A JOURNEY INTO THE WORLD OF BIG TREES

Big Trees

Trees, especially big ones, have fascinated me since I was a child. I’ve written two books and several magazine articles about trees, visited many record specimens, verified the existence of rumored trees, and nominated a handful of my own discoveries. Below are some of my favorites.

What does nominating a big tree mean?

In the United States, it starts with taking measurements and photos of a tree and submitting that information to a state or national program. While there are a multitude of big tree data bases out there; state registers, university programs, scientific data sets, private spreadsheets, national registers, they all acknowledge one thing in common—a scoring system developed by American Forests that assigns a score to overall tree size.

That score is derived from: Height + Circumference + 25% of the average crown

For more information on measuring guidelines and getting involved, visit americanforests.org & nationalchampiontree.org.

Trees I Know

GATOR 260

Alligator junipers (Juniperus deppeana) are perhaps my favorite Arizona trees. They are a tree of the sub-tropics, growing as various sub-species all the way south into Guatemala. I wrote about big Alligator junipers for Arizona Highways magazine in the June 2022 issue. These trees can attain massive trunk volumes, and the record specimen is the well-known “Hot Shot Tree” near Granite Mountain outside of Prescott, Arizona. The Granite Mountain Hot Shots saved the tree from a surrounding forest fire just days before 19 of the crew were tragically engulfed by flames during the Yarnell Hill Fire. The tree in the above photo is one of the 10 largest documented Alligator junipers. I call it “Gator 260,” because it is located just off highway 260 at milepost #239, several miles above Camp Verde, AZ. The juniper grassland surrounding this tree holds several old growth deppeanas.

big cienega ASpen

Populous tremuloides, or Quaking aspen, is the most widely distributed tree in North America. Throughout most of that vast range, we know and love these trees for their brilliant gold and orange foliage in the autumn. They are typically small to medium sized trees. But there are also some really big aspens out there. The one in this photo is easily found along a little used access road beside Big Cienega, in Arizona’s White Mountains. Aspens are short-lived trees, usually succumbing to rot at around 100 years of age. The drier climates of Western North America can sometimes keep that rot at bay, allowing aspens to get older, and bigger. Just look at this toad! It is not the champion, but it is among the top ten ever measured.

Kachina Toad

There are some very large aspens on the San Francisco, or Kachina, Peaks. The largest I’ve found is this one, which I call the “Kachina Toad.” It is part of a very old grove on the north side of the mountain, featuring several trees and snags that have likely been standing for close to 200 years. The Kachina Toad measures 146″ in circumference, making it the 2nd girthiest aspen known.

Arizona alder

When I think of alders, I think of a bush, not a tree. But Arizona alders (Alnus oblongifolia) can grow into substantial streamside trees. This one, the Arizona state champion, grows near a spring along Sycamore Creek, beside the Pine Mountain Trail. The creekside segment of this trail is one of Southwest’s finest forest walks, leading through a diverse mosaic of sycamore, alligator juniper, pinyon pine, ponderosa pine, Gambel oak, canyon live oak, and some very big alders.

blue tower

Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) is common in the Colorado Rockies, throughout much of Utah’s high country, and around Jackson, Wyoming. In Arizona, they occur mostly above 8,500′ on the Kaibab Plateau, the San Francisco Peaks, and the White Mountains. There are also a few little-known groves tucked in the shady canyons atop the Mogollon Rim. The tree pictured here is in one of those groves, along the upper West Fork of Oak Creek south of Flagstaff. At 167′, it is one of the tallest known blue spruces. I call it “Blue Tower.”

Douglas fir co-champ

The Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management operates Arizona’s big tree program, and they were tipped off to this Rocky Mountain Douglas fir tree on Mt. Lemmon by a working forester. I was sent in to measure it, and what-do-you-know—a new national co-champ! The tree measures 158-feet tall with a 240-inch circumference—over 400 points!

sneaky stouty

Hardly a national or world champion, this Douglas fir still lays claim to being the largest specimen on the San Francisco Peaks. Not such a claim, you might think, until considering that the Peaks once held the national champion interior Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca). And this one is bigger than that previous champion. I’d walked by this tree at least a dozen times before finally noticing its huge trunk one day. Thus, I call it “Sneaky Stouty.”

