UNDER THE YELLOW-GREEN JUNIPERS and blue-green piñons, a flush of wildflower color has arrived in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Santa Fe. In mid-May, Tesuque Creek cascades down the canyon, dropping rushing, flowing, and burbling notes in a serenade to snowmelt as I walk the Winsor National Recreation Trail.
I’ve come to rummage in the understory and use the trail as my lab, testing out the ecological framework known as “life zones.” At the front of nearly every wildflower identification guide, you’ll likely find a sketch of a mountain with diagonal elevation lines drawn to designate an area where a community of plants and animals have adapted to the climatic conditions. As elevation increases, the climate gets cooler and wetter while one set of species gives way to another. The life zone pattern across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains begins with piñon and junipers, followed by ponderosa pines, mixed conifer, spruce-fir forest, and the treeless alpine zone at the top.
Understanding how wildflowers fit into the zones, and therefore why, where, and when they bloom, takes some botanizing on the ground. From the West Trailhead in Tesuque, the Winsor climbs 13.6 miles through five of New Mexico’s life zones, which makes it a colorful one-stop shop for wildflower discovery. By hiking different segments of the trail throughout the season, I can experience five unique zones and contemplate what a hotter, drier future might bring.
At the Winsor Trailhead, at the end of CR 72A off Bishop’s Lodge Road, the altimeter app on my phone reads 7,057 feet, putting me in the piñon-juniper zone, which covers the foothills and reaches into the surrounding plains and valleys. The first zone on the trail to lose its snow cover, it bears no hint of even late-season squalls.
In May and June, wildflowers provide a floral banquet to the bumblebees waking after their winter nap and to black-chinned hummingbirds that buzz into New Mexico at the end of their long migratory journey. These spring flowers bloom early, lure insects to pollinate them, and fade fast before the summer heat can wilt their delicate petals.
Still, instead of the dry, rocky terrain dotted with piñon and juniper trees I expect to find in this zone, it’s wet, green, lush, and cool. Standing at the edge of Tesuque Creek, I’m in the shade of alders, birches, willows, and cottonwoods. Tall Franciscan bluebells and Solomon’s seals—wildflowers common much higher on the mountain—form a green sea at creek’s edge. A couple of fir trees, which normally grow several thousand feet up, are also enjoying the refreshing shade and water.
“What’s common in cold and wet valleys or canyons is that the vegetation at the very bottom is similar to the vegetation much higher up in elevation,” Toby Gass, an ecologist and former wilderness manager in the Pecos Wilderness, explains to me later. “This is how you get your local vegetation diversity.”
Gass points me toward something Vernon Bailey, then head of the Bureau of Biological Survey (predecessor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), wrote in a 1913 government report that first described New Mexico’s life zones: “Zone boundaries are never sharply marked in nature, but change gradually as one set of average climatic conditions is succeeded by another.” Riparian areas, where waterways intersect the land, cut across all life zones on the mountains, bringing with them their own unique community of plants.
I take a path marked “alternate Winsor Trail,” which climbs a south-facing hill. From a high vantage point, I can see the surrounding arid foothills covered in piñon and juniper. Claret cup cacti bloom wine-red in cracks of large boulders, while yellow daisy-like perky Sue and foothills paintbrush dot the hillsides. All are common wildflowers on this part of the mountain.
Running water is just one of the many factors that interrupt the basic pattern of life zones. Throw in wildfires, insect outbreaks, wind blowdowns, disease, water, and climate change that may rearrange life on the mountains and you’ll realize that understanding wildflowers also requires doing a bit of forensics on the trail.
A MONTH LATER, I PARK AT THE CHAMISA TRAILHEAD, off Hyde Park Road, and follow it for about two miles to meet up with the Winsor Trail at 7,800 feet. The parched air mirrors the dusty soil underfoot. A layer of long pine needles crinkles under my boots. In the ponderosa pine zone, large, vanilla-scented trees dot the north-facing slopes.
Historically, frequent ground fires in ponderosa pine forests regularly cleared out the undergrowth. Older ponderosas, with their thick bark, are well adapted to resist fires. The prolific skyrocket and silvery lupine take advantage of the sunlight that reaches the ground to spread out in the open understory.
At the trail junction, Tesuque Creek flows through a large grassy meadow filled with Mexican hat, yellow cinquefoils, and spike verbena. Two main disruptions open meadows in forests across the mountains: water and fire. The meadow here is dry, and a couple of decaying, blackened stumps indicate signs of a long-ago wildfire. After the fire swept through, grasses took over; their thick roots choked out tree seedlings but welcomed wildflowers.
