• Photo of early morning clouds hanging low in the valley with mountains of the Continental Divide stretched out above. NPS Photo/Schonlau

    Rocky Mountain

    National Park Colorado

Alpine Tundra Ecosystem

Tundra landscape
NPS/Ann Schonlau
 
Access to "the land above the trees" is the most distinct aspect of Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road, the highest road in any national park, transports you to this realm of open sky where you'll find tiny but brilliant flowers and a harsh climate. Approximately one-third of this national park is above the limit where trees may grow in northern Colorado.
 
Storm clouds over alpine tundra

Lichens and plants await a summer thunderstorm.

NPS

The Alpine Tundra Ecosystem starts between elevations of 11,000 to 11,500 feet, depending on exposure. This is truly a land of extremes. Strong, frequent winds and cold temperatures help limit what plants can grow there. Most alpine plants are perennials. Many plants are dwarfed, but their few blossoms may be full-sized.

Cushion plants look like ground-hugging clumps of moss. They escape the strong winds blowing just a few inches above them. Cushion plants may also have long taproots that extend deep into the rocky soil.

Many flowering plants of the tundra have dense hairs on stems and leaves to provide wind protection or red-colored pigments capable of converting the sun's light rays into heat. Some plants take two or more years to form flower buds, which survive the winter below the surface and then open and produce fruit with seeds in the few weeks of summer. Grasses and sedges are common where tundra soil is well-developed.

Non-flowering lichens cling to rocks and soil. Their enclosed algal cells can photosynthesize at any temperature above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and the outer fungal layers can absorb more than their own weight in water. Adaptations for survival amidst drying winds and cold temperatures may make tundra vegetation seem very hardy, but in some respects it remains very fragile.

Tread Lightly
Repeated footsteps often destroy tundra plants, allowing exposed soil to blow away. Recovery may take hundreds of years, so please use designated trails when exploring this unique area.

Follow the links below to learn about life in the tundra.
 
yellow-bellied marmot

Yellow-bellied Marmots are commonly seen soaking up the sun.

Alpine Sunflowers

Alpine Sunflowers tower above other tundra flowers.

pika

Pikas scurry around rocks and talus slopes.

Two white-tailed ptarmigan birds

White-tailed Ptarmigan mottled feathers act as camouflage against the rocks.

Alpine Forget-me-not flowers

Alpine Forget-me-nots definitely leave an impression.

Two bull elks graze on the tundra

Elk spend the summer grazing tundra vegetation.

 

Shrubs

Willow

Grasses and Grass-like Plants

Alpine Blue Grass Pyrennian Sedge Spike Wood-Rush
Alpine Timothy Skyline Blue Grass Spreading Wheatgrass
Kobresia Spike Trisetum Tufted Hair Grass

Forbs

Alpine Avens Alpine Sorrel King's Crown Queen's Crown
Alpine Bistort Alpine Wallflower Marsh Marigold Rydbergia
Alpine Forget-Me-Not American Bistort Mertensia Saxifrage
Alpine Gentian Blue Columbine Moss Pink Campion Sky Pilot
Alpine Paintbrush Black-Headed Daisy One-Headed Daisy Snow Buttercup
Alpine Phlox Dwarf Clover Parry's Clover
Alpine Sandwort Elephantella Pygmy Bitterroot

Birds

Common Raven Prairie Falcon Water Pipit White-Tailed Ptarmigan
Horned Lark Rosy Finch White-Crowned Sparrow

Mammals

Badger Coyote Mountain Lion Snowshoe Hare
Bighorn Sheep Deer Mouse Mule Deer Vole
Bobcat Elk Pika Yellow-Bellied Marmot
Bushy-Tailed Wood Rat Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel Pocket Gopher
Chipmunk Long-Tailed Weasel Red Fox

Did You Know?