Alpine Treasure

By Eilene Lyon

The gold we were seeking was not mineral or animal, but plant.

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Draba graminea (grass-like draba; Rocky Mountain Whitlow Grass)

Near the end of July, I went on a Colorado Native Plant Society field trip to Black Bear Pass in the San Juan Mountains. We were fortunate to have in our group Arnold Clifford, one of the authors of Flora of the Four Corners Region. This tome (weighing in at a respectable 6-1/2 pounds) covers the entire San Juan River drainage, from alpine to rocky desert.

Arnold is a Navajo from northwestern New Mexico who began learning botany from his medicine-woman grandmother when he was 10. He is self-taught and many plants in the Four Corners have been named by, and for, him. He seems to have a photographic memory and can recite something like 20,000 species, sub-species and varieties — by scientific name, common name, Navajo name, and ethno-botanical uses. He is truly amazing!

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The beautiful alpine vistas of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado.

We began our excursion looking at some montane and subalpine species on Red Mountain Pass, then headed up the 4WD road toward Black Bear Pass, which tops out at 12,840 feet. This is not a road to be taken lightly! If you don’t have a Jeep or high-clearance 4WD truck, don’t even think about it!!

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There were several colors of Indian paintbrush still in bloom, including sulphur-yellow…

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Castilleja septentrionalis

A blend…

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Castilleja versifolia

And this magenta one trying to photobomb some elephant-heads…

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Castilleja rhexiifolia and Pedicularis groenlandica

A common mat-forming plant in the alpine is moss campion, but past its prime…

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Silene acaulis

We did a short, but steep hike up to see a large area of dwarf clover. Arnold is on the right.

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This “magic carpet” was past blooming stage by the time we arrived, unfortunately.

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Mat-forming Trifolium nanum

Pollinators weren’t without resources, however…

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Sedum rhodanthum

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Trifolium repens (white clover)

Usually it’s difficult to get photos of cotton grass sedge without wearing waders, but this alpine lake was nearly dry.

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Eriophorum angustifolium

Just taking in the alpine ambiance and appreciating the unspoiled scenic views was worth the long, rough drive.

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Looking down the far side of Black Bear, where the road goes one-way to Telluride.

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On Coal Bank Pass, we were treated to a visit by this photogenic ram.

Feature image: Bumblebee on Sedum rhodanthum (rose crown) with some Erigiron melanocephalus (blackheaded daisy) off to the side.

 

 

 

17 thoughts on “Alpine Treasure

Add yours

  1. Your photos reveal a whole different world from the one in which I live. To me they don’t even look real, like a movie set. But knowing that they are real, I’m in awe. The mountains are gorgeous, but I’m taken with the white clover. So sweet and small in such a huge setting.

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  2. Amazing photos! That landscape looks a lot greener than what I saw as I drove near the 4-corners area years ago. How far up in elevation did you travel? That magic carpet looks like it was beautiful – even if it was a bit past it’s prime. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I first came to the Four Corners 33 years ago, I thought it was dismally brown. But then I toured the mountains and it was brilliant with green life! The current drought is not helping promote a good impression, for sure.

      Like

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