Pasques in the Storm

April 17, 2014

Living on the edge of the Rocky Mountains presents a challenge to things that bloom in early Spring. Temperatures quickly fluctuate from hot to below freezing while a heavy wet Spring snowfall can suddenly blanket the hillsides. What’s a plant to do to protect its sensitive stamens and pistils?

This week we had a warm spell followed by freezing and snow, the perfect conditions for checking out the survival of the most striking of our early flora, the pasque (Anemone patens). Pasque flowers have a showy, beautiful blossom that is composed of 5 to 7 sepals that look like petals. True petals are missing. The plant is common throughout northwestern U.S. up to northern Alaska. Common names include the pasqueflower, wind flower, prairie crocus, Easter flower, and meadow anemone.

I went searching for pasque flowers before the storm on Boulder’s McClintock Trail. I found a few entering the risky world above ground…

The Pasque Before the Storm

The Pasque Before the Storm

The name “pasque” is probably from the Hebrew “paschal”, “relating to Passover”. The pasqueflower begins blooming as soon as the mountain snow melts, about the time of Passover. Another interpretation is that the flower is named for Easter since Pasqua means Easter in Italian.

Religious controversies aside, these early bloomers are important to honey bees and other pollen gatherers to replenish their food stores after a long winter. From an evolutionary standpoint an early flowering niche strategy can provide abundant snow melt moisture and less competition for pollinators

Pasques Get Moisture from the Melting Snow

Pasques Get Moisture from the Melting Snow

One downside of this early bloomer strategy is that early flowering requires survival techniques that enable the plant to withstand harsh climate conditions. In one adaptation the pasque does what we do, it puts on a coat. The plant has evolved a thick silky coat to insulate the leaves, stem and flowers and to protect them from direct contact with snow…

A Coat of Silk Protects the Pasque Plant

A Coat of Silk Protects the Pasqueflower plant

Another risk of early blooming is that the timing of “early” is critical for successful reproduction. We can see that this plant, like many others, depends on the synchronization of snow melt with the early emergence of pollinators. Both of these events are being disrupted by climate change. It is possible that plants like the pasque and the bees that pollinate them will get out of sync. This nasty aspect of rapid climate change is called pollinator dislocation.

Then the storm came to Boulder, Colorado

The Storm Came and Mandy Was Happy

The Storm Came and Mandy Was Happy

Today the warmth returned to the McClintock Trail so I trudged through the mud to see how well their coat of silk allowed the pasques to survive the snow storm…

Worn Out Pasque Flower Protecting Delicate Pollen

Worn Out Pasqueflower Protecting Delicate Pollen

This Pasque Survived the Storm Intact

These Pasqueflowers Survived the Storm in Good Shape

Protecting the Future of Pasque Flowers

Protecting the Genetic Future of Pasqueflowers One Flower at a Time

Soon the weather will stay warm and the soil will dry out. Those warm lush slopes of early Spring will look like desert by Summer. Thus by late Spring these tough but beautiful flowers will have completed their life cycle and will toss their seeds into the wind for the next generation. The delicate violet sepals and yellow anther will be replaced by a twisting mass of feathery seed heads ready to fly away and spread the genetic secrets of their survival.

Pasqueflower Seeds (from Wendy's Photography Blog)

Pasque Flower Seeds (from Wendy’s Photography Blog)

Here’s the handy guide to the Wildflowers of the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks called Look Closely that led me to the pasqueflowers on the McClintock.

Cold Boulder, Warm Dog

December 12, 2013

It has been cold and snowy here in Boulder Colorado with temperatures dipping well below 0F/-18C for an entire week. Mandy the dog and I went out one frigid morning to photograph our Flatirons right after a storm when the snow is billowing. I guess we were viewed as crazy by photographer Paul Aiken when he took this photo for the Boulder Daily Camera.

Thanks to Paul Aiken for Taking Our Photo!

Thanks to Paul Aiken for Taking Our Photo!

