A Prairie Ecologist Vacation

Our family went on vacation last week (sorry for the delayed responses to your comments while I was gone…)  We rented a cabin in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, Colorado.  It was a really nice week, especially considering that the temperatures ranged from 40-80 degrees F – with low humidities – in the mountains while temperatures at home were in the high 90’s!

While I enjoy short trips to the mountains very much, I think I’d have a hard time living there year-round.  For one thing, I’m too used to seeing big skies.  In the prairies, you can watch thunderstorms from many miles away, and gauge whether or not they’re heading for you or not.  In the mountains, storms sneak up and pounce over the nearest ridge before you have time to react.  And, of course, there are the winters.  I enjoy snow as much as the next person, but winter driving in flat land is enough adventure for me…

Regardless of my fondness for plains and prairies, I did find plenty to photograph in the mountains as well.  Its easy to see why mountains and water dominate so many nature calenders and posters.  Appreciation of prairie landscapes tends to be an acquired taste – one that grows as a person becomes more familiar with the intricacies of prarie life.  In contrast, anyone can appreciate the dramatic landscapes of the mountains without even working at it!  (…and where’s the fun in that?)

This wasn’t a photo trip, it was a family vacation, so I really didn’t spend much time taking photos.  Most were snapped during brief breaks on family hikes, or while my family patiently (?) waited in the car while I jumped out to take yet another photo of the same mountain…  However, I got a few, and thought you might enjoy seeing mountains throught the eyes of a prairie ecologist and photographer.

Mount Evans is a great place to see dramatic mountain landscapes. This was one of many photos I took on quick "I'll be right back" jump-out-of-the-car trips. Not a lot of time for careful compositions, but not a lot of need either - I felt like I could have pointed the camera randomly and gotten great photos! You can click on this (and other) photos to see larger views of them.

I've only spent a short time in alpine meadows, but I really like them. On this trip, the cold blustery weather on top of Mount Evans caused me to be out-voted, and we headed down to warmer temperatures before I got to explore very much. Maybe next time!

There was a group of mountain goats at the top of Mount Evans that seemed perfectly willing to have their photos taken. Very accomodating!

Our cabin was near Golden Gate Canyon State Park, and we found it to be a great site for family hiking.

I recognized many of the plants (at least to Genus) in the meadows at Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Some very pretty places there, and it was a great year for wildflowers.

I always feel a little closed in when hiking in woodlands, but many parts of the trails in Golden Gate Canyon State Park were very pretty.

This mule deer fawn popped out of the grass as we rounded a trail corner near the Red Rocks Amphitheater south of Denver.

Our cabin was located in a steep valley (can a valley be steep?). If you look carefully, the green roof of our cabin can just barely be seen in the bottom right portion of this photo. I climbed the slope across the road from the cabin a couple times in the evenings and took a few photos. Most of the time it was either too cloudy or too sunny, but I managed to find a few opportunities in-between.

I haven't had time to look up this flower yet, but it was abundant - even in some hard-to-grow-in places!

One of our most promising hikes ended early when we found this big stream running across the trail. Our family was less adventuresome than a few other hikers who managed to make it across (not without getting wet). THIS is why the Platte and Missouri Rivers are running so high this year! LOTS of snow melt in the mountains!

One of my problems with hiking in mountains is that I'm programmed to look down as I hike, so I sometimes miss the great landscape vistas. Instead, I see things like this!

I kept seeing this blanket flower along trails and finally got a photo of it by having my daughter Anna hold a diffuser (homemade with thin cloth on a flexible plastic ring) between it and the bright sun. When she saw the photo later she said, "You didn't even get the whole flower in the picture!"

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

10 thoughts on “A Prairie Ecologist Vacation

  1. And in case you’re wondering – no, I didn’t write blog posts in our vacation cabin. The two posts that were published last week were written ahead of time and scheduled to publish automatically…

  2. I haven’t had time to look up this flower yet, but it was abundant

    It might be a stonecrop (Sedum sp.).

    • My thought exactly about this plant, Stephen. Perhaps what is now called Amerosedum lanceolatum.

      Chris – Anna’s comment reminded me of my father quoting Shakespeare’s “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” A bit strong for the situation, but my dad always used to say it when I would make mildly critical comments. (Actually, he paraphrased it to merely “How sharper thant the serpents tooth…”, without the rest.) There were stronger responses for stronger criticisms that I seemed so indelicately to produce as a kid.

  3. Chris, Glad you are back safe and sound. Prairie folks do miss the sky when in the mountains or forests. They make me a bit claustrophobic unless I’m on the peak where the vistas blow everyone away. Nice pics though even if they are filtered through a prairie mans eyes.

  4. Got in a hurry and submitted above (with a typo, grr) before mentioning this:

    There are some really interesting tallgrass prairie remnants near Boulder. It doesn’t sound like you got to them, but next time you’re out that way, they are part of the Boulder green belt, and worth a visit.

    See: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1387&context=greatplainsresearch&sei-redir=1#search=%22tallgrass%20prairie%20Boulder%22

    • Thanks James – I’ve heard of, but have not seen, the tallgrass remnants. This wasn’t the right trip to visit them, but I’d really like to see them sometime.

      And I like that Shakespeare quote. (even with the typo!)

  5. Lovely. Yes, mountains are full of widely appreciated scenes. It’s much more demanding to reach people the beauty of prairies. I’ll always appreciate your photos, wherever they were taken.

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