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U.S. Forest Service

Intermountain Region

You Are There! Hike the Highline Trail

Subalpine Coniferous Forest

Golden aspen in the Ashley National Forest The subalpine coniferous forest is darker, thicker, and the canopy is closed with overhanging and often dead branches. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Golden aspen in the Ashley National Forest Aspen show their splendor in late summer, early fall with their bright yellow to red-orange trembling leaves. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Golden aspen in the Ashley National Forest Forest openings teem with beautiful mountain wildflower meadows. Photo by Susan Marsh.

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.

Subalpine Coniferous Forest Photo Gallery

Abies lasiocarpa Abies lasiocarpa (subalpine fir). Photo by Susan McDougal.

Arnica latifolia Arnica latifolia. Photo by Sherel Goodrich.

Aster glaucodes Aster glaucodes. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Balsamorhiza sagittata Balsamorhiza sagittata. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Bessya wyomingensis Bessya wyomingensis. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Campanula rotundifolia Campanula rotundifolia. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Castilleja angustifolia var. dubia Castilleja angustifolia var. dubia. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Cerastium arvense Cerastium arvense. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Erigeron speciosa Erigeron speciosa. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Fritillaria atropupurea Fritillaria atropupurea. Photo by Sherel Goodrich.

Geranium richardsonii Geranium richardsonii. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Geranium viscosissimum Geranium viscosissimum. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Geum triflorum Geum triflorum. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Ipomopsis aggregata Ipomopsis aggregata. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Pedicularis bracteosa Pedicularis bracteosa. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Picea engelmannii Picea engelmannii (Engelmann spruce). Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Pinus alibicaulis Pinus alibicaulis (whitebark pine). Photo by Gary Monroe.

Pinus flexilis Pinus flexilis (limber pine). Photo courtesy USDA NRCS.

Psuedotsuga menziesii Psuedotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir). Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Pyrola asarifolia Pyrola asarifolia. Photo by Sherel Goodrich.

Senecio triangularis Senecio triangularis. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Trollius laxus Trollius laxus. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Alpine Landscape…

…Mountain Meadows