An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

August 18, 2009

The Ute Trail

Our trip to Colorado filled me with memories to replay over and over in my head - to pull out as needed for years to come. However, if I am asked to name the highlight of the trip, I would have to say it was my hike on the Ute Trail. In my mind, it was more beautiful than the grandest cathedral and as closer to God than you will ever get kneeling at an alter.

As the name implies it is an old Native American trail used by the Utes and Arapahos to get over the Continental Divide. We started at the Alpine Visitors Center (which we will visit in the next Colorado post) at about 11,700' in elevation. Being this high is quite a feat for someone who has spent the better portion of his life at sea level. The altitude will tax you if you are not acclimated to it, but fortunately I did much better on this trip than I did 5 years ago. Back then I thought I was having a heart attack while we were visiting Mt. Evans, which is over 14,000'. People are not the only ones who struggle in this environment. It amazes me that any plant or animal can survive here. There can be strong winds, harsh light and eight months of winter, with falling snow recorded in every month of the year. In several of the following pictures you can see there is still snow lingering around even on a late July day.

The first picture is the view from the trail head. If you click to enlarge (which can be done on any picture) you can make out the trail itself in the lower left hand corner. The foreground at first appears fairly barren and full of rocks as we are in alpine tundra where no trees will survive. At this point it really did not matter to me what the ground looked like, I just ate up that distant view of the mountains and the high drama skies. I could be satisfied with that for a lifetime. However, on closer inspection you realize that the ground is not just covered in rocks, but also in little treasures living their lives, trying to attract attention and reproduce in the few short weeks of summer. The wildflowers were everywhere and July is their peak month. This left me with a dilemma - should I look up, out and beyond or look down and between the rocks - oh, and also make sure you don't take a misstep off of the path. I managed to compromise and do a little of each.
Sherpa Girl B. helped me with the identification of the wildflowers, and I have also checked out the only two reference books in the Norfolk Public Library system on Rocky Mountain flora. I hope I have gotten the names correct, but if anyone knows different, please let me know. The first one is Lidia obtusiloba - Alpine Sandwort.
I was glad to see one of my favorite group of plants represented by this Sedum lanceolatum.

Castilleja occidentalis - Western Paintbursh Yellow Form
Pedicularis groenlandica - Elephanthead
The portion of the trail we took is just over 4.5 miles, and about a third of the way through we began dropping in elevation and struggling trees and small ponds began to appear as we entered Forest Canyon Pass.

Here at slightly lower elevations the environment becomes less inhospitable and the plants take advantage of that.

Elk were easily seen at higher elevations in groups made up mainly of cows and juveniles. We spent about 15 minutes watching a herd on a very distant (they looked like ants) and nearly vertical snowbank, in what could only be some sort of frolic, chasing each other in ever expanding and contracting formations. The only bull elk we saw was this one, and as we turned a corner on the trail, here he was in all his glory, totally unconcerned with our presence.
The lower we descended the taller the trees got, and at first we were looking down on their crowns, but eventually came closer to their roots.

For us the trail ended near this rock formation above Poudre Lake at Milner Pass.
If you are ever in the Park, this is a great hike, and since we started at the top and worked downward, it was not as strenuous as you might think, plus it is easy access from the main park road, Trail Ridge Rd. If you would like to see the remainder of my pictures, including more of the wildflowers, please visit my flickr page.

Next Colorado Post: The Alpine Visitors Center


  1. Never been to Colorado or toured the west. Stunning photos. Thanks for the visit.

  2. Wow, incredible views. It's just so different from the Southeast, isn't it? I love the wildflowers too. Thanks for taking us along!

  3. Wimp---ok, just kidding...that altitude is hard and you gotta take a few more breaks huh? But the views and all are worth it. You took grand photos.

    I cried all over your photos. Brings back a ton of remarkable memories. I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed this series. You have to go to know.

    It's hard to come off that high mentally cause it is so utterly amazing. Did you get sunburned?

  4. The sceneries are splendid. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  5. I'm glad to know about this hike, as we will definitely be back in CO again one day to enjoy the cool weather and beautiful scenery.

    But I will have to acclimate before I attempt a trail at tundra altitude again. Last time I ended up with altitude sickness that included nausea and a crippling headache.

  6. Just breath taking! The series of photos with the pond/lake coming closer and closer was interesting...the change was great. Your first photo didn't open for me. Not sure why not.
    It is a beautiful trail and I am glad you brought the camera so we could join you.

