Colorado wildflowers are at their peak. Find favorites like columbine, orchids and wild roses.

July 20, 2023

The San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado are a beautiful place to see Colorado wildflowers. Here, Indian paintbrush bloom in front of a mountain lake at sunrise.

Colorado wildflowers are peaking now.

In mid-summer, wildflowers create a mosaic of spectacular colors in green meadows and on mountain slopes throughout the Colorado Rockies.

More commonly found on the west side these columbines are close cousins of the Colorado Columbine.
More commonly found on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, these columbines are close cousins of the Colorado Columbine. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Bright yellow golden banner flowers cozy up next to fuchsia wild roses as if each wants to make the other look even prettier.

Like starlets at the Oscars, wildflowers gussy up in their fanciest outfits every year. Take the brilliant red Indian paintbrush. Its unique flower truly looks like you could paint with it. Or there’s Colorado’s state flower, the delicate columbine. When a breeze gusts through a field of columbine, the flowers seem to gently wave to passersby. Columbine blooms in different colors, but the classic lilac and white flower with a wink of yellow at the center is best known and perhaps most magnificent. And what’s not to love about purplish-blue chiming bells? Get down and peer closely at them, and you’ll practically hear their sweet bell-shaped blossoms ringing.

The names of many Colorado wildflowers are as fun and inviting as their looks. Flowers like fairy slipper orchids, kinnikinnick, firecracker penstemon, queen’s crown and elephant head beg you to come find them. And we’re not making this up. Sneezeweed and locoweed are real plant names. Plus, remember to show some love for alpine forget-me-nots.

Tall Chiming Bells grow close to moist areas and can be found near waterfalls or streams. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Tall Chiming Bells grow close to moist areas and can be found near waterfalls or streams. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Spring and summer are the ideal seasons to get out into Colorado’s natural places and enjoy wildflowers. Plentiful snow during the winter – along with wet springs – creates ideal wildflower shows. But don’t worry about finding the single best trail or hunting for Colorado wildflowers only during the perfect year. There are plenty of places to see beautiful Colorado wildflowers every summer. Any adventure to search for them will make you healthier and happier.

To help get you started, we’ve consulted with two pros who get to work in a very special place.

Caryn Ling and Rachel Eckert are the lead interpretive park rangers at Rocky Mountain National Park’s Alpine Visitor Center. They work on top of the world at 11,796 feet above sea level. The visitor center is located along the national park’s famous Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous highway in the U.S. (Learn more about Trail Ridge Road and Colorado’s other Scenic & Historic Byways.)

Fun Fact: In the harsh alpine tundra, flowers grow in groups and often work together to survive. At lower elevations, plants more frequently compete.

Ling and Eckert’s most important advice is critical. Please don’t pick wildflowers. And keep an eye on where you step, especially when you’re hiking or hunting for wildflowers up in the alpine tundra — the highest mountain areas above tree line. At high elevations, tiny flowers are especially fragile and may take years to grow. Some flowers bloom rarely and only for a week or two.

Colorado wildflowers in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Colorado wildflowers in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

So slow down and look down so you can spot unique flowers. And rather than picking flowers and taking souvenirs home from wild places — which is illegal in national parks — snap a photo of your favorite flowers or take notes and share your flower finds with friends, family or on crowdsourcing sites (more details to come on how to help scientists as they track how wildflower growth is change due to climate change).

Where are some of the best places in Colorado to see wildflowers?

You can see wildflowers throughout Colorado every spring and summer. Some of the most popular spots include:

I hear that you can find wildflowers at different elevations in Colorado. What are the primary ecosystems in Colorado’s mountains where wildflowers grow?

There are four main ecosystems in the Colorado mountains, and each boasts its own plants, flowers, trees and animals.

Although it’s the neighboring state of Wyoming’s official flower, the Indian Paintbrush also blooms in Colorado from June through August. It is semi-parasitic and does not create its own chlorophyll, so its roots steal nutrients from plants growing nearby. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Although it’s the neighboring state of Wyoming’s official flower, the Indian Paintbrush also blooms in Colorado from June through August. It is semi-parasitic and does not create its own chlorophyll, so its roots steal nutrients from plants growing nearby. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Montane ecosystem: Which flowers grow in Colorado’s montane areas?