INDIAN PASS DOUGLAS fir

Coastal Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii) are much larger than their interior relatives. It is speculated that prior to widespread logging, some coastal Douglas firs exceeded even redwoods as the tallest trees in the world. The tree in this photo is one of the most impressive Douglas firs I’ve visited, located below a trail near Indian Pass in Washington’s Bogachiel River Valley.

RED CREEK fir

The British Columbia big tree program is one of the best regional databases in North America. It helped me seek this big coastal Doug fir—the largest coastal Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii) by volume in the world. After hours of navigating circuitous logging roads and a short hike, it was surprising to see such a nice sign near this tree, known as the Red Creek Fir.

Giant Chinkapin

Champion trees can appear unexpectedly. While researching a story about the diverse forests of the Klamath River Mountains, this Giant Chinquapin (Chrysolepis chrysophylla) caught my eye. Stop car. Hike to tree. Measure. Comparing numbers later, I found my chance encounter had produced a new champion.

Devils canyon Colossus

Some trees are simply iconic. This is one of those. The “Devils Canyon Colossus” is a champion incense cedar growing in the Marble Mountains of northern California.

Biggest of Baker

New Mexico locust (Robinia neomexicana) is generally a thorny shrub, but occasionally it can grow to tree size. Perhaps the finest grove of these tree-sized locust occurs on the north side of Baker Butte, on Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. Many locust trees here exceed 30-feet in height. The specimen in the center of this photo I call “Biggest of Baker.” At 163 points, it is a co-champion New Mexico locust.

round valley oak

My friend Ravi Fry and I were headed to the Middle Fork of the Eel River when this giant burst into view, in the valley below. We went and had a look. Ravi snapped a photo. After returning from our 3-day kayak tour, I looked up the biggest Valley oak (Quercus lobata). Sure enough, it was this one, the Round Valley Oak near Covelo, California. It is among the greatest trees I’ve ever encountered.

El Rey

This tree is a shrine to me. “El Rey,” I call it (thanks to life-long friend Eliot Schipper for that title), simply put, “The King.” Although a couple nearby Ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa var. brachyptera) now measure bigger, El Rey remains tops in my book. The tree’s architecture is reminiscent of an ancient weathered sequoia. It emanates a presence. In this photo, John Govi is lead climbing up El Rey, so that I might safely follow.

king of West fork

At 336 points, the “King of West Fork” is the Arizona champion Southwestern Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. brachyptera). I passed this tree many times before ever stopping to conduct a measurement. I was surprised to find that it surpassed other bigger-looking ponderosas. The towering walls of the West Fork of Oak Creek must alter the visual scale so that the trees don’t look as big as they actually are. Adjacent to the King of West Fork, another ponderosa measures 169′ tall, the second-tallest ponderosa in Arizona. Yet, beneath the cliffs of the West Fork, this tall tree looks unremarkably average.

canyon creek ponderosa

There are shades of gray to any life-form. New research techniques have differentiated Ponderosa pine, once accepted as a single species, into a handful of different sub-species: Brachyptera—Southwestern ponderosa, Scopulorum—Rocky Mountain ponderosa, Benthamiana—Pacific ponderosa, and Ponderosa ponderosa—Columbia ponderosa. The biggest ones are benthamiana, the Pacific ponderosa, growing on the west side of California’s Sierra Nevada and into southwestern Oregon. Of all ponderosas, the tallest 50 specimens are all benthamiana. The one pictured here is one of those, located on upper Canyon Creek within the Trinity Alps of Northern California.

red cedars

The biggest trees east of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada are western red cedars (Thuja plicata), mostly growing in northern Idaho. These giant cedars are resistant to rot, allowing them to live, and grow, for a very long time. The oldest recorded Western red cedar is over 1,400 years and still growing. Here, I am exploring the Hobo Cedar Grove in the mountains above Clarkia, Idaho. This was part of my research for Clearwater Country, a story in American Forests magazine.

little lost man redwoods

An assignment from American Forests brought me to the last intact watershed of old-growth redwood—Little Lost Man Creek. Little Lost Man only covers several square miles, a sad commentary on man’s avarice when considering there were so many larger creek basins that we might have preserved. But alas we are left with this, a mere fragment of the once great cloak of the Redwood Empire. Nonetheless, hiking the length of Little Lost Man offered an immersion into old-growth, and a glimpse of what once was.

reiterator red

My wife, Lisa, and I were hiking to a sequoia grove on the south side of Kings Canyon during research for Big Tree Hikes of Sequoia Country when we came across this awesome Red fir (Abies magnifica). It is not as big as the champions in Yosemite, but it’s close (487 points). I call it “Reiterator Red,” because of the many reiterated limbs it supports.

