How to Think Like an Ecologist During Your Thru-Hike

The following is a guest post courtesy of Aaron Sidder, Editor in Chief of Afield Trails. Afield Trails develops mobile apps for hikers to help them discover more about the places they visit. Get trail-specific field guides for wildlife, plant communities, and geology, and try their Rocky Mountain National Park app for more in-depth info about the subjects discussed in this article.


Full confession: I’m a slow hiker. I dawdle as I stroll, frequently stopping to literally smell the flowers — and catalog them with my not-so-thin wildflower guide. I do the same with birds, trees, and even clouds. As a hiking strategy, it’s not so great for piling up the miles, but I wouldn’t do it any other way. And blasphemous as it may be for all you speed hikers out there, I’m here to teach you how to slow-hike your thru-hike and think like an ecologist while doing so.

For our classroom, let’s explore the Colorado Trail, the 486-mile route from the foothills to the high-country tundra, traversing  from Denver to Durango. The trail perfectly encapsulates the Southern Rocky Mountains that define Colorado — and it is the adventure I fantasize about when I dream of thru-hiking.

A lodgepole pine forest surrounds the Colorado Trail near Mt. Elbert. Credit: Xnatedawgx via Wikimedia Commons.

Stop, Sit, and Observe

While studying ecology in graduate school, I heard over and over again that the key to successful research is spending time in one’s ecosystem. Professors, research scientists, and graduate students all repeated this refrain: Get outside and observe! And it’s true — it is incredible how much you can absorb by sitting quietly and taking in the environment around you using all of your senses. Stop occasionally to sit and observe without talking or fiddling with your gear. Just be.

These eco-meditations can reveal a lot about your surroundings. Can you hear the trickle of a stream or the wind whipping around you? Is the sun beating down on your face, or does the shade cool your skin? Is the ground beneath your feet rocky and hard or soft and soggy? The answers to these questions can reveal the abiotic, or physical, processes shaping your local world. These local microclimates structure the composition of the plants and animals in the area. Even if you cannot identify them all, pay attention to how the plants and animals change as you switch locales. Observe how your environment changes as you move and note the conditions around you.

Follow the Water

On the Colorado Trail, south-facing slopes bake under the sun. The heat and lack of moisture yield shrublands or ponderosa pine forests. Just around the mountain, however, Douglas-firs may grow on the colder and wetter lee side of the hill. The difference in aspect, or the position of the slope relative to the sun, results in distinct vegetation communities.

On the hillsides bordering the Colorado Trail, ecological life zones track elevation and take cues from the climatic transitions moving up the mountain. The air cools by about 5.5° F per 1,000 feet, a phenomenon known as adiabatic cooling, and as you climb you will notice changes in temperature and moisture. These changes translate to different communities of plants and animals. Lower elevations are typically warmer and drier than higher elevations.

Dwarf clover is a cushion plant that survives in the alpine tundra without much water. Credit: D. Pinigis, NPS

In the alpine tundra of the Colorado Trail, the plants that live above treeline have adopted unique physical traits to survive. Cushion plants, for example, typically occupy the most extreme sites filled with rock and gravel blasted free of snow by heavy winds. These plants grow low to the ground and have a long central taproot with tightly clustered branches and shoots. This form allows them to take advantage of scarce soil resources in the tundra and helps the plant conserve water in the sunny, windy environment. In nearby hollows, you will also find mat-forming plants growing where snow persists through the winter. Cushion and mat-forming plant communities may neighbor each other, but the types of plants differ purely as a result of the water available at each locale.

In a more literal sense, streams and rivers forge different habitats than surrounding hillsides. Aspen forests and dense willow thickets border streams where dark coniferous forests loom just a few hundred feet up the slope.

Water drives life, and the amount of water in a place shapes the type of life that thrives.

Legacies of Disturbance

Keep an eye out for signs of past disturbances on the landscape as you walk. Along the Colorado Trail, hikers are most likely to encounter forests marred by fires and bark beetles, two scourges of the American West. While they have garnered bad reputations in recent years as megafires torched millions of acres and mountain pine and spruce beetles gorged on densely forested hillsides, both processes occur naturally on the landscape and play integral roles in shaping forests.

Charred trees are indicative of fire. You can gauge the severity of the fire by looking at whether the flames killed most trees or just burned the ground vegetation. Live trees with blackened bark suggest a mild fire while standing or downed black husks on the ground hint at a more prominent conflagration. The size and amount of vegetation growing in the area will hint at how recently the area burned; low and dense plant life signals a recent burn.  

Young aspen shoots blanket the forest floor following the Fern Lake fire in Rocky Mountain National Park. Credit: Patrick Lacz, Afield Trails.

Beetle-ravaged forests also stand out. The needles on infested trees turn a rusty red in the first year or two following an attack before graying and falling to the ground. The beetles leave behind resin clusters on the bark reminiscent of popcorn, and a visible record of their past actions.

Young aspen and lodgepole pines thrive in spaces recently cleared by fire and beetles. The two species devour the sun and are considered pioneers in recolonizing the battered forest. Dense thickets of aspen and lodgepole are sure signs of a recent disturbance.

Along streams, scoured banks and dislodged boulders clearly indicate a flood. Streamside habitats can take years to recover from a major flood.

In Closing

Remember to stop and look around occasionally, note the conditions around you, follow the water, and watch for hints of landscape-shifting events. Everyone can think like an ecologist during a thru-hike, and with a little practice, you will begin to see the environment around you through a new lens.


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