Arrowleaf balsamroot clusters provide vibrancy to sagebrush flats. Along open stream banks and under lodgepole pine woods, lupine produces a purple carpet. Along the highway, pink sticky geranium, red gilia, and creamy sulphur buckwheat thrive. Meadows of multicoloured wildflowers cling to canyon walls and floors between the granite Teton peaks. A plethora of vividly coloured but small alpine flowers grow above where trees may live. Summer brings a plethora of wildflowers from the valley bottom to the mountain summit.
To enjoy summer wildflowers, remember winter first. Winter grips the Tetons and the Jackson Hole valley for more than half of the year. Snowmelt provides a surge of life-sustaining moisture when winter finally lets go. Wildflowers, grasses, and blooming shrubs proliferate as a result. Winters with a lot of snow are followed by late springtime and a spectacular display of wildflowers in the summer. By April, the valley’s snow had begun to melt. During May and June, snow recedes up mountain slopes and valleys. Alpine and subalpine regions are the last to melt.
Wildflower blooming comes closely on the heels of snowmelt. The wildflower display begins with little jewels as soon as spots of bare ground emerge within a sea of snow-covered sagebrush: First to bloom are yellow buttercup, yellow bell, yellow biscuitroot, white spring beauty, pink steers head, and tiny white snowdrops. Dark purple low larkspur contrasted with the silvery green of sagebrush flats as spring develops. Silvery lupine will soon sprout stalks of purple pea-like blooms. Next, large yellow composites (daisy-like blooms) develop, followed by clusters of arrowleaf balsamroot growing among the sagebrush. Mule’s ears create huge mats in some areas.
Heartleaf arnica, another widespread yellow composite, lives in open conifer woods. Several orchid species, including the exquisite pink calypso orchid and five kinds of coralroot, may be found in forests of lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, and subalpine fir. Because these mycotrophic orchids rely on decaying fungus for nutrition, they thrive in areas with a high concentration of rotting trees. Throughout the summer, a variety of wildflowers, including scarlet paintbrushes and pink sticky geraniums, bloom in woodland openings.
The glacially sculpted gorges between the Tetons support a dazzling assortment of wildflowers along streams, springs, and open meadows. Along with yellow monkeyflower, fuchsia Lewis monkeyflower, and yellow columbine, deep purple monkshood and white cow parsnip follow stream paths.
At higher altitudes, trees grow fewer and grasslands become more abundant. Sub-alpine meadows have an incredible variety of wildflowers: like in the Jackson Hole valley, buttercups and spring beauties bloom first, followed by a slew of flowers such as bluebells, asters, daisies, groundsels, lupines, penstemons, and saxifrages.
Trees reach their limit in the Teton Range. Plants grow in ground-hugging cushions over 10,000 feet to withstand the desiccating wind, short growing season, and poor soil. Growth is sluggish; a mat the size of a dinner plate might be almost 10 years old. Alpine wildflowers are belly plants that are best observed when lying down so that the blooms are virtually as close to your nose as possible. The list of alpine beauties is long: blue alpine forget-me-not, pink moss campion, yellow Hymenoxys, purple sky pilot, magenta Parry’s primrose, white Smelowskia, cream-colored alp lily, claret-colored anemone, pink and white mountain heather, lavender Townsendia, pink alpine aster.
The wildflower exhibit presents a kaleidoscope of stunning beauty, from the most showy flowers to the smallest. Wildflower viewing at Jackson Hole and the surrounding mountains takes just a keen eye and a receptive mind. Valley wildflowers may be seen from highways and turnouts, but finding the riches blossoming in the Tetons requires trekking.
Places to see from or near roads:
- Jenny Lake parking location – From the parking lot, short paved pathways provide close-up views of early blooms in June. The parking lot fills up rapidly, so come early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
- In July and August, the meadows surrounding Highway 89 five to seven miles north of Colter Bay host a brilliant display of wildflowers. Lavender lupine, pink sticky geranium, white cow parsnip, purple monkshood, scarlet paintbrush, yellow Helianthella, and a variety of other wildflowers predominate, with white bog orchid growing near seeps. Several turnouts provide safe locations to pause for views of wildflower meadows and the northern Tetons across Jackson Lake.
- Meadows of purple duncecap larkspur and yellow Helianthellas line most of the gravel route heading from Pacific Creek Road to Two Ocean Lake.
Places to hike:
- Two Ocean Lake – The meadows on the north side of Two Ocean Lake are a riot of colour in July and August. The meadows are dotted with dunecap larkspur, yellow Helianthella, purple lupine, pink sticky geranium, and other wildflowers. Hikers will encounter meadows alternating with aspen groves and conifer woods within one to two miles of the Two Ocean Lake parking area. Butterflies like these meadows because of the abundance of nectar plants. Naturalists will find a plethora of songbirds nesting in the aspen woods and willows in the Two Ocean Lake region.
- Phelps Lake Path from Phelps Lake Overlook to Phelps Lake – In June and July, the trail crosses a south-facing ridge of the glacial moraine with many wildflowers and blooming bushes. Flowering plants include lavender harebell, golden Helianthella, and blue penstemon. Broad-tailed and calliope hummingbirds are drawn to pink giant hyssop. Yellow Oregon grape and white snowberry are two flowering bushes.
- Yellow glacier flower blooms shortly after snowmelt in Cascade Canyon’s north branch. Wildflower meadows cover the upper canyon’s bowl form. Creeks are lined with bluebells. Yellow groundsels, pink daisies, lavender asters, yellow western St. Johnswort, blue penstemons, and yellow columbines are among the summer wildflowers.
- The Teton Crest path crosses alpine and subalpine meadows from Marion Lake to Cascade Canyon. Hiking enthusiasts will be rewarded with a variety of beautifully coloured high elevation wildflowers in late July and August.
- The tram at Teton Village provides the most convenient access to the alpine, allowing you to experience spectacular views from the summit of 10,400 feet. Rendezvous Peak and a taste of the alpine without having to work hard for it. For tram hours, price information, and naturalist-led programmes, call 307-733-2292.
To enhance your awareness and appreciation of wildflowers, consult some of the following books:
- Plants of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks by Richard J. Shaw
- Vascular Plants of Grand Teton National Park and Teton County: An Annotated Checklist by Richard J. Shaw.
- Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, A Peterson Field Guide, by John J. Craighead, Frank C. Craighead, Jr., and Ray J. Davis.
- For Everything There is a Season, by Frank C. Craighead, Jr.
Other ways to learn:
- Ask a ranger naturalist at the Moose, Jenny Lake and Colter Bay visitor centers and Flagg Ranch information station. Attend wildflower walks and other wildflower-related programs.
- Take a course at the Teton Science School. Call 307-733-4765 for a catalog listing all of the natural history courses.
- Join a field trip or program of the Wyoming Native Plant Society, Teton County Chapter. Call 307-543-2959.
- Do not pick wildflowers in national parks.
- Watch where you step, especially in the alpine, as plants are fragile and slow-growing.
- Butterfly collecting is not allowed in national parks.
Katy Duffy coordinates the Teton County chapter of the Wyoming Native Plant Society. She is an avid birder and bird-bander who also studies amphibians and reptiles and enjoys observing mammals of all sizes. Co-author of Teton Trails, Katy schedules her frequent backcountry adventures to coincide with peak flowering of favorite wildflowers and maximum activity of birds, mammals and herps.