Several years ago I took a couple of Utah State University botany classes taught by botanist Sherel Goodrich, co-author of Uinta Basin Flora (Goodrich and Neese, 1986) and Uinta Flora (Goodrich and Huber, 2020). Learning from Goodrich was an amazing experience that deepened my knowledge of, and interest in, the plants of the mountains and deserts of the Uintah Basin. When Goodrich, while teaching about conifers, pointed out that there are bristlecone pines on the steep slopes in Indian Canyon I knew I must have seen them in the distance while driving in the canyon – but I had never seen them up close.
I had been thinking a lot about Indian Canyon because of the proposed Uinta Basin Railway and its potential route up over Indian Canyon. So, one day in the summer of 2020 I set off on an adventure to explore one of Indian Canyon’s many side canyons, with the hopes of finally seeing some bristlecone pines along the way. In my hand was a topo map on which I had penciled in the location of a stand of bristlecone pines, copied from an online GIS map posted by BYU’s Geospatial Habitat Analysis Lab.
I walked up a dry wash, then headed up a steep slope to where my map showed the edge of the bristlecone stand. I soon found a tree with a potential sign of being a bristlecone pine – needles in bundles of five. The only other five-needled pine it could be was limber pine, a species seen here and there in some of the places where I hike. I had most recently seen some in May while hiking in the Wide Hollow area, where the proposed railroad would head south from Indian Canyon – tunneling through Argyle Ridge, and continue downslope to the south. But I thought this tree looked different than the trees I had seen there.
Before long I was pulling my old flip phone out of my pack and texting my wife, Kristina, to let her know that “I just took selfies with a bristlecone pine.”
Happy with my great accomplishment, I continued hiking across and up the slope, looking for more bristlecone pines. There were quite a few Douglas firs in the area. And then, up ahead, what had to be one of the weirdest-looking trees I had ever seen came into view. It was a conifer with pendulous, weeping limbs. It reminded me of trees I had seen at Red Butte Gardens in Salt Lake City, which I believe were weeping spruces. When I got up close to this tree, I could see that it was definitely a pine – with needles in bundles of five. Now I was confused – if the tree I had posed by earlier was a bristlecone then what was this? It didn’t look to me like a limber pine, and it certainly didn’t look like the photos I had seen of bristlecone pines. If you do an internet search of bristlecone pine images what you see are a bunch of big, rustic, weathered, half-dead-looking trees – not a wispy, weepy, fairy-land tree like this.
I like to follow the Boy Scout motto of “be prepared” when I hike, and my backpack was full of everything I might possibly need – everything, that is, but my little Rocky Mountain Tree Finder book (Watts, 1972). I don’t often need it, but I was wishing I had it now. I couldn’t remember what length the needles were supposed to be on a bristlecone pine, or a limber pine. I wondered if this tree I was looking at might be some unusual variant of limber pine. And this was not a lone tree – there were other strange-looking pines all around it.
I hiked down into the canyon and made my way up the canyon bottom – no easy task thanks to the thick growth of red-osier dogwoods and other vegetation – until I came to a high, impassable pour-off. A little waterfall was flowing over the cliffs. What a beautiful little hideaway, a Shangri-La of sorts! As I ate my lunch there, I heard the calls of Clark’s nutcrackers and caught the occasional glimpse of them flying over. On a ledge on the other side of the canyon I watched squirrels gracefully running and jumping high in the limbs of more weird-looking trees. These trees were well-beyond where my map showed the bristlecone stand ending – so I thought they must be limber pines.
I went home and searched the internet for photos of limber pines and bristlecone pines and couldn’t find any photos of either that looked quite like what I had seen. I read about both species in the book Trees of the Great Basin: A Natural History, by Ronald M. Lanner (1984), which gives a beautiful description of the mutualistic relationship of limber pines and Clark’s nutcrackers.
A few weeks later I returned to the area with my wife, this time armed with multiple tree ID books. We hiked up to my first “bristlecone,” took some measurements, and found that the needles fell in the 1.5-3-inch range, which meant it wasn’t a bristlecone after all, but a limber pine. Bristlecone needles are shorter, at 0.75-1.5-inches long.
