04 October 2010

Golden Time in the Mountains

It's Golden Time and the Alpine Larches (Larix lyalli) are preparing for winter. Like hardwoods, they are a deciduous tree although still a conifer. As the tree pulls its sugars and chlorophyll back to the roots, remaining pigments cause the tree's needles to flame a golden color. Beautiful, whether or not you know the cause:

Alpine Larch grow near treeline, typically at c. 9,000 feet elevation here in the norther Rockies near Butte, Montana. Here on a harsh, windswept rocky ridge, they grow as krumholz with stunted whitepark pines:

Pure stands -- "Larch Parks" or well spaced trees with heather or other groundcover -- are common along the Continental Divide in the Pintler Wilderness of southwest Montana. Five hundred year old trees are common, and some are found to be thousand years old--young by Bristelcone Pine standards, but not a bad age for a tree. With growth rates of less than one inch per century, size is deceptive: even the largest Alpine Larches seldom exceed two feet in diamter or sixty feet in height. Their beauty and the harsh places they live make a Golden Time visit mandatory each late September:

My visit this year was Goat Flat via Storm Lake Pass (in the Pintler). It's a fairly easy day hike--two hours in and one hour out if I'm in a hurry (which I seldom am). It's a great old trail. Three cheers to the trail crews that built stretches like this by laying up rock walls:

In more settled areas of the West, a sheer cliff like this mountainside above Storm Lake would attract dozens of climbers each weekend. I wonder if you could find a single piton on the place:

The early morning light was bright and clear, making for great shots of backlit trees and other things, like this Elk Thistle (Cirsium scariosum):

Ah, the climb is over. Here we are at Storm Lake Pass looking to Goat Flat. The trail is cut from solid rock along the face of Mount Tiny (far right in the photo):

MollyTheDog walks the patterned ground (raked into waves by wind and weather) of Goat Flat:

We hiked over to the ridge that leads to Kurt Peak, a popular vision quest site for the many tribes that used this area over the past ten thousand years or so. Eating elk jerky and an apple, I took in the many colors and shapes of lichen growing on the rocks there:

After meditating for a spell, the croaks and quorks of ravens drew me back into Nature. Two adults and two juveniles flew acrobatics over me and even "dropped a pack" (rolled over in flight) for me when I quorked back:

Soon they were joined by two falcons about their size. The ravens and falcons vied to see who could gyre up the thermal the quickest. The falcons easily won, and once they were above the ravens, my totem bird wisely decided to find another place to play on the wind:

Time to head home, ready to accept Fall's cooler temperatures and the onset of Winter.

[For an earlier trip to Goat Flat when wildflowers were in full bloom and for more about the Vision Quest site, Kurt Peak, see http://ecorover.blogspot.com/2008/07/pintler-wilderness-vision-quest.html .]


Sylvia K said...

I do enjoy your posts about Montana and that part of the country and particularly because I raised my family in Montana. I do appreciate your visits and comments. So, I've added your blog to my blog list so I don't miss anything. Love your pics from today and those BLUE skies! Have a great week!


Matt said...

For me larches bring back fond memories of a family elk camp. It was one of the few areas in my life that had a large number. I enjoy your photography.

A Wild Celtic Rose said...


I'm taking off work tomorrow to go hike in the North Cascades...

Hot Larch Action Baby... Hot Larch Action (we get very excited about them here ;)

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Hi There, WOW---between the gorgeous sky, the beautiful tree colors and the lichen ---you had a fabulous hike.... All I can say is WOW... What views also.... I'm envious!!!

Anonymous said...

I love larch trees. We call them tamarack here, but don't have all that many.

The lichen patterns are so neat. I can see why that place would be a popular site for tribes.

Anonymous said...

Great post and beautiful pictures! The tamaracks here (larix laricina) are golden too but grow in the boggy areas. I love how they glow in the sunlight.

Judy said...

Gorgeous trees - they are so beautiful against the blue skies! Looks like you and Molly had a good walk!!

secret agent woman said...

I've always liked knowing it was the vacating of the green that made the colors - that adds to it for me. Love that lichen.

Janie said...

The larch trees put on quite an autumn show for you. I didn't realize they were so long-lived. MTD seems to be a great traveling companion for you. She's completely at home on those high mountain ridges.

troutbirder said...

Another great hike and interesting (and educational) commentary. I do have a few tamaracks on my back forty, which were transplanted from northern bogs. Surprisingly, they have done quite well on our alkaline soil. They're beautiful fall gold often brings questions about those colorful "pine trees". The I get to teach too.

troutbirder said...

Another great hike with interesting (and educational)commentary. I do have a few tamaracks on my back forty which I transplanted from our northern bogs.

Maria said...

Those are amazingly blue skies... so much landscape where you are...
Your photo of the Elk thistle is really pretty. I like the back-lighting of the sunshine.

The lichen looks like jewels... it also reminds me of M & M's !