I managed to squeeze the shutter several times before my fingers and toes were starting to hurt so we turned around to head for warmth…

The Cold and Frosty Flatirons

The Cold and Frosty Flatirons

Mandy was disappointed when we started back to the car. She loves the snow and cold and could stay out all day…

Mandy Loves the Cold and Snow

Mandy Loves the Cold and Snow

It Feels So Good

It Feels So Good

After seeing our picture in the newspaper article the next day, several of my friends thought I was wrong to take Mandy out without boots on a cold snowy day. Have dogs become so domesticated that unlike their ancestor the wolf they now need boots?

Japanese researchers have recently uncovered the secret that protects dogs from getting cold when standing on frozen ground. Previous studies have found that dogs can stand on ground as cold as -31F/ -35C without the tissues in their feet freezing. This Japanese study entitled “Comparative Anatomy of the Vasculature of the Dog (Canis familiaris) and Domestic Cat (Felis catus) Paw Pad” is posted in the Open Journal of Veterinary Medicine.

In the dog’s paw pad, the veins surround and run parallel to an artery. Both are in intimate contact so that when the arterial blood flows into the pad surface the venous blood flowing out is in close thermal contact. This establishes a constant temperature difference between arteries and veins and makes for an effective heat exchange. In cold temperatures the warm arterial blood transfers its heat to the adjacent cool venous blood. In this way body heat is re-circulated back to the body core through the venous blood prior to losing heat to the environment. If a foot pad is in a warm environment the blood in that pad will be warm and the heat exchanger will have little effect. When the foot pad is exposed to a cold environment heat loss is prevented by essentially shutting off the paw heat. This means that Mandy has evolved to maintain a warm body and to tolerate cold paws during exposure to cold. Indeed, Mandy’s paws are supported by a circulatory heat exchange that evolved from wolves. This system is also found in penguins, arctic whales, seals and foxes. This discovery has the evolutionary implication that ancestors of the domestic dog lived in cold climates requiring such an adaptation. Sorry kitties but this adaptation does not apply to you. Perhaps your feline ancestors lived in warm climates.

Mandy deserves our envy, not our pity, in the cold. I wish my toes and fingers didn’t hurt on a day like this…

Snow billowing off of the Boulder Flatirons

Snow Billowing Off of the Boulder Flatirons

Maroon Reflections

August 22, 2013

Fortunately for photographers North America had two sets of Rocky Mountains. The first peaks, known as the Ancestral Rocky Mountains, rose to lofty heights before erosion began to wear them down. The sediments from these giant mountains created a huge mudflat in central Colorado. The Ancestral Rocky Mountains were completely eroded away by the time the modern Rocky Mountains formed. The present mountains lifted from the earth elevating a few of these maroon mudflats with them. Those remnants of the first Rockies, known as the Maroon Formation, can be viewed at the Maroon Bells (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak) in Aspen, Colorado as well as at the Flatirons above Boulder, Colorado.

Since I have already taken a gazillion panoramas of my hometown Boulder Flatirons I went to Aspen to get a dawn panorama of the “Deadly Bells” reflected in Maroon Lake. I tried this before but got rained on for 4 days. This time the weather cooperated and I joined a lineup of photographers at dawn…

Photographers Flock to the Maroon Bells

Photographers Flock to the Maroon Bells…The Most Photographed Mountains in Colorado

Here’s an upside down photo I captured from the reflection of Maroon Bells on Maroon Lake. Note the rocky sky…

The Maroon bells as Reflected In Maroon Lake

The Maroon bells as Reflected In Maroon Lake

The dawns light forms a line which slowly descends the Bells…

The Bells at 5:45am

The Bells at 5:45am on 16 August 2013

The Bells at 6:10am

The Bells at 6:10am on 16 August 2013

Here’s someone’s timer-driven camera capturing a sunrise animation from a series of images…

Capturing an Animation of Sunrise on the Maroon Bells

Capturing a Video of Sunrise on the Maroon Bells

Later that morning I captured this view from an aspen grove above the Lake…

Maroon Bells From Aspen Grove 14 August 7:15AM @  39° 5'55.78"N106°56'34.61"W

Maroon Bells From Aspen Grove 14 August 7:15AM @ 39° 5’55.78″N106°56’34.61″W

Maroon Lake forms the headwater of the Maroon Creek which flows down beautiful glaciated Maroon Canyon and on to hydrate the thirsty town of Aspen…

