Peak climbing is an exhilarating, beautiful, and challenging experience. The expansive vistas and wide-open spaces stir the soul. As you break above treeline, you get the feeling that you’ve just entered a strange and magical world. This special place is known as the alpine tundra.
Trees can no longer exist in the alpine tundra, because the climate is too harsh and cold to support trees. Instead of mighty spruce and fir, the landscape yields to highly specialized dwarfed plants that are found only on mountaintops or in arctic extremes. These plants have adapted to cope with frequent freezes, high winds, and scorching sun. Since the growing season is short at high elevations, many species bloom at once creating a magical carpet of flowers blanketing entire mountainsides in green, yellow, pink, white, purple and blue.
Often when you first break out of the trees, the landscape is thick alpine turf, dominated by grass-like sedges that give the feeling of a luxuriant lawn. This is where you want to keep your eyes peeled for the alpine sunflower or also known as “the old man of the mountain.” These big yellow bright-eyed flowers splash festive color across the mountainside. It takes several years for the alpine sunflower to gather enough stored fuel to enable it to bloom. It then disperses its seeds and dies.
A bit further up the trail as the landscape becomes more exposed, watch for a mat of tiny blue flowers with yellow centers clung low to the ground. These are the highly prized alpine-forget-me-nots. The leaves of this plant are covered with thick wooly hairs that help the plant diffuse intense sunlight, and retain heat on cold nights and stormy days.
As you climb further, you come across these strange snake-like clumps of dirt around the side of the trail. These are the castings left by a pocket gopher as it chewed and burrowed its way through the root layer of the vegetation. Interestingly, the pocket gopher acts like nature’s roto-tiller, and several brilliant species of wildflowers grow in its wake. Among them is the bright blue sky pilot, which emits the strong odor of a skunk. Gopher gardens also support the red wine colored kings crown, and the bright yellow alpine avens.
In the most exposed areas, plants grow low in dense moss-like cushions. The plant’s strategy is to cling low to the earth so it stays warmer, loses little water, and is less exposed to high winds. A great cushion plant to discover is the bright pink moss-campion. The cushion is so dense, that blowing sands and debris are caught in its crevices, and over time, it accumulates soil and enables other alpine plants to grow from its fertile cushion.
These are just a few alpine gems that grow locally. An alpine landscape at the height of bloom is a magical sight. The first three weeks of July are generally the best time to view alpine wildflowers, so remember to plan a special hike into the high country.