Updated: May 18, 2014 at 11:11 am
Of all the summer smells in Colorado - pine trees in the mountains or sagebrush on the Western Slope - none brings back my childhood like the scent of wildflowers.
As kids, my sister and I would gather bright-red paintbrush, tall cuts of beardtongue penstemons that look like snapdragons, spikey purple thistles that would cut our hands and any color of the yellow-centered asters that cover the valleys on the Uncompahgre Plateau.
We'd put them in a glass jar and bring them back to my parents' cabin to fill the kitchen with good smells.
We misunderstood state law just enough, however, to never pick the protected columbines because we feared going to prison.
Today, wildflowers are never the reason for the backcountry adventures my husband and I take, but we always spy some specimen on our trip that forces us to stop and take a picture. And usually we speculate about what plant we think it is.
"It's wild garlic," my husband, Andrew, assured me on our last backpacking trip in Oklahoma, pulling the bulb from the ground to munch on it. His years in Boy Scouts mean he knows much more than I do about these things.
But part of the beauty of wildflowers is you don't need to know the name of what you're looking at to enjoy the beauty or the smell.
This summer - once the impressive snow drifts melt - drive over Guanella Pass and enjoy fields of flowers above timberline, especially those that spread out at the base of Mount Bierstadt.
Or head up U.S. Highway 285 and park at the top of Kenosha Pass where the Colorado Trail crosses the road. You can go either direction, as far as you'd like, for meadows of wildflowers tucked among aspen trees.
Castlewood Canyon State Park, southeast of Castle Rock, has wonderful prairie wildflowers and relatively easy trails at low elevation.
Buy yourself an illustrated guide if you want to go beyond mere speculation about what you're seeing - any number of these are available at bookstores and outdoor outfitters. The one most frequently referenced by Colorado wildflower groups is "Mountains: Guide to Colorado Wildflowers" by G.K. Guennel. There is a volume for the prairies as well.
If you see a columbine in the wild, you technically are allowed under state law to pick up to 25 of the blossoms without fear of prison time.
Surely you wouldn't want to do that, though, as it'd prevent others from enjoying the often long-lasting blossoms on their hikes.
But be warned, it is a misdemeanor according to Colorado Revised Statutes, to "tear the state flower up by the roots." No prison time is in the mix, but you could face a fine of between $5 and $50.