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Ecological Life Zones: From the Plains to the Top of Pikes Peak

As you explore the Colorado Springs area away from campus, you will experience many ecosystems, from grasslands to forests to tundra. Knowing how elevation determines which ecosystems occur — in other words — understanding the life zones of the Pikes Peak region, will help you to see patterns within the tremendous variety of species assemblages. Within each zone you will find dozens if not hundreds of community types depending on slope aspect, soil type, water availability, and countless other factors. It is important to remember that these life zones are just the most basic lenses through which to begin to understand ecosystems on Pikes Peak. That said, understanding life zones does offer us a way into local ecosystems, and are therefore essential in beginning to grasp the ecology of the Pikes Peak Region. The following life zones rise from lowest to highest elevation up the mountain.


Plains Short Grass Prairie  

The grasslands, which begin at the foot of the mountains and extend eastward to the forests of the Midwest, receive too little precipitation to support many trees, and grasses dominate the landscape.. Large groups (towns) of black-tailed prairie dogs (easily seen on the Sundance Trail at Cheyenne Mountain State Park) and pronghorn (a.k.a. antelope; often seen near the Colorado Springs airport and at Bluestem Prairie Open Space) are perhaps the most easily seen and characteristic animals.

  • Characteristic Plants:
    • Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), needlegrass (Stipa ), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides), rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), Great Plains yucca (Yucca glauca), sunflower (Helianthus spp.), vetch (Astragalus spp.), and many species in the aster family.
  • Characteristic Wildlife:
    • Coyote, black-tailed jackrabbit, black-tailed prairie dog, red-tailed, Swainson’s and Ferruginous hawks, golden eagle, prairie falcon, burrowing owl, loggerhead shrike, horned lark, lark bunting, vesper sparrow, Western meadowlark

Riparian zone. The moister soils along streams and rivers allow dense trees and shrubs to occur. Look especially for the tall cottonwoods with deeply furrowed gray bark and large leaves with a rounded triangular shape in locations such as Sondermann Park, a quiet place to hike and within walking/biking distance of CC. These riparian areas, with their water and dense vegetation, provide important habitat for almost every plains mammal at some point in their life cycle and numerous birds nest or rest during migration in the trees and shrubs.


  • Plains Riparian communities are characterized by plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides), boxelder maple (Acer negundo), common chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), American plum (Prunus americana), and golden currant (Ribes aureum), white-tailed deer, Western wood-pewee, bluejay, house wren, and yellow warbler, among others.


Foothills Scrub

Deciduous shrubs about 4 to 8 feet tall dominate this ecosystem, which occurs at low elevations too dry for trees and with soils too gravelly or rocky for grassland. You might recognize gambel oak with its typical oak-shaped leaves with rounded lobes and the stout, gnarled trunks of older stems. Mountain-mahogany has thin stems that cluster together at the ground and splay out somewhat higher; its leaves have triangular bases and small pointed teeth on the ends. Mule deer, with their very long ears, commonly occur in this ecosystem and eat many shrubs as well as herbaceous plants. The most prominent birds include the blue and gray scrub jay and the large, raucous black-billed magpie with its black and white body. You can experience this ecosystem at several places near campus: Sondermann Park, Garden of the Gods, Red Rock Canyon Open Space, and Bear Creek Park.



  • Characteristic Plants:
    • Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii), mountain-mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus), three-leaf sumac (Rhus trilobata), Great Plains yucca (Yucca glauca)
  • Characteristic Wildlife:
    • Coyote, mule deer, Western scrub jay, blue-gray gnatcatcher, Virginia’s warbler, black-headed grosbeak, spotted and green-tailed towhee

Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands

Colorado Springs lies at the very northeastern edge of the range of the pinyon-juniper ecosystem, which covers large areas of the Four Corners states. You can recognize the Colorado pinyon pine by its rounded shape and short needles in bundles of two’s.   The drought-tolerant one-seed juniper has a similar shape but is more yellow-green rather than deep green and has scale-like leaves. The Garden of the Gods has excellent examples of this ecosystem.


  • Characteristic Plants:
    • Pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), Single-seed juniper (Juniperus monosperma).
  • Characteristic Wildlife:
    • Mountain lion, coyote, mule deer, ash-throated flycatcher, pinyon jay, Western scrub jay, bushtit, juniper titmouse, chipping sparrow

Montane Conifer Forest

As you move higher into the mountains, above about 6,500 feet in elevation, the greater precipitation and cooler temperatures allow larger trees to grow. Conifers, which reproduce with cones rather than flowers, tend to dominate cold dry areas around the world, including the Colorado mountains. In the montane life zone, ponderosa pine (carrying bark with large, often reddish plates and long needles in bundles of 2-3) tolerates drier sites than Douglas fir (recognized by its short, flat, single needles and three-pronged bracts sticking out of the cones). Slopes that face south, toward the sun, have more ponderosa pines, while Douglas fir dominates slopes that face north, away from the sun. In ponderosa pines, you might see the blackish Abert’s squirrel with its distinctive ear tufts. The slope of Ute Pass, the route of US 24 west of Manitou Springs, contains good examples of the montane life zone.


