Mini guide: Notable trees in the Sierra along the PCT

By Dana York

During the summer between 11th and 12th grades, I trekked 800 miles of the PCT with a high school acquaintance. It was 1979, and we were armed with a stack of 15-minute topographic maps, a PCT guidebook and a pack as large as a Volkswagen! We started southbound from Dunsmuir and ended two months later on the summit of Mount Whitney. After coming off the trail into Whitney Portal, we caught a ride to Lone Pine. Spending the night in a parking lot, we took the first bus in the morning back to the Bay Area. Those two months on the PCT was the beginning of my love with the Sierra Nevada and its plants.

The author on the PCT in 1979 near Wolf Creek Lake and Sonora Peak with Limber pines in the background.

With more than 2,600 vascular plants (all plants except mosses, liverworts and hornworts) documented, the Sierra Nevada region of California has more plant species than other region in California.

Although the Sierra Nevada is plant species-rich, there are common trees that tend to dominate landscapes based on elevation, topography, aspect, soils and other environmental factors. When common occurring species dominate the vegetation, botanists and ecologists group them into plant associations or communities.

Foxtail pine, with a seed cone, growing in Sequoia National Park. Photo by Dana York.

With noted exceptions, the following 17 trees (some form their own communities/associations) are found along the Sierra Nevada portion of the PCT (about 720 trail miles) and are organized here by elevational range:

Low Elevation (2,000 to 6,000 feet)

Black oaks (Quercus kelloggii) are common in valleys througout the west side of the Sierra. These majestic oaks are most common below typical elevations found along the PCT, but they can be found up to 8,000 feet. Unlike live oaks, the trees are deciduous and completely lose their leaves every winter. The acorns were a favorite of various Indian tribes.

Black oak.

Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesiivar. menziesii) is a common component of the Sierran mixed coniferous forest found throughout the Sierra north of the San Joaquin River. The distinctive cones look like they are covered with the hind end of mice with feet and tail sticking out between the scales. Springtime leaf sprigs may be collected and fermented into a delightful soda.

Douglas fir. Photo by Dana York.

Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) is a common, aromatic tree of the Sierran mixed coniferous forest. The bark is fibrous and the yellow-green leaves are scalelike and compressed tightly on flat branchlets, giving the tree a lacy appearance. When open, the cones are 2- to 4-winged. The durable wood has been popular for items such as shingles, posts and pencils.

Incense Cedar.

Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) overlap with ponderosa pine but also occur at higher elevations, especially on granitic rock outcrops. The needles are in threes. The cones are larger than those of ponderosa pine. The cone prickles curve inward, keeping your hand safe from being poked when squeezing. Because of the difference from “prickly ponderosa” pines they are known as “gentle Jeffrey pines.”

Jeffrey Pine.

Pacific or mountain dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) is a small deciduous tree that is well known for its beautiful white blooms and spectacular fall colors. What looks to be large, white flowers are actually modified leaves surrounding a cluster of small flowers. They grow in shady or moist places generally below 6,000 feet.

Mountain Dogwood. Photo by Gerald and Buff Corsi © California Academy of Sciences.

Ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) can dominate stands or mix with other conifers. Commonly found with black oak and incense cedar. The needles are in threes. Cones are smaller and have sharp prickles that poke your hand when squeezed (“prickly ponderosa”). Ponderosa pines are the iconic tree found throughout the low elevation conifer zone, but many have died during recent drought conditions.

Ponderosa Pines.

Sugar pines (Pinus lambertiana) are majestic trees with large cones. They are mixed with other conifers and occur at lower elevations (can occur to 9,000 feet) than the other five-needle pines. The bark on mature trees forms deeply furrowed “puzzle” plates and is reddish brown to purplish. Mature sugar pines are easy to recognize because of their large size, distictive bark and giganic cones that look lethal when falling from 200 feet up in the canopy. The nuts are a delicacy but extremely difficult to get to unless you collect them after they fall from the cones. It has been reported that John Muir used the sap as a sweetener.

Sugar Pines.

White fir (Abies concolor) is a ubiquitous tree found throughout the Sierra. It generally mixes with other conifers.  It is a “true fir,” having cones that sit erect on branches. It differs from red fir by having straight leaves as opposed to having a curve just above the point of attachment forming a miniature hockey stick. They also tend not to occur as high in elevation as red firs.

White Fir. Photo by Dana York.

Mid-Elevation (6,000 to 9,500 feet)

(Also includes incense cedar, Jeffrey pine, sugar pine and white fir.)