Ironwood quad

After writing a story in Arizona Highways magazine about the biggest saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), I developed an eye for the really big ones. And so when I spotted an array of saguaro arms reaching high into the sky beside a road I often drove (Usery Pass Rd.), I immediately stopped for a closer look. To my amazement this saguaro titan had a fused trunk at its base that measured 108″ around. Combine that with it’s 39′ height, 14′ of crown, and 38 arms (not a part of the official measurement, but I feel it should be), and it became the new champion. I call it the “Ironwood Quad,” because it grows in tandem with an ironwood tree that partially obscures it from view. The quad references its 4 trunks that emanate from the impressive basal trunk.

best of grove

I was on my way to Walnut Creek Canyon in the Dripping Springs Mountains when a grove of very large saguaros appeared on the north side of the road. It wasn’t apparent which cactus was biggest at first, but once I pointed my laser at this monster I had my answer. At 47′ of height, it was one of the tallest saguaros I’d measured, and the trunk was beefy too, at 96″ (24 arms). Unlike the Ironwood Quad and other large multi-stemmed, fused trunk specimens, this cactus is clearly single-trunked. Measuring within 2 total points of the Ironwood Quad, it shares champion status, and has the added distinction of being the largest single-trunked saguaro. Because the entire grove is so impressive, I named the cactus “Best of Grove,” a play on one of my favorite movies, Christopher Guest’s Best in Show.

sierra lodgepoles

There is nothing special about these trees. Except they’re AWESOME! These are Sierra lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta ssp. murrayana), located a couple miles below Sonora Pass, above highway 108 in California’s Sierra Nevada. Surprisingly, the biggest tree in this photo is almost 70 points shy of the champion in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Upper Bogachiel silver fir

The Bogachiel Valley of the Olympic Peninsula holds the biggest Pacific silver firs (Abies amabilis) in the world. The most shade-tolerant of firs, the silver fir generally grows in snowy habitats of the mountains, but they thrive in the lower-elevation Bogachiel, where fire has been absent for roughly 1,000 years. The shade is deep, and the silver firs are tall. Hiking and pack rafting down the Bogachiel River offered ample opportunity to scout for the biggest of the big, and the tree I’m measuring in this photo turned out to be a new co-champion.

hades creek fir

This is the Hades Creek Fir, discovered by Robert Van Pelt and Steve Sillett. After finding a new co-champion along the upper Bogachiel the previous day, I reserved a full day to search for this tree, whose location Van Pelt so cryptically described in his book, Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast. It took me about 20 minutes to find it. A game trail led right past the tree. Moments after being stopped in my tracks by it’s massive trunk, I could easily recognize the Hades Creek Fir from the photo in Van Pelt’s book. The following day I spotted a silver fir farther downstream, near Indian Pass, that was nearly as big as the Hades Creek and Upper Bogachiel trees, confirming that the Bogachiel is definitely the premier valley for big Abies amabilis.

cream lake fir

Subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) grows from the Yukon to Arizona. In all that expanse, the undisputed champion is this tree, the Cream Lake Fir. It is not easy to get to, residing high in the Olympic Mountains beyond the reach of any groomed trails. Still, big tree luminaries have made the pilgrimage. Legendary Stephen Arno documented the tree in the 1960s. “Big Tree Bob,” Robert Van Pelt was be-nighted during his visit to the tree in the 1990s. I was lucky enough to journey to the tree when American Forests magazine sent me there in 2005. Recent reports suggest that the Cream Lake Fir is still going strong.

