An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

September 1, 2009

Lost Among The Lodgepoles

One of the hikes we took was on the Tonahutu Trail which follows, appropriately enough Tonahutu Creek. We picked up this relatively easy trail in the parking lot of the Kawuneeche Visitor's Center. Most of the trail goes through a forest of Lodgepole Pines whose botanical name is Pinus contorta. There is nothing contorted about these trees. Their trunks are ramrod straight, with no side branches. These skinny, but relatively tall trees (50-80') made ideal building materials for Native Americans and the pioneers. The foliage is at the top of the trunks and the trees grow very close together blocking out a great deal of light, thus keeping the diversity on the forest floor to a minimum. Lodgepole cones will persist on the tree for years and require temperatures above 115 Fahrenheit to melt the wax that holds the seeds to the cones. In other words there needs to be a fire.

And there will be a fire very soon, and it will be big. Many of the Rockies iconic trees like Spruce, Fir and the Lodgepole are being attacked by a pine bark beetle. This native insect has destroyed several hundred thousand acres in and around the park. The beetle has taken advantage of several situations. Many of the trees are under stress from years of drought, and many of its forests are in the words of a park volunteer "in a vulnerable, geriatric state". I was concerned that this seeming calamity had something to do with the hand of man, but was told it was an overdue part of the natural cycle. I also asked the volunteer if the beetle had any natural predators, to which he replied - fire, and the critters are busy making lots and lots of firewood. This conflagration will produce lots and lots of Lodgepole seedlings.

On the edge of the trail and in clearings, more light falls to the forest floor, and in these areas there is more diversity.

Pyrola asarifolia - Pink Wintergreen

Heracleum lanatum - Cow parsnip

Linnaea species - Twinflower

Wild Rose

Campanula rotundifolia - Harebell

Aconitum columbianum - Monkshood

Lest anyone think that the forest is all black and white, here is a photo of Shepa Girl B. and my son walking among the Lodgepoles, green carpet at their feet.

If you are interested, there are a few more pictures from this hike on my flickr page.

Next Colorado Post: Some Scenes From Trail Ridge Road


  1. The black and white have an Ansel Adams feel to them. What a great vacation you all had. So with all this walking in the woods...what kind of creepy crawlers do they have in Colorado?

  2. All of those tree trunks do look like tindersticks stacked for burning. How did you manage to make the forest look as though it were engulfed in smoke already?

    The wildflowers are unbelievably beautiful.

  3. Hi Les, what a cool place and even thought fires can be devastating, like what is happening in L.A. right now, it is part of nature's pattern. When we lived in southern CA, we went hiking in La Canada where the fires are taking place, and the guide said they were more than overdue for fire and were fearful it would be very large since man had prevented fire for quite some time. This was in the mid-eighties. We were attacked, as maybe you were too in 2000 by the southern pine beetle. So many trees were lost as they moved across vast stands of loblolly pines. Those areas are once again full of young trees, nature's way of renewal. Love all your artsy photos! :-)

  4. I really love the black & white images. Glad to see you found some native treasures in the woods. :)

  5. What a beautiful place and unusual plants. I love the pink winterberry and that mushroom is a stunner.

  6. Hi Les.

    Great photography, loved the black and white images, lots of striking form and textures. This looks like an amazing place to hike, very magical and I surmise at times quite eerie. The pictures conjour up a very "silent" place.

  7. I'm afraid for them as that is a lot of kindling. Seems like they are long overdue for a fire.

    And then it's very pretty too. It will take a long time for the seedlings to replace such a lush growth.

  8. Janet,
    There were very few creepy crawlers. It is too cold in the mountains for reptiles, including snakes. The only real pests were mosquitoes, but they were not everywhere. Hopefully we were noisy enough to make bears and mt. lions scarce.

    Sweet Bay,
    The trunks are mostly gray anyway, so it was not hard to turn them into B&Ws.

    We were not attacked too bad by the beetles. My unle owns land with a lot of pines on it. He harvested them to prevent the timber from losing its value from the beetles. That never really set well with me. I know people need to make the most of their resources, but I am always saddened when I see woods destroyed.

    There were many treasures along the trail.

    That plant had no resemblence to what I know as Wintergreen or Winterberry. That is the trap of common names, so I try to learn the Latin.

    It was indeed silent - when my 11 year old motor mouth was quiet.

    It will take a long time for the forest to recover, but it will. I am glad I got to see it when it was full. After Hurricane Hugo It was devastating to me to see the countryside outside of Charleston reduced to piles of scrap wood. I did not think it would ever look the same. 10 years later you would not have known anything had ever happened.


  9. What interesting images - all of them.

    I had forgotten about cow parsnips - and how nice they are. They were fairly abundant in certain places along a fence row where I lived in Michigan - and I don't see them often here. How beautiful!

    Awhile ago I was obsessed with the pine beetle invading stands in western Canada - the ones that have the relationship with the fungus that results in a wood with blue streaks. We are seeing so many subtle - and some not-so-subtle changes in "pest" associations due to change in climate - associations that aren't given the time to reach some kind of friendly equilibrium. It's fascinating and scary.

  10. I have to agree with the Ansel Adams reference - that's exactly what I was going to write. Some of those are worthy of framing. Thanks for sharing so many great pics and the info; it's fun (and cheap) to live vicariously through the vacations of others!

  11. Pam,
    These are the same beetles. One of the very knowledgable volunteers we talked to said that he still had a room in his house lined with paneling made from the blue streaked wood. It was very popular 30 years ago.

    Thanks for quite a compliment. The vacation series only has two more issues. I am not sure what I'll post about after that.


  12. What beautiful pictures. I am on vacation myself and walking through woods. It's a lovely thing being away from work routine.

  13. I was just returning to show my son your pictures. He's home for the weekend and I wanted him to see Colorado.

    I corrected my spelling of Staunton--how silly of me to call it Scraunton. Errrrr

  14. Joan,
    I hope you had a great trip and the time away from home did you well.

    Don't worry about the mis-spelling. It is a confusing name anyway in that is is spelled Staunton, but is pronounces Stan-ton.