Maroon Creek Headwater

Maroon Creek Headwater

The flora of Maroon Canyon fill my memory…

Sunflowers Help Frame The Bells

Alpine Sunflowers (Tetraneuris grandiflora) Help Frame The Bells

The Fireweed is profuse…

Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)

Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)

Aspen Groves grow where the pines cannot…

Aspen Groves in the Maroon Canyon

Aspen Groves in the Maroon Canyon

Fossils show evidence of long times past…

Fossil Evidence of Early Vegetation

Fossil Evidence of Early Vegetation

Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) call this place home…

Ptarmigan with summer plumage

Ptarmigan with Summer Plumage

This one views me with some suspicion…

Soon the snows will fall and these feathers will be replaced with white ones

Soon this Rocky-Colored Camouflage will be replaced with Snow White Plumage

A small herd of Rocky Mountain Mighty Moose (Alces alces) has recently moved into the Canyon. Here’s a mom getting some breakfast, my first photo of a female moose…

Moose Cow Getting Breakfast.

Moose Cow Getting Breakfast.

Snack break over, it’s time to get back to her calf…

It's Time to Find Baby

It’s Time to Find Baby and Get Some Privacy

This is the only yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) seen on this trip…

Yellow Bellied Super Marmots Did Not Reveal Their Presence

Yellow Bellied Super Marmots Did Not Reveal Their Presence

There were many sightings of Mountain Mandy in Maroon Canyon however…

Mandy (Canis lupus familiaris) takes a Break

Mountain Mandy (Canis lupus familiaris) Takes a Break

As does this grasshopper critter (I need some crowdsourcing help to identify this insect)…

Giant Grasshopper?

Giant Grasshopper?

It was a delightful week thanks to the Maroon Formation and I even captured my inner Summer panorama. I hope to go back in the Fall to collect some more colorful pixels.

Maroon Reflections

Maroon Reflections 14 August 2013 8:15AM MDT @ 39° 5’53.57″N, 106°56’32.52″W

Isabelle’s Warming Glacier lilies

July 14, 2013

On this adventure I was in hot pursuit of the elusive Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum). I figured that the best place to find them was near a glacier so Mandy the dog and I decided to head up to the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area to check in on Isabelle, our local glacier and her high mountain wildflowers.

We started at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area which is our closest gateway to the Indian Peaks Wilderness…

We Start At The Brainard Lake Recreation Area

We Start At The Brainard Lake Recreation Area

The Indian Peaks form a dramatic backdrop for Brainard Lake. This Colorado Wilderness Area gets its name from a majority of its peaks having Native American names. Ogallala, Pajute, Pawnee, Shoshoni, Apache, Navajo, Arikaree, Arapahoe, and Niwot Peaks all reach well above 12,000 feet, making for breathtaking views of jagged summits that tower above green valleys and glacial lakes.

Brainard Lake and the Indian Peaks

Brainard Lake with the Indian Peaks Backdrop

From here it was a short hike to the Pawnee Pass Trail which will take us up past Long Lake and Lake Isabelle

The Pawnee Pass Trail To Long Lake and Lake Isabelle

The Pawnee Pass Trail To Long Lake and Lake Isabelle

We were being watched by a “Rocky Mountain Mighty Moose

Rocky Mountain Mighty Moose (Alces alces)

Rocky Mountain Mighty Moose (Alces alces)

Long Lake is a great place to cool off…

Mandy in Long Lake

Mandy in Long Lake

We arrived at Lake Isabelle after a two-mile/3.2 KM hike. The melting snow drifts and the Glacier feed the lakes and drive the wildflowers…

Melting Snow at Lake Isabelle

Melting Snow at Lake Isabelle

The Pawnee Pass Trail continues to climb above the Lake…

Lake Isabelle from the Pawnee Pass Trail

Lake Isabelle from Pawnee Pass Trail

As the trail ascends towards Pawnee Pass on the Continental Divide we encountered lots of receding snow. This is Glacier Lily territory.

