The Good Life in a variety of Colorado life zones

There was a time when I dreamed of living in natural surroundings with perpetual summer. In fact, for what seemed like very valid reasons at the time, Jackie and I actually moved to the Arizona desert for a few years.

Though career enhancement was more a motivation than climate change, we were, nonetheless, drawn to generally moderate winter weather and presumed year-round greenery.

While it’s true, Arizona’s lower-elevation winters are quite temperate, summers are brutally hot and the native landscape, though fascinating, is largely comprised of fine sand and rock, countless thorny plants and cacti, and a healthy population of venomous creatures. High-country forests are certainly more affable, although it seems the entire city of Phoenix heads for the hills practically every weekend.

As an eternal optimist, I believe life is always good, but as an emphatic outdoorsman, I believe it’s especially good in Colorado’s high country.

Sure, there’s winter, with snow and sub-zero temperatures. The inevitable spring thaw and its relentless mud season seem to last forever, and even long summer days under a blistering hot sun wear me down after a spell. But as far as I’m concerned, seasonal change is part of the real beauty of mountain living. Then again, it certainly helps to have one of the most diverse landscapes in the entire United States.

Colorado is just far enough north, and with a low point of 3,300 feet above sea level, that one can never quite escape winter entirely. But if winter is unavoidable, at least lower-elevation temperatures are reasonably moderate, and ample sunshine allows for many comfortable afternoons hiking or mountain-biking in canyon country. For those who enjoy the cold and snow, there are several high alpine ski areas with beautiful forests and lots of light fluffy powder to play in.

All things considered, Colorado winters are just fine.

I can vividly recall, as a child growing up in the Midwest, my joy and astonishment with watching the annual Tournament of Roses Parade on television. Naturally, it was New Year’s Day, and as participants and thousands of spectators basked in the warm California sun, most wore only short-sleeved shirts. Surrounding lawns were green and neatly groomed, coconut palms swayed lazily in a gentle temperate breeze, and visible fruit trees appeared heavy with ripening citrus.

Meanwhile, the air temperature outside my western Illinois window seldom exceeded 10 or 15 degrees at that time of year, and even if the sun was shining, the ever-present wind-chill quickly nullified any warming affects it might proffer.

I can’t say how old I was back then, but I do remember thinking it odd that two totally different climates could exist in the same country at the same time.

Of course, as a young adult, I eventually moved to a Colorado ski resort and soon discovered wide-ranging conditions existing in a variety of life zones, depending primarily on elevation.

The canyons and mesas of western Colorado are part of the vast Colorado Plateau — a high-elevation tableland of splendid sedimentary rock formations and sagebrush flats. Other than narrow bands of willows and a few cottonwoods along the Colorado River and its many tributaries, no trees grow in the arid landscape, which averages less than ten inches of precipitation a year.

Towering escarpments, boulder fields, sagebrush, and prickly pear cactus provide cover for a variety of snakes, small lizards, jackrabbits, and sage grouse. Golden eagles and the occasional ferruginous hawk will ride the mid-day thermals, watching for the slightest movement below. Meanwhile, nocturnal predators like the great horned owl and bobcat see an assortment of small rodents as easy nighttime prey.

With frigid sub-zero temperatures on the coldest winter nights, and daytime highs hovering around a hundred in July, the canyon country is a land of extremes. Between winter, with its short days and chilly nights, and the long hot summer, camping season is relatively brief. More often than not, I’ll limit my visits to day trips for a few hours of hiking, or jeeping the back roads.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation, the sagebrush flats give way to pinon-juniper woodlands. This transition zone, called the upper Sonoran, is really the beginning of the “high country.” While the region is still very dry, slow-growing pinon pines and juniper cedars will eventually attain a height of about 30 feet. To conserve moisture, they’re typically widely spaced, often allowing the dense juniper to live 2,000 years or more.

A wide array of birds, squirrels, and other mammals live in the upper Sonoran zone, with the highly nutritional pinon nut making up an important part of their diet. I’ve never actually harvested one, but according to those who know, it’s larger and heavier than most pine nuts, while supposedly containing as many calories as chocolate, and as much protein as beef.

Drought is always a concern in the semi-arid west, and over the past decade or more, it has taken its toll on vast stands of coniferous forests throughout the high country. In the upper Sonoran zone, as well as the higher Montane and Subalpine zones, various beetle infestations have decimated thousands of acres of pinon, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, and Engelmann spruce. In some regions of southwest and north-central Colorado, pinon and lodgepole forests stand gray and lifeless, adding significantly to the threat of summer forest fires.

Beetles are always present, but adequate moisture will usually allow trees to produce sufficient sap to fend them off. In the Montane zone, between 6,000 and 9,500 feet, 15 to 25 inches of annual precipitation generally fall as snow. Here, ponderosa pines cover the dryer south-facing slopes, with Douglas firs dominating the shaded north-facing slopes. In disturbed areas, where avalanches or forest fires have ravaged the landscape, faster-growing lodgepole pine or groves of aspen fill in.

Higher still, the Subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce dominate the cool Subalpine zone between 9,000 feet and timberline at 11,500 feet. With frequent high winds and cold moist conditions, the growing season is only about two months long. Nevertheless, the slow-growing spruce and fir tolerate the harsh climate well, where at higher elevations, a spruce with a trunk only a few inches in diameter might be several hundred years old.

The Montane and Subalpine zones make up much of the Rocky Mountain timber belt. With moderate summertime temperatures and sufficient moisture in the form of heavy winter snows, conditions are well suited to sustaining immense forests and a wide variety of wildlife. Everything from small reptiles and amphibians to bears, mountain lions, and moose inhabit the region.

The Alpine Tundra is the highest of Colorado’s life zones, easily recognized by its lack of trees. With its thin atmosphere and harsh cold, winter is the dominant season at elevations reaching as high as 14,433 feet (Mount Elbert), and summer may sometimes last only a few weeks. Strong winds — some of the strongest recorded on earth — are the primary factor in the makeup of tundra vegetation, where any trees or shrubs not insulated by a blanket of snow are freeze-dried by gusts that can exceed 200 miles an hour.

During winter, wildlife is scarce above tree line. Ptarmigan and pikas remain active, but except for the wind, the land is almost silent. In contrast, the tundra comes alive during its short summer. The greatest diversity of Colorado’s 300 species of wildflowers are found there, and bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk, other mammals, and many birds move onto the tundra to forage and escape pesky insects found at lower elevations.

I’ve aged a bit since my childhood fascination with seasonal diversity, but I still marvel at the broad range of climates, flora, and fauna found in the Colorado high country. With such multiplicity always available to an emphatic outdoorsman, life is good.

chuck@pagosasun.com