In Search of Tahoe’s Big Trees

Largest western white pine, located on the Tahoe Rim Trail in Killebrew Canyon south of Kingsbury Grade.

In a brilliant victory for nature nerds everywhere, 10 years ago the U.S. Forest Service put out a Lake Tahoe Basin Big Tree Register for the Lake Tahoe region. In it, Forest Service folks are pictured proudly smiling in front of the local behemoths of tree-dom.

Download the Big Tree Register

After reading the fascinating book “The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring” by Richard Preston, about a group of quirky botanists who spent years wandering through the redwoods looking for the world’s biggest trees, I became enamored with finding these Tahoe monsters. There is something truly special about standing next to an ancient tree. Finding the trees was a cause for celebration —searching for them, however, turned out to be the fun part.

Fortunately, the largest western white pine is located literally right next to the Tahoe Rim Trail, about 4 miles south of Kingsbury Grade. You can’t walk past it without saying, “Whoa, look at the size of that monster!” After that, it began to get complicated.

While the western white pine stood by itself, most big trees are surrounded by trees almost as big in a perfect niche for maximum growth. In addition, the descriptions of where to find the trees are a bit vague for amateurs. Here is the one for the biggest aspen: “This tree is located on the south side of Blackwood Canyon about 1 mile west of Highway 89 in Placer County, Calif. at an elevation of 6,350 feet.”

Finally, some of the trees were found and measured over a decade ago, which is important for trees such as cottonwoods and aspens that have relatively short lives. Perhaps the biggest ones were on their last legs and have fallen down.

Standing next to a humongous aspen tree, which apparently is not the biggest one that we couldn’t find.

Blackwood Canyon

Three of the trees described in the register were located in Blackwood Canyon, so I set off on an adventure to find them. The region’s biggest cottonwood was relatively easy to find; where Barker Pass Road passes over Blackwood Creek it sits upstream with a big “V” shape like the picture in the register.

Locating the aspen, however, was a different story. We parked about 1 mile up Barker Pass Road and started tromping through the woods. We crossed the creek, walked along eroding banks and frequently stopped to declare: “Is that big one over there an aspen or a cottonwood?” After an hour of floundering, we found our way back to the car, drove to where the mega cottonwood is, and then set off on the hiking trail along the southern edge of the canyon. We took frequent forays through the downed trees and brush to aspen gaze without success. Finally, about to give up, we met a silver-haired couple who had spent years walking this trail. They suggested we would find the tree at the bog.

Twenty minutes later after following a spring upstream through perhaps the world’s greatest concentration of burrs and stickers, we located a grove that contained the largest aspens I’d ever seen. There were at least a dozen huge trees more than 80 inches in circumference, with the largest clocking in at more than 90 inches. It was an amazing discovery, until we arrived back at the car just before dark and read that the tree we were looking for was actually 125 inches around. Had the super biggie fallen down? Was it somewhere else? Hell if we knew, but what we decided it was worth the search. We witnessed an amazing grove of aspens, as well as views of the creek and canyon that you don’t get unless you wander off trail.

Largest hemlock, located near the headwaters of Blackwood Creek just off the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Barker Pass to Ward Creek

Two days later we set off on an 11-mile hike from Barker Pass to Ward Creek on the Tahoe Rim Trail. The first few miles dish out a paradise of monster hemlocks, red firs and western white pines that love the deep snow. We were in search of the largest hemlock, which was said to sit close to the trail 2 miles north of Barker Pass near the North Fork of Blackwood Creek.

As we dropped down into the canyon, we found our grove: a thick stand of very healthy hemlocks. But, still it took some time and back and forth glances at the photo in the register to figure out which was the tree. The next step was getting to it. While it sat only a few hundred feet below, it was steep and rocky, so we approached from below, working our way across the sticker minefield and back up the slope to its base. It truly was an enormous and powerful experience standing next to this tree. While hemlocks never reach the size of a Jeffrey pine or red fir, to see a tree this size when the majority of hemlocks are only about half as big, was an inspiring find.

One common component to all the trees that we went in search of was a picture of Dave Allesio standing in front of them in the Big Tree Register. Allesio was employed by the Forest Service for decades, working in the woods, planning and constructing the Tahoe Rim Trail.

“We measured trees as we went,” said Allesio. “There have been a couple changes since I left. The largest white fir fell over. The largest Jeffrey also fell over. The aspen we finally decided turned out to be the largest aspen in California.”

Apparently, we were not very good at stumbling on that largest aspen in California. That’s okay. It means we need to set out on another adventure to locate it. Perhaps we can find the biggest Jeffrey and whitebark pine and juniper … | fs.usda.gov