There is Still Lots of Snow on the Pawnee Pass trail

There is Still Lots of Snow on the Pawnee Pass Trail

Mandy found another opportunity to cool off…

Mandy Wallows In The Snow

Mandy Wallows In The Snow

I finally spotted what we were looking for…

We Found the Yellow Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum Pursh)

We Found the Yellow Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum Pursh)

Yellow Glacier Lilies

Yellow Glacier Lily Trio

The roots of this plant feed deer, elk, and bighorn sheep. Grizzlies have been known to “cook” the roots of yellow Glacier Lilies in the sunshine. They know what the native people have learned: that the roots of this alpine plant aren’t pleasant when raw, but become sweet after a good heating. The roots of the yellow Glacier Lily were so valuable that they became a trading commodity in the Native American culture.

Because the Glacier Lilies bloom so early, they suffer reduced pollination in years of early snowmelt. Such “phonological dislocations” between flowering and pollinator activity are likely to become more common as climates warm. Glacier Lilies are being studied to determine the impact of warming on plants and their pollinators. These vulnerable lilies may become both an early warning and a victim of climate change.

I’m glad we were able to track down this pretty little flower before it’s too warm and too late…

The Last Lilies of the Alpine?

The Last Lilies of the Alpine?

Deceptive American Calypso

July 6, 2013

A recent orchid alert by a photographer friend sent me off searching for what is arguably the most beautiful orchid in North America, the Calypso bulbosa var. americana (Eastern Fairy Slipper). Calypso (Kalypsō) was a nymph in Greek mythology. The etymology of Calypso’s name is from καλύπτω (kalyptō), meaning “to cover”, “to conceal”, “to hide”, or “to deceive”. The Calypso orchid lives up to the name.

The fairy slipper orchid has a circumpolar distribution, occurring in Europe, Asia and North America. In North America it occurs from Alaska to Labrador, south to northern California, Arizona, Michigan and Maine. Although they have a wide range they are uncommon and very hard to find. Fortunately here in Colorado there is a hiking trail which goes to a water feature named for this elusive beauty, the Calypso Cascades. After a 2.8 mi/4.5 km hike up the Wild Basin Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park I was rewarded with my second encounter with this uncommon 4-6in/10-15cm plant…

After a 2.8 mile hike I encountered Calypso bulbosa var. americana

After a 2.8 mile hike I encountered Calypso bulbosa var. americana

In autumn, generally around September, the single dark green leaf of the fairy slipper orchid sprouts from its stem. This leaf lasts through winter, even surviving under snow in the cold parts of its range. With the arrival of spring the orchid flowers and the leaf fades. This means the plant is leafless for most of the summer.

The single leaf has a very limited ability to photosynthesize and so cannot provide all the nutrients the plant needs. This orchid, along with many others in Colorado, is a parasite that grows by exploiting a fungus in the soil that shares nutrients taken from the roots of trees. This is why they cannot be successfully transplanted.

I grabbed my close-up lens and got down on the ground to capture this uncommon sight thereby attracting a queue of photographers waiting for a turn. Here are the results of my turn…

Calypso bulbosa-1

Calypso bulbosa-2

Like many orchids, the Calypso bulbosa has a deceptive flower that provides no reward for insect visitors. The scent and shape of the flower mimics those that do have nectar which lures bumble bees (Bombus species) to the bloom. The bees land on the lip of the flower and enter the pouch in search of food. Failing to find any nectar the bee exits the pouch rubbing against the overhanging column. Pollen is deposited on the bee and is then transferred to the next flower it visits. The deception consists of markings and an odor of vanilla both of which promise a nectar reward that does not actually exist. The flowering period of this species is synchronized with the emergence of naïve bumblebee queens. Individual bees subsequently learn to avoid these flowers and that avoidance is learned quite rapidly. Avoidance behavior by pollinators is detrimental to reproduction in Calypso. This negative effect is offset by small variations in flower color and pattern and by the large number of seeds produced in plants that successfully pull off this deception.

Calypso is said to be in decline particularly in the southern part of its range. Unfortunately habitat destruction is a threat for the fairy slipper orchid. Another significant threat to this stunning plant is the presence of people. We either accidentally trample them or deliberately remove the plants from the wild for unsuccessful attempts to transplant them to our gardens. In addition to being very fussy about where it grows, the fragile roots of the fairy slipper orchid make it susceptible to disturbance. A small rearrangement by a well-meaning photographer could kill the plant. The fairy slipper orchid is listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which means that any international trade in this species is carefully monitored. Hopefully this may lessen the threat of over-collection. In addition, this species is protected within many parks and reserves throughout its range.

