Paper Birches in Long Canyon (photo by Dave Sutherland)

Trees and plants have been stranded here since the Ice Age

A little-known canyon near Boulder harbors several relicted plants and trees that have been stranded there since the Ice Age.

Among them are paper birches, black snake root, wild sarsaparilla, carrion flower and the rare white adder’s mouth orchid.

These plants usually inhabit the Northwoods, not Boulder, yet here they are. Their history here dates back 13,000 years, when the higher elevations of Colorado were covered with walls of ice. The glaciers stopped in Nederland, and the Ice Age climate in Boulder was like what we find now in Maine or New Hampshire.

At the end of the Ice Age, the paper birches “croaked and were replaced by ponderosa pines, but a tiny pocket got left behind,” explains Dave Sutherland, interpretive naturalist with Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP).

That patch is located in Long Canyon and the trail is accessed from Realization Point trailhead off Flagstaff Road, where you can hike right up to the out-of-time paper birches. The habitat in Long Canyon is so sensitive that dogs and bikes are not allowed, and all hikers must stay on the trail. Says Sutherland: “It’s like a treasure chest of biological treasures.”

—Kay Turnbaugh