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A 'Tree-fecta' with the Oldest, Biggest, Tallest Trees on Public Lands

Posted by David Atkins (Forest Management, U.S. Forest Service) in Forestry
Aug 23, 2013
Dave and Bethany trying to absorb the magnitude of a giant Sequoia

For me, Take your Daughters and Sons to Work Day has a different meaning as an employee of the U.S. Forest Service.  With a passion for our nation’s natural resources and the great outdoors, I want Bethany Atkins, my daughter, to have the opportunity to explore America’s treasured public lands more often than visiting me at work one day a year. So we embarked on a summer family journey to explore some nearby national forests and parks. I am proud to share part of her journal from this experience and I encourage others to find a national forest or grassland near you to explore.

The grey winters of Portland, Ore., often prompt me to look simultaneously forward and backward. I look forward to what adventures I might plan for the lengthy days of the summer. I will always look back on recent trip to visit the oldest, the biggest and the tallest trees on earth; a trip my pun-friendly family quickly dubbed “The Tree-fecta.”


Our first destination was the Methuselah Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, part of the Inyo National Forest in California’s Eastern Sierra, where we embarked on a 4.5 mile, self-guided tour of the forest. The scenery was stark and harsh; the 10,000-foot elevation combined with very dry conditions left very little undergrowth and few animals beyond birds. Around every corner we found another twisted, gnarled multi-colored tree that had more exposed wood than bark and more dead limbs than live.

A gnarled ancient Bristlecone Pine

But, somehow, they were alive. Among their number is the oldest tree in the world – indeed the oldest living being on Earth – a bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) approaching 5,000 years old. The grove’s tree rings give a record dating back 9,000 years.

We stopped and marveled, pointing out every strange twist, and marveling at trunks wider than I am tall on trees that often topped out shorter than a boulevard tree in a city or a fruit tree in a grove.


After our walk among the ancients, we moved on to the relatively young (a mere 3,800 years) giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum). These trees are the most massive tree species in the world and their largest, dubbed General Sherman, is the largest living thing on earth at 1,385 tons and 52,500 cubic feet.

After a few days of hiking and admiring the geology in the park, we moved on to Sequoia National Park to really devote ourselves to the next stage of our tree geekery.

The interpretive signs in the parks made all kinds of comparisons to try to help us wrap our heads around the enormity of these trees. Strangely, it wasn’t until I started looking at pictures of myself standing next to some of the trees that I was able to realize just how tiny I was in comparison. “Rooms” inside trees where the interiors had been burned out were so immense that my father and I were able to stand inside the trunk of the tree with our arms outstretched, barely spanning the gap with our combined arm spans.


We drove back north up the California coastline and made our final stop at the Humboldt National Forest. Coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) dwarf other tree species in the area and certainly make anything in the Rocky Mountains seem like twiggy saplings. Redwoods can also live more than 2,000 years, and often live several hundred years, a span brief only in comparison to the bristlecone. The coast redwoods mostly range from 200-240 feet, although the tallest reach more than 370 feet.

Walking through the redwood groves, it was dizzying and fruitless to try to see to the tree tops. Where the bristlecone were like life-size bonsai trees and the giant sequoias were like a city of living buildings, the redwoods were like pillars in some green cathedral, disappearing into the fresco of their canopy.


Having completed my ‘Tree-fecta,’ I marvel at how three impressive and singular forests are all within California, and all open to the public. What a gift that we might visit the ancient, the giant and the towering in such proximity.

Walking through the Methuselah Forest
Category/Topic: Forestry