Let’s hope this deceptive little parasite is here for generations of photographers…

Calypso bulbosa-5

Improbable Parasites On the Mesa Trail

June 6, 2013

While enjoying our showy spring wildflower display on the North Mesa Trail I came upon a small brown plant shyly hiding on the forest floor pine duff (partly decayed organic matter). While this Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata) does not need to be in the spotlight its very existence is an improbable tale.

Coral Root Orchid Plant (Corallorhiza maculata)

Coralroot Orchid Plant (Corallorhiza maculata) “Corallorhiza” is Greek for “coral root” and “maculata” is Latin for “spotted”

On closer inspection you can see the tiny Orchid blossoms; this is one of our tiny native Colorado Orchids

Coral Root Orchid Plant Flowers

Coral Root Orchid Plant Flowers

I was surprised when I discovered my first Colorado Orchid; I thought they only grew in lush, tropical environments. Actually there are more than 25,000 species of Orchids. There are more orchids than any other kind of flowering plant except those in the aster and daisy families. Although they are most common in the tropics, Orchids can be found almost everywhere except Antarctica and the very High Arctic, occupying almost any habitat, including on other plants (epiphyte). One, known as a Western Underground Orchid, lives entirely underground. There are at least 33 types of native Orchids in Colorado (compared to only four Native Hawaiian Orchids).

Early Coralroot

Early Coralroot

Coralroot Clump

Coralroot Clump

Orchid seeds are too small to contain stored nutrients. To solve that problem they must be infected by a specialized fungus that establishes a symbiotic relationship, sharing food and enzymes until the young plant can survive on its own. While many plants use soil fungi as a startup strategy, some orchids have taken an evolutionary sidestep and do not use photosynthesis at all. Orchids were formerly considered to be capable of directly living off of dead organic material (saprophytic) in lieu of photosynthesis. Recent studies have revealed that plants cannot live off of dead organic material; only fungi can do that. It is now known that plants previously described as saprophytes are actually parasites living off of fungi. These fungi transfer nutrients from the host plant to the parasite (called Myco-heterotrophy). The fungi themselves are parasitic on the roots of living plants.

Our Coralroots are the type of Orchid that never becomes self-sufficient. Researchers have discovered that members of the genus Corallorhiza are parasitic Orchids. They derive all of their nutrients from mycorrhizal soil fungi in the family Russulaceae (think mushrooms). Despite their name they have no roots but only hard, branched rhizomes. The relationship with the soil fungus begins before the microscopic seed can germinate and continues for the life of the plant. Finding the right fungi to cheat for life is a chancy business and most seeds just die. To improve its survival rate the plant produces millions of seeds per flower. This is why the seeds must be small and light (the Coralroot seed is only about 0.2 mm in diameter). Those few that do go on to survive parasitize their fungi into forming a coral-like formation enveloping the root that resembles a clump of soft corals. Our pretty little Orchid is a lifelong biological cheater, cheating its fungus cheater…

Coralroot Root Fungus Host

Coralroot Root Fungus Host

In addition to the unlikely success of its seed, the complex mechanisms which orchids have evolved to achieve cross-pollination are risky as well. These mechanisms were investigated by Charles Darwin and described in his 1862 book Fertilisation of Orchids. The book was his first detailed demonstration of the power of natural selection, and explained how complex ecological relationships resulted in the coevolution of orchids and insects. The view has been expressed that the book led directly or indirectly to all modern work on coevolution and the evolution of extreme specialization.

Orchids have developed extremely specialized pollination systems often relying on a specific insect for success. The chances of being pollinated are often rare, so orchid flowers usually remain receptive for very long periods and most Orchids deliver their pollen in a single mass. When a protective cap is dislodged by a specific pollinator the pollen baring part called the anther is exposed to the insect’s body. Two pollen masses (called pollinia) are attached to a sticky pad (viscid) which readily adheres to the bodies of insects. When insects visit another orchid blossom, the pollinia are transferred to a sticky surface. Each time pollination succeeds, thousands of seeds can be fertilized.

