Introduction to the Alpine Zone

"There's absolutely no way, in a just world, that you should be able to drive there", exclaims Seattle Times outdoor columnist Ron Judd in a story on Sunrise for the paper's Northwest Weekend magazine (ref. Judd). "You should have to hire porters, outfitters and mapmakers, then launch a major expedition, to see this. It's almost too easy."

Just as Paradise provides the doorstep of the subalpine zone, Sunrise - the primary visitor center on the north side of the Park - provides extraordinary access to the magnificent alpine zone. Literally a hop (up 200 feet and 1/4 of a mile to Sourdough Ridge), skip (probably net up 140 feet and one mile to Frozen Lake) and a jump (up 450 feet in 3/4 mile) and you're on First Burroughs Mtn. at nearly 7,200' and breathing rarified alpine air. Even at the Sunrise parking lot, elevation 6,400', you feel that at the very least you're in the high subalpine zone. In fact, due to the mountain's rain/snow shadow effect, the alpine zone actually begins at approximately this elevation at Paradise (click here for discussion of elevational zones).

This is harsh tundra-like environment and the flowering plants of the alpine zone hang on to life through a variety of adaptations. They seek places to anchor from the strong winds with deep roots in between crevices and form low growing mats across the pumice plains. Talus slopes and fellfields provide plentiful, albeit spartan, niches. Interestingly, rock abutments used to stabilize trail cuts in slopes provide abundant habitat making the access to viewing plants surprisingly easy without ever leaving the trail. Even quite rare or uncommon plants can be observed directly from the trail (see King's Crown).

'TraTTT Trail up First Burroughs Mtn., approx. 6,800' elevation at sign

 

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