Alta’s alpine wildflowers are its primary summer attraction, with the showiest blooms of “peak season” typically occurring during the latter two weeks of July. However, the height of Alta’s wildflower season is really only the beginning of a long period of changing colors in Alta’s high country that begins with the early crops of Penstemon, Alpine Sunflower, and Paintbrush, and proceeds all the way until ski season as aspen leaves and alpine meadows turn shades of yellow, red, and orange.
As of late August, you can still find a number of brilliant flower species on display almost anywhere in Alta:
Fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium: Fluorescent fuchsia petals and slender green lanceolate leaves adorn the tall reddish stems of this late-summer species. Fireweed grows in a variety of habitats, but it is most prominent in open meadows and moderately wet soils, and it is often the first species to establish in areas recently burned by wildfire. Some believe that Fireweed portends the approaching winter.
Asters, Aster genus: Everywhere Aster, Grey Aster, Englemann Aster, and Leafy Aster are ubiquitous in Little Cottonwood Canyon in late summer, often appearing to take the place of the bright yellow Alpine Sunflowers that dominate wide open slopes in July. Aster flowers feature bright yellow disc florets rung by fine purple florets, growing on bushy stalks up to 24 inches tall, which cover both open meadows and forest understory in blankets of color.
Owl Clover, Orthocarpus tolmeii: Owl Clover is similar in appearance to Paintbrush, with clusters of small yellow flowers atop reddish stems with furry, light green leaves that are somewhat needle-shaped. Clusters of these diminutive yet charming plants can be found on sunnier slopes with well-drained soil.
Western Coneflower, Rudbeckia occidentalis: Coneflower is commonly mistaken for Alpine Sunflower that has gone to seed, when in fact, the large, dense, black-brown “cone” is its own flower, which blooms during peak flower season but remains until deep into Autumn. Coneflower grows up to 60 inches in height, which elevates its curious brown fruits and punctuates open meadows of brighter colors.
Showy Goldeneye, Viguera multiflora: Similar in appearance to the dominant yellow Alpine Sunflower, this lower-lying species bears smaller yellow flowers with lighter-colored centers, multiple flowers per stem, and it is often found amongst large blooms of asters, where its color compliments its light-purple neighbors.
Several of the showier species of peak season such as Lupine, Bluebell, and Paintbrush often linger on moist, shady slopes at the upper elevations. Hike or bike the Devil’s Castle Loop Trail or the trail to Germania Pass from the bottom of Sugarloaf Lift and you might find stands of voluptuous summer flowers thriving into September. By then, Aspen leaves will be bursting with color, willows will be turning bright red, and the air will be rich with the scent of autumn, as summer growth decomposes before being matted down by early snows. The hills are alive!