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Seeking Rare Wildflowers High in the Rocky Mountain West

Another native that wins most hearts is the alpine forget-me-not "Eritrichium aretioides," a borage that can bring strong men to their knees to photograph its incredible blue flowers. Reginald Farrer, the great turn-of-the-century English rock gardener, called it "the king of the Alps," sketching its glories in wildly purple prose. Still, you can understand his passion after you've come upon swaths of forget-me-nots, rich tapestries of cerulean blue interlaced with the hot pink of "Douglasia montana" and the sharp yellow of draba, a tiny bun-shaped member of the mustard family.

It's worth a special trip to see Medicine Wheel, an archaeological site whose prehistoric origins remain largely unknown. A Native American shrine still revered today, it consists of a circle with radiating spokes made of limestone rocks set flat in the ground, much like a wagon wheel. The location, on a breezy ridge of Medicine Mountain, is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence from which hang dozens of contemporary offerings — bits of cloth, animal skin, beads. The U.S. Forest Service has built an information center about a half mile below the circle where you must park and then hike up without wandering off the road — a shame since the shattered limestone on this windblown ridge forms a spectacular natural rock garden hosting a bounty of beautiful plants.

We spent three days tramping the Bighorns, then descended the dizzying western slope of the mountains on Route 14A to the dry flatlands. There we cut north to the steep red sandstone cliffs of Bighorn Canyon, a rugged channel carved over the centuries by the mighty river that rushes through it.

This detour presented not only magnificent scenery but a range of desert wildflowers we hadn't found in the mountains. On the sandy meadows edging the road we discovered several varieties of penstemon, the colorful beardtongue that is one of the glories of the West, along with "Eriogonum umbellatum," a mat-forming member of the buckwheat family that surrounds itself with a corona of luscious cream or yellow blooms.

Finally, we drove north on Route 310, then doglegged over and down to Red Lodge, Montana, our base of operation for the next four days. This classic Western town has a wide range of accommodations (it's a ski resort in winter, and in summer serves as an eastern gateway to Yellowstone, some 70 miles away). Rising from the valley floor where Red Lodge nestles, the stretch of U.S. 212 that leads to Yellowstone takes you over the 10,947-foot Beartooth Pass, an awesome sight with some of the most dramatic scenery in the Rockies. Steep switchbacks allow room for several cars to pull off in places where you can view the scenic splendor or, as we did, explore the scree to photograph the plants. At first glance the rocky scree seems barren. On close inspection, however, you find the crevices between the crushed rock filled with wildflowers.

Alpine buttercups, tiny primroses, and columbine nestle in the limestone. Another pocket reveals a different form of the alpine forget-me-not "Eritrichium howardii." Yet another choice find is purple saxifrage, "Saxifraga oppositifolia," a tight little cushion whose leaves are arranged opposite each other like the four points of a compass. In bloom it wraps itself with purplish-pink blossoms that are breathtaking.

Scrambling over the scree is not for the timid, because the slopes are steep — often perilously so — and nothing anchors the loose rock. But for the adventurous and certainly for plant lovers, climbing the scree is a must, since the plants found here are the equal of any in the world. Indeed, many of my European rock-gardening friends, who make annual pilgrimages to the Beartooth Plateau, find it difficult to understand how most American plant enthusiasts have overlooked it.

The pass, even so, isn't the only gardening game in town. Virtually any of the side roads will yield spectacular wildflowers. One of our final excursions was a dirt road leading to Red Lodge Mountain which was closed for the season. Fortunately, we were able to locate the manager, who allowed us to drive up a service road to the top of the ski lift, where we parked. It was late afternoon and a light fog was just beginning to creep in. Coming over a low saddle, we found ourselves knee-deep in flowers filling an alpine meadow of staggering beauty.

Great patches of mountain clematis sprawled over the pine duff blanket underneath low-growing trees stunted by the altitude. The rich blues and purples of delphinium and lupine were punctuated by the sharp yellows and oranges of buttercups and mountain poppies. Pasqueflowers of myriad hues (we counted at least five) were interlaced with ground orchids, gentian, and Indian paintbrush in neon shades of yellow, red, and pink. The only thing missing was Julie Andrews in her dirndl singing "The Sound of Music," and I assure you we didn't miss her that much.

Despite the fog, which precluded really good photography, our mountain meadows experience was so exhilarating we decided we had to share it with two members of the group who'd stayed behind. The following morning, before driving 60 miles to the Billings airport, we swung back to the spot for a second brief look. The early fog was just beginning to lift in the morning sun and the scene was everything we had promised our friends — a fitting end to a splendid trip and a sight none of us will soon forget.

We stayed in two places, making day trips from each: Bear Lodge (Burgess Junction, Wyo.; 307/655-2444; doubles $39) and the Rock Creek Resort (Hwy. 212, five miles south of Red Lodge, Mont.; 406/446-1111; doubles $79 - $84). We used an excellent guide to the region's wildflowers: "Alpine Wildflowers of the Rocky Mountains" by Joseph F. Duft and Robert K. Moseley (Mountain Press Publishing).

New York-based writer LAWRENCE THOMAS is on the board of the North American Rock Garden Society.

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