The Central Rockies, Part II

After leaving Crested Butte, CO, we headed east and spent a couple of days in the Gunnison Basin, hoping to run across the scarce Gunnison Sage-Grouse. The split of this species from Greater Sage Grouse was momentous because prior to 1991, this population had never been recognized as distinct even at the subspecific level. It was an entirely unsuspected new species of bird, resident in numbers in the continental U.S.! We had no luck with the grouse, but did find Pediocactus simpsonii, a new species for us, in a cactus genus we had seen only once before. One night we had to move camp at 1:30 a.m. because an animal was chewing on our wiring. It was loud enough to wake us up, so I expected to find a porcupine when I went out with a flashlight, but it turned out to just be a deer mouse of the genus Peromyscus! The second night we had marvelous views of Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in our new telescope, a Zeiss Harpia, which has a larger objective lens than our previous scopes (85 mm vs 65 mm) and is able to resolve finer detail.

Above: Mirabilis multiflora (Colorado Four O’Clock), North of Penrose, CO

We next briefly visited Great Sand Dunes National Park, and enjoyed seeing some interesting plants there, including a grass in a new genus for us, Calamovilfa longifolia. We disperse-camped south of the park, on national forest land, and having a decent cell signal in camp for the first time in 3.5 weeks, we stayed an extra night because we were so far behind on tasks requiring connectivity. This turned out to be a mistake, as a huge party convened that Friday, immediately adjacent to where we were camped, and it lasted all night. It was our worst night of camping of the whole year, which has otherwise been remarkably pleasant, largely because we have spent so little time in campgrounds. A small consolation was a female Williamson’s Sapsucker in pinyon-juniper, a habitat in which we have not previously seen this species, normally found in cool, high-elevation forests.

Gentiana algida, Pike's Peak, CO
Above: Gentiana algida (Arctic Gentian), Pike’s Peak, CO

While in this part of Colorado, we hiked at the Aiken Canyon Preserve, administered by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Thunderstorms threatened the entire time (a common occurrence in summer in the mountains), but we made it through unscathed and enjoyed the trail. We found a Bureau of Land Management dispersed camping area, Penrose Commons, which had signal, so we finally got off the previous blog post. Birds at this site included Gray Flycatcher, Mountain Bluebird, Common Poorwill, and Common Nighthawk. We shared our site with a friendly Black-tailed Jackrabbit and found a couple of new plants in the area.

Petrified redwood, Florissant Fossil Beds NM, CO
Above: Petrified redwood trunk, Florissant Fossil Beds NM, CO

Returning to the high Rockies, we drove up Pike’s Peak, one of the most convenient places in Colorado to reach true alpine habitat. Normally one can drive to just over 14,000 feet of elevation here, but the summit was closed to private vehicles for construction. The waiting line for shuttles to the summit contained a couple hundred people, few wearing masks, so we decided the COVID-19 risks were far too high. But we were able to get to 13,000 feet and had a fine selection of tundra plants, finding six new plant species, including a fancy gentian, Gentiana algida, and an aster family member, Tonestus pygmaeus, that represented a new genus for us! Our nest stop was Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, which has a number of remarkable fossilized redwood trunks (same genus, but different species, than the redwoods of the Pacific Coast).

Herd of ca 270 Elk, High Creek Fen TNC Preserve, South Park, CO
Above: Part of a herd of about 270 Elk, High Creek Fen TNC Preserve, South Park, CO

In the Rockies, the term “park” is used to refer to large, flat-bottomed, grassy valleys within the mountains. We were amazed by the size of South Park, roughly 50 by 25 miles. This area formerly contained a number of rich fens with rare plant species. A fen is a wetland similar to a bog, except that it receives water not only from rainfall, but also from surface flow, which brings mineral and nutrients in. A rich fen is one with especially high mineral concentrations, which typically are alkaline and precipitate out as a white carbonate material known as marl. Fens can be spectacular places to botanize, and, fortunately, TNC protected one of these in South Park, High Creek Fen. Though there are no trails or other facilities, it can be visited by the public. We found four new plants here, one a rare blue-eyed grass (Sisyrhinchium pallidum). Other highlights were seeing four different species in the gentian family, and unexpectedly coming upon a herd of about 270 Elk, which sped off shortly after our mutual detection.

