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Tremendous sugar pines in the Applegate

The forested headwaters of the Applegate River was a very different place not so long ago.

Prior to the logging boom in the 1970s and the damming of the river in 1980, the upper Applegate was a much wilder watershed composed of old-growth forests and clear, cold creeks. The Butte Fork of the Applegate River in the Red Buttes Wilderness Area is a remnant of the wild forests and intact watersheds that used to be common in the region.

While other major tributaries to the Applegate River, such as Carberry Creek, Squaw Creek and Elliot Creek have been extensively logged and roaded, the Butte Fork of the Applegate remains entirely intact and pristine.

The Butte Fork trail is the lowest elevation and most gentle of all the hiking routes in the Red Buttes Mountains. There’s a lot to love about this route through the last untouched valley in the upper Applegate, including wildflowers, views of the snowy Siskiyou Crest ridgeline and the cascading of the Butte Fork and its tributaries.

But the forest itself is the real show here. These old-growth forests are composed of four distinct and complementary facets: ancient trees, multilayered canopies, large snags and down woody debris. All four elements are here in abundance, and the diversity of the conifers is renowned. I know of nowhere else where one can find Pacific yew trees, Baker cypress and Brewer’s spruce growing in proximity other than the Red Buttes.

For all its amazing forest diversity and complexity, it is the massive sugar pines along the Butte Fork that take one’s breath away. Sugar pines and their cones get big — really big. Supposedly the tallest sugar pine in the world, at over 250 feet, is located in our very own Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. These giant pines have inspired stories for a long time. There are native stories of humans, rather than trees, growing from the seeds of the enormous cones. John Muir often wrote of sugar pines and described them as the king of pines. More than 100 years ago, colorful local author Joaquin Miller positively raved about sugar pines in his “True Bear Stories” when writing about the joy that many a backcountry hiker has experienced:

"What a bed of pine quills! What long and delicious cones for a camp fire! Some of those sugar-pine cones are as long as your arm. One of them alone will make a lofty pyramid of flame and illuminate the scene for a half a mile about. I threw myself on my back and kicked up my heels. I kicked care square in the face. Oh what freedom!"

Miller is far from the first or the last hiker to get a little giddy around the majestic sugar pines of the Klamath-Siskiyous. I’ve seen toddlers and grandparents express this same joy over finding their remarkable pine cones. The girth, age and height of ancient sugar pines seems on a scale that is outside of normal human experience. A number of the bigger pines on the Butte Fork trail have been growing there since long before the Forest Service, or even the United States, were established.

I am continually thankful for local treasures like the Butte Fork trail. To hike a pristine watershed and step back in time to a wild Applegate Valley where old-growth forests grow up to the mountain meadows is a rare treat and one not to be found many places in 2016. The wild stream and mighty pines can still inspire a person to kick up their heels and kick care in the face.

George Sexton serves as the conservation director for KS Wild.


Sarah Shaw and Parker Brown admire a world-class sugar pine. Photo by George Sexton
A wilderness waterfall flows into Butte Fork in the Applegate River headwaters. Photo by George Sexton