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Seeking Rare Wildflowers High in the Rocky Mountain West

While the hordes attending the annual people-a-thon in the Grand Teton- Yellowstone National Parks area were inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic last summer lamenting their fate, a small group of plant lovers and I hiked in the solitary splendor of the Bighorn Mountains, a short distance away — often going an entire day without encountering anyone else.

I was traveling with nine amateur and expert botanists who shared a love of rock gardening and alpine wildflowers. We were on a tour benefiting the T.H. Everett Rock Garden of the New York Botanical Garden, and while we had an expert along to help us identify the plants, this is a trip that anyone could easily duplicate.

Our mission was to search out native American alpine wildflowers — species that grow mostly at or above timberline. The Bighorns are particularly rich in these floral gems, some of which appear no place else in the world. Many European botanists prize the area as highly as the Pyrenees and the Alps, so you're likely to cross paths with some of these enthusiasts — on their hands and knees — photographing our native treasures.

The Bighorn National Forest, which encompasses much of the mountain chain, consists of more than a million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which allows both recreational and commercial uses of the land, including grazing. Unfortunately, these priorities sometimes conflict, and the dual usage can place a strain on the environment, taking a heavy toll on its plant life. In winter, activities like snowmobiling can damage fragile mountain tundra beyond any hope of reclamation. During the summer, thousands of sheep are trucked in to graze the mountain meadows to a nubbin, with the resultant loss of many plants. It's a problem that greatly disturbs environmentalists — often pitting them against locals who must make a living off the land — yet there is no easy solution.

Our plan was to make a circular trip: we'd fly into Billings, Montana, drive south to Wyoming, explore the Bighorns, then swing north, making a slight jog west to the Beartooth Mountains, to cross the fabled Beartooth Pass, which straddles the Wyoming-Montana border, before returning to Billings. The timing of our weeklong foray would be important. At these high elevations, summer allows the flowers only a brief six weeks or so to emerge from the snow, bloom, and disperse seed to perpetuate themselves. We chose the second week of July, which turned out to be perfect. (Friends who'd made the attempt a week earlier faced an unexpectedly late 14 inches of snow and weren't able to cross the Beartooth Pass.)

At Billings Logan International Airport we picked up three four-wheel-drive station wagons and headed south through the verdant rolling prairie of the Crow Indian Reservation. Cutting west on Route 14, we began to ascend the Bighorns in heavy rain and fog.

As we neared the top, the rain tapered off and the fog began to lift, its tendrils revealing tantalizing carpets of electric-blue delphinium and purplish-blue lupine beneath black-green conifers that hugged the road.

Our destination was Burgess Junction, Wyoming, which seems larger on the map than in reality, for it's composed solely of an intersection, a small trailer park, and an eight-room motel called Bear Lodge. Nearby, a larger building, owned by the motel, contains a one-room general store, a small bar, and a restaurant. Be forewarned: accommodations at Bear Lodge, while comfortable, border on the spartan. Most rooms have two double beds, a straight chair (if you're lucky), a shelf, and hooks on which to hang your clothes. The tiny bathrooms are clean and have adequate hot water, a blessing savored after a long day hiking in search of horticultural treasure. (The latter is a bit of hyperbole, for you can find wildflowers by simply walking across the road from the motel to explore the ditch.) Still, driving the graded, generally well maintained secondary roads will take you to places of great natural beauty, most of them displaying an embarrassment of flowers. When you find a likely spot, park at the side of the road and hike to your heart's content.

Hunting for flowers in the Bighorns isn't difficult; they'll surround you. Identifying them is another matter. We were fortunate enough to have our horticulturist along to guide us through the jungle of Latin names and point out the distinguishing characteristics of each species. But even he carried along a good field guide to wildflowers of the Rockies, as each of us did.

Despite the fact that the plant you see today may become sheep fodder tomorrow, collecting specimens is considered an ecological no-no and frowned on in most of the alpine world. (Many botanists photograph their discoveries; a good camera and plenty of film are indispensable.) Collecting a small amount of seed is allowed, however, provided you don't strip all of it from a plant. Some of these plants can be grown in a garden setting, particularly if started from seed.

The alpine meadows of the Bighorns are blanketed with mats of phlox species interwoven with astragalus, a member of the pea family, and a host of other wildflowers. Seepy bog areas where mountain springs bubble to the surface are studded with clusters of buttercups and monkey flowers, and if you're lucky, in drier areas you may even come across "Calypso bulbosa," a delightful little ground orchid just four inches tall.

The true gems, though, are usually found in places that seem the least promising. Look for stretches of rocky white rubble where the limestone cap that covers these granite-based mountains has been ground to small fragments by natural forces. At first glance this harsh terrain seems barren, yet it provides the quick drainage that most alpine flowers demand.

One of the loveliest is a barely three-inch-high dwarf columbine, "Aquilegia jonesii," which smothers its blue-gray tightly furled foliage with large purple flowers. Growing in limestone rubble, it steadfastly thumbs its nose at gardeners who try to coax it to flourish at lower elevations. It will grow, yes, but it rarely blooms in such circumstances and is only a pale shadow of itself in its natural habitat.

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