Rocky Mountain Parnassian, Independence Pass, CO
Above: Rocky Mountain Parnassian, Independence Pass, CO

Camping became more challenging as we got within a weekend’s travel radius of larger cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs. We camped above Twin Lakes to hike at Independence Pass, where a paved road reaches 12,000 feet. The highlight here was seeing Rocky Mountain Parnassian, an interesting butterfly in the Swallowtail family, which is found only in tundra. We also had perhaps the clearest weather and best scenery of any hike we’d done in Colorado, not knowing that severe wildfires would shortly put an end to that for the rest of our time in the Rockies. On August 10, we hiked up Shrine Mountain; this turned out to be the last really good hike we did for wildflowers, as the summer season was drawing to a close, and most plants were now setting fruit. On the summit, we ate lunch among boulders formed from conglomerate rock, which proved to be very interesting botanically. By clambering over and around one boulder, which was about the size of a dump truck, we added three new species of plants!

View from trail heading SW of Independence Pass, CO
Above: View from trail heading southwest of Independence Pass, CO

After making arrangements for the 90,000-mile service for our truck, which we had to schedule 11 days in advance (to avoid having to go into Denver), we drove to Lower Cataract Lake, in White River National Forest. We both hiked and canoed around the lake; it was the first time our canoe had been in the water in two months. Next we headed for Mount Evans, another peak where you can drive to over 14,000 feet. I had really been looking forward to seeing it again, but it was closed for the season due to COVID-19 concerns. This nixed our chance to botanize and look for Rosy Finches at Summit Lake, and to see Bristlecone Pines – a real shame. Having lost some scheduling flexibility with the truck appointment, and with the wildflower season winding down, we decided to head for Rocky Mountain National Park, where we planned to spend a week. But upon our arrival we found that you could only get into the park before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m., unless you had reservations, which were effectively unobtainable – another COVID-19 glitch in our plans. So for the next three mornings we got up around 4:15 a.m. to squeeze in the gate before 6 a.m.

Eretrichium nanum elongatum, Independence Pass, CO
Above: Eretrichium nanum (Arctic Alpine Forget-me-not), Independence Pass, CO. The tiny flowers are only 3 mm (1/8 inch) across. 

The first morning started badly, with construction blocking the park entrance, and my then having an allergic reaction to a new flavor of granola bar we were trying, which we did not realize had sunflower seeds in it. We finally made it up the one-way Old Fall River Road, which was an exceptional drive, and provided the first Moose of the year. As we closed on 12,000 feet, an immense wildfire came into view, just outside the park boundary. We had the very short trail at Medicine Bow Curve to ourselves, but the Tundra World Trail at Rock Cut, where I saw my first White-tailed Ptarmigan as a teenager, was seriously overcrowded and fewer than 10% of people wore masks. A full-day hike to Ouzel Falls in the Wild Basin section of the park (southeast corner) was also overcrowded though mask usage was much higher, maybe 50%. On our third and last day, we drove the remaining roads in the park, walked portions of the trails to Fern and Cub Lakes, and crossed the park to exit out the west side. All in all, it was an abbreviated and disappointing visit.

Melissa Blue, Lower Cataract Lake, White River NF, CO
Above: Melissa Blue, Lower Cataract Lake, White River NF, CO

We were now pretty out of sync with our schedule, with four days until our truck appointment – too much time to do nothing but not enough to cover our remaining planned loop to the northwest. Although our first five weeks in Colorado were quite excellent, with the way things had been going recently,  we thought we should leave sooner rather than later, and add in a little time in Wyoming instead. So we dropped three destinations from the itinerary and headed for Trappers Lake in the Flat Tops Wilderness. We stayed here for several nights, spending one lovely day paddling on the lake, where we found a bizarre aquatic plant, Lemna trisulca, which I had wanted to see for a long time. Unfortunately, the entire area had burned in 2002, a fact that somehow did not turn up in my internet searches, so we did not do a planned hike. Beetle infestations had killed many trees before the fire, providing high fuel levels, and leading to a hot fire that seemingly killed almost every single tree in the basin. This area was regarded as extremely scenic before the fire, but it looks like it will be many decades before it has recovered.

Water Strider, Lower Cataract Lake, White River NF, CO
Above: Water Strider, Lower Cataract Lake, White River NF, CO

Leaving the Flat Tops, we stopped by Rifle Falls State Park for an afternoon, which was pleasant. Rifle Falls is a pretty set of three parallel cascades dropping over thick carbonate deposits. Though billed as a scenic wonder (and it is lovely), reading the fine print reveals that it is not entirely natural, as it was originally a single waterfall. But alterations to generate hydropower, about a century ago, caused the stream to split into three separate sections just above the lip of the cascades, leading to the triple falls of today. Leaving the park, we headed back towards our truck appointment, only to find that I-70 was closed due to another huge wildfire. We had left one day to spare, just in case (thank goodness!) – it took essentially that entire extra day to drive around the fire. We were joined by many others doing the same thing, overloading the narrow mountain roads. Impatient drivers constantly passed in unsafe areas, leading to many near-miss collisions that likely would have been fatal — it was really scary driving!