As you drive toward the mountains on US 24 near Manitou Springs, watch for the interesting transition between the foothills scrub ecosystem and the forests of the montane life zone. On the small ridges that extend at the base of the mountains, dark green forests cover the right sides, which are cooler and moister because they face north. Shrubs, which from a distance appear grayish or greenish depending on the time of year, cover the hotter and drier south-facing slopes. All around the world, the same interfingering occurs; lower-elevation ecosystems extend higher on warmer, drier slopes and higher-elevation ecosystems reach lower on cooler and moister slopes.


  • Characteristic Plants:
    • Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), Rocky Mountain Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii glauca), Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens), Colorado white fir (Abies concolor), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), Rocky Mountain maple (Acer glabrum var. glabrum) Colorado blue columbine (Aquilegia caerulea) locoweed (Oxytropis spp.), Golden banner (Thermopsis montana), and species of Penstemon.
  • Characteristic Wildlife:
    • Mule deer, elk, black bear, red squirrel, Abert’s squirrel, Cooper’s hawk, dusky flycatcher, plumbeous vireo, Stellar’s jay, mountain chickadee, white- and red-breasted nuthatch, pygmy nuthatch, Western tanager, evening grosbeak, red crossbill



Subalpine Forest

Above about 9,500 to 10,000 feet in elevation, temperatures become too cold for the trees of the montane life zone, and Engelmann spruce (with its sharp, triangular needles that you can roll between your fingers; unlike the flat needles of fir) dominates most slopes in the Pikes Peak area. Quaking aspen, recognized by its green to white bark and roundish leaves that tremble in the breeze, colonizes some sites after fire or other disturbances kill the conifers. This tree turns brilliant yellow in the autumn.   Watch and listen for chickarees (small, grayish tree squirrels with a white eye ring and who make a chattering territorial call). At bases of trees, they cache cones in mounds of old cone parts and retrieve them for winter food. Common birds include the bold gray jay, a.k.a. camp robber, which often comes close to check you out, the blue and black Stellar’s jay with a prominent crest on its head, and the perky mountain chickadee, with a black cap and black lines through its eyes and white and gray body.   To see good examples of the subalpine forest, go to the Crags Campground on the west side of Pikes Peak or look around as you ski at downhill areas


In both the montane and subalpine life zones, meadows occur in valley bottoms where the deeper, finer-grained soils allow grasses and other herbaceous plants to out-compete trees and shrubs. Rocky Mountain elk can be seen here, especially at dusk and during the fall mating season. Watch for these meadows as you drive between Woodland Park and Wilkerson Pass on the way to ski or camp in the mountains.


  • Characteristic Plants:
    • Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmanii), limber pine (Pinus flexilis), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), gooseberry (Ribes spp.), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), spotted saxifrage (Ciliaria austromontana)
  • Characteristic Wildlife:
    • Mule deer, elk, black bear, red squirrel, golden-mantled ground-squirrel, dusky grouse, Cordilleran flycatcher, warbling vireo, Clark’s nutcracker, gray jay, Stellar’s jay, mountain chickadee, ruby-crowned kinglet, hermit thrush, yellow-rumped warbler, pine grosbeak, pine siskin

Alpine Tundra

Above 11.000 to 11.400 feet in elevation in Colorado, the summers become too cold for trees to grow. In these areas plants exist low to the ground where temperatures are higher. Strong winter winds blow snow from ridgetops, and only drought-tolerant plants can grow there. This snow accumulates in protected areas and does not melt until June or even July; plants in these areas must tolerate very short growing seasons. Some even flower just before the snow melts so that they can immediately attract pollinators after the snow disappears and begin to make seeds before cold temperatures end the growing season. Watch for Colorado‘s state mammal, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (white rump on an otherwise brown animal). In summer, watch and listen for white-crowned sparrows in willow thickets near treeline. In early September, you can drive the Pikes Peak toll road, travel to Independence Pass, or hike from Hoosier Pass to enter this intriguing ecosystem.


  • Characteristic Plants:
    • Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), mountain avens (Acomastylis rossii), mountain dryas (Dryas octopetala), marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), alpine bluebell (Mertensia alpina), fairy primrose (Primula angustifolia), alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris)
  • Characteristic Wildlife:
    • Rocky-mountain bighorn sheep, marmot, pika, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, white-tailed ptarmigan, common raven, mountain bluebird, American pipit, white-crowned sparrow, brown-capped rosy-finch

Contributing Editors: Jim Ebersole, Tass Kelso, and Lee Farese (2014)