Shara Johnson knows where to find some of Colorado’s most spectacular wildflower spots. What she doesn’t know is whether she should tell you — or anyone — where to find them.
I believe you can tell a lot about a person by the way they roast their marshmallow. Are they the kind who carbonizes it in an instant ball of flame leaving the middle cold and the exterior disintegrating, or the kind who rotates it slowly at the edge of the coals to achieve a crispy golden outside so the inside is gooey but not quite gooey enough to fall off the stick? Or have they never (gasp) roasted a marshmallow? If I could give everyone a Marshmallow Test at my fire pit before talking about wildflowers, I feel I’d have a better idea of whom I could trust.
You may raise a skeptical eyebrow that this topic warrants such a high level of confidentiality, but recent experiences have proven to me the need for such prudence when I find a place like Columbine Heaven.
The purpose of our visit to the highest incorporated town in the United States — Leadville, Colorado, at 10,150 feet above sea level and about a two-hour drive from where my husband and I live in the Rocky Mountains — was to check out 4×4 trails and ruins left from the late 19th and early 20th century gold and silver mining booms.
This is our summertime hobby — driving our 1999 4Runner or our 1973 Pinzgauer around the vast mazes of 4×4 roads in the Colorado Rockies, many of which are old mining roads, stagecoach routes or railroad grades, and as such, often have old cabins, mills, mines and mining equipment along them.
We explore with a sense of urgency these days. So much has been reclaimed by the earth working in tandem with the harsh high-altitude climate. Most structures were made of wood and it’s remarkable that so many remain, but there are fewer and fewer standing each year.
We’d stopped in Leadville for an afternoon here and there over the years, as it lies along the route to many other points of scenic interest and outdoor recreation, with a backdrop of the highest mountain peaks in Colorado. It’s home to an excellent mining museum well worth the modest entrance fee, several period houses maintained by the historical society that are open to visitors, the historic Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad, and the famous Matchless Mine. The mine’s caretaker was Baby Doe Tabor, once the belle of high society living in opulence. She died alone in a cabin in abject poverty while following her deceased husband’s reputed last words: “Hold onto the Matchless.”
On this trip, we bypassed the historical sights of the town to explore the history lingering beside the network of 4×4 roads. We headed toward Mosquito Pass — the former stagecoach route now a 4×4 route not for inexperienced drivers or people afraid of heights and sheer drop-offs. The challenging trail crosses a rocky pass well above tree line with narrow stretches that leave no room to pass another vehicle. We did not plan to traverse it, but instead had decided to take a side trail, when we were waylaid by the expansive flower field preceding it.
It looked as though nature had set off fireworks that exploded from the ground up. It was so stunning and festive we couldn’t pass it by. We walked through it, laid down in it, drank beer in it, took a hundred photographs. Yellow balsamroot and red paintbrush dominated the landscape as the tallest flowers, but beneath them thrived a floral kingdom spanning the spectrum of the rainbow. White and purple penstemons, harebells, pink buckwheat, purple aster, and many more flowers I don’t know the names of. It was tricky to walk, kneel and especially lie down without trampling a flower or ten. But we made an honest effort, tiptoeing and jumping from rock to rock.
The most prized flower in that mix was the blue columbine, Colorado’s state flower, with five white petals inside five blue or purple long-spurred petals, and yellow-tipped stamens shooting out from the middle. It’s a high altitude flower that typically likes moist soil and shade. Aspen groves are common places to find them. I was surprised to see so many scattered in this field at tree-line fully exposed to the sun. The blue columbine is a protected flower in Colorado, and it’s illegal to pick them. They aren’t the rarest flower in the state, but they’re so showy and elegant that they’re always a joy to find.
This is why we seek out high altitude meadows, particularly the ones accessible only by high-clearance 4×4 vehicle: we often have these unspoiled places to ourselves. I’ve heard Crested Butte, several hours southwest of us, has been granted the official title, “Wildflower Capital of Colorado.” But I had heard nothing about the caliber of wildflower fields in Leadville, possibly because I had not put much research into our trip. We came armed with COTREX (a free website and mobile app that’s a repository of recreational trails for public use in Colorado) on my cell phone, a cooler to pack lunch and happy hour beers in, cameras, and that’s about it. We are wanderers, wherever we go in the world. We mostly find what we stumble across rather than what we set out to look for.
When we returned, I raved about the sublime meadow on Facebook, in a post on my travel blog, shared photos on Instagram, and now I’m regaling you. I’d like for other wildflower lovers to experience the magic, and a pretty heavily-trafficked road skirts it, leading to the pass, so there is no keeping it a secret in any case, but it’s not always clear whether these spots should be shared, and with whom.