Red Squirrel, Ouzel Falls Trail, Rocky Mountain NP, CO
Above: Red Squirrel, Ouzel Falls Trail, Rocky Mountain NP, CO

The day after the truck was serviced, we headed for Wyoming. With several recent unpleasant surprises, we carefully checked the website for Grand Teton National Park, where we planned to spend about 5 days, and everything looked good. We made one half-day stop to break up the two-day drive, at Sinks Canyon State Park, near Lander, WY. This is a really interesting place, where the Popo Agie River (pronounced poe-POE zhah) goes underground into a limestone labyrinth, emerging back at the surface a quarter of a mile away, about two hours later, as shown by dye studies. The point of reemergence, called “The Rise”, is viewed from a high platform, and features a sandy pool filled with large trout (some appeared to be well over two feet long) of three species (none native). There is a vending machine with fish food pellets, which can be dropped from the platform into the water.

Clay-colored Sparrow, Rifle Falls SP, CO
Above: Clay-colored Sparrow, Rifle Falls SP, CO

Continuing to the Grand Tetons, we could not help but notice that the smoke from wildfires was just as bad as it had been in Colorado, where two huge fires burned. An internet search revealed that smoke, principally from the lightning-caused fire complexes in California, had blanketed Wyoming. When we arrived in the Tetons, the mountains were barely visible from the famous viewpoints, because of the thick smoke. Had the National Park Service noted this situation in their Alerts section of their website, as they obviously should have done, we would not have headed to the Grand Tetons from Colorado. We were very aware of the California fires and were corresponding with friends affected by them, and closely following developments. We were saddened to see that the house we lived in for ten years, in Boulder Creek, CA, was destroyed by the CZU fire, although it appears that about two-thirds of the houses in the immediate neighborhood survived. However, as of this writing, over 700 homes have been destroyed within about ten air miles of where we lived.

The Sink, Sinks Canyon SP, WY
Above: The Sink, where the Popo Agie River runs underground, Sinks Canyon SP, WY

The smoke gradually improved during our stay, though it never became clear enough to do any scenic photographs. While in the Grand Tetons we paddled a total of 32 miles, on Two Ocean Lake; Stringer and Leigh Lakes (probably the best flat-water paddle in the park); northern Jackson Lake and the adjacent Snake River; and Lower Slide Lake (just outside the park, having been formed by the Gros Ventre Slide). We spent one day driving through Yellowstone NP, seeing Elk, Bison, Pronghorn, Coyote, and Red Fox, and exited out the northeast entrance, via the spectacular Beartooth Highway, which reaches 11,000 feet elevation. We look forward to sometime being here when this alpine area is in flower; we have only seen it in late summer. From this point we began one of the longest drives of the year, nearly a thousand miles, to northeast Minnesota. Here we expect to spend three or four weeks, making up for the limited paddling opportunities so far this year!

Trout, The Rise, Sinks Canyon SP, WY
Above: Trout at The Rise, where the Popo Agie River resurfaces, Sinks Canyon SP, WY


3 thoughts on “The Central Rockies, Part II

  1. Thanks Brian, That last photo looks like my pond did last fall as there were over forty trout five to seven pounds that I fed every night, otters took care of that while I was down and out for a couple weeks last winter, only five left come spring, more growing again. Just wrote about the fires in in my column. Think I sent it to you, safe here so far so many people not making long trips hitting this place and hiking it to death, plus leaving their garbage. Safe travels, Gary

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10


  2. Hi, Gary, thanks for your comment. It was neat to see the trout like that though I wish they were native species! Present were Rainbow (most abundant), Cut-throat, and Brown Trout (just a few). I understand that Cut-throats are native elsewhere in Wyoming but not here. The Rainbows were really strikingly colored and patterned!


  3. Dear Brian,
    How are you? I enjoy your nomadic naturalists journal. Thank you for your efforts.
    Chris and I want to have a family reunion at a lake or waterway within a couple hours or so from Toronto Canada. Either USA or Canada next summer. Can you recommend a place with cabins in that general locale?
    My daughter, Kathleen and her husband And children live in Toronto proper. My son, Rich and his family will be back in the states next summer. Don’t know where they’ll be stationed yet.
    My son, Joe and his family live in Nashville and will be making the reunion also.
    Chris and I are in Sacramento, CA. We are doing well.
    Peace be with you,

    Give us liberty or give us death!


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