Albion Basin’s wildflowers are late bloomers, but an ‘explosion’ is on the way

The impacts of a record-breaking winter have hampered annual festivals. But plenty of water plus a short growing season could make this year’s bloom one of the best.

At Brighton Resort, party preparations were underway. Every year around this time, the resort and surrounding town welcome some very special, very colorful guests. Their arrival alone is cause for celebration.

But last weekend, most of the guests of honor for the Wasatch Wildflower Festival were no-shows.

“The flowers just haven’t popped yet,” Brighton spokesperson Jared Winkler said.

Remnants of a record snowpack and still cool temperatures have stalled wildflower blooms in the Cottonwood Canyons. Typically an explosion of reds, purples, yellows and whites in mid-July, the mountainsides instead remain camouflaged by swaths of brown snow and mud amid new vibrant-green grass shoots — to the disappointment of many a hiker.

The parties in their honor will go on as planned, however. Both Big Cottonwood Canyon ski areas, Brighton and Solitude, hosted their annual flower festival, put on by the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation, last weekend. This weekend it’s the Little Cottonwood Canyon resorts’ turn. Snowbird is set to host the public event, which includes guided hikes, kids’ crafts and music, on Friday. On Saturday, it’s Alta Ski Area’s turn.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Naomi and Cheryl Neufville look for wildflowers on the trail to Cecret Lake, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.

Alta spokesperson Andria Huskinson tried to spot some flowers as she drove away from the ski hill Tuesday afternoon. She finally found some near the entrance to the Wildcat parking lot, where the elevation is lower than pretty much anywhere else at the resort.

“Usually it’s at the peak of wildflower season,” Huskinson said of the festival. “It won’t be this year, but there will still be wildflowers.”

In addition to the wildflower bloom in Albion Basin, many of Alta’s other traditional summer activities await the melting of the remnants of the 903 inches of snow that fell at the ski area between October 2022 and this April — an all-time state record. The Summer Road is not expected to open until late July, Huskinson said. Within a few days of the road’s opening, she noted, the Albion Basin Campground will open.

The closure of the road makes it much more difficult, though not impossible, to access one of the Wasatch Front’s most popular trails: Cecret Lake. It can still be reached via Albion Basin, but that adds several stream and snowbank crossings plus an extra 2.7 miles to a hike that is 1.8 miles roundtrip from the top of the Summer Road. As a bonus, however, Alta management has moved the Albion provisions shack from the parking lot at the top of the road to the Albion base. In addition to items like bug spray and popsicles, this year it will also sell beer.

While the wildflowers will be fashionably late this year, they will eventually arrive. And when they do, according to Red Butte Garden botanist Neal Dombrowski, they’ll likely be show-stoppers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wildflowers along the trail to Cecret Lake, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.

“It’s been a pretty exceptional year for wildflowers across the state,” he said.

That could go double for the bloom in the Cottonwood Canyons and other high-altitude areas.

Like the wildflowers that have popped up at lower elevations, the flora in the canyons will benefit from a wealth of moisture once the snow melts. Unlike their lowland kin, however, the wildflowers that take root at 9,500 feet have a short window in which to blossom before the first frost sets in. Even in a typical summer, the paintbrushes and bluebells and primroses bloom almost all at once (which is one reason, Dombrowski said, that people in the valley usually can’t have an Albion Basin-like bloom in their backyard no matter how many flowers they plant). With the late start this year, the period in which they can show off their petals to potential pollinators may be even more compressed.

“Why do we have so many flowers at one time?” Dombrowski said. “It’s because you have all these plants trying to fulfill their life cycles in a short growing season.”

Then again, Dombrowski said, because most of the flowers in the Cottonwood Canyons are perennials, meaning they return yearly, the shortened season may have no effect on their prolificacy.

Don’t have the time or patience to wait a few weeks for the wildflowers to peak at Albion Basin? They can be found in plenty of other places. Dombrowski pointed out that Utah is part of the Great Basin, which has “one of the greatest diversity of plants because of our change in elevation from Salt Flats up to the top of the mountain.” If the flowers are already starting to fade in the valley, he suggested heading to increasingly higher ground. Eventually you’ll find them.

And if you end up at the top of the mountain where there’s more snow than sego lilies? Winkler said attendees of Brighton’s wildflower festival found out that’s not so bad either.

“They’re just excited to walk around and see so much snow still on their hikes and play in the snow,” Winkler said. “So, it’s kind of a tradeoff.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wildflowers break through the snowy ground near Cecret Lake, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.

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