Colorado Rainbow Chanterelles
Updated: Jul 12
Chanterelles are one of those mushrooms that most have heard about, seen on a menu, or at the fancier grocery store. They are a coveted mushroom because they can only be found in the wild due to their mycorrhizal relationship with trees. These rainbow chanterelles can be one of the more tricky mushrooms to figure out in Colorado, but the effort is worth the reward!
I have found a lot of chanterelles in my life, but I still regularly find myself being surprised by them. I rarely go out specifically looking for chanterelles because they are hard to pin down. So, I treat them as more of a species I always watch out for while hunting for other mushrooms. Through years of that passive approach, I have noticed some trends that may help you locate some chanterelle spots of your own. Before we review those trends, I'll touch on the best traits to know for identifying chanterelles!
There are many species of Cantharellus throughout North America and elsewhere. However, we only have one in Colorado, at least as far as the DNA analysis has gone. The rainbow chanterelle, Cantharellus roseocanus. This species, and many others in North America, were grouped in with the European species Cantharellus cibarius, the golden chanterelle. However, like many other mushrooms before it, it turns out that the golden chanterelle is likely only found in Europe, and many of our North American species happen to be similar. That said, chanterelles are still very easy to identify if you look for a few key traits.
Chanterelles come in various colors and sizes, from yellows to oranges and even pinks, and from several inches across to less than an inch! Despite all the variety found in these mushrooms, they all share a few traits that can be used to identify them easily! The first of these is the presence of ridges, sometimes called "false gills." This trait is something I often see beginners get confused about because, at first glance, these ridges may appear to be gills. However, if you look closely, there are a few differences. Gills are structurally different from the cap and stem of a mushroom and can be separated from those. Ridges are made from folds on the mushroom's surface, not a separate structure. Think about pinching some cloth to form folds versus laying something on the cloth. Below is a macro comparison of the ridges on a chanterelle and gills on a deer mushroom.
Next, chanterelles almost always have whitish flesh that peels like string cheese when pulled apart. Not only is this a good trait to ID chants with, but it's always an easy way to prep them for the saute pan! Grab the stem and peel it into whatever size is desired. Finally, chants are known for their fruity aroma, often apricot-like. This scent is sometimes hard to detect with just a couple of freshly picked specimens, but it becomes more obvious after you get a handful into your mushroom basket or bag.
The rainbow chanterelles can be differentiated from other chanterelles species by the regions they grow in, their small size, and the pink-orange color of their caps! This pinkish color is often subtle on the chanterelles found in the Southern Rockies, but it can be very apparent in other regions where these grow!
So, with those traits covered, let's move on to how and where to look for them! In Colorado, chanterelles can be found from around 7,500 to treeline in association with conifers and sometimes aspens. I have found rainbow chanterelles growing under spruce, fir, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, and aspens. Usually, I find them in areas with good drainage and some sunlight. They often fruit around the edges of rocks, logs, or in the Kinnikinnick, a low-growing evergreen plant. They can be found fruiting along old logging roads, hiking trails, and in sunny clearings with moss and huckleberries in higher elevations.
When you happen upon some chanterelles, scour the area because there are often more nearby! And be sure to GPS mark or mentally note the spot because they'll be back every year when the conditions are right for them! Speaking of which... I have yet to figure out what the perfect chanterelle fruiting conditions are. Some years I find a lot, but the next year, similar conditions can result in very few. I have a hunch that these chanterelles fruit well every five to seven years and then take a break to reserve energy stores for the next fruiting. This is not backed by anything other than my observations over the last 20ish years. I suggest regularly checking your spots if the conditions seem good! At the very least, you'll be in the mountains and probably find other tasty mushrooms like king boletes, hawk's wings, and hedgehogs!
If you pay attention to the traits I went over above, you shouldn't have any issues identifying chanterelles positively. However, we'll touch on one look-a-like that can occasionally fool beginners, the false chanterelle, Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca. From above, this mushroom can look like a chanterelle, but once you look underneath, it should become obvious from the gills alone. The false chanterelle also lacks the fruity aroma and flesh that peels like string cheese.
Rainbow chanterelle, Cantharellus roseocanus.
Yellow to yellow-orange with a pinkish blush on the cap.
Ridges or "false gills" on the undersurface.
White flesh peels like string cheese.
Fruity, apricot-like aroma, especially after being stored in a bag.
Elevations from 7,500 to treeline.
Associates with conifers and sometimes aspens.
Prefer areas that have good drainage and some sunlight.
Occasionally near old logging roads or hiking trails.
If you'd like to learn more about these mushrooms, and over one hundred other species, check out the Foraging Calendar that I make for my Patreon supporters.