You Are There! Hike the Highline Trail
Subalpine Coniferous Forest
As we travel higher, we begin to enter the subalpine coniferous forest. It is darker, the trees are thicker, and the canopy is closed in, with overhanging and often dead branches from tall conifers such as lodge-pole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia), limber pine (Pinus flexilis), whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca), and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa var. lasiocarpa). Underneath the shady canopy of these tall conifers, the diversity of wildflowers declines. Here and there, several mountain shrubs and woody forbs are able to take advantage of this understory environment.
Up ahead where the tree canopy lets a bit of light through, some hardwoods and shrubs have become established, including dogwood (Cornus sericea ssp. sericea) and chokecherry (Prunus virginiana var. melanocarpa). Aspens will also search for a sunny spot in the darker forest. Where the forest is completely open, aspens form large groves that dot the landscape and show their splendor in late summer, early fall with their bright yellow to red-orange trembling leaves contrasted against the dark-green coniferous forest creating a mountain mosaic of vibrant colors for miles. Find out more about aspen and challenges to maintaining this species in the western landscape in our Celebrating Wildflowers article, Fading Gold: The Decline of Aspen in the West.
Up ahead where some light has been able to break though the conifer canopy, there is a sea of yellow on the forest floor generated by a beautiful display of mountain arnica (Arnica cordifolia, gracillis, and latifolia). Some species of Arnica have medicinal properties such as relief of topical wounds and bruises, and providing temporary relief from joint pain. Persistent and hardy perennial wildflowers are nestled in and among the understory shrubs and fallen organic material, such as wild rose (Rosa woodsii). Scattered throughout the forest floor are both white (Drymocallis arguata) and yellow cinquefoil (Potentilla sp.).
At this elevation, most forest openings are painted with seas of yellow-flowered arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and brilliant-blue mountain lupines (Lupinus argenteus). Interspersed within the yellow and purple landscape are the brilliant red flowering bracts of red paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia var. dubia). While hiking along the trail, be sure to look for the very small monkey flower (Mimulus sp.) nestled in the moist crevices of large granite boulders. If we look closely, we will notice that many mountain pollinators are incredibly beautiful.