The montane ecosystem is found at elevations between 5,600 and 9,500 feet above sea level. Some of the common wildflowers that you’ll find in the Montane zone are scarlet paintbrush, Colorado blue columbines, geraniums, daisies, penstemon, mountain ball cactus, the plains prickly pear, pasque flowers and miner’s candle.

Colorado Columbine or Blue Columbine – Aquilegia coerulea. Our beautiful state flower grows in open or shady sites and blooms from June to August. They hybridize easily and color variations occur naturally.
Colorado Columbine or Blue Columbine – Aquilegia coerulea. Our beautiful state flower grows in open or shady sites and blooms from June through August. Columbines hybridize easily and color variations occur naturally. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Subalpine ecosystem: Which flowers grow in Colorado’s subalpine areas?

Fun Fact: There’s a tiny version of the columbine that blooms in the alpine tundra. It’s a dwarf version of the more common columbine. The alpine version often tucks in next to rocks to protect itself.

People who drive over mountain passes or hike higher into the Colorado Rockies can enjoy the subalpine ecosystem, which stretches from about 9,500 feet above sea level to about 11,000 feet. At these altitudes during wildflower season, you’ll get to see alpine meadows full of plants like these: fairy slipper orchids, columbine, gentian, twinflower and sneezeweed.

Alpine ecosystem: Which flowers grow in Colorado’s alpine areas?

The alpine ecosystem is found above about 11,000 feet. At this altitude, trees can’t grow, but specially adapted wildflowers do. Many are tiny, so you’ll need to look carefully. Hunt for plants like alpine phlox, alpine avens, sky pilot and clover.

Small and whitish-purple, these alpine phlox can be seen in alpine tundra areas and are worth a sniff. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Small and whitish-purple, these alpine phlox can be seen in alpine tundra areas and are worth a sniff. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Riparian ecosystem: Which flowers grow in Colorado’s riparian areas?

Elephant head flower. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Elephant head flower. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

The riparian ecosystem weaves its way through the other ecosystems. It’s composed of areas around lakes, ponds, streams and rivers. Not surprisingly, riparian areas are home to their own unique wildflowers. One of the very special wildflowers in this area is the bright purple elephant head. Its flower seems to boast a perfectly shaped elephant trunk. Another beauty is the bright yellow glacier lily.

What’s special about wildflowers that grow in the alpine tundra?

Tundra flowers are incredibly strong.

“We have a really harsh environment up here,” said Eckert, speaking from the Alpine Visitor Center.

During winters at high elevations, temperatures plunge below freezing and stay there. Winds can reach more than 100 miles per hour. And winter can last from October through May. This means that the growing season for flowers is very brief: on average, fewer than 40 days.

Fun Fact: The alpine buttercup lives underneath snowfields. It’s a hardy plant. Most flowers bloom after creating leaves. The buttercup grows in reverse order. It sends its flower up first to attract pollinators that can ensure its survival. Then it forms leaves later. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a buttercup popping up through a snowfield.

“The plants are really well adapted. They’re tiny. They’re the hidden gems of the tundra,” Eckert said. “That makes them susceptible to being trampled. We do a lot of messaging about walking gently. A footprint or two can wipe out a lot of the flower’s work.”

What are some favorite alpine tundra wildflowers?

Ling especially loves the alpine forget-me-not.

“It’s an early bloomer, an early sign of summer. Summer up here lasts only for about six to 10 weeks,” said Ling, who has worked as a seasonal park ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park for 10 years.

Forget-me-nots in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Forget-me-nots in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

She advises wildflower lovers to carefully get down on the ground (without squishing any flowers) and sniff the forget-me-nots. They have a sweet smell. You’ll have to get close because the flowers are so little.

“They’re really small. About six (blossoms) can fit on my pinky nail,” Ling said.

Also known as "the old man of the mountains," this flower can take many years to produce a flower, and after spending all of its energy doing so, it dies. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Also known as “the old man of the mountains,” this flower can take many years to produce a flower, and after spending all of its energy doing so, it dies. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Another favorite is the alpine sunflower. It’s special because it takes multiple seasons to grow.

The roots can develop over 10 to 30 years.

“It blooms one time, then the whole plant dies,” Ling said.

When the park rangers educate visitors about not picking flowers, they remind them how special flowers like the sunflower are.

“You pick one flower and that’s 20 years’ worth of seeds,” Ling said.

They remind them that the flowers are there for the enjoyment of every person. If each visitor picks a flower, none will be left for others to enjoy.