We have our favorite spots closer to home, as well. One of them along the Peak to Peak Highway we refer to as “Cow Palace” on account of an old cow patterned mailbox that used to be near the turnoff. The flower field resides within an area of National Forest land where dispersed camping is allowed at numbered campsites. For many years we’ve generally had the meadow to ourselves and often pack dinner or happy hour to have a picnic, sometimes bringing friends or family. I’ve counted over 20 different species of flower in bloom at the same time some years.
I’ve not been shy about sharing this place. When I’ve posted photos of it online and someone has asked me where it is, I’ve been willing to disclose. It’s a calculated risk, I know, but like the field in Leadville, it’s on public land and many campers are in the area anyway. There are a few jerks in the world that go out of their way to destroy beautiful places in the world, but I like to think no one who follows me on social media would be such a jerk.
On a Facebook group for travel bloggers and writers, a writer recently asked this worthy question: If you travel someplace and once you are there, you discover how fragile the place is — something you weren’t aware of before going there — should you write about it or keep it to yourself? I was surprised by some of the responses. Apparently many people don’t appreciate “gate-keeping” by travel writers, which makes it seem as if the writer is trustworthy enough to go there but no one else is. Her point, though, wasn’t to protect it for herself at the exclusion of others. She didn’t know ahead of her own visit how fragile it was. Now that she knows, is she obliged to guard it?
This question becomes even trickier when rarity is involved. Near my home, I’ve calculated the risk of sharing with others the locations I know of one wildflower classified as “threatened” and another quite uncommon wildflower, and decided it’s not worth it. I know there are flower lovers out there who would delight in seeing them, and over the years I’ve shown a handful of people who asked. Then two years ago at one of the locations, the threatened flower species didn’t appear. Someone had dug them up and carted them off.
I already knew that unscrupulous people did that with this flower and therefore I never record the GPS coordinates in my camera if I take a picture, and I talked openly only about the ones near the public trail that a lot of locals already knew about — none of us saying explicitly where they were. Now we all mourn the absence of the flowers.
But just before the theft, I had given in and shared my very secret “garden” of the two special flower species with two people who I met through our small community’s nature Facebook page.
I chatted with one while we were photographing the uncommon calypso orchids I’d shown her. “Do you know if you can transplant them?” she asked. This question worried me; I searched her face for some clue to her intentions and felt a gnawing in my stomach. I said I didn’t know, but that I doubted it.
The following year, I looked for the orchids at their usual blooming time and they were not to be seen. I didn’t even see their leaves protruding from the ground. My heart sank and I began plotting my tirade against this woman, how I would call her out publicly on Facebook. But everything was late blooming that year, so I kept my anxious peace a while longer, checking every day for signs of sprouting. I cursed myself over and over for entrusting someone new with this knowledge.
Then, one glorious day, I saw the tips of the leaves poking through the pine needles on the forest floor.
Eventually all the locations bloomed and I was deeply relieved — and glad I had refrained from accusing that woman. But the anxiety I felt that I may have been responsible for the wild orchids being removed was nearly unbearable. And now that I know thieves of the other threatened plant have been operating in the area, I would never survive the anxiety every summer of waiting for them to bloom, counting them as I do every year to make sure none are missing, if I showed them to someone new. It’s just not worth the risk. If they disappear now, at least it won’t be my fault.
The day after we found the meadow near Mosquito Pass, we set out again, wandering with COTREX. At some point, we found ourselves driving on a trail that was not in its database. We had made a turn somewhere and were now driving in the wild blue trackless yonder according to the app, yet we were on a clear trail. We decided to stay on it as long as it wasn’t too difficult. As we descended a hill above tree line, we spotted flowers on the hillside that looked like columbines from a distance, but they were growing in clumps like flower-covered bushes rather than the single stalks I’m used to. A vast mass of blooming bushes, which couldn’t be columbines … that would likely be more than I’ve seen in my entire half-century of life in Colorado. So what were they?
We drove closer and I got out of the truck to inspect them.
I knelt down next to the plants lining the road beside our 4Runner. “Well I’ll be,” I said as I cradled a blue columbine flower in the palm of my hand. I still was reluctant to believe that the entire hillside was covered in them. Surely there were other species contributing to this great blue carpeting.
My husband and I began wading through the flowers, careful not to trample any, and called out confirming to each other they were all, except for a few red paintbrushes boldly thrusting up, blue columbines — a veritable sea of them above tree line.