Coral Root Orchid Flower

Coral Root Orchid Flower Showing Petals, Sepals, Lip, Column and Anther Cap

I observed many hikers walking by this extraordinary example of evolutionary complexity without even noticing its unlikely existence…

Mandy Can't Find the Coralroot, Can You?

Mandy Can’t Find the Coralroot, Can You?

nor its diminutive beauty…

A Small Improbable Event

A Small Improbable Event

The Canadians apparently appreciate the Corallorhiza striata (Striped Coral Root Orchid)…

Striped Coralroot 2006 Canadian Stamp

Striped Coralroot 2006 Canadian Stamp

Sugarbowls In Sunshine Canyon

May 18, 2013

It is springtime in the Rockies. The record snows of April have watered the foothills. The days are warm and the trails are covered with wildflowers. Mandy the dog and I were off to the Sanitas Valley Trail which is one of Boulder Colorado’s Cool Trails for Hot Dogs.

As soon as we got to the Centennial Parking Area we encountered a hiker excitingly reporting some sort of uncommon wildflower. She pointed me in the direction of an “undesignated” trail which I remembered as turning pretty steep and narrow up toward the Anemone Trail.

My first surprise was that this narrow footpath had been turned into a beautiful official trail by Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Department. The new trail is designated the Sunshine Canyon Trail.

Hey, a beautiful day a new trail and a rare flower! Let’s check it out…

Start at the Centennial Parking area and head toward the Red Rocks Trail which is on the south side of the lot…

The Centennial Parking Area is Our Starting Point

The Centennial Parking Area is Our Starting Point

Head Toward Red Rocks

Head South Toward Red Rocks

Our first stop is the Silver Lake Ditch. This new trail has plenty of cool clean Ditch water all summer and it is a Voice and Sight trail…

Mandy Hydrates For The Hike

Mandy Hydrates For The Hike

We follow the Trail west along Sunshine Canyon…

Head West Up The Sunshine Canyon Trail

Head West Up The Sunshine Canyon Trail

Our Hike Begins

Our Hike Begins

There is a profusion of flowers but all are the usual suspects…

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum)

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum)

Nuttall's Violets(Viola nuttallii) and Phlox

Nuttall’s Violets and Phlox

Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens)

Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens)

Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens)

Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens)

Sand Lily (Leucocrinum montanum)

Sand Lily (Leucocrinum montanum)

The trail winds its way through meadows and woods…
Heading West Through Meadows and Woods

Heading West Through Meadows and Woods

Sunshine Trail

Up the steps…

Mandy on Sunshine Steps

Mandy on Sunshine Steps

Come On Slowpoke!

Come On Slowpoke!

We finally happen upon a field of large purple wildflowers. These uncommon flowers, known as Sugarbowls, are hard to find here in Boulder. I have seen a few on the Goshawk Ridge Trail but this is the largest patch of Sugarbowls I’ve ever seen in one place…

Field Of Sugarbowls (Clematis hirsutissima a.k.a.Coriflora hirsutissima)

Field Of Sugarbowls (Clematis hirsutissima a.k.a.Coriflora hirsutissima)

Hairs covering the flower and its stalk give rise to its name “hirsutissima” or “hairy”. “Cori” is Greek for “leathery”, referring to the texture of the flower. Frederick Pursh named this species Clematis hirsutissima in 1814 from specimens collected by Meriwether Lewis in Idaho in may of 1806. “Clematis” is an ancient Greek name for various climbing plants.