A huge Douglas fir grows along the creek—its seeds likely transported here by some small mammal or bird from higher elevations. As a seedling, it found a little pocket where the climate was slightly cooler and wetter than normal. Now it is thriving. “Often seeds germinate in a microclimate,” Gass explains. “If they can get their start there, can they survive the warmer, drier climate? I don’t know. And really neither does anybody else.”
But it’s an important question to ask in the face of climate change. While Gass has heard predictions that Santa Fe will have almost no spruce or fir trees left in 50 years, she’s skeptical of such forecasts. “We have variation in the terrain: north-facing slopes, south-facing slopes, canyon bottoms,” she says. “That topographic variability is not going to go away.”
It’s possible the distribution or relative abundance of trees will change, she suggests. “Perhaps there will still be the same species in different places. That’s a big mystery.”
When nature breaks the rules, crosses borders, and shows up in places the prevailing thinking says it shouldn’t, I feel a tingle of magic and a sweep of awe. Mystery is a hopeful thing.
At 8,200 feet, I approach the junction with Bear Wallow Trail, where the forest starts to transition to a mixed conifer zone. The air thickens with moisture. The plant life is more lush and more varied. A mix of Douglas firs, white firs, and pines populate the warm south-facing slopes, while spruces and subalpine firs inhabit the north-facing slopes. Each side has its own set of wildflowers.
It could be considered the sweet spot on the mountain—a place where temperature and moisture come together to produce the most plant diversity. The trail oscillates between small aspen groves, open meadows, and stands of conifers all studded with wild rose and other shrubs and a mix of wildflowers and grasses.
I sit on a log in an aspen glade, listening to the shimmy of leaves, when a broad-tailed hummingbird alights on a nearby branch, taking a break from its pursuit of flower nectar. Wildlife follows the plant life, so creatures are abundant in this zone. Bear scat, elks’ chomps on twigs, and a track in the mud are all visible from my perch.
Nearby, a wet meadow overflows with showy wildflowers, my favorite being the pink elephant heads. The flower’s parts resemble an elephant’s trunk and ears—or perhaps these flowers are etchings of our long-gone mammoths. I turn my face toward the sun to let light and shadow dance on the backs of my eyes, enjoying for a few moments this tiny Eden on the mountain.
IN JULY, I SET OUT ON THE FINAL 6.8-MILE SEGEMENT of my trek on the Winsor, from the parking lot of the Santa Fe Ski Basin to Penitente Peak. The trail begins at 10,250 feet with a steep climb on switchbacks through the spruce-fir zone.
I pass through the fenced boundary of the Pecos Wilderness and enter a dense forest. The air is crisp and invigorating. The song of a hermit thrush echoes through branches dripping with old-man’s-beard lichen.
Occasional frosty nights hold back the invasion of plants from lower zones. At this elevation, meadows and riparian areas enjoy lush wildflowers mid-June through August. But in the understory of the forest, the floral scene is quiet. Only a few sidebells wintergreen and mountain death camas bloom. Once mature, the dense spruce-fir forest canopy closes out the sun; few wildflowers, grasses, or shrubs grow in the understory.
“People often think that lack of diversity is a bad thing,” says Gass. “But the forest moves in very long, slow cycles.” If you wait long enough, the trees will meet their demise: spruce beetle attacks, wind blowdowns, a once-in-a-century fire. They are all part of the ecosystem here. “After those events, a lot of times you get spectacular hillsides of wildflowers,” Gass says. This seems to be another pattern across the life zones: Natural forest disruptions often mean more wildflowers.
After about 4½ miles, I turn south off the Winsor and onto the Skyline Trail, popping out of the forest and into the light among magnificent carpets of dwarfed flowering plants on the rounded 12,240-foot summit of Penitente Peak—the high point of my journey.
A rainbow of blooms, dominated by purple alpine clover and sweet-flower rock jasmine, explodes here from late June to mid-August. Queen bumblebees float from one flower to the next. Pikas collect haystacks of blossoms for their winter pantry. Historically, on the highest peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, snow would remain through the entire year, melting only in exceptionally warm or dry years. Recently, it’s more common for snow to disappear entirely from the peaks. Climate change is warming the alpine zone the fastest. What that means for life in this zone remains uncertain.
I feel the pang of awareness that such shifts may rejigger life zones to the point where I won’t be able to predict where to encounter my beloved wildflowers. “People fall in love with their landscape, and then they see it change and it upsets them,” says Gass. “But a landscape isn’t going to be the way it was 60 years ago, any more than I’m going to be the way I was 60 years ago.”
Even if nature’s timeline is longer than our human journey, it’s an important perspective to keep in mind. “Walk around and say, ‘Well, it’s different. What happened?’ ” Gass says. “Be interested, be curious. I can always find beauty that way.”