Learning to identify wildflowers opens a door to a new understanding of the surrounding ecosystem and adds another facet to your enjoyment of the outdoors.
"When you become a flower watcher, you start looking at habitats," Yampatika education coordinator Karen Vail said. "You learn that columbines like aspen forests." By recognizing the habitat, you become aware of its wildlife inhabitants.
Wildflowers already are blooming in the lower elevations where the snow has melted. A walk on the Red Dirt Trail or up Emerald Mountain will reveal glacier lilies, mountain bluebells, yellow violets and spring beauties.
The best wildflower viewing spot in Routt County, Rabbit Ears Pass, is covered with snow but will begin to show its flowery head in late June and early July.
For the beginner, the best guidebook is Falcon Guide's "Southern Rocky Mountain Wildflowers." The book divides flowers by color and is easy to use. Other books worth reading are "Plants of the Rocky Mountains," a Lone Pine Field Guide and "Plants of the Rocky Mountain National Park." Even though the title of the last book refers to the Rocky Mountain National Park, the ecosystem of the Yampa Valley is similar, and the wildflowers are the same.
Another way to begin is to take one of Karen Vail's wildflower walks through Colorado Mountain College. She will be leading six wildflower walks this summer.
The walks change depending on the time of year. In July, she leads an orchid walk in search of the 27 orchid varieties that grow in this area.
In each class, she tells her students, "Look but don't pick. Leave them there for others," she said. "If you pick the flower, it's dead. It can't produce seed for future flowers. All nature is interconnected, and it's out there for a reason."
People also think they can dig up wildflowers and put them in their yards, she said. "Ask before you do it because most of those flowers just won't work (as transplants)."
Instead of picking flowers, the best way to remember what you've seen is through the lens of a camera.
The state flower and a favorite among photographers and flower watchers is the columbine. The delicate lavender flower begins to bloom in June near town and in mid-July on Rabbit Ears Pass.
Jim Steinberg, owner of the Portfolio Collection, has been a professional photographer for almost 30 years. Wildflowers are among his favorite subjects.
The first thing to think about when photographing flowers is light.
"Oftentimes, people will take a photo when the sun is right over their shoulders," Steinberg said. "That light flattens everything out.
"Better light comes from the sides. It adds depth and dimension."
That kind of light comes in the morning and early evening.
When photographing individual flowers, it is important to have a tripod and a variety of lenses -- wide angle, telephoto and macro lenses, depending on the effect you want to create. Steinberg also recommends an off-camera flash.
But your flower selection is almost more important than your equipment.
The most photogenic flower probably is the columbine, Steinberg said. "It is very complex. It's a very sensual flower, and I have photographed it from every possible angle.
"I have one slide show and lecture where I show 30 different columbine shots, and every one is different."
Where to look this week
The Red Dirt Trail is one of the best hikes for wildflower viewing this week. To get there, follow Routt County Road 129 north 6.65 miles to the trailhead on the right side of the road. Look for a sign that reads trail No. 1171 in the small parking area.
Summer wildflower hikes
Rabbit Ears Peak. To get there, drive 19 miles southeast of Steamboat Springs up Rabbit Ears Pass on U.S. Highway 40. Turn left at the Dumont Lake sign. Follow this road about a mile. Turn left on a dirt road marked FSR 131 until you see a small marker on the right that reads 291.
Gilpin Lake. Drive north on Routt County Road 129 for 18 miles just passed Clark to Seedhouse Road. Turn right onto Seedhouse Road and drive 11.9 miles to the end of the road and the trailhead parking area.
Stillwater Reservoir. Jim Steinberg called this the best wildflower viewing in the state when it is at its height in late July. To get there, turn south on Colorado Highway 131 toward Oak Creek. Drive 25 miles to the town of Yampa. Stay right on Main Street. At the Antlers Cafe, turn right onto Forest Service road 900. Drive 10 miles to the Heart Lake Trailhead sign on the right. Turn right just after the sign. Follow the gravel road to a parking area. Bring your camera.