We Found Our Hairy, Leathery Beautiful Sugarbowls

We Found Our Hairy, Leathery, Beautiful Sugarbowls

After my photography session we continue west into the woods…

Into the Wood We Go

Into the Woods We Go

Until we reach the west end of the Trail…

The West End Sunshine Canyon Trail is 1.3mi/2.1km from Start

The West End Sunshine Canyon Trail is 1.3 mi/2.1km from the Start

Mandy gets to cool down and rehydrate in the Sunshine Canyon creek…

Mandy Cools Down for the Return Trip In Sunshine Creek

Mandy Cools Down for the Return Trip In Sunshine Creek

It’s time to head back…
It's Time To Head Back

Into the Woods and Back Down the Canyon We Go

Sunshine Canyon Trail

The view east reveals Boulder’s Red Rocks

Boulder's Red Rocks Means We Are Back

Boulder’s Red Rocks Means We Are Almost Back

We had many treasures to savor on this pretty little trail. We also found our wildprize…

Sugarbowl Treasure

Sugarbowl Treasure

Sonoran Sojourn

December 21, 2012

It’s cold and snowy here at the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Since it’s only a two-day drive from my home in Boulder Colorado to one of the largest and hottest deserts in North America it seemed like a good time to go camping in the desert.

Many of you may recognize the Sonoran desert by its iconic saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) which is unique to this place. The saguaro is the largest cactus in  the United States, commonly reaching 40 feet (12 m) tall; a few have attained 60 feet (18 m) and one was measured at 78 feet (23.8 m). The cylindrical stems are accordion-pleated; the ridges (outer “ribs”) are lined with clusters  of hard spines along the lower 8 feet (2.4 m) and flexible bristles above this height. White flowers are about 3  inches (8 cm) in diameter; they bloom mainly in May and June and are followed a month later by juicy red fruit. The saguaro’s range is almost completely restricted to southern Arizona and western Sonora. A few plants grow just across the political borders in California and Sinaloa. Saguaro reach their greatest abundance in Arizona Upland. Plants grow from sea level to about 4000 feet (1200 m). In the northern part of their range they are most numerous on warmer south-facing slopes.

Sonoran Saguaro

Sonoran Saguaro

The trip from took me across the Colorado Plateau, an area covering 337,000 km/ 130,000 mi within western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, southern and eastern Utah, and northern Arizona

I Descended into The Sonoran Desert (33°28'41.53"N 111°14'21.43"W)

I Descended into The Sonoran Desert (33°28’41.53″N 111°14’21.43″W)

My campsite was in Lost Dutchman State Park at the base of the Superstition Mountains

Lost Dutchman State Park Entrance (

Lost Dutchman State Park Entrance (

Named after a fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman State Park is located 40 miles east of the Phoenix AZ Metropolitan Area in the Valley of the Sun. For more than 120 years gold seekers have tried to find a lost mine in these mountains.  Jacob Waltz, known as the Lost Dutchman, died in 1891, at the age of 83. A box of gold was found under his bed after he died. He supposedly described the mine’s location to Julia Thomas, a neighbor who took care of him prior to his death. Neither she nor dozens of other seekers in the years that followed were able to find the “Lost Dutchman’s Mine.” Subsequent searchers have sometimes met with foul play or even death, contributing to the superstition and legend that surround these mountains. Before he died he tried to tell Julia Thomas where the gold mine was located. Jacob left many clues for them to follow, but kept telling them to pay attention because the mine was hard enough to find even if you knew where to look. In 1916, two miners found an old Spanish saddle bag filled with $16,000 worth of smelted gold. This evidence, along with the stories and records of gold transport issued by Waltz, confirms the legend of the Lost Dutchman.

Several trails lead from the park into the Superstition Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest providing the opportunity to find the lost gold if you dare…

Superstition Wilderness

The Superstition Wilderness…There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills!

Here the lack of moisture and extreme heat of summer have evolved a hearty and diverse ecosystem of plants and animals able to tolerate the harsh conditions…



Bird on Saguaro

Bird on Saguaro

Bird in Saguaro

Bird in Saguaro

Jumping Cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida)

Jumping Cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida)

Today’s desert gold is water! The Phoenix Metro Area is thirsty for water from Canyon Lake, one of the four lakes created by dams on the Salt River in the Tonto National Forest. The others are Roosevelt Lake, Apache Lake and Saguaro Lake. These dams make life on the Sonoran possible for us humans…

Canyon Lake Brings Water to The Valley of the Sun (( 33°32'31.96N 111°26'11.52W)

Canyon Lake Brings Water to The Valley of the Sun ( 33°32’31.96N 111°26’11.52W)

The geologic centerpiece of the National Forest is Superstition Mountain, formed 25 million years ago by a volcanic crater pushed up over 2000 feet by pressure from below. From my standpoint this resurgent dome was a visual centerpiece and I couldn’t get enough photos. Here’s my favorite taken at dusk. It consists of 4 rows of 22 images merged into a single panorama…

Superstition Sunset Captured 10 December 2102 5:00pm @ 33°28’41.53″N 111°14’21.43″W

My time in the desert was too short but Colorado calls me home despite the cold weather up in the Rockies.

