Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail, CO, is unlike any other botanical garden in the world. At 8,250 feet above sea level, the garden is not only the highest botanical garden, it’s certainly one of the most beautiful.

Alpine garden view

At 8,250 feet above sea level, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens not only offers spectacular views, it features a vast collection of high mountain flora that demonstrates how native plants can be used in the landscape.

Photo Credit: John Pendleton

Betty Ford Alpine Garden Entrance

The gardens are beautiful in every season, but they’re especially grand in fall, when the aspen leaves begin to change.

Photo Credit: John Pendleton

Delphinium

Showy delphiniums are one of the many perennials that color the alpine landscape.

Photo Credit: James H. Schutte

Alpine meditation garden

The Mountain Meditation Garden’s peaceful setting features a floating rock, a waterfall, native grasses and spruce trees.

Photo Credit: John Pendleton

Of course, as a Colorado native, I feel this way about many of the natural areas of my home state. But despite my unabashed bias, this garden will take anyone’s breath away. Part of that pride comes from the astounding scenery around Vail – which is enhanced by the intensified light as a result of the city’s high altitude.

“The high ultraviolet light helps the colors of the plants pop out,” says Nicola Ripley, director of horticulture and research at the gardens. “Some of the plants that turn heads in the garden are delphiniums, peonies, beebalms and, of course, columbines.”

In 1998, the garden was named for the former First Lady to recognize her contributions to the Vail community and its citizens. But the area is not just another pretty place. It serves an educational purpose, too. Much of Betty Ford Alpine Gardens’ work goes on behind the scenes in the form of maintaining a comprehensive plant database and conducting research into rare plants from other areas in Colorado.

One section of the garden, the Mountain Perennial Garden, features sunken pathways with raised borders. This garden was designed to demonstrate the kinds of plants that could grow in a high-altitude environment. Another popular area is the Children’s Garden, which features an interpretation of the surrounding Gore Mountain Range. A new garden attraction is the Back to Nature Trail, a large riparian area located near a creek where children – and adults – now have the opportunity to explore nature.

To fulfill the garden’s mission of “inspiring a passion for plants in high-altitude communities,” Nicola has recently added plants from the Plant Select® program. Plant Select is a cooperative program of the Denver Botanic Gardens and Colorado State University that tests and recommends plants for growing in gardens from the high plains to the intermountain region.

Nicola says she was interested in seeing how well some of the plants would do at high altitudes because many varieties haven’t been tested above 8,000 feet. Some of the perennial flowers will be planted in the Mountain Perennial Garden, while other natives are planted in the Alpine Rock Garden.

Of all the Plant Select plants she’s added to the gardens, Nicola’s especially interested in seeing how well the following five plants perform: Scrophularia macrantha (redbirds in a tree), Delosperma ‘Psfave’ (Lavender Ice™ ice plant), Geranium magniflorum (La Veta Lace® geranium), Lonicera rhytidophylla (Kintzley’s Ghost® honeysuckle) and Marrubium rotundifolium (silverheels horehound).

For those gardeners interested in high-altitude rock gardening, Nicola offers these three tips for success:

  1. Use native soil. Even though native soil may be difficult to work with, once plants become established “they stay tight and neat.”
  2. Place rocks vertically. Instead of placing rocks horizontally, tip them on their sides so the roots of plants placed nearby have a longer root run. (“This suits alpine plants very well because of their long tap roots,” Nicola explains.)
  3. Mulch with pea gravel. Besides keeping weeds to a minimum, the gravel drains water away from the plants’ crown.

Nicola says when visitors leave Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, they know they’ve been to Vail and not to Chicago or anywhere else. “We’ve planted plants that enjoy being here and created a place that feels like a mountain environment,” she says – making this a great place to learn how to live with, love and grow an alpine garden!