Lesson Plan

Life Up High: Precipitation, Elevation & the Sub-alpine Forest

Dark cloud with rain over a meadow, road and trees.

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Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Lesson Duration:
30 Minutes
State Standards:
Utah State Core Standard, Science
Standard 5, Objective 1
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations.

Essential Question

• How does elevation affect what type of ecosystem will occur in an area?
• What are some differences between Utah’s deserts, wetlands and forest?


Different elevations across Utah experience different average temperatures and amounts of precipitation. The types of plants best adapted to each environment are therefore different at each elevation ranges. The sub-alpine forest ecosystem at Cedar Breaks National Monument is due to its elevation at over 10,000 ft.


This interactive presentation introduces students to the three main ecosystems across Utah:  deserts, wetlands and forest. The goal is to give students a sense of why the environment at Cedar Breaks National Monument is noticeably different from their more familiar environment down in Cedar City. Emphasis is placed on understanding the effects of elevation on precipitation, temperature and dominant plant life in each ecosystem, with a focus on the high alpine forest ecosystem. The lesson is designed to be a focusing introduction to the sub-alpine ecosystem and a lead in to hands-on activities and observations that students will engage in on their guided hike during the rest of their field-trip at Cedar Breaks. Alternately, this lesson can be adapted and used as part of a post trip, in class lesson to reinforce the connections between the ideas in the Utah Core Science Standards and what the students’ experience during their trip to Cedar Breaks National Monument. 



  • Poster/map showing Elevations Across Utah

  • The following sticky labels for the map

    • 5,836 ft

    • 10,350 ft

    • 12 inches of precipitation

    • up to 40 inches of precipitation

    • Desert (5 tags)

    • Mountain (5 tags)

    • Wetland (5 tags)


Visual aid to help identify common trees found at Cedar Breaks sub-alpine forest.

Download Common Trees of Cedar Breaks - PDF


Introduction (5 min): Welcome students and have them sit in a group outside. (pavilion or picnic area.) Ask students how the bus ride up here was. How far uphill do you think you traveled? What different trees did you see out the window as you traveled?
Ask them what they notice about how this ecosystem at Cedar Breaks is different from the ecosystem down in Cedar City. Expected answers include: (Different trees, cooler temperature, less buildings, more wilderness etc.)

(5- 10 min) Explain that we are at a higher elevation. Describe/define the word elevation and it’s effect on temperature and precipitation. Describe/define the word precipitation.  Ask for a student volunteer to locate Cedar City on the topo poster map and place the Cedar City label on the map. Have another volunteer locate Cedar Breaks and place that label.
Discuss/explain how the different colors on the map show different elevations in Utah.  

Green and lighter orange= lower elevations
Reddish orange= transitional elevations
Purple and light colors= highest elevations

Point out that Cedar City is on the elevation transition area and Cedar Breaks is at high elevation. Have different student volunteers to come up and place the 10,350 ft elevation tag on the map near Cedar Breaks, the 5,836 ft. tag near Cedar City

Explain how elevation affects amount of rainfall and average temperatures. (higher elevation =more rain and cooler temperatures)
Have volunteers come up and place the precipitation tags.

Introduce the 3 main ecosystems in Utah: Desert, Wetland and Mountain
What kind of ecosystem covers most of Utah? (Desert!)
Where do we find the mountains (Down the middle of the state!)
Where are the wetlands?

Finally have kids place the tags for desert, mountain and wetland at different, correct locations across the map of Utah.

So here we are here at one of the highest elevations in Utah. What kind of ecosystem do we have up here? (Forest!!!) Point out and name some of the dominant types of trees and shrubs in this ecosystem (Sub-alpine Fir, Engelmann Spruce, Alpine Prickly Current) Ask students if they think these same types of trees and bushes grown down in Cedar City. Compare them to what grows in the Cedar Valley (sage brush, pinyon pine, juniper) and discuss why these different plants grow in different area.

Conclusions (5 min):
Welcome to the forest. Today you are all going to become forest explorers and investigate the plants and animals that live up here at Cedar Breaks. It is an important ecosystem because this is where the most rain and snowfalls, making the trees grow and also trickling down hill, across the landscape to fill up wetlands with water.

Give each group a copy of the “Common Trees and Shrubs” of Cedar Breaks handout to take along with them as you start the guided hike.

Notes: Create legend for tri fold board:
    Green and light orange= lower elevations (mostly desert)
    Reddish orange= transitional elevations (mostly drier pine forests)
    Purple and light colors= highest elevations (mostly fir and spruce forests)


Precipitation: Moisture falling to the ground in the form of rain, snow or ice.

Elevation: The height of the ground compared to sea level. The top of a mountain is at high elevation. The ocean is at low elevation. 

Temperature: The amount of heat in an object or in the air. Temperature is measured with a thermometer.

Deciduous Trees: Trees that lose their leaves in the winter and become dormant. Leaves are usually broad and flat. Examples include aspen trees and oak trees.

Coniferous Trees: Trees that keep their leave in the winter, often called evergreen trees. Leaves are needle shaped. Examples include pine trees, fir trees and spruce trees.

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Last updated: February 25, 2019