A Wildflower Walk

See columbine, corn lily, and yellow aspen sunflowers on this exceptional Exit 205 hike, and take photos along the way with tips from a local pro

Photos and Words by John Fielder

Lupine,-Lower-Blue-River-Valley photo by John Fielder

Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetic lyrics in 2016. He is not the only musical poet. In his song Wildflowers, Tom Petty lyricized:

You belong among the wildflowers

You belong in a boat out at sea

Sail away, kill off the hours

You belong somewhere you feel free

I know the feeling. I have spent most of my life freely roaming the wild places of Colorado and beyond while witnessing very special moments of light. One of my photographer heroes, Ansel Adams, used black and white to best manifest his passion, nature’s form and texture. I am a color guy, stimulated by all things chromatic. I seek magenta twilight skies, pink sunrises and sunsets, yellow aspen leaves, and wildflower meadows with all the colors in a rainbow.

The Silverthorne and Dillon area harbors a wealth of wildflowers. High peaks slowly release snowmelt all summer to nourish meadows at every elevation, from valley floor to the high tundra. The northern end of Summit County is bounded by the Williams Fork Mountains on the east and the Gore Range to the west. Between them, Colorado Highway 9 parallels the Lower Blue River from Silverthorne all the way north to its confluence with the Colorado River near Kremmling. For the entire 40 miles, you will see extraordinary blooms, especially yellow wildflowers including dandelions, mule’s ears, and arrowleaf balsamroot beginning early June and ending July. Even more colors are found along the numerous county roads departing east and west from Highway 9. Make any of the two dozen left or right turns and be rewarded with purples and pinks. Or take my favorite hike: Lower Cataract Lake.

Butterfly on mountain penstemon, Lower Cataract Lake, Colorado by John Fielder

I remember my first circumnavigation of Lower Cataract Lake, not far from my home. The lake is on the edge of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, and you can drive right to it—it’s just 25 miles from Silverthorne. You circumnavigate the lake on foot on a mellow two-mile trail. The Gore Range is visible in the background, as well as one of Colorado’s most dramatic waterfalls. If you hike the trail clockwise in early July, you will pass through meadows of yellow aspen sunflowers and monument plant just before arriving at my favorite Colorado columbine meadow in the state. Yes, you heard me … my favorite! In good years, the wildflowers are the thickest I’ve ever seen. Shoot close ups of the purple heads, as well as scenic compositions with aspen trees in the background. Now pull out your point-and-shoot camera and continue on the trail. Look for delicate red columbine blooms in the spruce-fir forest. They grow in wet, shaded areas at this time of year. If you have a really good eye, you will even be able to find fairy slipper and spotted-coral-root orchids hidden below the trees.

As you proceed west on the trail, the roar of the waterfall and the humidity of Cataract Creek stimulate the rest of your senses. A good bridge gets you safely across the flooding creek. Very quickly you enter a massive meadow of corn lily. It’s that green leafy plant that some folks call skunk cabbage, which it is not. It is one of the most “artistic” plants I know. Although it flowers in tall white stalks, it’s the leaves that make wonderful images. They are curvy, pointed, and striated and are best photographed in masses of plants without the sky in your picture. As you hike back to the east, the trail rises in elevation and you are rewarded with overviews of the lake and all of the places from which you just came. Photograph the white-barked aspens before arriving back at the parking lot.

Details

To get to the trailhead, drive 16 miles north on Highway 9 from Exit 205 to the first Heeney exit on the left. Drive another 6 miles on the paved Heeney Road to the Lower Cataract Lake turnoff on the left (FR 1725). Drive 2 miles west to the end of this bumpy dirt road and park in the lot. Take the trail to the left to get to the meadow.
black-and-white photo of Corn-lily,-Lower-Cataract-Lake by John Fielder
Go Black and White
Adobe Lightroom is the favorite post-processing program of most nature photographers. You can turn your photo into a black and white image with a single to highlight the subtle lines of wildflowers like skunk cabbage or corn lily (pictured here) without the distraction of color. –J.F.
wildflower shot by John Fielder
Take Photos Like a Pro
If you have a SLR or mirrorless camera with a wide-angle lens, bring your tripod and practice extreme depth of focus technique to make the meadows seem thicker than they really are. Get close to the first row of wildflower blooms, manually focus one third of the way into your scene, set the camera to aperture-preferred mode, stop down to f22, and release the shutter with the two-second timer. Small apertures require longer shutter speeds and this will eliminate camera shake. Remember that cloudy light is good thing. Direct sunlight on pale colors kills the detail, even with modern high dynamic range sensors. –J.F.
About the Author and Photographer
John Fielder has worked tirelessly to promote the protection of Colorado’s ranches, open space, and wildlands during his 35-year career as a nature photographer and publisher. His photography has influenced people and legislation, earning him recognition including the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award in 1993 and, in 2011, the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s first Achievement Award given to an individual.
For the past decade, Fielder has lived just north of Silverthorne, Colo., on the edge of the Ptarmigan Peak Wilderness. “I wake up every morning to beautiful light on the Gore Range to the west of my house,” says Fielder. “On my own property, I have 5 different phases of wildflower bloom starting in late May and ending in early September.”
Wildflowers of Colorado Book cover by John FielderFielder teaches photography workshops, and more than 40 books have been published depicting his Colorado photography. His latest books are Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green and Wildflowers of Colorado—available at Next Page Books in Frisco, all bookstores statewide, and Amazon. He also operates a fine art gallery, John Fielder’s Colorado, in Denver’s Art District. Visit www.johnfielder.com.
John-Fielder-in-aspen-sunflowers,-Lower-Cataract-Lake,-Summit-County-compressor