Summary Aim The campos de altitude are a series of cool-humid, grass-dominated formations restricted to the highest summits of the southeastern Brazilian Highlands. Relatively little is known of the ecology, biogeography, or developmental history of this archipelago of mountaintop formations. This contribution presents an overview of our present state of knowledge with respect to the past and present physical environment and vegetation of the campos de altitude. The aim is (1) to introduce an international audience to the natural history of these diminutive yet important ecosystems, and (2) to provide the background for a series of forthcoming contributions that will treat the ecology of the campos de altitude and explore physical and biotic relationships between these ‘Brazilian páramos’ and similar formations in the high mountains of equatorial South and Central America. Location Beginning at altitudes of 1800–2000 m, the campos de altitude are found atop the highest summits of the main ranges of the southeastern Brazilian Highlands, between the states of Santa Catarina and Minas Gerais/Espírito Santo. Methods Drawing upon both original data and previously published results, this contribution reviews what we presently know about the physical environment and vegetation of the campos de altitude, in the context of geographic setting, geology, palaeoclimatology and palaeobotany, modern climate, modern vegetation, and conservation. Results and main conclusions Uplift of the southeastern Brazilian ranges to altitudes high enough to support orographic grasslands may have occurred as early as the middle- to late-Tertiary; pollen records show that campos de altitude have been extant on southeastern summits at least since the Late Pleistocene. The present-day climate of the campos de altitude is cool and (per)humid, but patterns of rainfall, temperature, and frost are distinctly seasonal. Although the flora of the campos de altitude is highly diverse and characterized by a high degree of endemism, the campos de altitude maintain strong floristic similarities to equatorial alpine formations of the Andean and Central American Cordillera; these similarities also extend to climate, soils, and vegetation physiognomy. Anthropogenic fires and grazing are widespread in the campos de altitude and probably contribute significantly to the modern structure of vegetation communities.