We calculated that there must have been as many as 2,000 blooms fully open. The typical plant had around 20 blooms, more of a columbine shrub than a flower, and we estimated at least 100 such shrubs on the open hillside to the right of the truck. There were some more on the other side of the road, too. It was, as we came to call it, “Columbine Heaven.”
We were the only people there, witnessing a site so magical that I half suspect that after we left, the sea of blooms evaporated, as if we had parted the curtains into a mystical realm that vanished behind our backs, and that we could never find it again. Perhaps some locals know about it, this unreal ocean of wildflowers on an unmapped trail, but it seemed as if the world there had been created just for us — my husband and me — just for those moments. We lingered for a long time, not wanting to break the spell.
We came home from Leadville on a wildflower high. Now our meadow at Cow Palace seemed puny, but we were still anxious to see who had come into bloom in our absence. We arrived and gasped in horror. Somebody had driven straight across a portion of the flower field. And then others had followed.
In recent years a company started renting side-by-sides (they look like dune buggies) and directing their clients to national forest land, and the tell-tale tracks pointed to these as the culprits. My husband and I spent weeks fantasizing about having signs made and putting them up at both ends of the wildflower massacre — Massacre Lane, we call it — demanding the code of conduct of the Gambler 500 rallies we attend that promote responsible off-road driving: “Don’t Be A Dick!!” We might still do it.
Nature is supposed to be relaxing, but there are days now when I storm around like a lunatic, wound-up and cursing humanity because of how wrongly people are treating Her lately.
I know there are respectful travelers, hikers and off-road drivers (like me). You are probably one of them. You might even carbonize your marshmallows and still be a responsible fellow. The Marshmallow Test, after all, is only a broad indicator, and I haven’t put it through the rigors of a full-fledged scientific study.
I think now, with fresh tire tracks criss-crossing my favorite local wildflower patch, the answer to the travel writer’s question is no. As a writer you shouldn’t write about very fragile places. As a visitor, you shouldn’t post to your Instagram and other social media about them either. Such places shouldn’t have to suffer because of our egos. What I don’t know is when a place crosses over to that category of “too fragile” to share. Where is that line?
I don’t regret telling the people I’ve told to date about Cow Palace, but I think I’ve told my last person. The endangered-flower line for public discourse was drawn the first time I read an article about how people dig this precious species up. I’m not even going to name the flower in this article, as some reader might find out where I live and go hunting for it.
There is no shortage of things on this side of the line, the sharable side, to make our passions or professions worthwhile; the entire world can’t be a secret. But some parts have to be.
Summer is at my doorstep again, people have been cooped up and want to get out in some nature. Newspapers, television newscasters, guidebooks, visitor magazines, travel bloggers, everyone gets in on the fray each year broadcasting where to go for wildflowers, all vying to be the trusted source of insider information divulging the “undiscovered,” the “best,” the “secret.”
Now I’m beginning to wonder what ethic other travel writers have chosen, have they drawn lines of their own? When they purport to be divulging the best undiscovered locations, the best-kept secrets, are they telling the truth? Is there something better they’re keeping a secret? Or are they truly encouraging crowds of people into places crowds maybe shouldn’t be, trusting more people than they should to be responsible?
My secret flower treasures will remain just that: secret. I will climb inside my secret like a space suit and enjoy it in my personal bubble. As a traveler, I of course want to know other secret places because I know I will take impeccable care of them and respect them as I would my own home and my own secrets. So it’s hard not to feel offended being excluded from places and experiences because other people don’t know me and therefore, naturally, can’t trust me. You guys, I’m not a dick (or dickette)! But you can’t know that.
The best secret ever imparted to us was by a guy my husband and I had been drinking with all afternoon at a pub in Ireland. After many shared beers, as a sort of gift to us, he said he would share a secret place with ancient ruins. He drew a map on a napkin and said once we’d gotten there we must destroy the napkin and never tell a soul where it is. We saw the ruins. We also saw fairies in them. We ripped the napkin to tiny shreds before throwing it away, and have never told a soul where it is, and never will. But that guy took a chance on us. Should he have? Maybe other locals would have been mad at him for doing so.
In the end, perhaps the best thing about Columbine Heaven is I genuinely do not know how to get back there. Sometimes I feign forgetfulness on posts I make about well-preserved mining sites and remnants of the past we come across while wandering that are really cool, and I want to share photos on sites like “Abandoned Colorado,” but I don’t know who I can trust. It’s a relief with Columbine Heaven that I don’t have to make a judgment call about who to share it with. It exists for its own sake, not for ours.