Kristina and I then worked our way further up the steep slope to a weepy-looking tree like the ones I’d seen on the previous trip. We measured the needles and saw that they fit nicely into the bristlecone range, and they also perfectly matched the life-size drawing of needles in Francis H. Elmore’s Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Uplands (Elmore, 1976). We also looked at the cones lying on the ground under the tree, because you can easily tell the difference between bristlecones and limber pines by looking at the cones. As the name suggests, the bristlecone has “a fine, sharp bristle on each cone scale” (Lanner, 2007). The cones of Limber pines tend to be larger and are thick at the tip, with no bristles.
There’s also another easy way to tell a bristlecone from a limber pine, even from a distance. Bristlecones belong to a group called the Foxtail Pines, and Elmore (1976) states that the name for this group comes from “the fact that the twigs are densely clothed with needles and resemble a fox’s bushy tail.” He goes on to say that the limber pine “can be differentiated from the bristlecone pine by its needles which are bunched at the ends of the twigs rather than growing all along the length of the branchlets as in bristlecone.” Lanner (2007) states that the bristlecone pine has “deep green needles densely massed on the last foot or two of the branchlets, giving the impression of tassels or bottlebrushes.” Now that I’ve spent more time around bristlecones and limber pines it seems quite easy to tell them apart.
The Foxtail Pines belong to Pinus, subsection Balfourianae, and the group contains three species – the foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana), the Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata), and the species we have here in Utah, the Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva). I was quite surprised at the amount of variation I saw in the Great Basin bristlecone pines in the stand I visited. I noticed that one particular tree was tall and skinny and almost had the appearance of a lodgepole pine.
Later in the summer I returned to the same area for another solo adventure, and as I hiked along the steep slope on one side of the canyon, I spotted an amazing tree up ahead. This tree is dead, but I have to say it’s one of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen. It no longer has needles or cones with which to identify it, but it does look like the trees you see in those bristlecone photos on the internet. And a tree that is similar looking (this one not as large and still partially alive), found not far from it is definitely a bristlecone pine.
The species part of the scientific name for the Great Basin bristlecone, longaeva, is a reference to the fact that some members of the species are extremely long-lived (reaching ages of well over 4,000 years). In The Bristlecone book (2007) Lanner states that “unlike most living things, they show no signs of senescence, or degeneration over time. These trees do not die of old age; they die when something kills them.” As I continued my hike, I saw evidence of what may have been the killer of the large tree I’d just observed – fire. I saw some char marks on old stumps and logs in the vicinity, and it appeared to me that a fire had burned in the area a long, long time ago.
Lanner talks about how the longevity of bristlecones can be affected by their habitat. He says:
“Because these trees live in a tough environment – cold, dry, and windy at high elevations – they escape many of their predators, which are eliminated or reduced in the harsher climate. Because there is very little undergrowth, fire is not carried into the rocky places where the trees grow. And fungi that rot wood are very slow growing in the dry climate.”
The trees I was looking at live at a lower elevation than most Great Basin bristlecone pines. According to Lanner most stands are found between 9,000 and 11,500 feet, whereas the stand I was looking at extends from about 7,200 feet to about 8,000 feet. Lanner talks about a study he did where he compared bristlecone pines living here in Utah in the Dixie national forest, at 8,000 feet, to trees living at 10,500 feet on Wheeler Peak in Nevada. Among the Utah trees he found one that was 1,500 years old; and in contrast several of the Nevada trees were 3,000 years old or older (at least twice as old as the oldest tree in the Utah group). In the Utah trees he found evidence of attack by bark beetles, and also evidence of fire, whereas in the higher-elevation Nevada trees he didn’t see evidence of beetles or fire.
I continued hiking up the side of the ridge, through the bristlecones, limber pines, and Doug firs; and then another pine joined the mix – ponderosas. At this point the deeply cut canyon opens into more of an open valley – bounded by pines on one side, with chokecherries and a few aspens in the bottom, and open brushy habitat on the other side. Somewhere around this point the bristlecone pine stand seems to end, at least a third of a mile beyond where the map shows the stand ending (the stand appears to be two or three times bigger than what is shown on the map).
