Plant Life

A variety of wildflowers in a mountain meadow
Wildflowers in a mountain meadow, Rocky Mountain National Park.

NPS / Walker Hall

Plants occupy a wide variety of habitats in mountain parks, including high alpine areas, rocky ledges, wet meadows, plateaus, steep slopes, lakes, and streams. The variety of elevations and terrain in mountains can result in high plant species diversity. Plants provide structure (such as locations for nesting or roosting), food, and cover for wildlife.

Mountain ranges may contain a variety of biomes or types of vegetation across an elevation gradient. Some of these, like sky islands in the Southwest, may be isolated from other mountains by a “sea of desert” or other types of vegetation or land-use patterns. Explore these examples below –
  • Sky islands in Chiricahua National Park
  • Diverse vegetation across a wide elevation range, which includes habitats ranging from ocean coastlines to rainforests to subalpine and alpine zones.
  • Rock outcrops in Shenandoah National Park

Habitat Islands and Gradients

Montane Conifer Forests

Conifers are trees that bear cones and have needle-like or scale-like leaves that are typically evergreen. Conifers are dependent on the wind to blow pollen produced by the male cones to the female cones, where seeds develop. The forests of western North America are dominated by conifers and are home to some of the largest, tallest, and oldest trees found on the planet. While conifers also grow in mid-western and eastern forests, they are not as dominant as in western forests. Explore the links below to virtually visit the montane conifer forests of western national parks. Montane forests are those growing at mid-elevations.

Montane Conifer Forests

Subalpine and Boreal Forests

Subalpine forests define the upper limit of tree growth on mountains. Cold temperatures, harsh winds, and short growing seasons are all limiting factors to tree growth at high elevations. Trees in these forests can be tall and upright such as the foxtail pine that may be over 75 feet tall, or can adapt to harsh conditions with stunted and gnarled growth forms known as krummholz ("crooked wood" in German). Boreal forests occur at high latitudes and are part of a circumpolar forest that extends across much of subarctic Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Europe. Alaskan boreal forests include the conifers white spruce and black spruce and may also include deciduous trees such as birch.

Subalpine and Boreal Forests

Deciduous Forests

The eastern forests and woodlands are known for their deciduous forests and colorful fall displays of leaves. Covering from Maine to Florida and west to the Mississippi River, these forests once stretched almost unbroken across the region, but now coexist with people in some of the most heavily populated areas of the world. The deciduous trees that make these forests famous include oaks, maples, beech, birches, and hickories. While evergreen conifers, such as spruce and firs, do live in eastern forests, they are not usually as common or dominant as the deciduous trees.

Deciduous tree or shrub species also occur in the West but are not as varied or widespread as in the East. One of the more common western species is quaking aspen, noted for its leaves that tremble in breezes and its golden fall color that lights up mountain slopes or drainages. Other examples include cottonwood, alder, and willow, often occurring in riparian areas or other moist habitats.

Deciduous Forests


Tundra is a treeless zone with generally low temperatures and a short growing season. There are two kinds of tundra, alpine and arctic. Arctic tundra is found at high latitudes, generally north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska and other far-north regions (learn more about the Arctic). Alpine tundra is found at high elevations, above treeline. The short growing season and harsh winter conditions in tundra exclude all but the hardiest of plants. Stunted trees give way to low-growing, perennial herbs. Here plants often form ground-hugging mats to take advantage of the warmer surface temperatures. In winter, the snowpack provides insulation from sub-freezing temperatures and desiccating winds. During the brief summer, when freezing temperatures and snowstorms remain a threat, surprisingly showy flowers burst forth in the race to set seed before winter returns.

Alpine and Arctic Tundra


The Earth laughs in flowers.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The foothills, meadows, forests, and tundra of mountain parks offer a variety of habitats where wildflowers can be found. The timing of blooming and the abundance of flowers vary with weather, disturbance (like fire or grazing), and other local conditions. Some parks provide specific wildflower information on their web pages and through guidebooks. If you are seeking wildflower viewing, look for local information ahead of time, as the abundance and variety of wildflower blooms can vary a lot from year to year and seasonally.


  • Colorful purple, red, and white wildflowers fill a meadow on rolling slopes.
    Mount Rainier National Park

    Mount Rainer's renowned wildflowers bloom for a limited amount of time every year. Visit their Discover Wildflowers web page to learn more.

  • Closeup of yellow columbine flower with lake and mountains in background.
    Glacier National Park

    For the wildflower enthusiast, this park offers nearly a thousand species. Meadows of flowers often include a backdrop of rugged peaks.

  • Clump of purple flowers mixed in with green stems and grasses; view of granite mountains
    Yosemite National Park

    Yosemite is a wildflower enthusiast’s paradise, where blossoms are found most of the year in various habitats from low to high elevations.

Last updated: September 2, 2021