Subalpine Ecosystem

Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake

NPS Photo / Jim Ecklund

 
Odessa Lake
Subalpine forests give way to mountain lakes like Odessa Lake.

NPS

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.

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.

NPS

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 in a field.

Black Bear

Black bear in a field.

Limber pine bark and needles are well adapted to harsh climates.

Limber Pine

Limber pine bark and needles are well adapted to harsh climates.

Clark's Nutcrackers are thrifty birds in more ways than one.

Clark's Nutcrackers

Clark's Nutcrackers are thrifty birds in more ways than one.

Woodpeckers have no shortage of wood to do what they do best.

Woodpeckers

Woodpeckers have no shortage of wood to do what they do best.

Elephantella aren't out of place in wet mountain meadows.

Elephantella

Elephantella aren't out of place in wet mountain meadows.

Snowshoe Hares use large hind feet to escape predators.

Snowshoe Hares

Snowshoe Hares use large hind feet to escape predators.

 

Trees

Engelmann Spruce Limber Pine Subalpine Fir

Shrubs

Cinquefoil Elder Vaccinium Wax Currant
Wood's Rose

Herbaceous Plants

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

Birds

Blue Grouse Hermit Thrush Pine Siskin Townsend's Solitaire
Brown Creeper Mountain Chickadee Raven Williamson's Sapsucker
Clark's Nutcracker Northern Goshawk Red Crossbill White Breasted Nuthatch
Dark-eyed Junco Olive-Sided Flycatcher Ruby Crowned Kinglet Woodpecker (Downy and Hairy)
Gray Jay Pine Grosbeak Stellar's Jay Yellow-Rump Warbler
Mammals
Black Bear Coyote Meadow Vole Porcupine
Bobcat Deer Mouse Mountain Lion Shrew
Bushy-Tailed Wood Rat Elk Mule Deer Snowshoe Hare
Chickaree Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel Nuttall's Cottontail Yellow-Bellied Marmot
Chipmunk Long-Tailed Weasel Pine Marten
 

Last updated: May 7, 2018

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1000 US Hwy 36
Estes Park, CO 80517

Phone:

(970) 586-1206
Through winter, the Information Office is open 8:00 am–4:30 pm Mon–Fri. Recorded Trail Ridge Road status: (970) 586-1222.

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