During a recent mountain bike ride, I found myself (as I often do) with my head down staring at the trail, hyper-focused on picking an efficient line, maintaining a good pedal cadence, and an annoying click in my drivetrain—I knew I should’ve cleaned it before riding. It wasn’t until I rode through a lush, shaded stand of quaking aspens that a hibiscus-like smell filled my nostrils, redirecting my attention to hundreds, if not thousands, of wildflowers just off the trail.
I was quickly reminded of how much we miss when we’re chasing KOMs, PBs, or just winching up the trail, and that includes trail runners, peak-baggers, and any other objective-driven outdoor recreationists. So in the spirit of slowing down, taking in the views, and appreciating the nature that surrounds us when we play in the mountains, I decided to put on my John Muir hat and write a brief introduction to the wildflowers you’ll encounter on the trails that surround Park City.
Before we begin, though, it’s important to mention that viewing and identifying wildflowers comes with its own code of ethics. The first being that wildflowers should not be picked or dug up. While it’s understandable to want to take wildflowers home, they’re better left in their natural habitat where they can reproduce and be enjoyed by others. Taking pictures is a much better way to preserve them, but it’s also important not to hike and trample through patches of fragile wildflowers just to take a few pictures. As is the case with most things in life, just use common sense and be sure to leave the mountains better than when you found them. Now with that in mind, let’s get into it!
Mountain Bluebell is a common wildflower in Park City and throughout the Wasatch Range as a whole. You can find it at mid and upper elevations, but it prefers damp thickets, riparian zones, and moist meadows. Its small, bell-like flowers (hence the name) make it easy to identify, even if you are new to plant identification. It typically blooms between June and August and is known to hold medicinal properties whether by eating the flowers or making a dried powder from the roots.
Creeping Oregon Grape
Creeping Oregon Grape is native to the Wasatch Mountains and is also found throughout the Western United States and as far north as Canada. It’s also a common resident of our trails here in Park City, where you can spot its distinct yellow flowers beginning in April and well into June. The plant body is holly-like in appearance, with pointed leaves and wooded stems. Its distinct rounded flowers also make it an easy plant to identify while you’re hiking or mountain biking. And like Mountain Bluebell, Creeping Oregon Grape has known medicinal properties. Its berries, although bitter when eaten alone, were used by earlier settlers to make jams.
Don’t be fooled by this little flower’s delicate looks—it’s no shrinking violet when it comes to thriving in tough conditions.This hearty little flower can be found below about 7500 feet between April and June and grows well in dry, arid soils. In Park City, it’s commonly found blooming near sagebrush hillsides along trails like the Glenwild Loop, Freemason, Round Valley, and Flying Dog. It’s appropriately named Phlox, which translates to “flame” in Greek due to its striking flowers that are easy to spot among the sage- and brown-colored hillsides they commonly grow on.
You can tell spring has arrived in Park City when Arrowleaf Balsamroot is flowering. Its vibrant yellow flowers can be easily spotted from the road while driving around town, and it surrounds many of the lower elevation trails as they dry out throughout April and May and into June. Arrowleaf Balsamroot is also commonly found interspersed with sage brush and between stands of scrub oak and mountain mahogany. It’s easily confused with Mule’s Ear due to their similar flowers, but the large arrow-shaped leaf is the tell-tale sign of Arrowleaf Balsamroot.
Given its similarity to Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Mule’s Ear is also easily misidentified. The easiest way to differentiate between the two, however, is by taking a closer look at the leaves. Mule’s Ear has a green and shiny-looking leaf that’s shaped like a, you guessed it, Mule’s Ear. It maintains the same sunflower-like flowering body as Arrowleaf Balsamroot and can be found in sunny, grassy meadows. Large numbers of Mule’s Ear growing within stands of quaking aspens is an indication that the area was overgrazed at some point in time. Mule’s Ear is also known as some of the first plants to grow after a wildfire.
Even if you don’t know what its name is, chances are you’ve seen Common Yarrow. Also known as Milfoil, Common Yarrow is widely dispersed throughout the United States, Asia, and Europe. Given its proliferation across the globe, it’s been used for generations for everything from cold and flu remedies, healing wounds, and even brewing beer! Here in Park City, Common Yarrow is easy to spot due to its small white flowers and soft, narrow leaves. Common Yarrow is unique in that it can be found at low and high elevations in Park City.
Rock Clematis is native to the Rocky Mountains and can be identified by its drooping head and four prominent flower petals. Although the picture above is a small, consolidated example of Rock Clematis, it’s not uncommon for this wildflower to climb upwards of 10-12 feet and crawl across the forest floor in search of sunlight. In fact, Rock Clematis grows best with its roots in the shade and its flowers out in the sun. Rock Clematis can be found in full bloom in Park City starting and later spring and until mid summer.
These are just a few of the wildflowers you’ll encounter near the trails in Park City, and you’ll undoubtedly notice much, much more if you take some time to slow down and take a look around during your next hike, trail run, or bike ride. To learn more about wildflowers—and the trail system—in Park City, be sure to check out Park City’s Prime Cuts 3. Not only does it detail the best biking and hiking trails in the area, but it serves as a useful guide when identifying wildflowers in Park City.
*This post was written with information from the U.S. Forest Service. To learn more about wildflowers in your area and how to view them with minimal impact on the environment, please visit the Forest Service’s site on wildflowers.
By: Jeff Sorenson, Senior Editor & Content Manager
Prime Cuts 3 Mountain Biking and Hiking Guide