Plants and Life Zones for Kids

Life Zones of Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier has three main life zones where plants and animals live. Life zones are ecosystems found at different elevations within the park. The plants and animals that live in the life zones have special adaptations. An adaptation is a body part, trait, or a behavior that helps a living thing survive.

At Mount Rainier:
The forest life zone ranges from 1,700 to 5,000 feet in elevation.
The subalpine life zone ranges from 5,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation.
The alpine life zone ranges from 7,000 to 14,410 feet in elevation.
 
Two large trees along the Grove of the Patriarchs trail
Old-growth trees along the Grove of the Patriarchs trail.

NPS/ Emily Brouwer

Forest Life Zone
You are walking down a forest trail in Mount Rainier National Park. The ground is covered with ferns and mushroom-covered logs. Everything feels damp, even the air. The trail is lined with trees whose trunks are so wide it would take 6 friends holding hands to reach all the way around them.

Some of these trees are over 1,000 years old. You look up and 200 feet above you the tops of these ancient trees touch the sky and shade the forest below in darkness. Most of these trees are evergreens (conifers) like western red cedar, western hemlock, and Douglas fir.

The gentle pattering of rain begins to fall on the ferns surrounding you and the chip-chip chattering of a Douglas squirrel breaks the silence in the forest. The quick flick of the tail of a Pacific wren on a distant log catches your eye as you carefully step over a 3-inch long banana slug crossing the trail. Welcome to the old-growth forest of Mount Rainier.
 
A meadow of wildflowers with the Tatoosh range in the background.
A meadow of summer wildflowers with the Tatoosh mountains in the background.

NPS/ Emily Brouwer

Subalpine Life Zone
As you continue to hike, the trail turns sharply uphill and leads you up a steep ridge. Up, up, up you climb. The dark forest around you begins to thin and more sunlight. The trees are not nearly as tall or large. Eventually the forest opens into a broad meadow. Purple, pink, blue, and yellow wildflowers create a colorful carpet across the ground. The few trees that still remain are species like whitebark pine and mountain hemlock and grow in small clusters throughout the meadow. This is the subalpine.

As you walk along, butterflies float from flower to flower. In summer over 65 different species of butterfly are found in Mount Rainier’s subalpine. You can hear the sounds of insects buzzing and smell the rich fragrance of the wildflowers.

Suddenly the sharp whistle from a hoary marmot echoes across the meadow and you watch a pair of marmots chase each other on a patch of snow left over from winter. Although seldom seen, black bears and mountain lions also call the subalpine home.

If you were to return to this subalpine meadow in winter you wouldn’t recognize it. The wildflowers and trees would be covered with snow. And not just a little snow, the subalpine gets an average of 54 feet of snow every winter. That’s enough snow to cover a six-story apartment building! While many animals hibernate through the winter, some animals like pika, ptarmigan, snowshoe hare, and Cascade red foxes thrive in the subalpine winter.


 
A view of the Nisqually glacier.
A view of part of the Nisqually glacier and the alpine life zone.

NPS/ Emily Brouwer

Alpine Life Zone
Continuing your trek up Mount Rainier, the meadows are soon replaced with car-sized boulders and patches of snow. To go any further we would need specialized mountain climbing gear or grow hooves like a mountain goat. Their hooves have a hard outer ring with a spongy center that helps them stick to rocks, like suction cups.

The alpine is a harsh environment. Aside from lichen and some species of heather (a small shrub) no other plants can easily grow here. Some animals venture into the higher elevations during the summer, but aside from mountain goats, a few species of birds, and a newly discovered species of ice worm, not many animals can survive in the alpine year-round.
 
There are over 964 different species of plants found in Mount Rainier National Park.
Click here for more information about the plants and life zones of Mount Rainier.

Last updated: October 13, 2017

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