Habitats of a Mountain
Visitors to Olympic National Park will all have individual experiences that define the way they see the park. Just as many animals stay in the lowlands, so will many visitors that come to enjoy the rainforest and coastal ecosystems. However, some travelers have a higher goal in mind. Imagine hiking into the backcountry of the park and experiencing the terrain only known to a few people, animals, and plants alike that have the tools and adaptations to survive the extreme conditions.
Imagine as you set out with a backpacking backpack filled with supplies and travel miles up the valley, carved out by glaciers into wide U-shapes to the base of a mountain. Around you, ridges have risen. They are higher than the river valley, but still much lower than the highest peaks. Some may have high and low points, while others appear almost flat. Begin to climb the slope of the mountain thousands of feet above. A gradual grade is preferred to hike, making for a steady but safe ascent. You may reach false summits, reaching great heights, but still coming to an end before the tallest peak. You may have a varied climb, losing elevation to a saddle, or low point between two peaks in the mountain range. Camping on long, strenuous hikes is a popular draw for many visitors to the Olympic National Park wilderness. Finally, as you have the mountain in sight, a glacier stands before you, actively creaking and groaning as it moves over the rocky land. The trees thin, the plants seem closer to the ground. In order to summit, a steep and more technical route lies ahead, requiring climbing equipment and a mapped out plan. At the summit, or very highest point, you can see the smaller mountains around you, with their own glaciers around them, and even a glimmer of ocean seas in the far distance. You take a deep breathe of the the thinner, but fresh air. You enjoy the sting of cooler mountain air and sun on your cheeks. You take a moment, then start your descent, relishing in your accomplishment.
Some animals and plants will see much of the same. Below are just some examples of the habitats created by mountains and what may live within.
Wide River Valleys
The river valleys begin on the mountain peaks. Water falls and flows down through the various ecosystems to the deep valleys below. This water may give hints as to what its source may be. For instance, if you see the Hoh River, you may notice a brilliant blue, silty color created by the glacier that feeds its headwaters. The valleys provide bountiful life all year long. With little snow, and a lot of rain in the winter months of the Northern Hemisphere, plants can stay green and accessible to hungry grazers like elk and deer, which in turn stay accessible to their predators. The rivers flow in fall and welcome back spawning salmon as well as hungry otters and bears that may seek them.
Ridgelines and Montane Forests
Above the valleys and below the peak, ridges run. On these ridgelines, forests are abundant, but vary from the wet lowlands beneath them. From about 1,000 to 2,000 feet (300 to 600 meters) a transition occurs in the montane forests. While trees can still grow large, they can change for various reasons. Wind storms, mud slides, and fire all threaten this dense forest ecosystem. However, the forest is called home to countless animal species from owls, to bats, to elk and deer, to bobcats and mountain lions.
Steep Slopes and Subalpine Forests
Slopes can vary in steepness, wind, and sunlight. On South and West slopes, a wetter snowpack may build from the heat of the sun that lasts longer here. The wind off the ocean shapes the frost on tree branches. Life is on the brink of extreme. Some slope conditions allow for only the extreme life and others can tolerate some deeper roots. Unlike the rocky cliffs, steep slopes often build up more soil from the erosion above them, giving the ability for subalpine forests. This can also lead to rock slides and mudslides, taking out all life along the way and making this still a potentially risky habitat to grow in. Above 3,000 feet (900 meters), the fauna starts to shift. Different types of plants are more common including silver fir, subalpine fir, and juniper. Trees may adapt by not growing as high per year as their lower counterparts and forming gnarled trunks, both of which can help stabilize them against the harsh winds. Roaming higher lands in the summer, but wanting a cover for safety, elk, deer, and small mammals may call these forests a temporary home. Always in search of food, mountain lions, aptly named for their ability to hunt and survive in mountainous terrain, can keep territories from the valleys to the treeline and beyond. The treeline in Olympic varies from 5,000-6,000 feet (1,524-1,829 meters). Above this, a new ecosystem takes control.
Below the jagged, rocky peaks, smaller plants may flourish. While some trees cannot grow in the extreme winds and weight of the wet snow, ground plants may have an easier time. Enjoy a spring view in mid-summer as flowers such as paintbrush and shooting star flourish later in the season, only once the sun has melted off the last of the snowpack. As snow melts, these meadows provide a unique lush grazing opportunity for deer and elk that leave the drying lower grounds for a fresh wave of greenery. Below the ground, one may see evidence of smaller mammals like moles, voles, or the endemic Olympic Marmot. These burrowers enjoy the short summer months out of their underground dens by eating as much as they can in these alpine meadows. Birds of prey and coyotes enjoy the lush grasses indirectly as it draws out their favored prey.
Many alpine lakes are left from the glaciers that once moved across the land from sea level to near the tips of the mountains. As glaciers melt, they can leave behind glacial lakes at their base. Throughout Olympic, there are many more lakes than glaciers left and some that are still being filled by the icy giants on the mountains. Only a select few such as plankton, benthic macro-invertebrates, and algae would live naturally in the cold, often frozen, and isolated high-elevation pools. However, now that glaciers have relinquished the land, some lakes have been stocked with various fish for recreational purposes. Humans and some other animals alike enjoy this human-directed change and today birds of prey and hungry competitors may be seen looking for a summer alpine meal.
Massive moving ice blocks may not seem like an ideal habitat, but for a very select few insects and algaes, adaptation has created unlikely opportunity. As glaciers recede and melt, this is a habitat that is shrinking.
Mountains can slope gently to the top or have massive cliff faces that seem almost vertical. What can survive with such little soil and maneuvering room? Only the highly adapted can. Look for opportunistic, small life forms such as lichen or broadleaf stonecrop clinging to any apparent ledge they can find. Although they were removed from the park due to their nonnative nature, mountain goats did also thrive on the Olympic Mountain cliffs.
Mountains are so large that they can also effect the ecosystems around them. Olympic is well-known for its rainforests, including the Hoh Rainforest which receives an average of almost 12 feet (3.6 meters) of precipitation in the form of rain each year. Mt. Olympus, which rests at 7,980 feet (2,432 meters), averages an estimate of 50 feet (18 meters) of snowfall each year. However, as the clouds are blocked by towering peaks, just beyond them a very different situation occurs. The looming giants of rock create a 'rain shadow' on the northeast corner of the peninsula and even into Victoria, Canada. Still on the peninsula, the town of Sequim, Washington receives an average of only 16.51 inches (419.35 mm) of rain on average each year.