There is something magical about standing beneath a grove of giant trees. In fact, the tree-focused nonprofit, American Forests, maintains a “Champion Tree Register” that records the location of the largest trees in the country. And just like dedicated birders who spend their time chasing a glimpse of a “life list” species, there is a community who seeks out these champions. But you don’t have to devote weeks of vacation to stand amidst unique and awe-inspiring trees.
Only three hours from my home in Missoula, Montana, the Ross Creek Cedars on the Kootenai National Forest offer the humbling experience that only enormous trees can provide. Tucked away in an unsuspecting corner of Montana, the Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area includes cedar trees more than eight feet in diameter and 175 feet tall. Ambling around the short scenic trail, I literally became a tree-hugger as I tried to wrap my arms around the giants.
Fortunately, northwest Montana isn’t the only place you can find this magic feeling. Across the country, our National Forests offer a fascinating array of unique and awe-inspiring trees.
Largest Tract of Ponderosa Pines
Coconino, Kaibab and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, Arizona
When some people picture Arizona, all that comes to mind is the Grand Canyon and saguaro cacti. However, more than just iconic desert scenes, Arizona is also home to stunning forested landscapes. Stretching across the state’s middle, one of the iconic trees of the West, the ponderosa pine, has found its ideal home. What is reportedly the largest tract of ponderosa pines on the continent covers millions of acres on the Coconino, Kaibab and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. The mild winters and moisture from monsoon season combined with lightning-caused fires has provided ideal habitat for this fire-adapted tree for centuries.
The three National Forests offer a plethora of trails and access opportunities for visitors keen to stand amidst this incredible ecosystem.
Trees You Won’t See Anywhere Else
El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico
Visitors to Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest encounter far different trees than on any other National Forest. As the only tropical rainforest within the National Forest System, El Yunque offers visitors the chance to see a once-in-a-lifetime variety of trees. While Hurricane Maria seriously impacted the Forest, hurricanes have long pummeled the Island, including Hurricanes Ciprian in 1932 and Hugo in 1989. The Forest rebounded after those events and managers believe the same will happen following Maria.
El Yunque is home to more than 200 tree species, 23 of which are found exclusively on the Forest. The endangered Palo colorado tree lives hundreds of years and provides critical habitat for the endangered Puerto Rican parrot. High in the mountains of El Yunque, heavy rain, strong winds and thick clouds have created a “dwarf forest” featuring stunted trees and shrubs. Throughout the Forest, tabonuco trees tower more than 100 feet into the forest canopy and provide the Puerto Rican parrot with seeds to eat.
While it may take some time to recover, El Yunque offers visitors the chance to be surrounded by incredible trees whether driving across the Forest or hiking to one of its many waterfalls.
Pando Aspen Clone
Fishlake National Forest, Utah
About three hours south of Salt Lake City, Utah, the Fishlake National Forest harbors the largest organism on the planet—a clone of aspen trees called “Pando.” As aspen stands grow, their root system sends up new shoots that are genetically identical. Covering more than 106 acres, Pando consists of more than 40,000 individual aspen trees, but is considered one giant organism. While the individual trees may only live for 100-150 years, an aspen clone constantly regenerates. Scientists estimate that Pando, and its massive root system, has been around for at least 80,000 years.
Unfortunately Pando is not regenerating at the rate it should. A combination of disease, insects, fire suppression and grazing has slowed the growth rate of new trees within the clone. The Forest Service has taken steps to support the clone with prescribed burns as well as 90 acres of fence to prevent cattle and deer from eating the young aspen shoots.
Covering the hillside in bright green in spring and rich gold in the fall, Pando is easy to access.
Visitors to the Fishlake National Forest can drive through and explore Pando along Highway 25 south of Fish Lake, Utah.
Old-growth Hardwoods Sylvania Wilderness
Ottawa National Forest, Michigan
Before settlers discovered the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the area was pristine and rugged. However, in the mid- to late-1800s, the lumber industry ravished the state of bountiful hardwoods and pine trees, especially the majestic white pine. But one lumberman, Albert D. Johnson, didn’t have the heart to cut down 80 acres of trees on land that is now part of the Ottawa National Forest. Johnson instead built a home there and established it as an outdoor retreat for the wealthy named “Sylvania Club.”
Thanks to Johnson’s appreciation for this beautiful landscape more than 100 years ago, visitors to the Sylvania Wilderness today can experience the landscape Michigan once was. Old-growth stands of hemlock and white pine elicit a feeling of remoteness and wildness. One of the most popular ways to explore the Wilderness is on water: The area boasts 35 crystal clear lakes. Day visitors to the Wilderness Area can set out from the Clark Lake Campground and hold court with these kings and queens of the Midwest.
Giant Sequoia Trees
Sequoia National Forest, California
A visit to see California’s giant sequoia trees is humbling, awe-inspiring and unfortunately, often busy with other neck-craning tree aficionados. To escape the crowds at Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, we recommend visiting the nearby Giant Sequoia National Monument. Designated in 2000, the Monument includes 33 impressive, if lesser-known giant sequoia groves. The Monument’s two portions, Northern and Southern, each feature a variety of trails to easily explore.
Giant sequoia trees here tower more than 150 feet with diameters greater than ten feet. The sixth largest giant sequoia tree in the world, the Boole Tree, is the largest tree within all of the National Forest System. Easily accessible within the Converse Basin Grove, the Boole Tree reaches a height of 268 feet with a diameter of 25 feet and was named for the logging supervisor who spared the tree because of its magnificent size.
Want to find your own grove of special trees? Reach out to your local ranger to ask where you might find some towering trees to walk amongst. Let us know about your favorite tree or grove on our Facebook page or snap a photo and send it to our Instagram feed.