Sonoran Sunset

Sonoran Sunset

Sizzling Sumac on the Homestead

October 25, 2012

“Now by the brook the maple leans
With all his glory spread,
And all the sumachs on the hills
Have turned their green to red.”

- from Indian Summer /William Wilfred Campbell

South Mesa Fall Sumac Vista Captured 1 October 2012 10:30am @ 39°56’25.45″N 105°15’36.88″W

Snow is on the way so it is time to return to the South Mesa Trailhead to celebrate the spectacle of fall in sumac country before it fades to white. This fall mosaic is tiled with sumac…

Crimson and Gold Mosaic Under The Pines

Rhus aromatica gold and Rhus glabra crimson tiles…

Rhus aromatica Gold

Rhus glabra (Smooth Sumac) Crimson

Both plants are related to but much kinder than their evil cousin Toxicodendron rydbergii (poison ivy). This family includes several species (Cashew, Pistachio, Mango) of economic importance. The drupes of the genus Rhus are ground into a deep-red or purple powder used as a spice in Middle Eastern cuisine. A drink made from the drupes is known as Sumac-ade.

Mandy and I decided to hike up the newly rerouted Homestead Trail. A steep section up a mesa was replaced with a switch back offering sweeping views of Eldorado Mountain and the South Boulder Creek below. Our hike starts at the South Mesa Trailhead. After a short walk across the South Boulder Creek bridge we take the Towhee trail which starts next to the Dunn House. Be sure to read the interpretative sign, this area is rich with cultural artifacts. There is even a downloadable audible walking tour available from the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks department.

The Dunn House marks the Towhee Trail

We follow the trail to the Homestead trailhead and go west…

Go Left Up the Mesa

We climb above the South Boulder Creek  with views of the canyons and mountains to the west…

The Trail Provides Views of Eldorado Canyon and Mountain Mandy

I found a great spot on the mesa to set up my panorama tripod to capture some large vistas of Eldorado Mountain and Eldorado Canyon State Park. Can you see the Mickey Mouse Climbing Wall? Click here to open a 360 degree view.

View from the Homestead Trail (39°56’18.81″N 105°16’9.29″W)

Just then an Amtrak train went chugging up Eldorado Mountain on its way west via the route of the California Zephyr

I Think I Can…I Think I Can

More South Boulder Creek Color

View from the Ridge

Some Cottonwoods Add Yellow

Who Needs A Bridge Across the South Boulder Creek?

With color in the camera we are ready for the snow. Soon it will look like this.
South Mesa Winter Sumac Captured 23 Feb 2010 9:07 am @ 39°56’25.45″N 105°15’36.88″W

Super Cool Cloud Trapped In Boulder Forest

October 10, 2012

Low flying stratus clouds recently settled over Boulder. They were part of a cold front which dropped the temperature at night blanketing the area with supercooled drizzle. When the clouds finally departed Mandy and I left for an early post-drizzle walk on the Tenderfoot Loop Trail. We were hoping to see the first snow of the season on the Continental Divide.

On the way up Flagstaff Road we noticed flocked trees above the Flatirons

Dawn revealed flocking above the Boulder Flatirons
7 October 2012 @ 7:30am

Closer observation revealed that the flocking was a glaze of ice caused by freezing drizzle

Flocked Pine Needles

This glaze encapsulated grasses…

Glazed Grasses


Glazed Branches

And leaves…

Red Glazed Leaf

Glassy Leaf

As the sun reasserted its warmth the snagged cloud was liberated from ice back to water vapor so it could form rain again…

Mountain Mandy Sniffs A Snagged Cloud

On the way home we did catch some early snow on the Indian Peaks (as well as some liberated clouds). It’s a harbinger of frost to come…

First Snow Dusts the Indian Peaks


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