Another fascinating tundra flower to check out is the alpine phlox. It’s what’s known as a “cushion plant.” The phlox grow in clusters together over rocks on the tundra. Plants that cozy up to one another stay warmer. That’s also why they aren’t tall. They grow close to the ground with aerodynamic shapes so heavy winds will flow right over them.

What are other favorite wildflowers that you’re seeing at lower elevations in Colorado this summer?

Fun Fact: Indian paintbrush grow in a variety of colors. You’ll find them ranging from creamy whites to light rose to deep, ruby red. The color of the flower depends upon a fungus that grows in the soil.

The paintbrush comes in many colors, and Eckert loves them all. She’s been enjoying seeing a rosy paintbrush this year.

“We get unique shades of pink from light pink to magenta,” said Eckert, who has worked as a seasonal interpretive ranger at Rocky Mountain for six years. “We also get a yellow-greenish paintbrush.”

Up in the tundra, Ling encourages people to look for a tiny, pale paintbrush.

Wildflowers near Grand Lake in Colorado.
Wildflowers near Grand Lake in Colorado. Photo by Matt Inden/Miles, courtesy of the Colorado Tourism Office.

Many Colorado wildflowers grow at different elevations. If a cousin of one flower grows in the tundra, it’s like to be a miniature version.

Ling also has enjoyed spotting glacier lilies this year.

“They’re hard to find. We don’t usually see them along roads. But I’ve seen fields of them up by high alpine lakes.”

What’s the best time to see Colorado wildflowers?

The season begins in the spring and stretches through the middle of summer.

“At lower elevations, the pasque flower is one of the early bloomers. It heralds the spring,” said Ling. “When I see it, it’s such a wonderful sign. I think, ‘We’re going to get back to summer, flowers and warmth.”

As the summer winds down, one of the late bloomers signals early signs that fall is coming, said Eckert.

“The arctic gentian is our last alpine flower to bloom. It means that summer is ending and fall is coming,” said Eckert. “There’s a lot of bittersweetness. It’s a unique flower. It’s fairly big for the tundra and has a cup-like shape that opens up so it can take in sunlight and water. It then closes up at night. It’s white with little purple streaks that go through the petals. It’s usually out for only a week or two. Then summer’s over.”

Fringe gentian in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Fringe gentian in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Ling said gentians are a perfect example of flowers that grow differently and look completely different at different elevations. The alpine gentian is related to the green gentian, which is common at lower altitudes.

“The green gentian is tall and stalky. It looks nothing like the alpine gentian,” Ling said.

What’s your favorite advice for enjoying wildflowers?

  • Slow down and tap all of your senses. Look for bright colors. Gently sniff. Wild roses, for instance, have a sweet smell.
  • Bring along a flower guidebook to help you identify flowers.
  • Take photos and notes.
  • Enjoy special moments. Breathe and relax. Flowers and nature make people happy. Take time to appreciate the beauty you are seeing.

Said Ling: “I think back to the fact that more than 100 years ago, people set this land aside so we could be here and enjoy it. We don’t have condos and developments in national parks. We don’t change the landscape. We don’t take anything from it. That’s the legacy. We’re all taking care of it collectively.”

Can I go on a hike with a ranger to learn more about wildflowers in Colorado?

Fun Fact: Lupine is a common purplish blue wildflower. There are many purple wildflowers in Colorado, and they can be hard to tell apart. Lupine has a distinctive leaf that grows in what’s called a “palmate” pattern. These leaves can look similar to marijuana leaves.

Yes, Ling and Eckert both do special wildflower hikes. Remember that you will need reservations to get in to Rocky Mountain National Park during certain seasons and at busy times of day. When you arrive in a national park, stop by a visitor’s center and pick up information about scheduled nature walks and talks.

I’ve also heard about the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival. What is it, and when is it?

The picturesque mountain town of Crested Butte has christened itself the wildflower capital of Colorado. The Crested Butte Wildflower Festival every July offers guided and self-guided hikes and walks, adventure photography and art workshops, nature-inspired culinary classes and more. Learn about geology, birding, butterflies and the history behind Crested Butte and the area’s wildflowers. Events are generally limited to 15 participants and typically sell out fast. It’s wise to plan ahead if you wish to attend.