Lodgepole or tamarack pines (Pinus contortasubsp. murrayana) are in mixed or pure stands. Because of their tolerance to wet habitats, they are especially common around meadows and lakes. The bark is thin and scaly.  They are easy to identify because it is the only two-needle pine in the Sierra. The cones are small with scale tips having slender prickles. Because they prefer full sunlight to flourish and grow, even-aged stands may represent past areas that burned. They are prolific seeders, but unlike their cousins in the Rocky Mountains, the cones do not require fire to open. Lodgepole pine is the typical campsite tree in the Sierra.

Lodgepole Pines.

Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) is commonly associated with red fir. They are full pyrimidal shaped trees with branches to the base. The terminal leader (top) of hemlocks is always bent over. The flexible branches make them well equipped to shed heavy snow loads. The cones are small and papery. The leaves can be used to make a delicious tea.

Mountain Hemlock.

Quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) occur in solid stands or thickets on slopes and in wet habitats. In the fall, the stands form shimmering, yellow hillsides. The quivering leaves and smooth, greenish-white bark make quaking aspens distinctive. They primarily reproduce by sprouting from the roots. A stand of quaking aspens are all genetically identical.

Quaking Aspens. Photo by Dana York.

Red firs (Abies magnifica) occur in thick pure stands or in mixed stands with lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock or white fir. The leaves look like miniature hockey sticks because the base follows the stem for a slight distance, creating a bend before curving out and up. Like its cousin white fir, red fir is a “true fir” with erect cones. The bark of mature trees is usually reddish. They occupy the zone with the deepest snowpack. Typical snowpack depth in a stand of red firs is evident by the line on the bark where lichens are no longer found. Commonly sold as “silvertip” Christmas trees.

Red Firs.

Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis) is the coolest looking, aromatic (it smells really good), gnarled tree in the Sierra. It is the only juniper growing throughout the High Sierra. California junipers (small trees to large shrubs) are found along the Sierra portion of the PCT only in Kern County. The scalelike leaves are closely appressed to the stem in threes. The small berrylike cones are bluish black with a white bloom. The fibrous bark is cinnamon-brown and has a tattered appearance.

Sierra juniper. Photo by Gerald and Buff Corsi © California Academy of Sciences.

Western white pine (Pinus monticola) is a close relative of sugar pine. They grow in mixed stands at mid-elevations to treeline in the subalpine zone. They are a five-needle pine with cones that are similar to sugar pine but smaller and curved. The bark of mature trees is brownish and broken into small, squarish sections.

Western White Pine.

High Elevation (above 8,000 feet northern end & above 9,500 southern end)

(Also includes lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock, Sierra juniper and western white pine.)

Foxtail pine (Pinus balfourianasubsp. balfouriana) (Fresno, Inyo and Tulare counties only) is the largest and most majestic of the subalpine pines. They occur individually, in small stands, or mixed with whitebark or western white pines. Like whitebark and western white pine, it has five needles. The needles are short and tightly clustered along the branches, hence the common name. This subspecies is only known from the Sierra Nevada and is also called southern foxtail pine. The other subspecies occurs 300 miles north and is also considered rare.  The cones are small and armed with prickles. Clark’s nutcrackers, vociferous alpine birds, are often found foraging the cones amongst foxtail, limber and whitebark pines.

Foxtail Pine.

Clark’s Nutcracker. Photo by Dana York.

Limber pine (Pinus flexilis) are more common on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, but there are scattered trees at a few locations along the PCT, especially where the trail meanders east of the crest. They have five needles and are similar to whitebark pines, but they tend to have lots of branches with multiple tops. Mature trees have dark-brown bark, and the cones are longer than 3 inches.

Limber Pine.

Whitebark pines (Pinus albicaulis) are the common timberline tree in the subalpine zone of the Sierra Nevada. They occur individually, in mixed stands with other subalpine trees, in small pure stands, or as shrublike clumps on ridges at timberline. They are a five-needle pine with flexible branches and generally forked trunks. The bark of mature trees is thin and covered with whitish-gray scales. They differ from limber pines by having whitish bark, producing cones shorter than 3 inches, and not having multiple tops. The pinenuts produced by whitebark pines are preferred by Clark’s nutcrackers. The establishment of new seedlings is dependent on germination occurring within a forgotten or unused Clark’s nutcracker’s food cache. The pinenuts are as good or better than pinyon nuts. The needles can be used to make tea.

Whitebark Pine. Photo by Dana York.


For the more botanically inclined who want a comprehensive reference covering the central and southern Sierra Nevada, check out Dana York’s newly released “An Illustrated Flora of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks” available in paperback or eBook.