Friday, August 26, 2011

Hikin' the Continental Divide

The last few days have been absolutely awesome. The air is crisp and cool with none of the humidity of the NC Outer Banks or the lowlands of Pennsylvania, and there seems to always be a light breeze. The skies have alternated between clear blue with big white cottonball clouds and dark gray with heavy rain-filled stormclouds, thunder rumbling across the sky and lightning touching down in the mountain lakes.

The day after Buffalo Mountain, my father and I drove the scenic road up to Loveland Pass and the Continental Divide, here the long distance trail: the Continental Divide Trail crosses the road and runs up and over tall grass covered and rock strewn peaks. The trail is deceivingly long, as one assumes that by merely glimpsing it, it can't be too long, however, being above treeline, this trail is in actuality snaking the ridge for miles.

trail en route to Mt. Sniktau

Standing atop the 13,000ft Mt. Sniktau, we could see 14,000ft peaks in the distance and the deep river cut (and highway cut) valleys below, thick with blueberry bushes, Indian Paintbrush and Mountain Bog Gentian. At our feet we passed Alpine Pussy Toes, Lanceleaf Stonecrop, Yarrow-oh so much of this here and everywhere - Gold Aster, Lyall's Goldenweed, Dusky Beardtongue, American Bistort and Whiproot Clover. Just below and above us were flat white snowfields perfect for skidding across.

Whiproot Clover (Trifolium dasyphyllum): this plant liked to grow in thick mats just underneath and alongside rocks on the grassy mountaintops
Prairie Sagewort (Artemisia frigida): this is a vey velvety  delicate plant with tiny yellow disk flowers in racemes along the stem. A very aromatic plant as well that can be dried and used as a seasoning.

Western Yellow Paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis):  There are 150-200 species of this genus, most of them found in North America, however they are quick to hybridize and so identification can be difficult. An interesting tidbit I found in Lone Pine's Plants of the Rocky Mountains, "The Nevada native peoples believed that the rattlesnake distilled its poison from paintbrush flowers because these plants grew near rocks where the snakes were found." Though this may be merely legend, it is true that this plant's root have few hairs with which to gather nutrients, but instead joins roots with its nearby plants, using their uptake as a nutrient source.
Just below and above us were flat white snowfields perfect for skidding across. And amongst the rocks at the very top of the mountain I spied my first Alpine Spring Beauty. After getting nose to nose with this unusal plant, I stood up just in time to see a fatty marmot with a bushy tail doing a sort of waddling-scurry as fast as he could across the rocks and into his hiding hole.

snow surfing on Mount Sniktau

Alpine Spring Beauty (Claytonia megarrhiza): The leaves of this plant were very fleshy and succulent, quite different from the delicate leaves of Spring Beauty or Carolina Spring Beauty we know in our Western NC mountains.

Alpine Spring Beauty flower: the 5 pink veined petals and conspicuous stamens do bear a resemblence to our eastern Spring Beauty 
 Finally summitting our first Western mountain, I finally felt like I was starting to  get the hang of this giant mountain trekking. This is surely a different landscape...
standing atop Mt. Sniktau

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