Because of the climatic differences and the elevation gain, the area including Pikes Peak demonstrates four out of the six classically described life zones, which are partly defined by the species of plants and animals that inhabit them, and the temperature and humidity.
Life zones do not stop or start at an exact point. Rather, the species often intermingle over a fairly wide transition. For example, in the summer months, many animal and bird species may traverse all four of the life zones. However, in the winter months, they are more likely to stay in just one.
The Foothills Zone
The Foothills Zone, which includes elevations from about 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, represents the area below the entrance gate to the highway and just above the Cog Railway Station. Grass meadows, ponderosa pine, pinyon, juniper woodlands dominate this area along with Indian Paintbrush, Goldenrod, Larkspur and Sagebrush.
Like the higher Montane Zone, mammals such as foxes, coyotes, skunks, rabbit, chipmunks, squirrels and raccoons are often found in this zone.
The Montane Zone
Just above the Foothills Zone is the Montane Zone, which includes elevations from 8,000-10,000 feet. The plants of these two areas include an abundance of wildflowers, shrubs and trees including junipers, sage brush, Lodgepole Pines, Engleman Spruce and Douglas Firs. Also common in both of these areas are the famous Aspen groves which, in the fall, paint an absolutely spectacular yellow and gold patchwork quilt throughout the forests.
A common site in these zones is the Mule Deer. Grayish-brown in the winter and more reddish in the summer, they are not very different from their cousins, the White-tails. However, mule deer are slightly larger and their thin tails have a black tip. Sticking close to the edges of the forests, they typically feed on grasses, acorns and tender shoots of aspens, willows, junipers and other shrubs.
Other mammals often seen in these zones are the Abert’s squirrels, porcupines, beavers, elk, and the occasional black bear and mountain lion.
You’ll also find a wide variety of birds including Mountain bluebirds, Broadtailed hummingbirds, the Red-naped Sapsucker and the well known Magpies and Clarks Nutcrackers.
The Sub Alpine Zone
Around Mile Marker 8 on the Pikes Peak Highway and just above Mile 4 on the Cog Rail, you’ll enter the mountain’s Sub Alpine Zone, which extends from about 10,000 feet to 11,500 feet in elevation. This zone is where the altitude and lack of water really starts to affect the vegetation. The nearly vertical Englemann Spruce trees are quite abundant in this zone. These trees adapt very well to this environment, gaining a solid foothold as a seedling and prospering in the low temperatures. While Lodgepole Pines and Sub Alpine Firs may be more common elsewhere in Colorado at these altitudes, they are not found as often on Pikes Peak. Some attribute their absence to the climate on the peak, while other suggest that extensive forest fires in the 1800s are to blame.
As you near the top of the Sub Alpine Zone, the shorter shrubs and bushes of the lower elevations disappear and most of the taller trees are stunted. The environment at these altitudes is so demanding, normally upright plants often resemble bushes more than trees. Bristle cone pines are a great example. These trees produce an extremely dense and compact wood, thick with resin. As such, they are resistant to even the toughest growing conditions. Those trees that do manage to grow upwards are often deformed by the wind and cold. Some trees appear to have all their branches growing on one side of the trunk. These are called Flag Trees. Others that are malformed and misshapen are called krummholz – which is a German word that means crooked wood.
Some of the animals and birds that frequent the Sub-alpine zone include Least Chipmunks, Snowshoe Hares, pine squirrels, several varieties of woodpeckers, warblers, grosbeaks and crossbills. Occasionally, you might also see some mule deer or rocky mountain bighorn sheep or even a black bear.
The Alpine Zone
At about 11,500 feet (Mile Marker 13 on the Highway and Mile 6 on the Cog Rail), you’ll enter the Alpine Zone. This is where things really open up as the tree line fades to lower elevations. The environment in the alpine zone is too unforgiving for even the hardiest trees and shrubs. Between the short growing season, deep winter snows and the constant winds, upright vegetation has little chance to survive. As such, most plants grow very low to the ground.
The flora in this zone consists primarily of tundra grasses, mosses, sedges and lichens growing on the boulders. Perennial wildflowers are also common at this altitude, but rarely grow more than a couple inches tall. If you hike on Pikes Peak – especially in the Alpine Life Zone – it is very important that you stay on the trails. The plants of Alpine Tundra are extremely fragile – so much so that it takes 75 years to grow only half an inch.
One of the most magnificent creatures you might be able to see at these elevations is Colorado’s state mammal – the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. Known for their incredible balance and their uncanny ability to scale vertical cliff faces, the bighorn is one of the most elusive to see and photograph. Both the rams and the ewes have excellent eyesight and will flee quickly when faced with danger. Rams work hard to establish their dominance within the herds – and their right to breed with the ewes. This dominance is usually settled by the size of the massive curved horns on the rams’ heads. However, when two males with similar sized horns fight it out, the sight is incredible. The two males will charge each other from 10-15 yards apart and butt heads with a resounding crash that can be heard for hundreds of yards. While this action would surely give humans a most painful headache or worse, the ram’s brain is protected with a double layer of skull. As you would imagine, by staying on cliffs too steep for most other animals, the Rocky Mountain Sheep have few predators other than man. Many live to 15 years of age or more. As long as their habitat remains protected, these animals have bright future in the state and national parks in Colorado.
Another mammal you’ll likely see in the Alpine Life Zone is the Yellow-bellied Marmot. These small furry animals can often be seen just off the side of the highway, basking on a rock in the sun. They are about the same size as a woodchuck, but their unmistakable yellow underbelly clearly identifies this mammal. The gregarious Marmots live in colonies with a very strict social order. When members of the colony are feeding or basking in the sun, one of the them stands watch for predators. And, if a predator is seen, they let out a sharp chirp or whistle to alert the other members of the colony. In fact, this sound is so distinct, the marmot has earned the nickname Whistle Pig. Counting sleep and hibernation, Marmots spend about 80% of their lives in their burrows, but are quite commonly seen in the early Summer mornings or late afternoons. While these animals may look cuddly, it is important to remember that these are wild animals and they need to be left alone. Above all, please do not feed them or any of the animals you may encounter along the way.
When you’re looking at the many boulder-strewn sections along this part of the highway, you may happen to glimpse a quick gray shadow darting in and out of the cracks. No, you’re not imagining things – you’re likely seeing one of the many pikas found on the mountain. These small mammals are about the size of a large mouse, but they are more closely related to hares and rabbits. Also called Coneys or Rock Rabbits, the Pikas are most likely seen in the early morning or late afternoon. In late summer, Pikas start collecting sticks, twigs and grasses in preparation of both mating and winter. As the days progress, these “haystacks”, as they are called, become progressively larger. Since Pikas do not hibernate, their survival depends primarily on how well they have prepared their haystacks. In fact, one Pika may have several of these stacks within their feeding area of a half an acre. Their survival also depends on their ability to avoid predators such as hawks, eagles, owls and weasels.
If you’re lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of the White-tailed Ptarmigan near the talus slopes and boulder fields at the higher elevations. Also called the Alpine or Arctic Chicken, the Ptarmigan changes colors through the seasons to camouflage itself from predators. In the summer it takes on a mottled brown color, while in the winter, it turns completely white. And unlike other most other birds, it grows feathers on its feet to help hold in its body heat.
At the top of the bird food chain flies the raptors – and the selection on Pikes Peak includes quite a few. Golden eagles, Red-tailed hawks and Falcons often frequent the mountain where the widespread updrafts provide effortless transportation opportunities. Another bird to take advantage of the air currents is the Raven, which is often seen soaring above the top of Pikes Peak.