The perils and promise of selecting a research site

I’ve been trying to choose a research site in the Rockies for several months. It’s not easy. I want to study how alpine plant communities respond to disturbance, and I want to study it in the long term. This means I need to choose a research site that I won’t regret a decade from now. There are some constraints. It has to be on national forest land, but not on land designated as wilderness, because I plan to disturb and manipulate the ecosystem. It has to be within hiking or hitchhiking distance of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. And it needs alpine vegetation. There are only a few areas that meet these criteria. I spent the past few months with maps and GIS tools identifying some candidates, then took the past few days to see what they looked like up close. Here’s how it went down.

My first choice was the top of Virginia Basin (approximately 12200′ elevation). It’s the green valley in this photo, glowing in a stray sunbeam. It only takes a few hours to hike up from the research station, and not many tourists pass through the area.


The trouble is that despite its high elevation, it is barely an alpine site. Willows and meadows extend nearly to the top of the saddle which forms the top of the basin.

vb top

Most of the species are subalpine, and the density of plants was higher than I had wanted.

vb veg

The site also didn’t smell so great. Right next to my imagined research site was a recent elk kill, and the odors weren’t so attractive. I didn’t relish the idea of working there.


My second choice was a peak across the valley from Virginia Basin, here seen from the same location as the previous photograph. This is Gothic Mountain, approximately 12500′ elevation. Most of its upper reaches are unambiguously in the alpine zone.


I climbed it today, and was pleased with the plants I saw. Many of my favorite alpine species are there.

good 1

The trouble is that the site is not easy to reach. It is a long three or four hour hike, with most of the upper sections being on loose talus or scree. There is significant exposure in a few places, and it takes almost an hour to get from the summit down to an area that would be safe from lightning. Any research sites would have to be on steep slopes. I decided the site was too risky to be worth using.

good 2

My final option was Mount Baldy, elevation approximately 12800′. I dropped down a ridgeline from Gothic and checked it out.


Finally, I got lucky. I found a ridgeline covered in shale that supported exactly the kind of alpine plant community I was looking for.

good 3

The site doesn’t require any scrambling to reach, has beautiful views, isn’t visible from any trail, and includes many interesting species like this columbine.

good 4

So I took its coordinates with a GPS, then hiked a few miles back down the valley to a well-deserved rest. Tomorrow I will start setting up the research site. The investment in time to find the right place has not been small, but when your commute to work looks like this, it all seems worth it!

good 5

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Aaron Hogan says:

    Breckenridge eh? Thats pretty sweet! Baldy Mountain. I grew up at the base of that bad dawg! Good luck and have fun up there

    1. bblonder says:

      Thanks! I think this is a different Baldy (Gunnison National Forest) but it’s still a sweet mountain. Check it out some time!

  2. Ha — I visited each of your prospective sites many times on skis. Loving the glimpse of their summer clothes.

    1. bblonder says:

      I’d love to see them in winter! I loved some of your skiing photographs.

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