This is a great contemplative hike for children and families. It doesn’t need to be silent.
Location: Between Eldorado Springs and South Boulder.
Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on CO-170, go 1.7 miles to the South Mesa trailhead. Park on the north side.
Duration: Approximately 2 hours
Route: from the parking lot, start along the Mesa Trail to the South Boulder Creek Trail, which heads east.
Access Notes: The parking lot for this trailhead gets full early in the morning on weekends. Arrive before 8:30 a.m. to improve your chances of finding a parking spot. Otherwise, try parking on the south lot and walk over. Do not park on the road, you will get a ticket. Dogs are allowed. To avoid being trampled by other hikers or off-leash dogs while viewing delicate wildflowers, come very early or on weekdays.
(For this hike, you’ll want to bring a wildflower field guide, preferably one about Rocky Mountain or North American wildflowers).
The best time to do this hike is late April to early May, when the first delicate wildflowers appear after all the snow has melted. If it’s been a particularly mild winter, it may be better to come as early as mid-April.
Starting out from the South Mesa Trail, it feels odd to veer to the east onto the South Boulder Creek trail and head back toward Boulder and away from the trees and quiet wilderness of the more western trails. The path is down a rocky, narrow gouge in the grass through the meadows and hills that slope gradually downward as you approach the rumble of Highway 93 and Marshall. There are large and small boulders throughout the meadow where you can sit and rest and listen to the birds.
Starting in March or April, you’ll hear the pretty song of the meadowlark, but good luck trying to spot him! He’s small and light brown and usually perches on a fencepost or tall reed of grass. He has the loudest voice in the meadow to attract mates, but camouflages himself well to avoid predators. You may also spot a stellar jay, a magpie, a crow or even some mountain bluebirds.
Closer to Highway 93 you’ll see a row of large cottonwoods and hear the creek. If you turn around before you get to the road, you’ll have walked about 2 hours, roundtrip.
The Small and Quiet Voices of April
April isn’t typically the month that comes to mind when you think about wildflowers. A plethora of colorful prairie flowers bloom in May further east in the plains, like at the Pawnee National Grasslands. Mountain trails above 8,000 feet are almost always still covered in snow in April, so there aren’t many flowers there, not until June or July. But in fact, you can spot quite a few species of flowers this early in the spring, and close to town, if you slow down and actually search for them.
They’re not obvious. Like alpine and tundra flowers, they’re small and low to the ground to keep warm and sheltered from harsh storms and wind. They hug rocks or grow in disturbed areas close to the trail—maybe even right in the middle of the trail.
When I went out on a mission to search out and photograph these flowers, I was surprised at how many different types I found. In my usual non-contemplative “exercise” mode, I barely notice anything except the general landscape: the rolling green hills, the ponderosas, the rocky spires and flatirons to the west. But slowing down and getting closer to the ground brought a new awareness. These flowers are the small, quiet voices in April. They’re delicate and delightful, growing quickly and without much pomp or circumstance as soon as the snow melts. They attract the early crowd of flies and moths, perhaps some bees too on warmer days. They’re not revered or celebrated as much as their mid-summer cousins like the Indian paintbrush or the larkspur. They don’t bring in crowds of admirers. For this reason, I found them to be worthy of contemplation.
If you brought your field guide on this hike, it’s fun to try to actually identify a few of the species by name. It requires a close inspection and careful comparison. The flowers may be the same as the photo, but the leaves may be different. Try to study one flower from the tip of its stamen all the way down to the base of its stem and leaves. Feel the petals, caress the leaves.
What do these early bloomers tell you about yourself, or nature, or the change in seasons?
Are there any species that seem to be blooming earlier than the field guide states? Later?
The April wildflowers are the small, quiet voices of the meadow—pretty but unassuming. They are easily overlooked when your attention is on the louder, more obvious beings, like melodious meadowlarks or the visually soothing carpet of green grass across the hills. What small and quiet voice inside you are you ignoring because it’s being upstaged by louder, more insistent messages?