Trail Blazers

by | Feb 1, 2010 | Landscapes

GROWING UP IN TEXAS, I learned to appreciate wildflowers mostly from the window of a car. A particularly spectacular field of bluebonnets might earn a stop on the highway shoulder, but that was as good as it got.

As an adult, I found that true appreciation of nature’s lavish and colorful show can be found up close and personal, and a hike offers an excellent way to reach this natural nirvana.

We’ve selected nine inspirational hikes that put you in the middle of spectacular spring wildflower blooms. Chosen for variety of locations, landscapes and level of challenge, these represent but a tiny sample of the hundreds of wonderful wildflower hikes across the country. Once you get started, you’ll want to look for opportunities wherever you go.

Zook/Sundance/Talon Loop, Cheyenne Mountain State Park

Out of Cheyenne Mountain State Park’s approximate 20 miles of trails, Pamela Irwin, native plant master and author of four wildflower hiking guides, recommends this combination loop. Start on Talon Loop, which shortly merges with Zook Trail; remain on Zook until it intersects Sundance, follow Sundance to Talon, and Talon back to the trail head.

On Zook Trail, prickly poppy (Argemone spp.), fleabane daisy (Erigeron spp.) and wild rose (Rosa spp.) bloom among grasses. Species near an old ranch corral include chiming bells (Mertensia ciliata), yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis), narrow-leaf penstemon (Penstemon angustifolius) and American vetch (Vicia americana). On the Sundance Trail portion, overlooking Fort Carson, find yucca (Yucca glauca), orange paintbrush (Castilleja integra), wavyleaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum) and evening primroses (Oenothera spp.). Farther along, see perky Sue (Tetraneuris spp.), snowberry (Symphoricarpos spp.), wild four o’clock (Mirabilis spp.) and skullcap (Scutellaria spp.); in spots shaded by Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum), many-flowered puccoon (Lithospermum multiflorum) and spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis). In south-facing areas, find scarlet gaura (Gaura coccinea) and cowboy’s delight (Sphaeralcea coccinea). A prairie dog town provides additional diversion.

Talon Loop passes through scrub oak (Quercus spp.) and flowers such as blazing star (Liatris spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), thimbleweed (Anemone spp.), sego lilies (Calochortus gunnisonii), silky locoweed (Oxytropis sericea) and wallflower (Erysimum spp.).

Distance: 3 miles
Elevation change: 200 feet
Peak: June
Cheyenne Mountain State Park, 410 JL Ranch Heights, 719.576.2016

Guy Fleming Trail, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is named for the rarest pine in North America, Pinus torreyana, which once covered a large area of Pacific coast but now grows only here and on Santa Rosa Island. In addition to Torrey pine woodlands, the park includes coastal sage scrub and chaparral.

This short, relatively level trail has diverse scenery, including an up-close look at the pines, ocean vistas and, of course, native plants and wildflowers. These include bladderpod (Cleome isomeris), bluedicks (Dichelostemma capitatum ssp. capitatum), Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera), golden yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum var. confertiflorum), wild snapdragon (Saiocarpus coulterianus), monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus), popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys collinus var. californicus), common goldfields (Lasthenia californica), California sunflower (Encelia californica) and rein orchids (Piperia cooperi and P. unalascensis).

Other hiking options include Razor Point Trail, with dramatic views in addition to wildflowers; Parry Grove Trail, which has a native plant garden at the trailhead; Broken Hill Trail, which passes through chaparral; and the Beach Trail, a route popular for accessing the beach.

Distance: 0.7 miles
Elevation change:
Less than 10 feet
Peak: March – May
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, 12600 N. Torrey Pines Rd., San Diego, 858.755.2063.

Serpentine Loop, Edgewood Park and Natural Preserve

Known throughout the Bay Area as the place for spring wildflowers, according to president of Friends of Edgewood Bill Korbholz, this park houses more than 500 plant species within less than a square mile, some 70 percent of them native. The unique serpentine soil favors natives that adapted to its unusual mineral content. Serpentine endemics grow only on this soil, and the park has several species, including threatened Marin dwarf-flax (Hesperolinon congestum) and the endangered San Mateo thornmint (Acanthomintha duttonii), which are found nowhere else in the world.