Colorado wildflowers in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Colorado wildflowers in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

I’ve heard about “superblooms” in California and other places. Are there wildflower superblooms in Colorado?

Fun Fact: Locoweed gets its name because it can make those who ingest it (like cows) crazy.

The term “superbloom” generally refers to an explosion of wildflowers in an especially wet year after several years of less-than-average flower growth. Ecologists often talk about spring superblooms in desert areas throughout the west, including California, Nevada and Arizona.

The term superbloom has become more common in recent years. And an excellent wildflower year in Colorado could be termed a superbloom.

Jennifer Bousselot is an assistant professor of horticulture at Colorado State University.

She said that superblooms can occur in the wild. And plant lovers can create superblooms of Colorado wildflowers in their yards.

Beautiful, fragrant wild roses bloom from June through August from the Plains to the subalpine ecosystem. Look for them in sunny, open, dry areas. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Beautiful, fragrant wild roses bloom from June through August from the Plains to the subalpine ecosystem. Look for them in sunny, open, dry areas. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

What are the best tips for planting Colorado wildflowers in your yard?

The lines on geraniums can guide pollinators into the center of the flowers to make it easier for bees to access and spread their pollen. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
The lines on geraniums can guide pollinators into the center of the flowers to make it easier for bees to access and spread their pollen. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Bousselot, who researches and plants green roofs, encourages plant lovers to visit their local plant shop or nursery and ask for native plants.

“Ask for plants like penstemon, red birds in a tree, and blanket flower. They have some of the longer blooming seasons and are well adapted to our dry conditions,” Bousselot said in an article for Colorado State University.

“Native geraniums and prairie smoke are also absolutely amazing. Most of our long-flowering natives like full sun; give them water to get them started in the first year, and you’ll enjoy blooms for a long time,” she said.

What’s up with flower names? Why do they have multiple names?

Wildflowers — and all plants — have common names (the ones regular folks typically use) and scientific names. These are Latin names that classify plants and flowers according to their genus and species. So, for example, the Colorado Columbine is the common name, and the Latin name is Auilegia caerulea, which means sky blue in Latin.

If I want to help scientists track when and where wildflowers are growing, how can I get started?

Pasque flowers are early bloomers and have adapted to chilly spring weather by growing extra hairs on their stems and petals for warmth. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Pasque flowers are early bloomers and have adapted to chilly spring weather by growing extra hairs on their stems and petals for warmth. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

If you’d like to share your flower finds with other flower lovers and researchers, consider getting involved with iNaturalist. You’ll find a community of nature lovers. And your reports also will assist scientists who document flower growth.

Are there bad guys in the wildflower world?

Yes. In the flower world, the villains are non-native species that can out-compete native flowers and can take over, causing native wildflowers to die. They’re known as invasive species.

Some of the most common invasive flowers (or weeds, as experts refer to them) include the following:

Canada thistle. These scratchy thistle plants can grow two to four feet tall and have pinkish-purple flowers. Their seeds spread easily and they’re aggressive spreaders.

Other non-invasive plants that are of top concern in Colorado include the meadow knapweed, the purple loosestrife and the yellow starthistle. Learn more about these invaders.

Yellow Sweet Clover – Melilotus officinalis. The flowers can be yellow or white and can grow up to 5 feet tall. They grow in disturbed soils and along roadsides and bloom from May to October. They are not a native flower and can push out native species, but they're a favorite of pollinators. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Yellow Sweet Clover – Melilotus officinalis. The flowers can be yellow or white and can grow up to 5 feet tall. They grow in disturbed soils and along roadsides and bloom from May through October. They are not a native flower and can push out native species, but they’re a favorite of pollinators. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Is it illegal to pick wildflowers in Colorado?

Fairy slipper orchid - Calypso bulbos
Fairy slipper orchid – Calypso bulbos. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
Fun Fact: The calypso fairy slipper orchid takes effort to spot, but like bees, you’ll be smitten when you do. The orchid’s flower attracts bees and momentarily traps bees to be sure they get plenty of pollen.

It is illegal to pick wildflowers in protected areas of Colorado, such as national parks and wilderness areas. Please don’t pick wildflowers anywhere. They last only a short time, and people who pick wildflowers prevent others from seeing and enjoying them. If you pick them, you also prevent wildflowers from seeding and growing well in future years.

If you love wildflowers and want some of your own, create a garden or find a shared garden and try planting some Colorado wildflowers.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.