Hiking and Climate Change in Colorado

Alderfer Three Sisters trail in Evergreen, December 31, 2010. We long for this much snow in 2012.

I published my book, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range in 2010, and did the actual hikes described in the book from October, 2009 until August, 2010. Just two short years later, I’ve already noticed changes in the environment as a result of climate change in the foothills and mountains of Colorado.

The benefit of doing contemplative hiking, where you’re actually paying attention to the flora and fauna as well as your own internal landscape, is that you are more aware of the subtle differences from season to season, and, if you journal your experiences, from year to year. I’ve noticed many environmental changes on the trail having to do with a warmer spring in 2012 and less precipitation in the winter of 2011-12. These are just my personal observations. Your observations may differ, or you may have noticed other changes where you hike:

Wildflowers: Around the third week of April, 2010, I noticed small wildflowers growing around rocks near the trail near the Mesa Trail and Boulder Creek Trail, such as violets, chickweed and sand lilies. I wrote an entire chapter about contemplating these small, pretty things. During the same month, but in 2011, the wildflowers had bloomed earlier, and in 2012 there were less of these flowers overall and their bloom happened a month earlier, in March. In fact, I noticed wildflowers along the NCAR to Mesa trail in May that normally I don’t see until June, such as wild iris.

The Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, which takes place near the beginning and middle of July, was a bust in 2012. Due to a below-average snowpack and a dry and warm spring, the flowers were sparse and bloomed a month earlier, in June. During the festival the only flowers to be found were up above 11,000 ft., and the normally colorful Washington Gulch hike was just a solid green.

Pasque flowers, a staple in the foothills and lower mountain elevations, were gone by June of 2012. Normally, they linger a little bit after their first appearance in April. They appeared in March of 2012.

Wildfires: The spring and summer months of 2012 were devastating for the Front Range as far as wildfires went. We witnessed the High Park Fire, the Waldo Canyon fire, the Bear Peak fire and dozens of large and small fires throughout the state. The scariest day was one day in late June when a thunderstorm passed through the Boulder foothills, igniting literally DOZENS of fires with every lightning strike. It was as if we were at war and being bombed.

The warmer, dry conditions and lack of normal spring precipitation, combined with too much beetle kills from too-warm winters in the last decade or more, made Colorado a tinderbox. It remains a tinderbox today, with the Boulder County sheriff enacting a fire ban in December.

Snowpack: As of December 4, 2012, the mountains of Colorado are only at 40% of normal snow pack for this time of year. Officials are already worrying about the impact on water availability for the summer. This is also impacting ski resorts, as Vail braces for a “slow start to winter.”

Climate change means that places that normally get adequate precipitation will experience extremes with either droughts or flooding. In July, 2011, the Yampa River flooded.

I’ve personally observed that hiking trails that normally are snow-packed this time of year (Elk Meadows, Bergen Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park north slopes) are bone dry.

Trees, shrubs: I made a personal observation that due to the extremely hot weather (104-106 degree days in June and July), many trees and shrubs along the Front Range simply withered. Leaves turned brown or yellow and the trees went dormant for the year. One lilac bush at my mom’s house is budding out—in early December!—because daytime temperatures have been averaging above 55 degrees for several weeks now.

Reservoirs, ponds and lakes: There was a large pond, perhaps 2 acres in size, near where I used to live in Westminster at Olde Wadsworth and 108th Ave., where water fowl would swim year-round. As of last summer in 2012, the pond is now a weed-infested field. Estes Lake in Estes Park is at the lowest level I have ever seen it. Denver reservoirs are below 70% full, down from previous years when they were anywhere from 80-87% full this time of year. The Boulder Creek near Eldorado Springs is a trickle compared to previous years at this time.

All these observations are just some of the big and small ways we are seeing what Guy McPherson says are “rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.”

I fear what the summer of 2013 will be like. I also fear what the next 20 years will be like.

Before you dismiss these observations as simple weather anomalies, or begin a mental debate with me about whether or not man is responsible for climate change, let me say that we’ve already wasted way too many decades debating science (and more recently, simple observation), and we simply have no more time to waste. Unfortunately, however, nothing we do can stop the train from going off the cliff.

According to a presentation by Guy McPherson at a 2012 Bioneers Symposium, the best we can do is prepare and adapt to the catastrophic consequences that are coming down the pike near mid-century. McPherson, in the video below, presents data and scientific evidence that we are headed toward a 6 degree Celsius warming by 2050, which by all standards, will mean the end of ALL LIFE (including human) as we know it.


One thought on “Hiking and Climate Change in Colorado”

  1. Thank you for such an informative post. I didn’t know the changes were so obvious and local in Colorado. I feel sad about that. I believe in climate change, and would like to purchase your book and read more about the local environment as you experienced it, and eventually travel some of those trails you discuss. I am concerned about Mother Earth, and make a point to do my part as one individual. I appreciate your group and writings :-)

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