Serpentine Loop offers the most spectacular wildflower viewing, says Korbholz, who recommends following Sylvan Trail from the parking lot to the Serpentine Loop. It passes through mixed woodland forest, where crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa), spreading larkspur (Delphinium patens ssp. patens), checker lily (Fritillaria affinis var. affinis), California saxifrage (Saxifraga californica) and common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus) bloom. It also meanders through chaparral, which includes clovers (Trifolium spp.), California bee plant (Scrophularia californica ssp. californica), blue witch nightshade (Solanum umbelliferum), pipestem (Clematis lasiantha) and California yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum). It continues on through grassland, with a wealth of wildflowers from California blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) to California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus), Abram’s woolstar (Eriastrum abramsii), the aforementioned Marin dwarf-flax, rare stinkbells (Fritillaria agrestis), common goldfields, coast range mule ears (Wyethia glabra), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), slenderflower sun cup (Camissonia graciliflora) and the charming brownies (Mimulus douglasii).

Easy to moderate
Distance: 3 miles
Elevation change: 500 feet
Peak: April
Park located at Edgewood and Old Stage Road, Redwood City, 650.368.6283. Free, docent-led walks available every spring weekend at 10 a.m. Trail map at (click on Edgewood, then Maps, then Trails)

Cady Ridge, Jackson Wilderness/Wenatchee National Forest

“When it comes to resplendent alpine meadows, the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness can’t be beat,” says hiking guide author Craig Romano, who recommends seeing it via Cady Ridge and West Cady Ridge trails. Wildflowers proliferate along the mile-high ridge, dominated by lupines and including paint brushes (Castilleja spp.), alpine leafybract aster (Symphyotrichum foliaceum), gentians (Gentiana spp.), mountain lady’s-slipper orchid (Cypripedium montanum), Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum), Wenatchee valerian (Valeriana columbiana), white mountain-heather (Cassiope mertensiana), phlox (Phlox spp.), buttercup (Ranunculus spp.), narrowleaf fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), crimson columbine and beardtongue (Penstemon spp.). The 2,700-foot gain in elevation is strenuous, but the scenery is worth the effort.

At the trailhead, follow signs for Cady Creek and, at the next junction, to Cady Ridge. This trail crosses a creek and climbs a series of switchbacks, eventually cresting a 5,300-foot knoll with a view of Glacier Peak above a lupine meadow. Satisfied hikers can turn back here; otherwise, continue across an open slope with mountain views to what Romano calls “one of the finest alpine meadows this side of the Colorado Rockies.” Mountain peaks form a dramatic backdrop, and the route ends at the Pacific Crest Trail, 5,350 feet high and six miles from the trailhead. Backpackers can return to the meadow and bed down in sites located along the meadow’s edge.

Distance: 12 miles round-trip
Elevation gain: 2,700 feet
Peak: July and August
Jackson Wilderness lies within the Wenatchee National Forest, 509.548.2550

Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve

Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve, in southwest Michigan, houses a “botanical paradise,” according to The Nature Conservancy’s marketing manager Melissa Soule. Geologically and biologically unique wetlands found only in the glaciated Midwest, prairie fens feature tall grass prairie flora and fauna. This preserve also contains coastal plain marsh, a wetland community dominated by grassland rush.

Some 150 rare prairie fens have been identified in Michigan, says Brad Slaughter, conservation associate at Michigan Natural Features Inventory. The Paw Paw preserve is home to around 200 species of vascular plants, he says, more than documented at any other fen. Slaughter reports that hikers can see marsh blazing-star (Liatris spicata), a member of the sunflower family that grows up to 4 feet tall, with a dense bottle-brush of showy purple disk flowers. Two valerian species (Valeriana edulis and V. uliginosa), one of them rare in Michigan, flower in late May and early June. Later in June, Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum) bursts out with creamy-white tubular flowers tipped in bright yellow-orange. The carnivorous purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea ssp. gibbosa) and roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) also live on the preserve.

Distance: Approx.1.5 miles
Elevation gain: insignificant
Peak: June – August
For directions and access, contact The Nature Conservancy Michigan Field Office, 616.785.7055

Breakneck Pond Trail, Bigelow Hollow State Park

New England hiker and author Jeff Romano (brother to Craig) recommends Breakneck Pond, a trail in Bigelow Hollow State Park with an abundance of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), the state flower. The state park and adjacent Nipmuck State Forest offer a number of trails.

This one, the East Ridge Trail, follows an old roadway then traverses an open area, re-enters the woods, and climbs gently. Follow the Nipmuck Trail north through forest to Breakneck Hill Road, turn left, then remain on the Nipmuck to Breakneck Pond. The trail follows the pond for 1.6 miles, tunnels under abundant mountain laurel, and actually enters Massachusetts. Bear left at the pond’s northern end, cross a small stream, and go right onto the Ridge Trail. This winds around a wetland and through large boulders to the top of a forested ridge. Enjoy the view here, then descend to Breakneck Hill Road, which passes a small gate before branching onto a second road up the hill. The route goes up a sedge-covered ridge, then descends and follows the narrowing ridge line.

