Abstract Aim We examined relationships between climate–disturbance gradients and patterns of vegetation zonation and ecotones on a subtropical mountain range. Location The study was conducted on the windward slopes of the Cordillera Central, Dominican Republic, where cloud forest appears to shift in a narrow ecotone to monodominant forest of Pinus occidentalis. Methods Climate, disturbance and vegetation data were collected over the elevation range 1100–3100 m and in 50 paired plots along the ecotone. Aerial photographs were georeferenced to a high-resolution digital elevation model in order to enable the analysis of landscape-scale patterns of the ecotone. Results A Shipley–Keddy test detected discrete compositional ecotones at 2200 and 2500 m; the distributions of tree species at lower elevations were continuous. The elevation of the ecotone determined with aerial photographs was fairly consistent, namely ± 164 m (SD) over its 124-km length, but it exhibited significant landscape variation, occurring at a lower elevation in a partially leeward, western zone. The ecotone also occurred significantly lower on ridges than it did in drainage gullies. Ecotone forest structure and composition differed markedly between paired plots. In pine paired plots, the canopy height was 1.7 times higher and the basal area of non-pine species was 6 times lower than in the cloud forest directly below. Fire evidence was ubiquitous in the pine forest but rare in the abutting cloud forest. Mesoclimate changed discontinuously around the elevation of the ecotone: humidity and cloud formation decreased markedly, and frost frequency increased exponentially. Main conclusions The discreteness of the ecotone was produced primarily by fire. The elevational consistency of the ecotone, however, resulted from the overarching influence of mesoclimate on the elevational patterns of fire occurrence. Declining temperature and precipitation combine with the trade-wind inversion to create a narrow zone where high-elevation fires extinguish, enabling fire-sensitive and fire-tolerant taxa to abut. Once established, mesotopography and contrasting vegetation physiognomy probably reinforce this boundary through feedbacks on microenvironment and fire likelihood. The prominence of the pine in this study – and of temperate and fire-tolerant taxa in subtropical montane forests in general – highlights the importance of climate-disturbance–biogeography interactions in ecotone formation, particularly where fire mediates a dynamic between climate and vegetation.