Wildflower Hikes

Across the United States a number of hikes have become renowned for their annual display of wildflowers.
By: Matt Villano

Even if you don't consider yourself a hard-core hiker, spring is the best time of year to hit the trail to witness some of nature's most colorful beauty: wildflowers. Fireweed, poppy, bluebells, even rhododendrons -- you name the flower, it's out there somewhere in full effect. Across the US, a number of hikes have become renowned for their annual display of wildflowers. Here is a sampling of some hikers like best.

Mitchell Canyon Trail near Concord, California
Towering over the San Francisco Bay Area, the 3,849-foot Mount Diablo offers some of the most panoramic vistas in all of North America. On a clear day, one can see farther from the summit than any other mountain but Kilimanjaro in Africa. On the way up, some of the trails also provide excellent wildflower viewing.

April and May are the best times to go, and the Mitchell Canyon-Eagle Peak loop is by far the most colorful. Starting from the Mitchell Canyon trailhead, the lower part of the trail passes thrushes of yellow sticky monkeyflower, purple Chinese houses and lavender Ithuriel's spear.

Higher up the mountain, closer to Eagle Peak, look for Mount Diablo fairy lanterns, a yellow globe lily found only in these parts, currant and wild poppy, a beautiful, 4-petaled orange flower. The out-and-back hike itself totals 7.8 miles, and is strenuous at times, so bring lots of water.

Afterward, be sure to leave time to explore the nearby city of Concord, the largest municipality in Contra Costa County. From May through November, Todos Santos Plaza downtown sponsors a weekly farmer's market. Also try the Guadalajara Grill, one of the best Mexican restaurants in the Bay Area.

Roan Mountain Trail on Roan Mountain, Tennessee
Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to 6,286-foot Roan Mountain to lay eyes on Catawba rhododendrons. These wild, flowering plants have become such an attraction that every year the locals hold a Rhododendron Festival.

The festival occurs at peak blooming time. In a good year, these dense shrubs, standing taller than a person, create a spectacular display of purple, red and pink with thousands of blooms. Each bush's round, manicured shape is a testament to severe pruning by wind and winter weather. Literally hundreds of acres cover the high elevations.

From a parking lot at the old Cloudland Hotel, the trail climbs to the Roan High Bluff Overlook and circles back. Along the way, the wide pathway traverses vast grassy balds. Roan Mountain itself is actually not one mountain, but a high ridge about 5 miles long. This means that, for most of the hike, the views of the Great Smokies are amazing.

The closest lodging to the rhododendrons can be found in the town of Roan Mountain, where the Roan Mountain Bed and Breakfast offers modest rooms in a converted log-cabin home. Also be sure to check out nearby Elizabethton, home to a historic covered bridge that dates back 1882.

Arthur's Rock Trail in Fort Collins, Colorado
Home to Colorado State University, the town of Fort Collins is known to locals as "Fort Fun," because of its nightlife and the preponderance of hiking trails within a short drive. One of the most popular hikes is Arthur's Rock Trail in Lory State Park. This 1.7-mile jaunt runs through forested mountainsides and open meadows to the summit of 6,780-foot Arthur's Rock. Most of these open meadows are teeming with wildflowers.

Common species in these parts include lanceleaf chiming bells, Colorado columbines and wax currants. The meadows along the route to Arthur's Rock are so famous that park rangers host wildflower photography workshops every June. Book early, as the workshops sell out fast.

The trail itself ascends gently; Lory prides itself on the fact that none of its routes has more than a 12 percent grade. From the summit, one has a commanding view of Fort Collins, Horsetooth Reservoir and the Front Range. The pathway also connects with the trail network in 2,711-acre Horsetooth Mountain Park, a great spot for mountain biking.

Back in Fort Collins, while away an afternoon visiting some of the city's 6 breweries. For craft beer, try the Fort Collins Brewery, which sells a pomegranate wheat beer that's second to none. For a more mainstream experience (and an ice cold Budweiser), take a tour at the local outpost of Anheuser-Busch.

Umtanum Creek Trail near Ellensburg, Washington
Washington's Yakima River Canyon is composed of desert hills and basalt cliffs that rise above the river between Ellensburg and Yakima. The canyon is home to bighorn sheep and many species of raptors, including bald eagles. In springtime, especially May, wildflowers abound as well.

Umtanum Creek Trail is perhaps the most colorful throughout the canyon. The trail starts at 1,340 feet and immediately crosses the Yakima River on a suspension bridge. Golden currant, serviceberry and Oregon grape are in full bloom along the creek itself. On the hillsides are patches of ochre shooting stars, bladderwort and arrowleaf balsamroot.

On its climb of nearly 2,000 feet, the largely unmarked trail also passes hedgehog cactus, lupine, showy large-headed clover and several varieties of violets, including sagebrush violets. Small yellow flowers literally carpet the hills with occasional blue splashes of bluebells. In a nutshell, the wildflower habitat changes every few steps along this 3-mile hike.

End the day in Ellensburg, where Central Washington University is renowned for its Chimposiums, educational workshops involving signing chimpanzees.

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