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
Did You Know?
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.