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Destination: Colorado

Mountain Bloom Town

Discovering alpine meadows peaking with color at Crested Butte's wildflower festival

June 14, 1998|KATHLEEN Mc CORMICK | McCormick is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colo

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — For a wildflower enthusiast, few places match Colorado's high-mountain meadows. Colorado claims more than 3,000 species of wildflowers, including more than 300 above the 11,500-foot timberline. It's not just the variety of wildflowers that is unusual, it's the range and vividness of their colors, which are heightened by the intensity of light in the higher altitudes. Since I moved to Colorado five years ago, I've made it my mission to seek out those calendar-perfect places where wildflowers run riot in radiant hues.

Then last July I was ushered in to an entirely new level of wildflower appreciation when I attended the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival. Within a couple of days, I had learned more about wildflowers than I had in years of tromping around with wildflower guidebooks in hand.

Begun in 1985, the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival has evolved into a weeklong series of alpine hikes, flower walks, botanical identification tours and workshops in everything from photographing wildflowers to preparing them for medicinal uses. This year's festival runs July 6 through July 12. Last year, I was among more than 500 wildflower enthusiasts who had traveled from as far away as Argentina and Saudi Arabia. Summer resident Maureen Hall was drawn by the extraordinary wildflowers. "You just have to hike through the meadows to appreciate what a treasure this is," she said.

Although Crested Butte is ranked as one of Colorado's top 10 ski areas, mountain biking, hiking and wildflower viewing are attracting more visitors during the summer, those few golden weeks between snowfalls. Compared to many other resort towns, Crested Butte still is spoken of reverently by Coloradans because of its small scale, relative lack of glitz and free-spiritedness (the average age of the town's 1,500 year-round residents is 30).

Perhaps its biggest draw is that it feels remote. Located southwest of Denver, Crested Butte is a circuitous, five-hour, 230-mile drive across mountain passes. At nearly 9,000 feet in elevation, the town is surrounded by five wilderness areas and cradled by lofty mountain ranges. Aspen lies about 25 miles--as the meadowlarks fly--across the 14,000-foot peaks of the Snowmass and Maroon Bells Wilderness. The contrast between the two towns is stunning. Aspen's upscale boutiques, restaurants and multimillion-dollar vacation homes seem worlds away from Crested Butte's alternative spirit, nurtured since the 1970s when young people drawn to the former mining town began restoring its Victorian-era homes and shops.

The entire town has been a National Historic District since 1974. Before miners arrived in the 1870s, the area was a summer hunting grounds for the Ute Indians. With the gold and silver booms of the 1880s, Crested Butte became a supply center for mining camps. Crested Butte never struck it rich, but merchants and artisans who came here in the late 1800s from the Slavic regions left an architectural legacy unlike other Colorado towns.

Though vacation-home development has been creeping up the Gunnison Valley, Crested Butte has tried to protect the natural beauty of its setting. Since 1991 the Crested Butte Land Trust has preserved nearly 300 acres of wetlands. The town's isolation and its official designation as Colorado's wildflower capital by the state legislature in 1989 have helped maintain the pristine quality of the valley.

The abundance and vividness of the area's wildflowers are helped by the rich soil, copious snowfall--up to 400 inches a year--and sunny exposures on many slopes that face southeast. And given the many wilderness areas, the flowers tend to be protected and to propagate easily.

I attended the final weekend of the 1997 festival, camping with my family in a shady, wildflower-rich, U.S. Forest Service site near Gothic, a turn-of-the-century mining camp north of Crested Butte. Fortunately, many festival workshops were repeated during the week, so in just two days I could sample from a full range of sessions. (Workshops cost about $5 to $50 each, and there is a five-day photographic workshop for about $330.) On Saturday morning, my choices were a wetlands plant tour, a wildflower ID tour, a watercolor technique class, a medicinal herb walk, kids' sessions on art and butterflies and a workshop on "flower keying made simple." And--ah, yes--plant anatomy.

As it happened, the anatomy class was fascinating and fun. For the first hour, a dozen of us gathered in a room in the town's Center for the Arts building with instructors Bob Heapes, a photographer and historian, and Loraine Yeatts, a coauthor of "Alpine Flower Finder: The Key to Wildflowers Found Above Treeline in the Rocky Mountains." Slender and fit in jeans and a plaid shirt, with a silvery pageboy haircut, metal-frame eyeglasses, and an amethyst crystal around her neck, Yeatts admirably met every stereotypical notion I had of a Colorado wildflower expert. She's been studying wildflowers for 35 years.

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