The following post was written by Gina Wilson, a new Mount Goliath docent.
I’ve long been a fan of the high country in Colorado and all the “little” surprises you can discover along a trail. Equipped with a magnifying lens, I’ve spent many hours on my hands and knees looking at the spectacular alpine wildflowers that we are fortunate to have here. So, it really was apropos when I decided to sign up for the Mount Goliath docent training that prepares Gardens volunteers to lead tours from June through August.
We met our very proficient docent guides, Nevin and Alan, at the Dos Chappell Nature Center for our trip along the M. Walter Pesman Trail. At the nature center, while our guides provided us information on some guidelines for the upcoming tour, a marmot couple watched silently, sunning themselves on the rocks above.
Once we reached the trailhead, our guides gave us an overview of the topography, geology and history of the area, quite interesting as many of the early explorers to this area were botanists, physicians and landscape architects. Many of the surrounding peaks are named for these individuals, i.e. Grays, Torreys, Warren. This area is called ‘fellfields,’ wind-swept areas with numerous rocks. The plants in this area form low mats and cushions to avoid the drying effects of the wind.
On the Pesman Trail, two of Colorado’s five vegetative zones are encountered, the Alpine and the Subalpine. Immediately, as we ascended the uppermost southern part of the trail, the first flowers we saw were the miniscule alpine forget-me-nots (Eritrichium nanum), which are absolutely one of the most adorable and smallest of the alpine flowers. It is early in the season for flowers in the alpine areas of the high country, but among those we saw were pasqueflower (Anemone patens), fairy primrose (Primula angustifolia), dwarf clover (Trifolium nanum), sky pilot (Polemonium viscosum), not-quite-open-yet king’s crown (Rhodiola rosea), alpine buttercup (Ranunculus adoneus) and alpine parsley (Oreoxis alpine), just to mention a few. Many, many others are still in bud form, and the spectacular show will continue through the summer.
It wasn’t long before a number of us were on our hands and knees peering into the faces of these lovely little plants, introducing ourselves and getting to know them a little better. Note: A hand lens is so fun to use to really see them. The sky pilot, a lovely looking fellow, is often called “skunkweed” as the leaves emit an off-putting odor. However, our group was divided on how we thought it smelled - some liked the odor! It amazes me that in this very harsh environment exposed to the sun, wind, fluctuating temperatures and low water, these little gems survive, thrive and provide a wonderful show every year for those willing to make a trip up to their ‘home.’
Once we dropped over the summit and down to the northern part of the trail, the environment changed to subalpine, and we encountered the ancient giants of the area, the bristlecone pines (Pinus aristata). Some of these ancients have been dated to almost 1,600 years old - wow! Slow growing or not at all in harsh years, a six-foot tree above timberline could be 900 years old. Our guide told us that there had been a “blow down” in the past year or so; a wind so powerful that it took down many of these grand specimens. The downed trees still had their green needles. Those that have long since perished stand as silent golden spires against the brilliant blue Colorado sky. What a gorgeous site! They almost look as though they might speak if one lingered awhile. What an interesting conversation that would be!
We moved farther down the trail and into a woodier area where spruces and firs are living with the bristlecones. We learned from our guides about the lichens, a story of symbiosis among the black, orange or gray splotches that appear on boulders along the trail. Algae are parasitized by a fungus; the fungus forms a “leaflike” structure over the algae that acts as a greenhouse. The algae provide the food nourishing the fungus. Neither could exist without the other. Isn’t nature strange and wonderful?
Our trip ended back at the Dos Chappell Nature Center, where a wealth of information is available to all who enter. I thoroughly enjoyed my first trip down the M. Walter Pesman Trail and I’m eagerly looking forward to my next excursion up on Mount Goliath to see what is in bloom. It will be new and a surprise, I’m sure.