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A "tree-fecta" with the oldest, biggest, tallest trees on public lands

Bethany Atkins
daughter of David Atkins, Forest Management, U.S. Forest Service

“The Senate” grove of giant Sequoias 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 coming summer. I will always look back on the August 2012 trip to visit the oldest, the biggest, and the tallest trees on earth; a trip my pun-friendly family quickly dubbed “The Tree-fecta.”

We sandwiched the trip between my sister’s wedding in Oregon and my cousin’s wedding in Southern California. Circumstances allowed both my parents and me to take the two weeks between these family celebrations off, so I traveled with my father, a career Forest Service employee and incorrigible tree geek, and my mother, a primary school teacher with an eye for bird watching.

Growing up in Montana, we often took trips to California to visit extended family members. Yet somehow I had only been to one-third of the Tree-fecta as a child much too young to remember it, an oddity given all the years of driving back and forth with a father more likely to pull over to inspect signs of pine beetle damage or evidence of forest fires long past than to buy travel snacks.

What started in 2012 as a means of avoiding airfare for three quickly turned into a series of pilgrimages to what I now consider to be among the great wonders of the world.

Bristlecone Pine Oldest

Our first destination was the Methuselah Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, part of the Inyo National Forest in California’s Eastern Sierra. We camped just outside of Yosemite National Park and drove through stunning scenery toward Inyo Forest, turning to drive out of the already elevated valley, up a steep winding road that surely should have had signs posted warning away any trailers, campers, or RV travelers.

Once we reached the ridgeline, we embarked on a 4.5 mile self-guided tour of the forest that could easily be called National Sculpture Gallery. 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.

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. Through dendrochronology (linking tree rings on live and dead trees) 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. We took photos frenetically even though we knew our talents and equipment couldn’t do it justice. We barely had a chance to feel winded by the elevation because the tour felt like a stroll through a museum, albeit one curated by wind and time with commentary from a Clark’s nutcracker.

sequoia Biggest

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 Yosemite National 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. The height difference between a mouse and a 6-foot-tall person is analogous to the scale of these mature giant redwoods to that same person.

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. Even seeing my companions next to the trees didn’t do it. We found multiple “rooms” inside trees where the interiors had been burned out, and 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.


base of a coast redwood


We made it to our final stop in our pilgrimage after my cousin’s wedding. We drove back North up the California coastline toward Humboldt Redwood State Park to reach the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) groves. What would once have seemed like the widest, most massive trees I had ever encountered now seemed slender after our time with the giants.

Even so, they completely dwarfed 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, 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. The redwood forest moved and sighed in a way the other two didn’t; the tree trunks visibly swayed with the breeze, the lush undergrowth rustled with our passing.


Having reached each of our waypoints, we turned toward Oregon again and drove on to pick up the rhythm of normal life. It’s a wonder that these 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.

Having completed my ‘Tree-fecta,’ I wholeheartedly recommend the experience.