Catching the Wildflower Wave On Utah’s Patchwork Parkway

Wildflower meadow at Cedar Breaks National Monument

Just a stone’s throw away from Utah’s Bryce Canyon, there’s a scenic byway that cuts a 50-mile route across a series of breathtaking plateaus. Known as the Patchwork Parkway, it provides access to the Dixie National Forest and Cedar Breaks National Monument. In July, this stunning wilderness area takes on an added dimension: its meadows and slopes are painted with wildflowers.

Brian Head Peak

The Patchwork Parkway is unique in that it follows ancient Native American routes as it climbs from 6,000 to 10,000 feet, in the process passing from one climatic zone to another. At 9,300 feet it encounters Brian Head, one of the highest-elevated occupied towns in Utah. The focal point of Brian Head is Brian Head Peak, which at 11,307 feet is the center of the Grand Circle of National Parks that includes Zion, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

Indian paintbrush on Brian Head Peak

I drove part of the Patchwork Parkway last year but never made it as far as Brian Head Peak let alone experience the wildflowers. So this week, my daughter and I took the car and set out again, picking up the route at a small town called Panguitch. True to its name, the Parkway wove us through a colorful assortment of cultures, villages and climates. At the lower elevations we passed through one-street towns with a single cross street, their one story storefronts simmering in the hot afternoon sun.

Climbing higher, the temperature dropped as we entered the Dixie National Forest. Donning sweatshirts, we pulled off at the turn outs to admire the ever expanding view. But the real surprise came when, crossing the rutted landscape of the Markagunt Plateau, we glimpsed the smooth green face of Brian Head Peak itself, rising like a giant whale out of a sea of wildflowers.

Approach to Brian Head Peak off Patchwork Parkway

It’s hard to imagine how flowers can thrive in such wide open spaces with poor rocky soil and only scant precipitation for water. But here they were, vast fields of them, gently swaying in the keen mountain air. The wildflowers spread outward through the landscape in long waves of purple, yellow, orange, pink, white and blue, representing an astonishing variety of species.

Turning off of the Parkway, we chose a narrow dirt road that climbed around Brian Head Peak to the right. As it followed the curve of the hill, the dusty track rose through a sloping meadow thick with flowers. Our car passed through broad drifts of blue-purple mountain larkspur interspersed with small-flowered penstemon, its double clusters of lavender blue flowers teeming with bees. There were pint-sized groupings of woody aster with its bright yellow eye and here and there, the feathery bristles of Indian paintbrush added a bright red accent to the picture.

Tall mountain larkspur

Showy goldeneye, a member of the sunflower family

Small-flowered penstemon and bee

Further up the rise, the broad swathes of meadow flowers gave way to lone clusters of flowers common to upper elevations. Stubbornly clinging to the steep rocky slope were pale white columbines and 4-foot high clusters of tall mountain bluebells. The bluebells’ deep blue nodding blooms and bluish-green leaves, more akin to a woodland setting, provided a stark contrast to the dusty grey soil.

White columbines

Tall mountain bluebells

Closer to the peak, the white columbines were joined by others in pastel shades of blue, including the white and lavender Rocky Mountain columbine with its distinctive white cup and fringed yellow center. The Rocky Mountain columbine is the state flower of Colorado and its colors are symbolic. The blue petals represent sky, the white cup snow and the yellow center symbolizes Colorado’s gold mining history.

Rocky Mountain columbine, the state flower of Colorado

Finally we mounted a rise and the summit appeared before us, a rocky plateau whose only feature was a lone cabin perched on the edge of a cliff. A sign read that the structure was built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. From this vantage point, you could see parts of Utah, Nevada and Arizona, part of a staggering vista that extended in every direction for hundreds of miles.

Civilian Conservation Corps hut built in 1935

Yet, even here in this inhospitable place, plants were growing. Moss spread tiny green carpets while tucked into the bare rocks were colonies of colorful rock lichens. And on the cliff face itself the rocks were spattered with neon patches of Pleopsidium, a lichen that prefers the surface of vertical rocks.

Neon-colored lichen growing on the cliffs of Brian Head Peak

Not to be outdone, the bright yellow blooms of cinquefoil provided a welcome touch of greenery at the cabin’s threshold.

Cinquefoil blooming at 11,000 feet

All in all, a great day spent in nature’s garden.