150 lakes and 450 miles of streams are the basis of the riparian (wetland) ecosystem in the park. Lush plant life and dense wildlife are the hallmarks of these wet areas that speckle and divide other ecosystems.
Forests of pine and grassy hillsides dominate the montane ecosystem in the park. These areas may be drier than riparian areas but life still abounds. Look for critters leaping or creeping from tree to tree or poking their heads from underground.
As you gain elevation, you leave the montane areas and enter the subalpine ecosystem. The bent and gnarled bodies of spruce and fir trees tell the story of hard summers and harder winters near the mountain tops.
If you keep going up, you’ll emerge on the alpine tundra. This land is too harsh for trees and appears barren at first glance. But take a closer look. Nestled close to the ground is a dense carpet of plants and animals. Life persists even here in one of earth’s most extreme environments.
No matter what ecosystem you are in, you will be in the company of animals. Elk, mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, coyotes, black bears, cougars and hundreds of smaller animals make a living in the park. Many visitors have been spellbound while watching the daily activities of the wildlife.
Underlying the bounty of life in the park is the literal foundation of the Rocky Mountains. The towering peaks and deep valleys are all composed of igneous (born of fire) and metamorphic rock. The same glaciers that sculpted the mountains have widened many valleys in the park.
One inescapable element of the park is the weather. Sunny summer mornings frequently give rise to formidable afternoon thunderstorms. Hold onto your hat during the snowy winter months when winds in the lowlands hit 60 miles per hour and wind-monitoring equipment in the highlands gets blown away.
The many aspects of the park are all inseparably interrelated. No matter what ‘ology’ interests you, Rocky Mountain National Park is a captivating place to study and enjoy.
The spectacular mountain scenery of the park is literally brought to life by the plants and animals that make their home here. Flowering plants, from the first pasque flower in April to the last aster in September, add color, fragrance, and movement to the landscape. Especially intriguing are the alpine wildflowers that survive the extreme climate of the tundra, completing their yearly life cycle in just a few weeks.
Although the park is most famous for its large animals, particularly elk and bighorn sheep, a glimpse of a tufted-eared Abert's squirrel, an iridescent broad-tailed hummingbird, or a squeaking pika can be equally thrilling. Early risers, and those watching at dusk often have the best "luck" at seeing wildlife. See also: Wildlife Viewing