  7. Those are incredible photos!I miss being able to hike the trails. Our trip to Chimney Rock just about did my lower back in, I guess it's the unlevel ground. Thanks for the tour.--Randy

  8. Les. I had to force myself to move on from the first photo. This is a place that I will probably never see in person, but your photos have taken me there, thanks! Thanks too for looking down and doing such a fine job capturing the little alpines. I do love them so and admire their tenacity. The orange lichen was simply delish. The forest views did seem like a cathedral, one better than human hands could ever make. :-)

  9. I’m not too good over 10K feet other, but it’s always worth it. I’ve only been to Colorado in the winter (to ski.) I would love to see wildflowers.

    It’s hard to pick between the mountains, the blooms or the wildlife! Thanks for taking us on your glorious hike. This was a perfect post, so well captured in image and in prose.

  10. Wow. These images are truly, truly breathtaking--and I ain't padding here. I want to go! Oddly, your pics remind me o my trip to Scotland, particularly witht eh pond in a rolling greenscape. Pick me up next time you drive through on your way to CO. I'll bring Twinkies.

  11. It's beautiful Les! I love the views and the water in the ponds and lakes must be icy cold. The photos of the reflected clouds/sky are wonderful. I tried to talk my spouse into moving to Colorado...I love it so much out there! Thanks for sharing your vacation with us. gail

  12. James,
    You should go, it is so not the East in more ways than one.

    Sweet Bay,
    It was great to leave my comfort and climate zone.

    I am glad you enjoyed the post, it was not meant to make anyone cry though. Yes, I did get sunburned, but did not care.

    Autumn Belle,
    Thanks for stopping by. There will be more to come, so please come back.

    I had a headache the whole time I was in Co., but it was fortunately not crippling. They say you should not drink alcohol if you are prone to altitude sickness, but I thought that would be extreme, and it did help with the headaches. I hope you get to go!

    I can't get the photo to open either, all of the other ones will, so I am not sure what is going on. Thanks for the comments.

    I live in wonder, wondering when my back will give out again or my knees fail. The fates were with me on this hike and all my parts did what they were supposed to.

    I can't believe how many times I have taken pictures of lichens. I just seem to be drawn to them.

    I am glad you liked them. The wildflowers are a little different that what we see here in Tidewater.

    I am glad you could come along and without the alt. sickness. I am not a great lover of winter, even around here where we don't have one compared to Maine. Maybe they will invent a way to go skiing without the cold and snow.

    If I had known you would bring twinkies, I would have stopped this summer.

    I would move there too, if there was some way to bring the ocean closer.


  13. Les — every post in this series has been better than the last. Can't thank you enough for taking all these photos and sharing. Have not been to Colorado mountains for over 30 years but still have strong memories. This is a hike I certainly would like to take — even if only in my dreams and your photos!

  14. I've never been lucky enough to visit Colorado, thanks for sharing your trip with us. Your photos are gorgeous, I felt like I was right there with you. :)

  15. Your photos are breathtaking. No matter how well I think I can design my little backyard garden, Mother Nature's designs kick butt and make me realize it's all been done. I particularly like the moss on the rocks. That tiny landscape has all the richness and vastness of the big sky pics with their shadows on the meadows.

  16. Good morning,
    I'm far too envious to comment.

  17. Brings back memories. If I hadn't landed in Maui, I very easily would have returned to Colorado. It was such a beautiful change for a kid who grew up in Florida. To see so far is an amazing thing.

  18. Linda,
    I am glad you were able to come along, there will be a few more posts to come.

    I hope you will be able to get there one day, it is worth the effort. We could not have done it without the generosity of our friends.

    W. Sore,
    I agree with you, gardens are beautiful, but do not compare to what nature will produce on its own given the opportunity.

    Thanks! I am surprised you have time to browse. I thought you would be out getting the garden tour-ready.

    I hope you enjoyed them. We do not get to travel much beyond our immediate area, so this was a real treat for us.

    It is different from your own mountains, but not necessarily better. I am just as thrilled to be in the Blue Ridge or Smokies as I am in the Rockies.


  19. The stark white trunk photo - amazing!

  20. Georgia,
    It really caught my eye. In hindsight I wish I could have gotten closer.


  21. Absolutely beautiful! Makes me long for some crisp cool air.

  22. Joan,
    I hope I was able to take you out of that thick Low Country summer air, at least for a few minutes (truth be told I like that air).


  23. I am glad you linked in this post. I really enjoyed your photography throughout the post on your trek. Those little alpine plants are so darn cute. Tough little guys too.