Mr Perfect

In the Southwest, subalpine firs develop a squishy checkerboard bark in contrast to the smooth silver bark of their northern cousins. Thus, Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica is known as “Corkbark fir.” Unlike the remote Cream Lake Fir, the champion corkbark variety is located a stones throw from a popular trailhead. I measured several big corkbarks in the deep woods before finally wrapping my tape on this specimen near the start of the Kachina Trail in the Coconino National Forest. It displays the classic conical subalpine fir shape, framed beautifully within a small green meadow. I call it “Mr. Perfect.”

champion southwestern white pine

Southwestern white pines (Pinus strobiformis) represent a shade of gray throughout most of Arizona and New Mexico, bridging characteristics of Limber pine (Pinus flexilis) to the north and Southwestern white pine to the south. Thus, a descriptive title for these “transition pines” is Pinus reflexa, not an official species but an accurate label for the white pines that link the cold dry of Colorado to the warm wet of Mexico. Currently, the largest documented Pinus strobiformis (reflexa) is this tree, nominated by Jim Janicek of Tucson. The tree resides in one of Arizona’s most stunning conifer groves, along the headwaters of Sabino Creek just downstream from the Mt. Lemmon Ski Area.

Horton Spring pine

This co-champion Southwestern white pine (Pinus reflexa) is the Horton Spring Pine, at 152′ the tallest of the Southwestern whites. I was searching for big white firs when this towering specimen stole the show, and I’ve yet to finish a proper survey of the basin, which could hold more big white pines, and white firs.

dusky apparition

A bit farther down the list of big Southwestern white pines, but one of my favorites, is this tree, called “Dusky Apparition.” I was pack rafting Barbershop Canyon in fading light, desperately seeking a camp when this tree forced a pause in my preoccupied paddling. After a quick assessment of the tree, a perfect campsite revealed itself right around the corner. In the morning, I was able to spend more time with the tree, and attain good measurements: 125′ tall, 155″ circumference, 291 points; not a champion, but a big beautiful tree of Barbershop Canyon—home to several big Southwestern whites.

anderson mesa giant

Anderson Mesa, southeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, maintains remarkable old growth Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) habitat. I’ve yet to find a champion juniper on the mesa, but I have encountered several trees that are close to champion status. I call this one the “Anderson Mesa Giant,” although I’ve since found larger osteospermas in the vicinity. An impressive specimen—39′ tall and 157″ around.

Headwaters fir

White fir (Abies concolor) ranges from northern Mexico to southern Idaho, so it was to my surprise when I discovered the largest specimens grow right in my backyard, in the sheltered canyons of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. These Arizona trees score big due to their height. While the iconic champion white fir from Utah measures 244″ in circumference (I can’t wait to go see this toad!), it barely exceeds 100-feet in height. The tree in the above photo is 189′ tall! This is the Headwaters Fir (on the headwaters of Christopher Creek), at 385 points, it’s the new champion Abies concolor.

Pine Creek Rocket

I’d noticed some big White firs (Abies concolor) in Pine Creek canyon over the years, but I never found my way there for a full survey, until the early summer of 2023. At the end of day one, I’d come across a new champion (de-throned by the Headwaters fir weeks later), and this tree, the “Pine Creek Rocket.” At 197′, it blew away my expectations for maximum tree height in Arizona. A near-200′ tree in the desert Southwest—no way! But repeated shots with my laser told the tale; the “Rocket” is only 3-feet from the magic two-hundred club. This is the tallest documented tree in Arizona.

Pine Creek Grove

In Idaho, White fir hybridizes with, and then relents to Grand fir (Abies grandis), which commonly attains heights over 200′ in the Pacific Northwest. In the Sierra Nevada, white fir grows as the sup-species lowiana, or California white fir. The largest of these trees typically exceed the 200-foot mark as well. The tallest known lowiana specimen is 258-feet tall. But for true Abies concolor, or Rocky Mountain White fir, specimens over 150′ are rare. The groves of Arizona’s Pine Creek hold five trees over 170′, including two that top 190′! Six of the ten largest White firs grow here; quite a special place.

Imogene Lake Whitebark

I’ve been lucky enough to be in the presence of many great trees; 300-foot tall redwoods, 20-foot diameter sequoias, spreading oaks and graceful maples. The single greatest tree I’ve ever encountered was this one, a recently deceased Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis). I was sent by American Forests to verify its status. It was located deep within Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. I wasn’t sure how long it might take to find the tree. Directions were a little vague. But the moment I stepped through a keyhole pass into the basin of the tree, there it was. This tree glowed with an aura, reigning over the majestic mountains in regal nobility. The tree had recently passed on after infestation from bark beetles. The article I wrote took a turn, focusing on pine beetles and climate change. This was 17 years ago. Whitebark pines have seen lots of attention since then, but no tree even approaching the grandeur of this one has ever been revealed.