Moderately strenuous
Distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation gain: 350 feet
Peak: June
Bigelow Hollow State Park, 860-684-3430
Classic Hikes: New England, Jeff Romano, The Mountaineers Books.

Big Bend National Park, Chisos Basin

In this mostly desert park, wildflowers can be spectacular following rain. The higher Chisos Basin has more consistent rainfall and wildflowers. This loop combines several Basin trails for a day-long hike, beginning with the Laguna Meadow Trail, which offers views of the iconic Window formation. A notch in the mountain ring, the Window drains all rainfall from the Basin. Rising through a long series of switchbacks and steps, the trail reaches stands of colorful Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) and Mexican buckeye trees (Ugnadia speciosa) that bloom in spring, says park ranger Jennette Timmer, as do beardtongues (Penstemon spp.), Mexican catchfly (Silene laciniata), claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) and scarlet bouvardia (Bouvardia ternifolia), or firecracker bush, a Trans-Pecos endemic shrub.

The trail offers an amazing mountain vista at Blue Creek Overlook and traverses the mountains on the Colima Trail. On this wetter side of the mountains you’ll see mosses, mistletoes (Phoradendron spp.) and perhaps two types of rare orchids, scarlet mock lady’s-tresses (Dichromanthus cinnabarinus) and crested-coralroot orchids (Hexalectris spp.). After rounding an exposed rocky point called Boot Rock, the trail enters a more open area, with the deep Juniper Canyon on the right, and continues descending on the Pinnacles Trail. Mints (Salvia spp.) may be growing along the trailside cliffs. The route levels out into grassy Boulder Meadow, painted yellow in fall by blooming broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae), before heading back down to the Basin.

Distance: 8.6 miles
Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
Peak: April – May
Big Bend National Park Headquarters, Panther Junction, Highway 118, 432.477.2251

Loop Trail, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

One of the nation’s largest batholiths, or underground rock formation uncovered by erosion, Enchanted Rock covers 640 acres and rises 425 feet. Native Tonkawas attributed the rock’s creaking and groaning sounds to spirits and thought it enchanted. A 4-mile loop trail gives hikers view of all sides of the rock, plus plenty of wildflowers. The display in spring can’t be beat, and fall isn’t bad either.

The trail initially follows Sandy Creek, at times awash in bright yellow cowpen daisies (Verbesina enceloides). It crosses the creek, passes between Buzzard’s Roost and Freshman Mountain and levels onto a wide dirt path circling Enchanted Rock and neighboring Little Rock. The park contains open oak woodland, mesquite grassland and floodplain. Grasses and sedges such as Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), bushybeard bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus), frost weed (Verbesina virginica) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) form groundcover. Abundant wildflowers include Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), Indian paintbrush (Castilleja spp.), tickseed (Coreopsis spp.), bladderpod (Lesquerella spp.) and the endemic basin bellflower (Campanula reverchonii).

Easy to moderate
Distance: 4 miles
Elevation gain: 160 feet
Peak: April
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 16710 RR 965, Fredericksburg, Texas, 830.685.3636

Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park, Gap Point Nature Trail

A barrier island between the Gulf of Mexico and Apalachicola Bay, St. George Island stretches 29 miles. Nine of those lie in the state park, five accessible only by foot. This trail explores the bay side, beginning in the campground and traversing slash pine forest (Pinus elliotii), sand scrub oak (Quercus geminata), blooming beach morning glory (Ipomoea imperati), slender goldentop (Euthamia caroliniana), slender muhly grass (Muhlengbergia filipes), Florida rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides), frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora), camphorweed (Heterotheca subaxillaris), and blazing-star (Chamaelirium luteum).

The trail dead-ends at the shallow water of St. George Sound. The tall pines and oaks here attract many species of birds, including migrants, wintering waterfowl, and nesting osprey and bald eagles. A number of trails in nearby Apalachicola National Forest, including 74 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail, cover landscapes containing a variety of wildflowers.

Distance: 2.5 miles
Elevation gain: Less than 10 feet
Peak: April, October
St. George Island State Park, 1900 E. Gulf Beach Dr, 850.927.2111

Melissa Gaskill is an Austin-based nature and travel writer.