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Petal Power: A Trip to Colorado’s Crested Butte Wildflower Festival

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Wildflower Festival

The annual 10-day festival offers abundant opportunities to nurture your love of nature.

Pale-blue columbine petals vibrate in the breeze as I try to focus on them through my camera lens. Behind them, jagged, snow-covered peaks rise. Using skills I learned in yesterday’s wildflower-landscape photography class, I adjust the aperture to blur the mountains before pressing the shutter button.

Click. It’s a lovely image, but then I realize how difficult it is to take a bad picture of this aspen-lined valley spackled with blooms.

It’s impossible for a shutter-bug not to be inspired when visiting Crested Butte, Colo., nestled in a remote valley 8,900 feet above sea level. In winter, the nearby slopes lure skiers; after the snow melts in summer, thousands of people converge to attend the annual Crested Butte Wildflower Festival (CBWF). Offering more than 200 activities during its 10-day run in July, the CBWF has something for all abilities and ages: hikes, butterfly and birding walks, art and photography workshops, backcountry Jeep excursions, garden tours, and more.

“Our goal is to create an awesome recreational experience for our guests, where they’re seeing some of the most incredible backcountry and learning more about how important wildflowers are to this fragile mountain ecosystem,” says executive director Sue Wallace.

Lyda Hendel, 72, and her husband have traveled from Albuquerque, N.M., to attend the festival eight times. Hendel takes guided hikes every other day. “The instructor stops and points out flowers as we go,” she says. “Everyone gets a chance to catch their breath, and I see plants I’d miss if I were hiking alone.” Hendel’s husband, who is 96, can’t walk long distances, but the Jeep excursions that transport people to remote locations give him a chance to enjoy breathtaking panoramas from 11,000 feet.

Wildflower High

During festival time, Crested Butte buzzes with the excitement of hikers returning from intoxicating flower-peeping adventures. At the CBWF headquarters, visitors compare wildflower checklists and report sightings of shooting stars and fairy slippers on the Oh-Be-Joyful Trail. First-timers often find their footing with the introductory two-hour Wildflower ID walk. In just one ramble, many festival-goers check off larkspur, bluebells, columbine, cow parsnip, elephant head, lupine, prairie smoke, and mariposa lilies.

A common comment from attendees — including me — is how surreal the blooms appear. “We say it’s because of the lack of oxygen at this altitude,” jokes Rick Reavis, a ski instructor and former horticulture professor who leads a hike that begins with a chairlift ride most of the way up Mt. Crested Butte to the alpine zone, at 11,500 feet. The plentiful, ultra-colorful flowers are actually a result of alpine plants adapting to winter’s deep snowpack, specific soils, and lots of sunshine.

As his group tramps up the mountain, admiring the spectacular views, Reavis intro-duces them to alpine species that thrive in cold temperatures, high winds, and a short growing season. With luck, they’ll see Old-Man-of-the-Mountain, a plant with long, soft white hairs on its leaves, flowers, and stems. It sports a single large, yellow flower that always faces east. (Lost hikers can navigate by it.) Once it blooms, the flower fades and the plant dies, but not before it produces many seeds.

Like all the CBWF guides, Reavis offers advice for proper land stewardship: Never pick the flowers and always stay on the trail. One footstep off the path could destroy decades of plant growth. For example, the ground-hugging moss campion, which nurtures a light-purple flower, grows only a quarter-inch every five years and can live more than 40.

Other hikes range from easy, two-mile outings to moderate, half-day treks. Strenuous, all-day adventures head deep into the wilderness. One of the most popular is the 11-mile route ending in Aspen, where the group eats dinner before returning by shuttle to Crested Butte.

Butterflies and Botanicals

On his two trips to the CBWF, Clifton Burt, 39, a physician from Tempe, Ariz., chose a variety of outings, including a four-hour butterfly hike to Copley Lake, where participants caught butterflies in nets to examine before releasing them. “I never realized the interdependence of species,” he says. “Plants need butterflies for pollination; the insects need nectar for food.”

Burt also joined a group that hunted for medicinal plants used by early settlers. They encountered stinging nettles (good for sore muscles and arthritis), which they later used to make a salve, as well as poisonous monkshood with its alluring purple flowers.

On other guided hikes, Burt meandered through forests and beautiful alpine meadows. “Half-day outings are my favorites,” he says. “They’re great exercise with challenging terrain. I’ve never done a full-day hike because they start early in the morning — I’m on vacation, after all.”

Spending four days in nature turned out to be the perfect antidote for his high-pressure hospital job. “I feel recharged after the festival, and I appreciate the beauty — especially the white-barked trunks of the aspen, and the way the sun streams down through the leaves and branches.”

Creativity in the Wild

Rounding out the CBWF offerings is an array of art classes, some of which (photography and plein-air painting) require participants to carry easels and brushes into nature. Others, such as wildflower jewelry making and linoleum-block printing, take place in classroom settings.

These creative activities expand your horizons, says artist Ivy Walker, who leads a class called Creating Art in the Landscape. Participants take a short hike, then use stones, branches, leaves, and art materials — mirrors, fabric, string, and decorative papers — to make temporary sculptures. “It’s a different way to think about making art,” Walker says. “It’s about being playful and engaging with the landscape rather than re-creating the landscape on a canvas or in a photo.”

One woman on the hike created an installation “web” by draping yarn between the trees in an aspen grove. Others have produced paper cutouts and juxtaposed them with tall meadow grass.

Boulder, Colo.–based artist and biologist Caroline McLean, who specializes in contemplative photography, believes that making art in the mountains around Crested Butte offers a fresh perspective and has a healing, relaxing effect. “When you connect to nature,” she says, “you reconnect with yourself.”

Whether she’s leading a photo-graphy hike or showing people how to hand-color black-and-white photos of wildflowers, McLean teaches “seeing exercises” that help participants develop a creative eye by looking for textures in the landscape and by isolating color and light. Most of all, she encourages people to “slow down, drop in, breathe, and become a sensory being” during the festival.

“Being with the beauty of the rocks, streams, and flowers awakens the artist within,” she says.

All-Seasons Adventure

My husband, Ken, and I once returned to Crested Butte a week after the festival ended. The trails were less crowded, we had no trouble getting a hotel room, and the flowers were as brilliant as ever. They bloom from late May through August; if you can’t make it to the festival, you can catch a flower ID walk, join a Friday Adventure Hike, or take a guided Jeep tour on any summer weekend.

On our last morning, while Ken hiked along Copper Creek, I ambled along the Lower Loop Trail past Peanut Lake on the edge of town. This time I brought watercolors and sat on a rock while I dabbed greens, reds, purples, and bright-sky blues onto a sketchbook page. I watched as the light changed with passing clouds and decided we would return to visit Crested Butte again in the autumn — to walk among the aspen leaves as they turned from green to gold.

Crested Butte Wildflower Festival

Crested Butte, Colo.
With more than 200 activities, the festival offers fun for everyone. Depending on the event and instructor, children age 8 and above can participate if accompanied by a parent. Activities range in cost from $15 to $250 per person. www.crestedbuttewildflowerfestival.com

is a travel writer based in Boulder, Colo.

Photography by Mitchell Warnick