Vibrant wildflowers adorn the the mountains and valleys of Crested Butte for two glorious months. From late June through August, verdant green meadows are dotted with a dazzling array of colors. It’s a veritable kaleidoscope of colors. Swaths of yellow mule’s ears and blue lupines streak the landscape. Brilliant sunny skies transform the flowers into wild stained glass windows for the mountain cathedral. It’s no surprise to learn that Crested Butte claims to be the wildflower capital of Colorado. The wildflowers are so beautiful, you can practically hear the mountains singing their exuberant praise.
I can’t think of a better way to enjoy this spectacular show than to hike through it. I was lucky enough to spend four weeks in Crested Butte in 2017. Throughout July, I’m going to share with you a few memorable hikes that show why Crested Butte is the wildflower capital of Colorado. To start, let me take you along the Rustler Gulch Trail.
Rustler Gulch Trail Takes You Through Wildflower Paradise
Rustler Gulch might be the most beautiful hiking trail in Crested Butte. It has it all. Meadows bursting with wildflowers. Roaring streams and plunging waterfalls. Glorious mountain peaks. If you’re visiting Crested Butte, you need to hike this trail.
The moderately strenuous 7.4-mile trail climbs 1,174 feet and takes the hiker through a wide gulch. You’ll meander through dark spruce-fir forests and lush meadows where wildflowers crowd the trail. Beaver ponds and their marshy flowages can be seen along the way.
When the trail exits the last forest grove, a majestic cirque looms before you. From there, the trail continues its steady climb along the cirque walls. Eventually the trail climbs above the tree line, where you’ll find alpine species thriving on the mountain slopes. Even at 11,000 feet, plant life is abundant. The slopes radiate a brilliant green. In early July, many of the plants were just leafing out. As the season progresses, they become much larger. Down below, snowmelt forms little pools and streams that feed Rustler Creek. Dense new growth crowds the banks and fills marshy depressions.
The entire hike is gorgeous, but the trail culminates at the foot of rugged mountain peaks. Front and center is Precarious Peak, which stands at 13,306 feet. It’s joined by the Golden Tops and Cassie Peak. Many small waterfalls tumble down the cirque walls but another highlight of this trail is the large waterfall to the left of the trail near the end.
Surrounded by mountains and wildflowers, I have to ask, does it get any better than this?
Why Wildflower Lovers Should Add Rustler Gulch Trail to Their Bucket List
When you hike the Rustler Gulch Trail, you’re likely to see more plant species than on any other trail in Crested Butte. The sheer abundance and diversity of plants is astounding. The trail climbs more than a thousand feet through different mountain habitats. As the elevation increases, the climate changes. The plants had to adapt to frigid temperatures, heavy snowfall, poor soils, and persistent winds. This results in unique habitats that are home to plants that can’t be found at lower elevations.
As you walk through mountain meadows filled with towering wildflowers, you’ll be eye-to-eye with corn lilies, monkshood, and larkspur. The meadows simply burst with new life and are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. At higher elevations, the plants become smaller but no less beautiful. Plants that were blooming weeks ago at lower elevations are now emerging. You’ll see glacier lilies, king’s crown, and Parry’s alpine lousewort thriving above the tree line.
Wildflowers Observed on Rustler Gulch Trail:
I saw the following wildflowers when I hiked the trail in early July. Many more flowers were budded and almost ready to bloom. For many weeks, there’s something flowering on this trail.
- Corn Lily (Veratrum viride)
- Monument Plant (Swertia radiata)
- Fendler’s Meadow Rue (Thalictrum fendleri)
- Blue Columbine (Aquilegia coerulea)
- Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum)
- Western Monkshood, Aconite (Aconitum columbianum)
- Case’s Fitweed (Corydalis caseana)
- Mule’s Ears (Wyethia amplexicaulis)
- Wyoming Paintbrush (Castilleja linarifolia)
- Mountain Bluebells (Mertensia ciliata)
- Larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum)
- Alpine Paintbrush, Rosy Paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia)
- King’s Crown (Sedum integrifolium)
- Silky Phacelia (Phacelia sericea)
- Parry’s Alpine Lousewort (Pedicularis parryi subspecies parryi)
- Loveroot, Porter’s Lovage (Ligusticum porteri)
- Yellow Willow (Salix lutea)
Click on the photographs to see the full image and to read the flower identification.
Rustler Gulch Trail Information
The last mile to the trailhead is steep with deep ruts and large rocks. To make it even more difficult to reach, you have to ford the East River. You’ll need a high clearance 4×4 vehicle to get there. It’s not an easy drive, even in a 4×4. Don’t attempt this unless you’re confident in your 4×4 capabilities.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a 4×4 vehicle, you can still get to the trailhead on foot. Approximately 0.9 miles from the trailhead is a small parking lot next to the East River. You can park on either side of the river, depending on its depth and your vehicle’s capabilities. Parking at the East River will add a total of 1.8 miles and approximately 500 feet of vertical gain to your hike. While it may add a little more distance and elevation, you’ll still have beautiful mountain views and wildflowers surrounding you as you walk.
Note that there isn’t a parking lot at the trailhead; parking is alongside the road and is limited to 5-6 vehicles.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates:
38°59’57.31″N 107 00’11.05″W
East River Parking Lot GPS Coordinates:
There and back
Difficulty Level: Moderate
The trail isn’t particularly difficult but it is long. For the most part, it’s a gradually climb. But if you’re not used to hiking at higher elevations, it can be tiring. Pack plenty of snacks and water and take your time. You’ll be rewarded with beautiful scenery throughout the entire hike.
Be prepared to cross several streams. Depending on the winter’s snowpack, they can be quite high, even in summer. Exercise caution when crossing and if it looks too swift, don’t cross. Hiking poles can provide extra stability while wading through streams. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that you’re likely to get a wet fording knee-deep streams. Consider wearing water shoes on this hike. (I didn’t and I had soggy hiking boots for the day but that was a small price to pay to see this wonderful landscape.)