Subalpine Ecosystem

Sprague Lake

Sprague Lake



A maze of evergreen trees covers the mountainsides in subalpine areas. Hidden among the trees are crystal clear lakes and fields of wildflowers that may surprise you. The subalpine ecosystem occupies elevations just below tree-line between 9,000 and 11,000 feet.

Odessa Lake

Subalpine forests give way to mountain lakes like Odessa Lake.


A typical subalpine forest may consist mostly of subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce. However, previously-burned areas may contain varying amounts, or even almost pure stands, of lodgepole pine. Lodgepole seedlings do well in sunlight, often abundant after fire, but once the forest is established, plant succession may result in increasing amounts of spruce and subalpine fir. Ground cover in a previously-burned forest area often includes two species of huckleberry.

Limber pine, with flexible twigs and needles in groups of five, may also be part of subalpine forests. In high, windblown areas, limber pines often grow into grotesque shapes.

Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, which grow straight and tall in the lower subalpine forests, become shorter and deformed nearer treeline. Even as the trunk grows upward, strong, cold, dry winds may destroy new growth on the windward side, leaving permanent growth only on the lee side of the trunk. Trees with branches on only one side are often called banner trees or flag trees.
Subalpine wildflowers

Lush meadows of wildflowers grow tall in the subalpine.


At treeline, tree seedlings may germinate on the lee side of rocks and grow only as high as the rock provides wind protection. Further growth is more horizontal than vertical, and additional rooting may occur where branches contact the soil. The resulting low growth of dense trees is called krummholz. Snow cover may protect krummholz trees during the winter, but branches higher than wind-shelters or snow cover are usually destroyed. Well-established krummholz trees may be several hundred to a thousand years old.

Follow the links below to learn about life in the Subalpine.

Black bear, limber pine, clark's nutcracker
Black bears usually hang
out in subalpine forests to
eat berries and seeds.
Limber pine bark and
needles are well adapted
to harsh climates.
Clark's Nutcrackers
are thrifty birds in more
ways than one.

Downy woodpecker, elephantella, snowshoe hare

Woodpeckers have no
shortage of wood to do
what they do best.
Elephantella aren't out of
place in wet mountain
Snowshoe Hares use
large hind feet to escape



Engelmann Spruce Subalpine Fir
Limber Pine


Cinquefoil Wax Currant
Elder Wood's Rose

Herbaceous Plants

Colorado Blue Columbine Heartleaf Arnica Pipsissewa Sneezeweed
Fairy Slipper Lousewort Sedge Twinflower
Gentian Needle Grass Senecio


Blue Grouse Gray Jay Olive-Sided Flycatcher Red Crossbill Williamson's Sapsucker
Brown Creeper Hermit Thrush Pine Grosbeak Ruby Crowned Kinglet White Breasted Nuthatch
Clark's Nutcracker Mountain Chickadee Pine Siskin Stellar's Jay Woodpecker (Downy and Hairy)
Dark-eyed Junco Northern Goshawk Raven Townsend's Solitaire Yellow-Rump Warbler


Black Bear Chipmunk Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel Mule Deer Shrew
Bobcat Coyote Long-Tailed Weasel Nuttall's Cottontail Snowshoe Hare
Bushy-Tailed Wood Rat Deer Mouse Meadow Vole Pine Marten Yellow-Bellied Marmot
Chickaree Elk Mountain Lion Porcupine


Did You Know?