America's National Parks and Road Trip Planning Find Your Park Road Trip Activities Nature

Rocky Mountain National Park Subalpine Ecosystem

The Subalpine Ecosystem occupies elevations approximately 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 a 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.

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.

Plants and Animals of the Subalpine Ecosystem


Subalpine Fir Limber Pine Engelmann Spruce


Blueberry (Vaccinium) Elder Cinquefoil Wood's Rose Wax Currant

Herbaceous Plants:

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


Brown Creeper Ruby Crowned Kinglet Pine Grosbeak Clark's Nutcracker Mountain Chickadee White Breasted Nuthatch Red Crossbill Williamson's Sapsucker Hermit Thrush Pine Siskin Pine Grosbeak Raven Blue Grouse Olive-Sided Flycatcher Dark-Eyed Junco Townsend's Solitaire Gray Jay Yellow-Rump Warbler Steller's Jay Woodpecker (Downy and Hairy) Northern Goshawk


Pine Marten Yellow-Bellied Marmot Black Bear Deer Mouse Bobcat Porcupine Chipmunk Snowshoe Hare Nuttall's Cottontail Shrew Coyote Golden Mantle Ground Squirrel Mule Deer Long-Tailed Weasel Elk Meadow Vole Chickaree Bushy Tailed Wood Rat Mountain Lion

Featured Outdoor Gear

The Original absoluteBLACK Premium direct mount 1X Oval chainrings are specifically designed for Sram T-Type...
Price subject to change | Available through

National Park Spotlight
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Featured Wildlife
Maine Puffins
Maine Puffins

Maine ocean islands provide the only nesting sites for Atlantic puffins in the United States. Eastern Egg Rock in the midcoast region, Seal Island and Matinicus Rock at the mouth of Penobscot Bay, and Machias Seal Island and Petit Manan Island off the downeast coast provide habitat for more than 4,000 puffins each summer.