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This summer, 2021, in mid-July Erik and I took our 4Runner, Chewie, on a trip to Leadville, Colorado, to explore some of the 4x4 roads around there, expecting to find a lot of old mining ruins. I'll tell you about its mining history in the next post. Leadville is only a couple hours driving time from our home, so not exactly an epic road trip. But this is what I love about where we live — there is just so much to explore and we don't even have to go very far. We stayed in an Airbnb about a 10 minute walk away from the main drag in town, which was perfect for evenings out.
We did find remains still standing of the 19th and 20th century mines, but I decided to make a separate post dedicated to the wildflowers we saw, as the profusion was unexpected and turned out to be a highlight of the trip.
In our home area it had been a fantastic wildflower season so far when we left for Leadville which is about 2,000 feet higher in elevation. The higher the elevation, the later the flowers are to bloom, so we happened to time our trip precisely at the peak. I just can't gush enough over how spectacular the flowers were.
Plus what was remarkable to me was how we saw flowers of every stage of summer all open at the same time. For example, in our 'hood, the shooting stars and columbines are early summer flowers and typically will be done blooming before the elephant heads open, but in Leadville we saw all of those blooming at the same time. Summers are very short at 10,000-12,000 feet above sea level, where we were seeing all these flowers, so I guess they don't have time to muck about and wait to open in a nice orderly fashion; it's just a free-for-all: "Everybody bloom!"
We came into Leadville in a very roundabout way from outside of Fairplay because I wanted to check out Weston Pass, one of several throughways between Leadville and the South Park area. It was mostly just a dirt road — you would want a high-clearance vehicle, but there was nothing technical about it. And, as (knock on wood) seems to be our typical luck driving off-road in Colorado, we encountered nearly no-one.
I've often said that it feels like the Front Range, where Erik and I live, was made for the world — everyone comes up to our mountain area from the Boulder/Denver area — and the rest of Colorado was made just for the two of us and Chewie.
The most famous pass connecting Leadville to Fairplay is Mosquito Pass. Last year we started up it from the Fairplay side, so this year we drove up to the start of it on the Leadville side. Our intent was not to take the pass over but take a route that spurred off of it, Birdseye Gulch, which connects to Highway 91 across the Arkansas River. What we had absolutely no idea about was the extensive wildflower fields we would come across.
Fortunately it was later in the afternoon when we pulled into this area, and so a perfect place to enjoy a couple happy hour beers among the flowers. Gobs of yellow flowers that I think are arrowleaf balsamroot, but if you know differently, let me know!, and red paintbrush, blue columbine, white and purple penstemon, blue harebells, pink buckwheat, and loads of other flowers whose ID I don't know.
As I was lying down in the field with my camera, Erik said, "Your dad would have loved to take a picture of you," which is true — my dad was fond of taking pictures of me as a kid in flower fields when we were backpacking. So Erik grabbed my other camera and snapped a couple photos of me in a very happy place — happy physically, mentally and spiritually.
But the crowning wildflower experience, pretty much of all time, not just of this trip, was discovering what we dubbed "columbine heaven." We use COTREX to explore 4x4 routes around Colorado, a GPS program that you can use to pre-download maps onto your phone or other device and it has a pretty good database of off-road trails. Sadly, we've discovered that a lot of county roads shown on COTREX have been closed (gated off) by entitled individuals claiming the public roads as private property, which is really super uncool.
In this case, though, rather than the frustration of finding a mapped trail to be closed, we found ourselves driving down a trail that was not in the COTREX database. We figured we'd keep following it as long as it stayed pretty easy. As we came down a hill at tree line, I noticed a sea of blue off to the right. At first I thought I saw a columbine, but then I thought, "There's no way those are all columbines," for I've never seen such a vast open field of them before.
But, my friends, that was indeed the way. Gobs, gobs and more gobs of blue columbine, Colorado's state flower. We calculated that there must have been as many as 2,000 blooms fully open in this sea. I couldn't get a photo to properly illustrate the profusion. But here is me, taken by Erik, and some close-ups of some of the flower bundles.
The typical bunch had around 20 blooms, almost more of a columbine "shrub" than a "flower," and we estimated at the least 100 bunches just on the open hillside to the right of the truck. There were some more on the other side of the road, too.
It was so magical, and we were the only people there, I half expect that after we left, the field just dissolved into the sunshine, as if we had parted the curtains into a mystical realm that vanished behind our backs, and that we could never find it again. Probably all the locals know about it, but once again it seemed as if the world there had been created just for me, Erik and Chewie.
If you happen to follow me on Facebook, you will likely know that I love elephant heads, they are perhaps my favorite flower of all, and we saw plenty of those in bloom around the area at the higher passes.
At this little brook both elephant heads and columbines were in bloom, but the columbines were single blooms in miniature compared to Columbine Heaven. Still, to see two of my favorite flowers next to the same brook is exciting to me, I suppose I am easily amused. We didn't continue up the "road," but this made a nice happy hour spot one day.
I read a lot of articles and posts of people raving about the flowers at Hagerman Pass, so we checked that out. We did not take the hiking trails, which apparently are spectacular, but even the drive over was lovely, crossing the Continental Divide at 11,925 feet above sea level. Still snow in mid-July.
Well since this post is about nature, here are a couple lakes along our meandering routes.
One morning we took the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad (LC&S) ride — a 2.5-hour slow ride along a historic track built, of course, for the booming mining industry in the late 19th century. Originally a narrow-gauge track, like many railroads tying their fortunes to the brief abundance of mining towns across the Rocky Mountains in the late 19th century, its heyday was relatively short. It was converted to a standard gauge in the 1940s. The engine that now pulls the tourist carriages is a diesel engine.
The train's website and other sites advertising it make it sound like it is heart-pumping excitement ("adventure! adventure!"). I'm sorry, but if you're over about 10 years old, I have to say that "adventurous" is a little overstatement. (Although as we were sitting in our seats still parked at the depot waiting for the train to depart, the couple near me asked their toddler, "Who's ready for an exciting train ride?" I shot my hand up and said, "I am!") A lot of the mountain range views that generally are to be had were obscured to us by the heavy smoke of massive wildfires scorching the western area of the country.
Here the train is crossing over a 4x4 road that we had driven in Chewie just the day before.
It's a very fine, slow-paced scenic route on which it is easy for your imagination to jump back in time and put you onboard ... especially for me after having been to the South Park City Museum inside the period depot and inside the caboose of its train. The LC&S chugs for eleven miles up to a water tank before turning back, though the tracks continue another three miles toward the Climax Mine.
You can bring your own food on board, so you can have yourself a little train car picnic and top it off with an overpriced ice cream bar from the "dining" car. Yum.
So another summer during COVID passes feeling grateful for having so much to see right here in my own state. Stay tuned for more from Leadville.
Read more about Leadville: Mining ruins
Read more about Leadville: Wildflowers
Read more articles about Colorado