Top Places to Find Ancient Trees
The Pacific Northwest has some of the oldest, thickest and tallest trees of their types. Some trees in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have stood for a thousand years. Learn what to look for and where to find these truly inspiring ancient giants.
There’s nothing quite like standing in the quiet presence of big, towering trees, many of which have been on the earth for centuries. These are mighty giants, some that hold special meaning to indigenous peoples who consider them symbols of longevity, others sporting lush, green canopies that host an array of unique flora and fauna. It’s little wonder that these magnificent, powerful and often-ancient life forms leave so many of us in awe.
Some of the world’s thickest, tallest and oldest trees exist right here in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the northernmost naturally-growing redwoods — the tallest trees on earth — are in southwest Oregon’s Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, just across the border from California, while lofty Douglas firs and western red cedars dominate western Washington’s big tree landscape.
The dryer side of the Evergreen State, east of the Cascades, has some impressive trees too. “They’re totally different from western Washington’s drippy and wet, Paul Bunyan-type forests,” says Daniel Donato, a natural resource scientist with Washington’s Department of Natural Resources and their resident expert on big, old trees.
“Not just in terms of the tree species that tend to dominate,” Donato says, citing a mixed conifer forest that includes grand firs and ponderosa pine, as well as huge swaths of lodgepole pines in both the Cascades range and the northeast corner of the state by Idaho, “but also in their ecology.”
Basically, when it comes to finding the biggest and brightest stars of their species, it’s important to know just what you’re looking for — along with where to look.
When researching tall, thick and ancient trees, you may come across the term, “Champion Trees.” Champion trees are considered the largest trees of their species, but it’s a little tricky. That’s because each tree’s measurements are calculated based on the trunk circumference, the height and the average crown spread to give a point value. This means that a tree’s height doesn’t necessarily make it a champion.
“There are different ways to look at Champion trees,” says Robert Van Pelt, an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington, not to mention the author of several books highlighting Champion Trees of Washington and the Pacific Coast, including Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast. “A lot of people focus on height, which is one of the most important aspects, but there’s also the largest tree, which is the heaviest and the one with the most wood in it.”
The diameter of a tree is dependent on several factors, including the local soils, the surrounding trees that are vying for the same nutrients and even the slope where it grows.
“Our biggest trees in Washington by far are western red cedars out on the coast,” says Van Pelt. These evergreen conifers sometimes reach upwards of 100 to 200 feet tall and often measure 9 feet or more in diameter. But the Pacific Northwest is brimming with other big trees as well, some that are even the largest of their species.
Washington’s largest-known western red cedar (and the second largest-known in the world) is the Nolan Creek Cedar (aka Duncan Cedar), located on state land in Jefferson County, about 15 miles off U.S. Highway 101.
More than 170 feet tall and measuring nearly 20 feet in diameter, “it’s a huge tree,” says Van Pelt, “and also really bizarre looking.” Despite that, it is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old, and much of the tree is dead. “Cedars die back a lot but they regrow trunks,” he says, “so they already have these candelabra-like shapes with all of these vertical trunks. This one is particularly weird because it’s just pure bleached white bark with only a few spots of leaves.”
Valley of the Rain Forest Giants
A large number of Washington’s biggest trees are found in Olympic National Park: more specifically, the “Valley of the Rain Forest Giants,” another name for the Quinault Valley. This verdant, moss-and-fern covered valley is believed to be home to the planet’s highest number of record-size giant tree species in the smallest recorded area and boasts some of the largest trees outside of California and New Zealand.
It’s home to Olympic Park’s largest grand fir, a 246-foot-tall tree that measures over 19 feet in diameter. Grand firs are similar in shape to Douglas firs — which have historically been the region’s largest trees — but are easy to distinguish by their sharper, flatter needles.
Other record-holding specimens in the valley include the Alaskan cedar, western hemlock and Pacific silver fir trees, as well as the world’s largest Sitka spruce tree, a behemoth that’s a soaring 191-feet tall (in general, Sitka spruce heights range from 125 to 180 feet) and is estimated to me more than 1,000 years old. It’s reachable via a short trail from the Rain Forest Resort Village.
Washington’s Cedar Flats is a breathtaking natural area of magnificent old-growth forest that includes thousand-year-old cedar trees, along with towering stands of Douglas fir and western hemlock. It’s part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on the east side of Mount St. Helens. Oregon is home to the Brummitt Fir (aka Doerner Fir), a 327-foot-tall Douglas fir tucked away in a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) forest in Coos County. It’s believed to be one of the tallest non-redwood trees on the planet.
“There are two things that really make trees get big here,” Donato says. “One of them is the climate.” The weather on the western side of Washington is mild, not too hot or too cold, and with plenty of rainfall — ideal conditions for big trees to flourish. “The second factor is time,” he says. Unlike east of the Cascades, the intervals between major disturbance events such as wildfires and windstorms are typically much longer than in other areas. “So instead of a few decades or so for trees to grow old and big they instead have centuries.”
Additional factors allow big trees to thrive, as well, like a tree’s remoteness and/or accessibility. Another component to their longevity: “Whether they were included under the protection of a national park or wilderness area before the timber operations reached them first,” Donato says.
Basking in Old Growth
When it comes to determining the age of a tree, there’s one thing to remember: The height of the tree does not necessarily equate with how long it’s been around. For instance, Washington’s massive Queets spruce, which stands along the Queets River in Olympic National Park stands an impressive 248-feet tall, although it is estimated to be only 350 to 450 years old, while neighboring smaller trees are hundreds of years older.
“The oldest tree could be right there, and you wouldn’t even know it,” says Van Pelt, “because it’s not that closely related to size. Like the limber pines.” Van Pelt says a great example is the short, gnarled and mostly dead limber pine in northeastern Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, which researchers documented to be over 2,000 years old. “They’re not big trees, they’re just ancient.”
Old-growth trees abound in Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, especially in its Grove of the Patriarchs, a stand of enormous Douglas fir, silver fir, hemlock and western red cedar trees — some that are over 1,000 years old — that provide cover and protection for a lush, mossy and lichen-covered forest floor. It’s tucked within the park’s southeast region and easily accessible via trails.
Another spot for “really spectacular” old-growth trees, says Donato, is along the Carbon River in the park’s northwest corner. “You get to walk along the river through a 500-year-old forest,” he says.
Van Pelt echoes the sentiment. “It’s a really great spot for trees.
There’s the Old Salmon River Trail in Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest, which winds along the river in the company of enormous old-growth cedar and Douglas fir, and central Washington’s Judy’s Tamarack Park, a stand of various species of big, old trees, including tamarack, lodgepole pines and western larch. It’s off the beaten path close to I-90 and near Ellensburg.
The Idaho Panhandle is home to the Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedars, a scenic area 14 miles north of Nordman, Idaho, just across the Washington border. It’s a virgin forest where the old-growth trees average around 800 years old, with a few that are significantly older.
In northeastern Washington, two rare 900-year-old western larch trees live along an easily accessible loop trail in the Big Tree Botanical Area of Colville National Forest, while Spokane’s Indian Canyon Park is home to three ancient Douglas fir trees, including one that’s thought to be the biggest on the eastern side of the state.
–Written by Laura Kiniry, last updated in October 2022.
–Top photo is the Grove of the Patriarchs, Mount Rainier National Park. By Stephen/AdobeStock