep your eyes peeled for the yellow of Nuttall’s viola and the wavy-leaf false dandelion; the purples of stork’s bill and Short’s milkvetch; and the whites of small-flowered alyssum, sand lilies and wild plum.
4. Blue Lake, starting from the Mitchell Lake Trailhead in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area
Just off the Peak to Peak Highway south of Rocky Mountain National Park, the 5.1-mile roundtrip hike to Blue Lake offers spectacular views not just of wildflowers, but of the three rocky peaks that surround Blue Lake: Mt Toll, Mt Audubon and Paiute Peak.
Be on the lookout for native wildflower varieties when passing Mitchell Lake on the way to Blue Lake.