Ecological research is increasingly concentrated at particular locations or sites. This trend reflects a variety of advantages of intensive, site-based research, but also raises important questions about the nature of such spatially delimited research: how well does site based research represent broader areas, and does it constrain scientific discovery? We provide an overview of these issues with a particular focus on one prominent intensive research site: the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (HBEF), New Hampshire, USA. Among the key features of intensive sites are: long-term, archived data sets that provide a context for new discoveries and the elucidation of ecological mechanisms; the capacity to constrain inputs and parameters, and to validate models of complex ecological processes; and the intellectual cross-fertilization among disciplines in ecological and environmental sciences. The feasibility of scaling up ecological observations from intensive sites depends upon both the phenomenon of interest and the characteristics of the site. An evaluation of deviation metrics for the HBEF illustrates that, in some respects, including sensitivity and recovery of streams and trees from acid deposition, this site is representative of the Northern Forest region, of which HBEF is a part. However, the mountainous terrain and lack of significant agricultural legacy make the HBEF among the least disturbed sites in the Northern Forest region. Its relatively cool, wet climate contributes to high stream flow compared to other sites. These similarities and differences between the HBEF and the region can profoundly influence ecological patterns and processes and potentially limit the generality of observations at this and other intensive sites. Indeed, the difficulty of scaling up may be greatest for ecological phenomena that are sensitive to historical disturbance and that exhibit the greatest spatiotemporal variation, such as denitrification in soils and the dynamics of bird communities. Our research shows that end member sites for some processes often provide important insights into the behavior of inherently heterogeneous ecological processes. In the current era of rapid environmental and biological change, key ecological responses at intensive sites will reflect both specific local drivers and regional trends.