sunset over Crested Butte wildflower meadow

Got a thang for wildflowers and the critters that help pollinate them? What about yoga, photography, or cooking? All of the above? Don’t miss the 28th annual Crested Butte Wildflower Festival.

Umbels, sky pilots, snowberries, perchers, skippers. The language of wildflowers and, by extension, butterflies, is as poetic and fanciful as you’d imagine. Until two weeks ago, I couldn’t have told you the difference between an aster and an Erigeron. Now that I’ve been to Colorado’s Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, however, my enjoyment of alpine blooms has new meaning.

My daily hikes at home, in Boulder’s Chautauqua Park, have turned into ID sessions, in which I admire the wild roses, penstemon, and lupines, and try to determine what species of sunflower we have going on. Last week, while on assignment in the Canadian Rockies, I had fun identifying species familiar from Crested Butte (mountain avens, harebells, spotted saxifrage, and clumps of moss campion, which particularly delights me with its delicate pink blossoms), and trying to see if I could noticeably detect any differences in species due to the lower altitude.

columbine and lupine

Image: Sherry Allen

Wildflower is one of most popular events in town, drawing visitors from across the country, every July. The tiny, former mining town-turned-ski-destination is packed with flower aficionados of all ages. Most are identifiable species themselves, remarkable for their floppy sunhats, hiking boots, walking poles, and big cameras.

Not to stereotype (I still will, anyway), but the average wildflower attendee is generally a woman of a certain age, often with husband in tow. This is one festival that draws a lot of retired teachers, scientists, and other academics (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Eavesdropping on conversations is an education in itself.

The weeklong schedule at Wildflower reflects the real diversity of festival-goers. There are classes on yoga, Pilates, cooking, photography, painting, birding, writing, plant medicines, butterflies, foraging, and lots and lots of hikes (including a spectacular, 12-mile day trip over the Elk Range to Aspen).

Like most Colorado ski towns, Crested Butte has its share of stellar hiking. Even if you’re not athletically inclined, there’s something suited to all abilities, from flat wetlands to high alpine passes. I opted for a short but steep walk on the Alpine Wildflowers & Views From Mt. Crested Butte hike. Our guide, botanist Eva Montaine, was vibrant and knowledgeable, and by the time we’d reached the summit (12,152 feet), I could identify more than a dozen varieties of wildflower. Funny to think of how many years I’d tromped past and admired them, yet never bothered to learn their names.

butterfly drinking pollen from flower

Image: Giuss95

The next day, I joined a butterfly hike up the woodsy Caves Trail, with lepidopterist Sara Simonson. My knowledge of lepidopterioptomy is on par with that of wildflowers, and I specifically chose this hike so that I could learn more about the symbiotic relationships between wildflowers and these complex insects and other pollinators.

The enthusiastic Simonson handed us a few butterfly nets, and we set off. We learned about the major categories of butterflies, which are generally classified by their behaviors, hence names such as “patrollers,” and “perchers.” We watched large, yellow-and-black Tiger Swallowtails chase small, dusky Wood-Nymphs out of their territory, and caught-and-released a couple of other species after observing them in a jar. Thanks to Wildflower, whenever I’m out hiking now, I pay closer attention to the amazingly diverse world growing and flying around me.

Top Image: Allan Ivy