The great variety of plants here -- some 1,000 species -- comes as a surprise. After all, a great amount of this park is in a land so bleak and so harsh that trees cannot grow at all. But even way up in the alpine tundra, close to 200 types of plants survive the long winters, bursting with color to make the most of whatever warmth the summer sun delivers. As you travel through the park, you will constantly be changing elevation, and as you do, the trees, flowers, and other plant life will change as well.
Of course, other factors also play a role in plant growth. The plants along the rivers and surrounding the park's 147 lakes differ from those on the rocky, high desert slopes. And because more rain and snow fall west of the Continental Divide than on the eastern side, there are different varieties of plants on each side of the park. Slope orientation is also important, with the southern-facing hillsides home to those plants requiring more warmth and sunlight than the colder north-facing slopes receive. One of the treats of visiting the park in midsummer is the abundance of wildflowers, and although the wildflower season usually peaks in late June or early July, you will find some species, such as orchids and columbine, that bloom practically all summer.
Colorado blue spruce -- These handsome trees are found at the lower elevations of the park, where they grow in small groves near water sources and sometimes in mixed forests. Their sharp needles are silver-blue or deep green, and the trees can grow to over 100 feet in height with trunks up to 2 1/2 feet in diameter. They have thin cones about 2 1/2 inches long.
Cottonwood -- A member of the willow family, cottonwoods like lots of water and are usually found along streams or other permanent water sources. The narrowleaf cottonwood, the species found in the park, grows at elevations up to 8,000 feet. It has skinny, pointed green willowlike leaves that turn dull yellow in the fall. Cottonwoods can grow up to 60 feet tall, with trunks about 1 1/2 feet in diameter.
Douglas fir -- This large evergreen -- some can grow as tall as 200 feet, although most in the park are 100 feet or under -- has medium-size blue-green needles and fairly large cones. It has a classic Christmas tree shape and grows primarily in the montane ecosystem. Birds and various mammals eat the seeds, while deer eat the foliage.
Limber pine -- Found in the montane and subalpine zone, up to about 11,000 feet elevation, mature trees are fairly small, usually less than 30 feet, with a trunk diameter of 1 1/2 feet. Also called the "Rocky Mountain white pine," these evergreens often have multiple trunks, and either light- or dark-green needles up to 2 inches long. In unprotected areas they often have a gnarled, twisted look. Look for them along Mills Lake Trail, growing seemingly straight up out of bedrock, and also on Emerald Lake Trail and along the shoreline at Gem Lake.
Lodgepole pine -- This species -- the most widely distributed pine in North America -- typically grows tall and slender, losing its lower branches as they become shaded. Trees in the park, primarily in the subalpine zone, grow to be 90 feet tall, with trunks up to 1 1/2 feet in diameter, and long yellow-green needles. This tree's name comes from the use of its straight, thin trunks as poles for tents and other shelters by Native Americans and white pioneers. It is also one of the first trees to appear after a forest fire because some of its seeds are not released until temperatures reach 110°F (43°C). You'll see lodgepoles along East Inlet Trail, Cascade Falls Trail, and Twin Sisters Trail.
Ponderosa pine -- This large, impressive evergreen, which is found in the montane zone, is easily recognized by its long needles -- sometimes measuring more than 6 inches -- that grow in bundles of two or three. Adult trees have orange-tinted bark that has a fragrance similar to vanilla, and large, reddish brown female cones that are round or egg-shaped.
Quaking aspen -- This tree, which can be found growing from Alaska to southern Arizona, is found in the park at elevations up to about 10,000 feet. Its leaves, on long, twisted stems, shudder at the very idea of a breeze, hence the name "quaking" aspen. French trappers told a legend that Christ's cross on Mount Calvary was made of aspen, and that the quaking is the tree's trembling with shame. Its cool, downy-white bark feels great against your cheek on a hot day, and its almost-heart-shaped green leaves usually turn a striking yellow or gold in the fall. The trees can grow to 100 feet in height, with trunks up to 2 feet in diameter. Deer and elk browse the twigs, bark, and leaves, while rabbits and other small mammals eat the leaves, buds, and bark. Look for them along Trail Ridge Road, as well as along many park trails.
Rocky Mountain juniper -- Growing in canyons and on rocky slopes up to 8,000 feet elevation, these junipers can sometimes reach 50 feet tall. They have slender branches and short gray-green needles, with berrylike cones that are a popular food for birds and other wildlife. The "berries" are bright blue with a white coating.