I hiked on up the valley to the top of the ridge that divides Left Fork Indian Canyon (the one I’d come from) from the canyon to the east – Right Fork Indian Canyon. The expansive view to the south and east, in the late afternoon light, was incredible – and almost all of that viewshed is potential wilderness. Sadly, the Ashley National Forest recently announced which areas have made their final cut for wilderness evaluation – and they have deemed this area, along with the vast majority of other wild acreage they evaluated on the Ashley, unfit for further wilderness consideration. I added my voice to the voices of the Grand Canyon Trust, the Wilderness Society, and other organizations that pushed for the protection of all of the wild acreage on the Ashley that warrants protection through wilderness designation.
After enjoying the views from the top of the ridge I started my way back down. I hiked through a mystical stand curlleaf mountain-mahogany, large enough to be considered trees instead of shrubs. I love their exotic look, and their resinous smell. I was in a bit of a hurry to get past the scary parts of the hike before it got dark. In the very scariest part the forested slope drops steeply down from one side of the ridge top to the pour-off I’d previously visited – and on the other side cliffs drop off into the canyon below, with its tiny-looking road being traversed by the occasional tiny-looking vehicle.
As I looked down into the canyon below, I couldn’t help thinking about the proposed railroad and the impacts it would have – not only on this beautiful canyon, but also on the other areas of the Uintah Basin that would be impacted by increased drilling for oil and gas. There are direct effects caused by the construction of roads, well pads, and pipelines. And there are also the indirect consequences that come from reliance on fossil fuels.
The warming and drying of the climate is putting additional stress on trees, making them more vulnerable to bark beetles that thrive in milder winters, and putting trees at more risk of being burned in unnaturally large, destructive wildfires. As Lanner states in The Bristlecone Book (2007), “global warming could be very dangerous for the trees.”
Drilling in the Basin is not only bad for the health of forests, but also for human health. Several years ago I was shocked when I learned that during winter-time inversions the ozone levels get so high here in the Basin that my fellow Basin residents and I breath some of the most polluted air in the nation. The oil and gas industry is required to put money into a Community Impact Fund, and that money is supposed to go toward mitigating the negative effects of drilling in the Basin. Instead the Community Impact Board has largely chosen to give that money right back into more drilling – by doing things like putting millions of dollars toward the development of a railroad that would serve the oil and gas industry.
I added my voice to the voices of the many organizations that are opposing the railway. You can learn more about the railway and sign a petition at this link.
My experiences in Indian Canyon have helped me appreciate not only the diversity of species that can be found within an ecosystem – but also the diversity of individuals that can be found within a species. My experiences have also helped me appreciate the importance of protecting individuals, species, and ecosystems from the threats that face them.
I hope you can get out and see some of the bristlecone pines found here in Utah. The stand I visited is just one of many in the state. If you do go visit them, please be considerate of the trees you encounter. In his wonderful book Ronald Lanner (2007) dedicates one entire page to “Trail Etiquette.” He says, “even the less-famous populations of these trees may assume great importance in future research” and he insists people follow practices which include: “Remove no specimens of branches, roots, or bark… Do not take dead wood for use as firewood or souvenirs…[and] Walk on trails wherever provided.”
I would add one more request of my own, and that is: get involved and do whatever you can to protect bristlecone pines and their habitat. Bristlecone pines really are amazing trees, and they are beautiful in all of their many forms. As Lanner (2007) says, “they add beauty, grace, mystery, and charm to their rugged surroundings.” Amen to that! I am so glad I finally took the time to stop and get out and get to know these magnificent trees. I hope you will too.
Elmore, Francis H. 1976. Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Uplands. Western National Parks
Goodrich, Sherel, and Elizabeth Neese. 1986. Uinta Basin Flora. US Forest Service (Ogden, Utah and
Vernal, Utah) and the US Dept. of Interior-Bureau of Land Management (Vernal, Utah).
Goodrich, Sherel, and Allan Huber. 2020. Uintah Flora: A guide to the Vascular Plants of the Uinta Basin
and Uinta Mountains. An Orchard Innovations Book.
Lanner, Ronald M. 1984. Trees of the Great Basin: A Natural History. Reno: University of Nevada Press.
Lanner, Ronald M. 2007. The Bristlecone Book: A Natural History of the World’s Oldest Trees. Mountain
Press Publishing Company.
Watts, Tom. 1972. Rocky Mountain Tree Finder: A Pocket Manual for Identifying Rocky Mountain Trees.
Nature Study Guild.
A version of this article originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of The Sego Lily.