• Photo of park visitors enjoying sunset from the Alpine Ridge Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park.

    Rocky Mountain

    National Park Colorado

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Alpine Tundra Ecosystem

Access to "the land above the trees" is the single most distinctive aspect of Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road, the highest in any national park, transports you easily to this realm of open sky, tiny but brilliant flowers, and harsh climate. Approximately one-third of this national park is above the limit where trees may grow in northern Colorado.
 
The Alpine Ecosystem starting at elevations from 11,000 to 11,500 feet, depending on exposure, is an area 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, looking like ground-hugging clumps of moss, escape the strong winds blowing a few inches above them. Cushion plants may also have long taproots extending 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.
 
Where tundra soil is well-developed, grasses and sedges are common. Non-flowering lichens cling to rocks and soil. Their enclosed algal cells can photosynthesize at any temperature above 32° F, and the outer fungal layers can absorb more than their own weight in water. The adaptations for survival of drying winds and cold may make tundra vegetation seem very hardy, but in some respects the tundra is very fragile. Repeated footsteps often destroy tundra plants, leaving exposed soil to blow away, and recovery may take hundreds of years.
 

Plants and Animals of the Alpine Ecosystem

Shrubs:
Willow


Grasses and Grass-like Plants:

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

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

Birds:
Prairie Falcon White-Tailed Ptarmigan
Rosy Finch Common Raven
Horned Lark White-Crowned Sparrrow
Water Pipit

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


Did You Know?

a photo of Elizabeth Burnell, the nation's first female nature guide

Rocky Mountain National Park licensed the nation’s first female nature guides in 1917. Sisters Ester and Elizabeth Burnell learned the naturalist trade from advocate and author Enos Mills.