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Native Trees And Plants You Will See Everywhere Along Colorado Rivers

a river running through a forest

By Brenda Stuart


You have to do more than stop and smell the roses when you’re in Colorado. You’ll miss a lot if you don’t look up and see the trees.

An exhilarating ride along the state’s whitewater streams is a thrill, but the eye-popping scenery is an integral part of the total experience. Colorado’s towering peaks, plunging gorges, and rushing rivers make the state the place to go for outdoor adventure, but the landscape would be pretty desolate without the stunning native flora that blankets it.

Pines and Firs


Presiding regally are the imposing pines and firs, some soaring 200 feet into the sky!  But a pine is not just a pine, and a fir is not just a fir. You might be looking up at a ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, or a white fir. Colorado has several varieties of big trees.

While these big conifers get the limelight, a lot of other trees make up Colorado’s massive and varied arbors.

Cottonwoods and Junipers


You can’t travel far along the Rio Grande or any other Colorado river without seeing a cottonwood tree or juniper. They’re two of the varieties that contribute to the dense canopies of the forests. Junipers like to hang out on mountain slopes and mesas and are an important part of the state’s ecology, producing berries that feed birds and small animals.

Quaking Aspen


One of the showboats of Colorado trees is the quaking aspen, which gets its name from the way its leaves shimmer in the breeze and turn to a radiant gold in the autumn. Many people flock to the high country to see the gold colors in the autumn, but green leaves shimmering in the breeze of the summer are a sight to see.

Bigtooth Maple


Another tree that gives fall its dazzling colors is the bigtooth maple. It’s worth checking out for its peculiar name if for no other reason. The orange and red leaves are stunning in the fall, but the tree’s yellow flowers really come out in the summer when the leaves are green and lush. The changing colors and change of seasons are why so many people love to vacation in Colorado.


Tourists may think of Colorado as all mountains, but the state is divided into several different terrains, ranging from mountains to plains to semi-desert regions. Each has its own distinct native plant life. Sagebrush, usually considered a desert plant, is common in the lower elevations of the state and is an important food source for wildlife.

Rubber Rabbitbrush and Thimbleberry Bush


In the plains and foothills, the yellow flowers of rubber rabbitbrush are magnets for butterflies – although rubber rabbits are not on the list of Colorado wildlife.

In higher elevations, you’re likely to encounter the quaintly named thimbleberry bush with its white flowers and edible fruit.



Native wildflowers paint Colorado in radiant colors during their growing seasons. Probably the most famous is the official state flower, the blue columbine. You’ll spot its distinctive blue petals and white centers along streams and trails in spring and early summer.

elephant head lousewort

The enchantingly named Indian paintbrush likes mountain meadows and gets its name from its petals, which resemble tiny paintbrushes dipped in orange or red.  You only get one guess as to how the elephant head lousewort got its name. You’ll see it stretching its pink trunk over mountain streams.

Ornamental Grasses

Providing the carpet for Colorado’s beauty are the native grasses like bluestem, buffalo, and Indian grass. While you’re exploring, just be aware of ticks, especially the Rocky Mountain wood tick which likes to hide in the tall grasses. Fortunately, these critters tend to stay away from the water.

Tree-mendous Adventure

Colorado has long been known as America’s outdoor adventure state, but it’s not just the rafts and kayaks in the river that draw us to the water. What’s around the river is just as exciting, so don’t forget to look up while traveling down the river.


Brenda Stuart is a freelance writer and radio news broadcaster in Denver. When she is not traveling around Colorado, she’s writing about her latest adventures.