A high elevation data set of surface temperatures from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, USA, is analysed for evidence of long-term change (1952–98). Sites range from the high plains of Colorado (1509 m) to the alpine tundra (3749 m). Systematic changes in surface-based lapse rates are uncovered, with absolute cooling at the highest elevations, but little temperature change on the high plains. There is lapse-rate steepening at the higher elevations (>3000 m). A synoptic analysis using gridded pressure data shows lapse rate changes to be largely independent of synoptic type. Radiosonde ascents from Denver (1956–98) and Grand Junction (1946–98) are used to derive air equivalent temperatures (AETs) at the same elevations as the surface records. AETs show a contrasting temporal trend, with absolute warming at all levels. Furthermore, free-air lapse rates are weakening at higher elevations, the warming becoming stronger with height. A comparison of the two data sets through derivation of free-air–surface temperature differences shows that the alpine tundra zone of the high Rockies is becoming a progressively stronger heat sink. Possible explanations include increased snow cover, enhanced air movement over the surface and decreased solar radiation input. The heat sink enhancement has led to rapid cooling in the alpine tundra that could not be predicted from the free-air record, casting doubt upon the strong dependence on free-air temperature changes in climate modelling when investigating the potential effects of global warming in mountainous regions. In addition, these local surface trends are of the opposite sign to global and other regional trends identified in many recent observational and modelling studies. Copyright © 2002 Royal Meteorological Society.