Subalpine fir -- Also called "Rocky Mountain fir" and "alpine fir," this species grows up to 80 feet in height, with trunks over 2 feet in diameter; however, as they approach the tree line they are shorter and more shrublike. Growing in the park from 9,000 feet to 12,000 feet elevation, they have tightly packed dark-green needles, and their whitish bark is browsed by elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and moose.
Alpine sunflower -- The largest flower on the tundra, with blooms up to 4 inches across, this member of the sunflower family grows only in the Rocky Mountains. The plant's roots store solar energy for 10 summers or more before blooming once, and then it dies. For protection from the harsh climate, it grows tiny hairs, which have given it another common name, Old Man of the Mountain.
Colorado columbine -- Also called "blue columbine," this is the Colorado state flower. A member of the buttercup family, columbine come in a variety of intricate shapes and colors, and nine species of columbine are found in Colorado. The Colorado columbine is among the prettiest. Its flowers are 2 to 3 inches across, with five light-blue or white petals surrounded by five blue or purple petal-like sepals, or spurs. They bloom from July through August and are found in the montane and subalpine zones. Look for its rare relative, the dwarf blue columbine, along the Twin Sisters Peak Trail.
Elephant heads -- Found in wet areas at most elevations, elephant heads have stems up to 2 feet tall that sprout dozens of what look like little pink elephant heads -- complete with floppy ears and a half-inch-long curling trunk. A good place to see these flowers, also called "elephantella" and "little red elephants," is on the Big Meadows Trail in the western section of the park.
Fairy slipper -- Also known as the "calypso" or "calypso orchid," it is found in the montane and subalpine zones and is often seen among lodgepole pines in the Wild Basin section of the park. It has delicate lavender-pink flowers and is one of the earliest plants to bloom. The name calypso comes from the sea nymph in Homer's Odyssey.
Fireweed -- Among the first flowering plants to appear after a fire, fireweed produces bright-pink flowers with four petals each. A member of the evening primrose family, it grows in the montane and subalpine zones, and it can be seen along the Grand Ditch and Ouzel Falls trails.
Moss campion -- Also called "moss pink" for its delicate pink flowers, these plants hug the ground in moist areas in the park's alpine tundra, and they are sometimes found blooming in the protective environment of rock crevices.
Mountain harebells -- Found in the montane and subalpine zones, mountain harebells are also known as "bluebells" and "bluebells of Scotland." They produce bell-shaped blue-violet flowers up to an inch long, and are usually seen in meadows or along rocky slopes. In Scotland, these plants are also called "witches' thimble," and it is believed the name harebell comes from the legend that witches could turn themselves into hares. A good spot to see them is on the hike along the shore of The Loch.
Parry's primrose -- Attractive deep-pink flowers growing in clusters announce the presence of Parry's primrose in most areas of the subalpine and alpine zones. Watch for them along the East Inlet Trail to Lone Pine Lake and along Timber Lake Trail.
Shooting star -- This member of the primrose family grows in the wetter sections of the montane and subalpine regions of the park. It has narrow purple flowers that grow up to an inch long, often with yellow at the base.
Silvery lupine -- You'll see the purple flowers of the silvery lupine, a member of the pea family, in both the montane and the subalpine areas, often in forests of lodgepole pine.
Sky pilot -- Named for where it grows -- reaching toward the sky in the high mountains -- the sky pilot's small five-petal purple or blue-violet flowers are found in the meadows of the alpine tundra and subalpine zones. A member of the phlox family, it has an unpleasant skunklike odor, and tiny hairs on its leaves and stem help reduce moisture loss and protect it from the harsh climate.
Snow buttercup -- A resident of the park's alpine tundra, these impatient plants are often seen pushing their small, bright-yellow blossoms up through the snow in spring.
Yarrow -- Found at practically all elevations in the park, yarrow have clusters of small white flowers. A good place to see them is along the Coyote Valley Nature Trail in Kawuneeche Valley.
Shrubs & Such
Lichen -- These small, crusty plants -- actually an algae and fungus growing together -- are seen on rocks, where they produce a mild acid that helps disintegrate the rock's surface, turning it to soil where other plants can sometimes get a foothold. Lichens come in a variety of colors. Along the Bear Lake Nature Trail, watch for bright-orange lichen, created from nitrates either in the rock or deposited on the lichen by bird and mammal droppings.
Sagebrush -- Covering much of the American West, sagebrush is found at the lower elevations at Rocky. A shrub that normally grows in alkaline soil in arid areas, it can reach several feet tall if it gets sufficient water. Browse for deer, elk, and other animals, sagebrush has a fresh, pungent scent -- strongest when it's wet -- that is similar to that of the spice sage. It has tiny gray-green leaves and sprouts small white flowers in the fall. The variety in the park is called "big sagebrush."
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.