Snow pack. Or Not.

In mountains where snow builds up — any snowy mountains — there is a unique form of water storage. It is the snow itself, and it is called snow pack. Here in Colorado, we rely on the delayed release of water from snow pack melt to slowly recharge the resevoirs into early summer.

Fall River Cirque Early Summer

June 14 2015. Fall River Cirque, Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Above is what snow pack in the alpine tundra looks like. This photo was taken three years ago on one of my favorite places in the world, Trail Ridge Road, in Rocky Mountain National Park. The snow pack actually isn’t deepest in the alpine; that honor goes to the spruce-fir forest, the highest forest that can grow in the Colorado Rockies. And on this drive, there was a lot of snow in the spruce-fir forest. It’s just easier to see the snow without the trees.

South Park pan

May 30, 2018. Mount Evans looking south to South Park.

We’ve been hearing this winter and spring that it has been dry in the high country — little snow pack has built up. Last week I went up to Mount Evans, west of Denver, to see for myself. Above is the snow pack — or lack of — in the Front Range. As I drove up, there was no snow in the spruce-fir forest. None. At all.

I realize that the comparison isn’t exact — Mount Evans is 50 miles south of Rocky Mountain National Park.

But I went up to Mount Evans two weeks earlier than I did Trail Ridge. There should have been more snow up there. A lot more snow.

Aspen on Mt. Evans

We love our quaking aspen in Colorado, and never more than at this time of year. They are turning now, and they won’t last long.

I took a drive up to Evergreen last week and found a little meadow ringed with quakies, some of which hadn’t turned yet.

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Aspen are in the cottonwood family. You can see this in their round -yet-pointed, saw-tooth leaf shape. Aspen leaf.jpg

But you can tell aspen from other cottonwoods because of their white bark, and the unique “eye-shaped” scar that forms when they drop a branch. As a child, I used to worry that aspen were watching me. Not paranoid, though. Not.

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I saw these trees on the way down from Mount Evans, one of my favorite places to go when I need to get to the high country (Alpine flowers on Mt. Evans, Tundra Fall).

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Now that the mountain pine beetle infestation (BioBlitz 2012 — Climate Change in the Soil) has burned itself out, aspen will have an opportunity to fill in the open spaces left by dead lodgepole pine. Aspen reproduce mostly by suckers, and so don’t have the dangers associated with being small and vulnerable for years. The slopes that were covered by rust colored dead pines will in a decade wear a mantle of pale green in the summer and gold in the fall.aspen-from-mt-evans-05

Alpine flowers on Mt. Evans

I finally made it up to the tundra yesterday, not Trail Ridge Road this time, but Mt. Evans, outside of Denver.

Mt. Evans is nearly unique in the world in that it is a 14,130 foot mountain with a road essentially to the top (you have to park and walk the last thirty feet or so). It makes it an easy trip to get to my favorite biome — the alpine tundra.

I went up hoping, as always to see wildlife. But what I got an eyefull of was flowering plants.

Alpine garden

Summit Lake flowers — American bistort, alpine avens, and goldflower.

This view is of Summit Lake, actually a mile or so before the actual summit. Initially, I was going to just take a picture of the white American bistort in the foreground, but this was such a beautiful shot, I took it first.Goldflower (3)

Goldflower is in the sunflower family. It is one of the larger flowers in the tundra, standing several inches tall. About half of that is take up with the big flower disk.

fly on alpine avens

Fly pollinating Alpine Avens

One of the things that surprised me was the number of flies on the flowers. But then I found out that bees don’t make it up this high, and so flies are the main pollinators.

fly on American bistort

Fly on American bistort flowers.

I don’t get repulsed by much, but it is hard for me to have kind thoughts about flies in general. But if they are pollinating flowers, I guess I need to try to think better of them.

American bistort (3)

American bistort at 12,000 feet.

Bistorts are in the buckwheat family. This species is relatively large at several inches.

Alpine bistort

Alpine bistort.

Most alpine flowers, though are tiny, like this alpine bistort, standing about an inch tall. To get this shot, I had to lie down on my stomach, with my camera on the ground.

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Purple fringe usually grows at lower altitudes, where it can stand upright.

Even if the plant normally grows upright, the frequent winds forces them low to the ground.

Alpine Indian Paintbrush maybe

Alpine Indian paintbrush? If so, it, too, normally grows upright.

I had a heck of a time figuring out some of these plants. I think this is alpine Indian paintbrush. If you know, let me know.

Mountain goat (2)

Mountain goat blowing her winter coat. Look at how thick it is!

At the very top of Mt. Evans, I finally found some mountain goats. Mountain goats are different from Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. They are goats (duh!), with very sharp horns and a hump at their shoulder.

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Bighorn rams in the Big Thompson Canyon battle it out.

Bighorn sheep, on the other hand, have thick horns that they use to batter each other with. They have no hump at their shoulders.