Keystone Science School: The ecology of a Summit County hike |

Keystone Science School: The ecology of a Summit County hike

Kathryn Fleegal
Special to the Daily
A hike in to the top of a Summit County mountain isn't just a good way to get your heart rate up. It's also a teachable moment for young learners.
Keystone Science School |

As a camp counselor and middle school teacher, I have come to love hiking in Summit County for more than the scenery or the challenge of summiting a new peak. Hiking is an incredible teaching tool, especially when studying mountain ecology. I recently took a group of Keystone Science School campers up on a hike. Our goals were to summit and, more important, to learn about the life zones we encountered along the way.

As with most hikes in Summit County, the first zone we encountered was the “montane” environment (between 8,000-10,000 feet). Characterized by relatively warm summers and cold winters, the montane zone is familiar to most Summit County residents. (Most of the county’s population lives within this elevation range.) The zone is also home to many of Colorado’s best-known plants and animals including columbines, aspens and elk.

As the trail grew steeper and our backpacks grew heavier, we soon encountered denser, much larger trees — signifying our entry into the “subalpine” zone (between 10,000-11,500 feet). These larger trees were Engelmann spruces, known for their scaly bark, sharp dark-green needles and brown, papery cones that hang from the branches. In the subalpine zone the temperatures become cooler, the winters grow longer, and the areas receive more precipitation than the montane zone.

After traveling a distance through the subalpine zone, I heard shouts Of, “I see tree line!” from the campers. Finally, we were about to embark on my favorite part of any hike, the alpine zone. The alpine zone (or “above tree line”) is the final zone, and it starts around 11,500-12,000 feet. Once in the alpine zone, we ritualistically break out the sunscreen as the thin atmosphere at this elevation allows 25 percent more sunlight and two times more ultraviolet radiation than at sea level.

While the alpine zone is colder and much windier and has especially harsh conditions, it is home to many plants and animals. We quickly spotted several krumholtz trees, mangled by the wind and stunted, but alive and thriving. There is also an array of beautiful vegetation or “cushion plants,” which grow low to the ground in order to huddle away from strong winds and often have hair or wax on the leaves to protect from the intense sunlight.

We soon pushed on and after what seemed like days of staying on the narrow path trying not to step on the delicate alpine tundra, we found ourselves in a sea of rock, with the summit in sight. We were soon enjoying the wonderful views and celebrating our achievement.

As we headed down the mountain, spotting even more evidence of the different life zones, this particular adventure marked more than just the completion of a successful summit, but of a successful learning experience that we could all enjoy and take with us on our next mountain adventure.

Kathryn Fleegal is the Discovery Camp Director at Keystone Science School. For more information on Keystone Science School, give us a call at (970) 468-2098 or visit

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