Field of Science

Alpine tundra in the Rocky Mountains

To follow up on recent posts on alpine islands, and for those of you who don't like to even stand on the kitchen step stool, a brief introduction to alpine tundra is in order. Even if you are not an intrepid mountaineer you can visit alpine tundra in the USA and Switzerland. The first time the Phactors did this was at Monarch Pass and we were camped at 10,500 feet which is about 500 feet below tree line where alpine tundra begins. At the top of the pass a gondola goes to the top for the view. "Can we get outside and wander around," we asked? "Yes, but why would you want to?" At first glance alpine tundra looks like little more than a field of rocks, but plants are nestled down into spaces between them, little microhabitats, and all you need do is look down to discover that the tundra was in full bloom and wonderful. And the dope running the gondola was missing out on business by not encouraging people to see the tundra. In Rocky Mountain National Park you can drive, if your vehicle is up to it, to a bit over 12,000 feet and the alpine tundra begins where the parking lot ends. A lot of the plants here have developed a "moss" type growth form, a dense, low-growing, small-leaved, cushion of a plant, and sometimes it's tough to know what you have unless it's in flower. Tundra plants tend to have what seem in comparison to the plant size, large flowers, but of course flowers even on dwarfed plants still have to be big enough for the pollinators. In this image a lush alpine tundra meadow in in the fore ground. Across the valley you see the dark green of the fir forest and above that tree line is alpine tundra. This is July and a few snow fields still remain. By the way the road up is not for the faint of heart or those who fear wide open spaces; suffice it to say there's no place to pull off the road without a large component of down.

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