The Ecosystems of Rocky Mountain National Park

‘O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain… For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain!

-Katharine Lee Bates


These words, originally lyrics from a poem titled ‘Pikes Peak,’ were inspired by the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. First published in the 1895 Fourth of July edition of the church periodical The Congregationalist, they are now the opening sentences in a song that is as much a part of the United States as anything. Including our National Parks.

One such park, Rocky Mountain, is one of the highest of our nation’s parks boasting elevations between 7,860 feet to 14,259 feet. It is situated, in the state of Colorado, between the towns of Estes Park to the east and Grand Lake to the west. The eastern and westerns slopes of the Continental Divide run directly through the center of the park with the headwaters of the Colorado River located in the Park’s northwestern region.

The Park features a whopping sixty mountain peaks that top out over 12,000 feet, creating mountain scenery some argue is unmatched by any other mountainous environment on earth. In fact, approximately one-third of this national park is above the limit where trees may grow in northern Colorado.


“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”

-John Muir


The main features of the park include mountains, alpine lakes and a wide variety of wildlife within various climates and environments, from wooded forests to mountain tundra.

In this blog post we’ll discuss the different ecosystems of Rocky Mountain National Park, all of which add up to make Rocky Mountain what it is… a landscape and wildlife photographers’ paradise!

(The following information comes from


The Montane ecosystem has the richest diversity of plant and animal life of the Park’s ecosystems. Meandering rivers and open meadows are surrounded by hilly slopes. Wildflowers blanket the meadows throughout the summer growing season.

Dry, south-facing slopes of the Montane often have open stands of large ponderosa pines. Other trees like douglas fir, lodgepole and the occasional Engelmann spruce, grow on north-facing slopes of the Montane, escaping some of the strong sun.

Montane soils with high moisture content may support groves of quaking aspen, whose leaves turn golden-yellow in the autumn and whose whitish bark is easy to recognize. Along streams or the shores of lakes, other water-loving small trees may be found. These include various willows, mountain alder, and water birch with dark-colored bark. In a few places, blue spruce may grow near streams and sometimes hybridize with Engelmann spruce.

The subalpine ecosystem occupies elevations just below tree-line between 9,000 and 11,000 feet and features crystal clear lakes and fields of wildflowers among the dense pine.

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.

The Alpine Tundra Ecosystem starts between elevations of 11,000 to 11,500 feet, depending on exposure. Strong, frequent winds and cold temperatures certainly limit which plants grow here. Most alpine plants are perennials, many are dwarfed, but their few blossoms may be full-sized.

Many flowering plants of the tundra have dense hairs on stems and leaves to provide wind protection or red-colored pigments capable of converting the sun’s light rays into heat. Some plants take two or more years to form flower buds, which survive the winter below the surface and then open and produce fruit with seeds in the few weeks of summer. Grasses and sedges are common where tundra soil is well-developed.

Non-flowering lichens cling to rocks and soil. Their enclosed algal cells can photosynthesize at any temperature above 32 degrees (F), and the outer fungal layers can absorb more than their own weight in water. Adaptations for survival amidst drying winds and cold temperatures may make tundra vegetation seem very hardy, but in some respects it remains very fragile.

Glacial geology in Rocky Mountain National Park can be seen from the tops of the peaks to the bottom of the valleys. Ice is a powerful sculptor of this natural environment and large masses of moving ice are the most powerful tools. While the glaciation periods are largely in the past, Rocky still has several small glaciers.

As glaciers move, they pick up rocks, gravel and sand. These rock fragments freeze into the glacial ice and serve as very effective chisels that carve the landscape in which they cross. This mechanism can carve rock easily, and glacial grooves are left as evidence of it.

All of this variety help to create the wonderful world that is Rocky Mountain National Park. From its wildlife to its forests and mountain landscapes, the Park’s beauty stems from these remarkably different ecosystems that are just waiting to be explored.

And photographed by you!

Did we mention that it just so happens that Backcountry Journeys has a world-class photography based tour that travels to Rocky Mountain National Park???

The rumors are true, we do have such a trip!

We travel to the Park in autumn because the aspen trees at this time turn from green to gold, and then finally to a brilliant red. These colors add amazing depth and contrast to your photographs as the entire region is awash in natural beauty. Wildlife tend to be more active during the Autumn months as they begin their preparations for the long snowy winters that abound in the Rocky Mountains. Not only is the landscape photography superb but so is the temperature and the summer crowds have all but disappeared.

So, come with us!

There are only just a few spots left on our September 23-28, 2018 tour and we’d love to share this remarkable landscape with you.

Find a detailed itinerary click here, or, if you’re ready to go now, simply click here to get signed up for a trip of a lifetime!

Kenton Krueger







Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks as well as in the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, newspaper photographer and writer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.

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